ORGANIC AGRICULTURE. Organic agriculture originated as a response to a growing awareness that the health of the land is linked to the health and future of the people. It is a holistic and philosophical approach to agriculture, which has as its goals the protection and conservation of the land for future generations, the production of high-quality food, the return to many traditional agricultural methods, and the harmonious balance with a complex series of ecosystems. Land, water, plants, animals, and people are all seen as interlinked and interdependent.
The final rule of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which implements the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, describes organic production as one which will "respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity." Organic agriculture promotes linkages and connections between land and water, plants and people. Soil fertility is enhanced through the use of composted waste to be generated at the farm site and recycled into it, multiple crops and rotations, a belief in the beneficial results of encouraging biodiversity through numerous species, and no use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Further, stringent inspections, record keeping, and certifications are required to verify and maintain the organic status of the land and the food produced.
The terms "alternative," "sustainable," and "ecological" agriculture are also sometimes used, in place of organic, although not everyone believes that these terms are interchangeable. The European Union protects three terms: "organic," "ecological," and "biological" and abbreviations like "bio" and "eco" in all European Union languages. This is to prevent their use in a misleading or false manner. In the United States, the definition of organic agriculture by the National Organic Standards Board is "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on the minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony."
Today, organic agriculture is practiced in almost every country in the world, and the amount of certified organic land is growing as well. The total area is more than 42 million acres worldwide. The bulk of the organic land (45 percent) is in Oceania; Europe has 25 percent; North America, almost 8 percent; and Latin America, 22 percent. The emphasis in organic agriculture is on sustainability, local resources, and the stewardship of the environment, as well as expanding its global impact beyond food supply and into ecological health. Economically, the International Trade Center estimates the world retail market for organic food and beverages increased from $10 billion in 1997 to $17.5 billion in 2000. Revenue distribution by 2001 is estimated to be at 46 percent in Europe and 37 percent in the United States.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, 39 percent of the United States population lived on farms, compared with less than 2 percent in 1990. Large land holdings were designed as federal lands to protect the natural environment and provide public access. Food quality, adequacy of supply, and public health were concerns. Issues with food quality led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Extensive research was carried out to make plants disease resistant, and to improve yield. In the 1920s Rudolf Steiner, an extremely charismatic and complex individual, gave a series of eight lectures about agriculture that were the foundation of biodynamics, a concept in which all life forms and the land are in balance and combine with agriculture to address the health of the land with a spiritual dimension. By the 1930s hybrid seed corn had became common, and the devastation of the dust storms destroyed millions of acres of farmland in the Plains states. Two world wars had decimated farms and farmlands in much of Europe. Food supply for present and future populations was becoming a global concern. The vitality of the soil was seen by many as the key to a healthy future population.
Sir Albert Howard of England was one of the visionary leaders, if not the founder, of the organic agricultural movement in Europe. Philosophically, he linked the health of the land to the health of the people. Howard believed that agriculture as mainly practiced, with chemical fertilizers and a single crop, was out of balance with the environment and that many traditional agricultural practices should be revived. His major concern was for the health of the soil, which he felt could be maintained by a diversity of plant and animal crops, recycling of waste to enrich the soil, minimal depth in plowing, natural pest control, and smaller labor-intensive farms, emulating traditional methods.
By the 1940s, chemical fertilizers and pesticide and insecticide use had increased. However, a USDA report from the same time warned that insecticides were present in food and advocated the use of naturally occurring products as insecticides. Some believed that conservation practices like cover crops, crop rotation, strip planting, and contouring of the planting were critical to preserve the soil both by keeping it in place and by maintaining its fertility. At the same time, conventional farming was stressing yields, mechanization, and modern practices. In 1949, official guidance was issued from the U.S. government on how to appraise the toxicity of chemicals in foods.
In America, J. I. Rodale had founded Organic Gardening Magazine and the Soil and Health Foundation (now the Rodale Institute). Many credit him from the mid-1940s onward with promoting and supporting organic agriculture in America. He went on to create numerous publications and with his research and publishing delivered his core message of "healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people."
In 1959, the cranberry crop in the United States was recalled due to the presence of a cancer-causing chemical used to kill weeds. In 1962, Rachel Carson's work Silent Spring had a massive impact: Many Americans, for the first time, saw the link between the loss of plant and animal populations and the use of pesticides. By that time organic farming was well established as an alternative approach. Further environmental activism in the 1970s made many aware of organic agriculture and organic foods.
Alice Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971 and has been a promoter and champion of quality ingredients, supporting growers who farm organically. Her influence in turn promoted and sustained many other organic growers. The fame and growing impact of Chez Panisse have affected chefs and the public alike. Numerous chefs today provide details about ingredients on their menu, and many base their entire approach to food on organic products.
Likewise, vegetarians have long focused on the quality of the ingredients in their diet. John and Karen Hess in their landmark book The Taste of America decried the quality of food in America in the 1970s, stating that "[t]he health food and organic movements and the counterculture generally, have made some small but enormously promising steps toward reviving the taste of our food. . . . They are our hope" (p. 298). Organic agricul ture has slowly grown, spurred by various scares but hampered by the counterculture label. Reports and findings in the 1990s with regard to the effect of pesticides and chemicals in food on humans, particularly children (for example, the use of alar on apples), drove the increasing demand for organically produced food, which in turn spurred the growth of organic farms.
