Organic farming relies on managing the farm ecosystem, employing practices that improve soil health and avoid external outputs. Organic practices are based on:

  • The art and science of breeding plants for maximum resilience without the use of genetic modification
  • Careful pest management without the use of chemical pesticides
  • The use of natural fertilizers, such as manure and compost, without the use of synthetic fertilizers
  • In animal agriculture, ample space in which animals can exhibit their natural behaviors along with no hormones and unnecessary antibiotics in animal feed

Since 2000, organic has also been certified by the United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Certified Organic food tells the consumer that farmers, ranchers and food processing plants have followed standards that are foundational to improving the farm environment, including soil health.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic food is the fastest growing segment of the food industry, with more than $43 billion in sales in 2015, up from $14 billion in 2005. The increasing popularity of organic food has also increased large-scale corporate interest in the organic industry; and while some applaud the widespread interest in and adoption of organic principles, others express concerns that corporate interest in the industry is watering down standards and changing the ideals and foundational principles at the heart of organic agriculture. Where the Certified Organic label is lacking, such as in labor and animal welfare standards, other labels along with organic can help consumers support more sustainable, regenerative principles.

What Is Organic Agriculture?

As the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) puts it, organic production “is a system that begins to consider potential environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives and irradiation. These are replaced with site-specific management practices that maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pests and diseases.”

The USDA National Organic Program regulates organic agriculture. Producers and processors must adhere to USDA Organic standards to label and market their products as Certified Organic and must be verified by a third-party certifier, which requires annual inspection. The standards cover production along the supply chain, including soil and water management, pest control, livestock practices and approved food additives.

History of Organic in the US

The fundamentals of organic farming and principles of land stewardship are not new 1 — in fact, most productive farming before the advent of chemical inputs would have fit today’s broad definition of organic. However, the modern organic movement is commonly acknowledged to have gotten its start with J. I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Research Institute and Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in the 1940s. Drawing on the ideas of Sir Albert Howard, a British scientist who advocated farming systems reliant on building soil, Rodale provided the main source of information in the US about “non-chemical” agricultural methods, 2 just at a time, following World War II, when chemical manufacturers moved into agriculture as a lucrative post-wartime use of their products.

The 1960s and 1970s brought more attention to organic farming as the public grew increasingly concerned about the negative consequences of pesticide use. The publication of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring, exposing the devastating effects of the widely-used pesticide DDT on the ecosystem, galvanized the modern environmental movement and made Americans re-examine the role of chemicals in agriculture.

As interest in organic agriculture grew, the patchwork of state regulations and standards became increasingly problematic. While state-based regulations allowed rules to be developed based on the needs of the region, this system was complicated for interstate and international commerce and rendered the term “organic” confusing, if not meaningless. A movement for a national organic standard arose, and in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to develop a national standard for organic food and fiber production. The act also created the National Organic Program (NOP) and the advisory National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB is made up of 15 volunteers from the public and makes recommendations to the NOP on a range of issues including the creation, production, handling, labeling, trade and enforcement of all USDA Organic products.

The USDA issued the first proposed rule defining organic standards in December 1997. The proposal would have allowed genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, feeding of animal byproducts and other practices long considered not part of organic production. Organic advocates were outraged, and they mobilized: the rule received 275,603 comments (in the early days of the internet, no less) and was ultimately withdrawn.

The second proposal was issued in March 2000 and was more consistent with the common understanding of organic practices. It received about 40,000 comments and served as the basis for the final rule, which was issued in December 2000 and which currently defines Certified Organic production. 3

Certified USDA Organic

Ever since the final rule on organics nearly two decades ago, farmers and processors using the USDA Organic seal have been required to meet strict standards and undergo a rigorous certification process. 4

For crop production, the regulations:

Read Our Report About The FoodPrint of Crops

The regulations also require that processed products labeled “organic” contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. 5 Becoming a Certified Organic producer takes at least three years to be granted certification, during which time no prohibited substances may be applied to the land. Farmers must: prove that their operations comply with all specified requirements; establish and submit their organic farming system plans; keep all of their records, They are subject to annual on-site inspections and testing of samples for residues of prohibited material. Violators of organic labeling regulations can be fined up to $11,000 for each offense.

Some producers are frustrated with the time and cost of certification and inspections, while some advocates do not think that the USDA Organic label goes far enough — that it has allowed large producers increasingly to follow the letter of the law without the spirit. Both of these concerns have merit, but the rigor of the standards and inspections ensures an important level of certainty about the methods used on US-grown organic products. Additionally, for many farmers, the price premium for organic products makes the switch cost effective: according to the USDA Economic Research Service, farmers of organic crops can charge 25 to 200 percent more for their products than conventional. 6

Certified USDA Organic Animal Agriculture

For raising animals, the USDA Organic regulations prohibit all hormones and antibiotics and require that:

  • Animals be fed one hundred percent organic feed, free of animal byproducts and growth hormones
  • Animals have access to the outdoors
  • Producers meet animal health and welfare standards

However, the USDA Organic requirements for animal production do not provide clear guidance on space requirements or outdoor access. In 2017, the USDA issued the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule (OLPP), which added several animal welfare-related standards to the USDA Organic requirements for certification. But after considerable pressure from trade groups, the rule was delayed and then finally withdrawn in early 2018.

Alternatives to Organic

To help address issues of cost for small and midsized farmers seeking organic certification, funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program was increased in the 2014 farm bill to $57 million. Along with the Agricultural Management Assistance Organic Certification Cost Share Program, these non-competitive grants help defray the expenses of organic certification by providing farmers with reimbursements of up to 75 percent of annual certification costs.