Application of Principles
Although many people associate organic agriculture primarily with fruits and vegetables, organic agricultural practices are applied effectively to all crops and animals. All cropsrains, citrus, nuts, fruits, herbs, vegetables, oilseeds like flax and sunflower, beans, cotton, grasses for pasturelandan reinforce a basic organic tenet: grow a variety of crops in a rotation system. Many people prefer organic agriculture because of its systemic approach that ties food production to ecology, and connects land, people, plants, and animals to a common goal, a healthy vital environment for all. Food produced organically is thought to be more flavorful, have higher nutritional values, be safer to eat, and be ecologically sound. Each food safety crisis, environmental scare, and dietary concern has increased the steadily growing pool of organic farmers and consumers.
The founders of the organic agricultural movementodale, Balfour, and Howard, to name a fewassionately shared the belief that the health and vitality of the soil were key to the future of the land and food production. A fundamental principle of organic agriculture is that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are permitted. Complex ecosystems that encourage a rich diversity of plants, animals, and insects are considered necessary for a viable and living soil. Composting, worms and beneficial insects in the environment, recycled farm wastes, use of manures, composts, ash, and crop residues contribute to the vitality of the soil, which in turn leads to healthy plants and animals. Further, organic agriculture addresses the broader environmental issues of pesticide and fertilizer residues, run-offs, and concentrations, which affect, not just the health of the organic farm system, but the ecosystems around it. The concept of balance between nature and human actions and stewardship of the land is integral to organic agriculture; in fact, it cannot be maintained otherwise. The inspection process leading to organic certification usually requires a minimum of three years in the United States (two years in the United Kingdom) to allow all traces of past land use practices to disappear. The first usable harvest follows the third year, assuming all other criteria are met for organic certification. This sizable commitment of resources is economically difficult and is one reason that many countries, although not the United States, have subsidies to help farmers certify their land for organic production.
Many feel strongly that organic foods, which are grown without synthetic pesticides, eliminate the concern for ingesting the residues or additives.
Most consumers believe, and some studies have shown, that there are more nutrients and flavor in organic products. Generally, organic products are more costly than foods grown by conventional agriculture. They are more labor intensive and must meet much stricter regulation, and therefore the cost of organic foods reflects the cost of production. Organic agricultural practices, which utilize local resources and eliminate outside needs as much as possible, fit developing countries' needs very well as well as countries with food supply issues, for example, Cuba.
Cuba is considered one of the success stories of organic agriculture. Heavily dependent upon the Soviets for food and agricultural support, the collapse of the former USSR in 1989 left Cuba desperate for food. Over-night, supplies of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and mechanized equipment all disappeared. Urban spaces were turned into gardens, plot sizes decreased, and organic practices were followed, as there was no alternative. The results have been dramatic, both in creating a new career for many and dramatically changing both the diet of the population and the appearance of Cuba. Now many people have access to fresh organic foods and unused land is turned to food production. Over one-half million tons of food were grown in Havana alone in 1998.
Before the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, Title XXI of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, many state and other organizations certified organic production. The 1990 rules, published in December of 2000 after a decade in development, review, and revisions, set national standards for certification of agricultural products as organic. Certification for all but the smallest growers and compliance for all agricultural products sold under these standards must be completed by late 2002. Certain practices and types of substances, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, are prohibited. The use of the word "organic" is now nationally regulated. In the United States, a raw or processed product labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organic ingredients, although it can contain water and salt; if labeled "organic" it must be at least 95 percent organic and if labeled "made with organic ingredients" it must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Both the "100 percent organic" and "organic" designations can use an approved "USDA Organic" seal and penalties can be levied if there is any deliberate misrepresentation.
Land under Organic Cultivation
In 1997, 1.3 million acres in forty-nine states were certified organic, and although this number had more than doubled in the 1990s, certified organic land still represents just 0.2 percent of all cultivated land (828 million acres). These totals include crop, range, and pasture lands. All indicators are that the amount of certified organic land is increasing rapidly, however. For example, in California, certified organic acreage increased by 38 percent between 1995 and 1997 and in Washington it increased by 150 percent between 1997 and 1999. The highest production crops that are certified organic are corn and wheat, although thirty-five states are producing a variety of certified organic grains. Tomatoes, lettuce, and carrots are the primary organic vegetables, with about 48,227 acres in organic vegetable production (in 1997); grapes produced on 39 percent of the acreage and apples on 18 percent of the certified organic farm land account for about 2 percent of the certified land that is devoted to producing these crops. Organic herbs are grown in thirty-two states; three states have certified specific land for harvesting wild herbs.
Prior to this national legislation for organic certification, organic land certification was given by over 40 organizations, which included twelve state programs. For example, California grew almost half of all certified organic vegetables in 1997; vegetable farming in Vermont, which has been promoting organics for 30 years, was 24 percent organic. Many states have started to develop incentives for organic conversion.
Most organic farms are about one-third the size of the conventional farm and average about 140 acres. Organic vegetables are generally grown on even smaller holdings, with the majority less than 10 acres in size. They are frequently marketed directly to the consumer primarily through farmers' markets and restaurant chefs, accounting for 3 percent of total organic sales. A very popular form of direct marketing is subscription farming, sometimes known as CSA, an innovative way of connecting the consumer directly with the farm and crop. In 1998, there were 2,746 farmers' markets operating in the United States. Natural food stores, long a source for all organic products, recorded sales of $4 billion in 1999, and an annual sales growth rate of at least 20 percent. Total retail sales of all organic products are estimated at $7.8 billion in 2000, and $833 million of fresh organic fruits and vegetables were sold in natural food stores in 1999.
Organic Agriculture Worldwide
On a global level, in Europe, Japan, the United States, and the United Kindom, retail organic food and beverage sales accounted for about 2 percent of the total, about $13 billion in 1998, with an anticipated annual growth rate of 20 percent.
In 2001, Canada reported of 246,923 farms, 2,230 produced certified organic products, and 614 of these, or 27.5 percent, produced fruits, vegetables, or greenhouse products. Nearly fifteen hundred farms, or 64.7 percent, reported organic field crops. In Canada, the formation of the Land Fellowship in Ontario in the 1950s provided the foundation of the organic farming movement. As in the United States, these early visionaries were joined in the 1970s by a host of individuals and organizations whose concerns for the environmental health of the planet made an immediate linkage to the principles of organic agriculture. Numerous organizations, like the Canadian Organic Advisory Board, which is composed of volunteers, promote and support organic agriculture in a variety of ways throughout the provinces. Canada's National Standard for Organic Agriculture is a voluntary standard for organic production, whose principles and practices focus on protection of environmental biodiversity, a comprehensive and systematic use of organic practices for the production of foods, and a verification process to ensure the standards are met.
Sir Albert Howard is not the only founder of the early organic movement in the United Kingdom to have a global impact. Lord Walter Northbourne is credited with creating the phrase "organic farming" in his 1940 book Look to the Land, and Lady Evelyn Balfour, whose book The Living Soil was based on years of comparative farming data, inspired many to support the principles of organic agriculture put forward by Howard. Lady Balfour was also involved in the founding of the Soil Association in the United Kingdom in 1946. The Soil Association remains an active advocacy group for organic standards. Throughout the United Kingdom, there is a wide range of organizations, government ministries, colleges, and research centers focused on research, education, advocacy, and sustaining organic agricultural practices. The first organic standards were published by the Soil Association. The group performs the majority of the inspections, although several other approved inspection groups also perform certification inspections.
In the United Kingdom there were 2,865 licensed organic farmers in production, or in conversion, in 2000, a dramatic increase from the 828 listed in 1997. In late 1999, 2 percent of all agricultural land (a little over 1 million acres) was farmed organically (fully organic or in conversion). Organic vegetable production value for 1999 was $28.8 million in the United Kingdom. Nearly half of the consumers interviewed said they bought organic produce for the taste.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has published the Codex Alimentarius to establish global food standards and guidelines for organically produced foods. The FAO states:
Foods should only refer to organic production methods if they come from an organic farm system employing management practices which seek to nurture ecosystems which achieve sustainable productivity and provide weed, pest and disease control though a diverse mix of mutually dependent life forms, recycling plant and animal residues, crop selection and rotation, water management, tillage, and cultivation. Soil fertility is maintained and enhanced by a system which optimizes soil biological activity and the physical and mineral nature of the soil as the means to provide a balanced nutrient supply for plant and animal life as well as to conserve soil resources. Production should be sustainable with the recycling of plant nutrients as an essential part of the fertilizing strategy. Pest and disease management is attained by means of the encouragement of a balanced host/predator relationship, augmentation of beneficial insect populations, biological and cultural control and mechanical removal of pests and affected plant parts.
In Europe, the European Union countries have a total of 10 million acres held in 145,113 organic farms, which represent about 2 percent of farms and about 3 percent of the farming acreage. This figure represents a rapid rate of growth, about 25 percent over the last ten years in European Union member countries. For example, as of 2001, France had over 10,000 organic farms, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. Ongoing research in organic agriculture is being conducted in most countries, and some have adopted educational programs that support the organic farmers as well as the consumers. Uniformity of standards and dissemination of research are critical to the future of organic agriculture. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded in 1972 to coordinate research and represent organic agriculture worldwide in forums for policy and law. Currently, IFOAM is working in 100 countries with more than 690 member organizations. Perhaps most important, it sets, maintains, and revises the IFOAM Basic Standards of Organic Agriculture and Food Processing, which are translated into eighteen languages and ensure the quality of and equal application of the organic certification through the IFOAM Accreditation Programme.
See also Agriculture, Origins of; Agronomy; Canada; Codex Alimentarius; Crop Improvement; Ecology and Food; Environment; Farmers' Markets; Food Politics: United States; Food Production, History of; Green Revolution; Organic Farming and Gardening; Organic Food; Pesticides; Tillage; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety.
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Daphne L. Derven
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