Some farmers decide that USDA Organic certification is not worth it for reasons of cost or other concerns, even though they follow all the organic standards and more. Some farmers market their products as “beyond organic” and provide customers with information about their growing practices. A number of third-party certification programs also provide an alternative to USDA certification. Certified Naturally Grown, for example, uses USDA Organic guidelines, but is locally regulated and less expensive to implement. Similarly, farmers who are certified by Food Alliance for practicing conversation of soil, water, wildlife habitat and biodiversity must also prove that they’re offering safe and fair working conditions for employees. Animal Welfare Approved is seen as the gold standard for certification of animal products, with rigorous standards for animal welfare, as well as environmental stewardship. As of Spring 2018, a new certification is being offered, called Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), based on soil health, pasture-based animal welfare and fairness for farmers and workers. Another certification in the works in the Real Organic Project (ROP), a family farm driven project focused on soil-grown products (as opposed to hydroponically-grown products), which aims to become an add-on certification to the USDA Certified Organic Program.

Big Organic

As the fastest growing segment of the food market, organic has become big business. It is good news that more organic acres are in production (3.6 million acres as of 2014 7) and that the proliferation of organic store brands at places like Walmart and Kroger’s 8 has made organic products much more widely accessible. There are also downsides to the rapid growth of the industry.

Many small organic food companies have been bought up by multinational corporations looking for a share of this lucrative market. Well-known organic brands like Annie’s Homegrown and Cascadian Farms are owned by General Mills; Coca-Cola owns Honest Tea and Pepsi owns Naked Juice; Smucker’s owns RW Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic. 9 The fever pace of organic acquisitions makes it much harder for small and medium-sized farms and companies to compete in the national marketplace – as soon as a company has some success, it becomes a target for purchase.

Small organic companies tend to be more rooted in their communities, feed profits back into the local economy, and may provide jobs with better working conditions and wages than average. Some organic advocates argue that these community- and human-centered elements, which are not reflected in the USDA Organic standards, are important to the ethos of organic agriculture. When these companies are bought up by multinational conglomerates, such elements are lost.

Organic food sold by larger players is also more likely to come from far away, whether from across the country or from the other side of the world. Organic agriculture, especially livestock production, is expensive in the US, and often does not meet the price point that larger companies seek for their inputs. Additionally, given the ever-increasing demand for organic, many companies say they simply cannot find enough organic ingredients in the US; as much as organic production has increased, it has not increased enough to meet the demand at home. Organic products shipped from the other side of the world come with a large carbon footprint, and information about how the products were actually produced is hard to come by. Organic standards may be different in other countries, or the regulation and inspection may be lax.

With corporate players in the organic market, the integrity of the standards is threatened. Watchdog groups have filed lawsuits about the practices of large dairy farms that sell to organic milk brands. An ongoing debate exists about the process by which organic ingredients and additives are approved. 10 The USDA has approved a list of synthetic substances allowed in organic processed foods and agricultural production. Initially, approval of each substance on the list would “sunset” after five years, requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the NOSB to keep it on the list. In 2013, the USDA issued new rules, instead requiring a two-thirds majority of the NOSB to remove a substance. Advocates for the change pointed to the bureaucracy involved in re-approving hundreds of substances each year, but organic advocates say the change will ultimately make it harder to question or remove synthetic substances. 11

What You Can Do

  • Look for the USDA Organic label when you’re shopping, and read up on other certification programs such as Regenerative Organic, Certified Naturally Grown and Animal Welfare Approved in our Food Label Guide. Modern Farmer has a guide to several of these programs here.
  • Support Certified Organic farmers at your local farmers’ market, and talk with other farmers about their growing practices. Some farms follow organic and sustainable practices even though they may not pursue formal organic certification for one reason or another.

Hide References

  1. Gold, Mary V. and Gates, Jane Potter (2007). “Tracing the Evolution of Organic/Sustainable Agriculture: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography.” USDA National Agricultural Library. Retrieved from https://afsic.nal.usda.gov/tracing-evolution-organic-sustainable-agriculture-1  
  2. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (n.d.). “History of Organic Farming in the US.” SARE. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Bulletins/Transitioning-to-Organic-Production/Text-Version/History-of-Organic-Farming-in-the-United-States
  3. Riddle, Jim (2013). “An Introduction to Organic Certification Requirements.” eOrganic, eXtension. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from http://articles.extension.org/pages/18735/an-introduction-to-organic-certification-requirements
  4. — (n.d.) Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7, Subtitle B, Chapter I, Subchapter M, Part 205: National Organic Program. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=3f34f4c22f9aa8e6d9864cc2683cea02&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title07/7cfr205_main_02.tpl  
  5. National Organic Program (2016). “Organic Production and Handling Standards.” USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from  https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/organic-production-handling-standards
  6. http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Bulletins/Transitioning-to-Organic-Production/Text-Version/What-is-Organic-Farming
  7. USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (2015). Organic farming: Results from the 2014 Organic Survey. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Organics/2014_Organic_Survey_Highlights.pdf
  8. Nazario, Marina (September 17, 2015). “How Kroger built a $1 billion threat to Whole Foods in only 2 years.” Business Insider. Retrieved May 26, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/krogers-affordable-organic-food-2015-9
  9. Howard, Phil (2016). “Organic Industry Structure: Acquisitions and Alliances, top 100 Food Processors in North America.” Retrieved June 1, 2017, from https://msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustry.html.  
  10. Barth, Brian (October 5, 2015). “The Bad News About the Organic Industry.” Modern Farmer. Retrieved June 1, 2017, from http://modernfarmer.com/2015/10/the-bad-news-about-organic-industry/
  11. Charles, Dan (May 3, 2014). “Organic farming factions spat over synthetic substances.” National Public Radio. Retrieved June 1, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/05/03/309027851/organic-farming-factions-spat-over-synthetic-substances