Organic Food (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
ORGANIC FOOD. Organic food refers to crops or livestock that are grown on the farm without the application of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and without using genetically modified organisms. In contrast, the type of agriculture followed by most farmers, which does include the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, is termed "conventional" agriculture. In 2002, with a value in the United States of over $4 billion, organic foods still represent only a small segment of the entire food industry. However, since the early 1980s the organic food industry has increased considerably both in the acreage devoted to grow organic products and in its popularity with the general public.
Consumer surveys indicate that the public is concerned about the safety of the produce that they purchase in stores due to possible pesticide contamination. The media has also highlighted some environmental concerns that exist with "conventional" farming. These environmental concerns include pollution of aquatic habitats and aquifers by synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; agricultural labor and consumer exposure to pesticides; the short-term approach to "conventional" farming, which often results in unproductive unfertile soils a few years after intensive use of the land; the loss of biological diversity by replacing natural landscapes with extensive monocultures (the practice of growing the same crop, on the same location, year after year); the potential threats to native habitats and wild species from contamination by genetically modified organisms; and the displacement of the family farm by large plantations or corporate-style farming operations. The list of real or perceived health and environmental problems that exist with conventional farming, has in part, contributed to the increased popularity among the general public of organically produced food.
During the 1990s the U.S. organic food industry grew at a fast pace of over 20 percent annually. Because the supply has not been able to keep up with the high demand, organic food normally commands a premium price, compared to conventional food. Thus, organic farming is an attractive proposition for both established and new farmers concerned about human health and about the environment, and also because of the premium price obtained from selling organic produce in several countries.
History of the Organic Movement
The organic farming movement was born in the early twentieth century as a response to the concern that some agricultural ecologists had with conventional agriculture. Early critics of conventional agriculture and organic farming proponents included agricultural ecologists such as Sir Albert Howard in both England and India, and Scott Nearing and J. I. Rodale in the United States. For conventional agriculture, they claimed, short-term profits took a precedence over the environment, resulting in rapid degradation of fertile agricultural lands. From their perspective, the excessive reliance on external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and continuous monocultures, antagonized the natural nutrient cycles and pest suppression mechanisms that exist in natural ecosystems. They proposed and developed production systems that precluded the use of synthetic external inputs, and substituted them with alternative production methods, only allowing the use of naturally available amendments such as composted animal manures, botanical pesticides, and the use of green manures (a cover crop, such as clover, that protects the soil from erosion and is subsequently turned under to amend the soil). Early organic production techniques were actually built upon production practices that were originally used by subsistence farmers throughout the world before the discovery of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These early farmers, over millennia, developed farming systems that worked closely with nature, resulting in a finely tuned system that periodically "regenerated" itself from an ecological standpoint, and thus ensured that the land would remain healthy and productive indefinitely. From the early twentieth century, organic farmers have continued to promote those well-tested techniques used originally by subsistence farmers,
From a production standpoint, the heart of organic farming is considered to be a healthy soil. Organic farmers consider the soil to be a living entity that needs to be cared for and nurtured. Furthermore, they claim, many of the ailments that today's farmers encounter in the field, in terms of nutritional problems or pest damage on their crops, is nothing but a symptom of an unhealthy soil. Modern research has actually substantiated that all aspects of the production system of the farm are interrelated. Some studies have found links between soil quality and pest, weed, or disease outbreaks. Key tactics used by organic farmers to improve soil quality include incorporation of organic amendments such as composts; the use of organic mulches, which also serve to smother weed growth and retain moisture; and the use of cover crops or green manures, which are incorporated into the soil after reaching a particular stage of growth. If the soil suffers from a nutrient imbalance or lacks a particular nutrient, this can be rectified by applying accepted natural materials such as lime, rock phosphate, or sulfur. Today, organic farmers can monitor the quality of their soils, not only by observing how well their crops are growing, but also by having their soils analyzed by certified diagnostic chemical laboratories.
Crop losses from pest attack can be one of the primary production problems for a farmer. Organic farmers believe that a healthy soil rich in organic matter will result in a balanced system that allows crops to better resist or outgrow pest invasions. The farmer's goal, concerning management of pests in the organic farm, is to establish a balanced system, in which pests and diseases are kept in check through natural pest suppression mechanisms, including the activity of natural enemies. Natural enemies are macro-or microorganisms that act as predators or parasites to reduce pest populations. Populations of natural enemies can be promoted in the farm through crop diversification, including intercropping, and by growing a diversity of crops concurrently on the farm. Other important cultural practices used to minimize pest attack include crop rotations, field sanitation, and planting resistant varieties. When pest outbreaks occur, as a last resort, organic farmers may apply naturally occurring pesticides (such as sulfur) and botanicals, release beneficials purchased from a commercial supplier, or use other tactics approved by organic certification guidelines.
The Organic Certification Process
Because the organic food industry is relatively small and new, it is important that consumers become aware of its claims, limitations, and potential benefits. In order to better protect the consumer, organic certification programs were created in many parts of the world to develop a label for organic food. An organic certification label makes a claim as to the production process used to grow a crop, but the label makes no claims concerning either the quality or the chemical composition of the product itself. Thus, an organic label does not claim that a particular product is more nutritious, pesticide-free, or tastiert only indicates that the product was grown following a defined set of organic practices as certified by an accredited state, federal, or international certifying agency.
As the organic food industry grows in size, popularity, and value, its products are increasingly traded across national borders and continents, as it joins the global food trade market. To further the national and international expansion of this industry, and the ability of local growers to export organic products, the United States published a set of federal organic production standards in early 2001. The new federal organic standards will cover the entire country, and replace the guidelines previously used by independent or state agencies in various parts of the country. Because a similar area-wide certification program also exists in Europe and in other regions, it will become easier in the future to trade organic products across borders. In the end, the certification process results in an organic label in every item sold as organic, and this label assures the consumer that this product was produced following a strict set of standards that are uniform across the United States, and similar to those followed in other parts of the world.
The process to certify a farm as organic is a rather rigorous task that involves a lot of planning, good management, and record-keeping. Farmers rely on published organic certification guidelines to find out what practices are acceptable and what products are allowed for use on the farm. For land to be certified as organic, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can be applied to it for three years prior to certification. Part of the application process involves a detailed plan provided by the farmer that describes the entire operation, with a focus on what organic techniques will be used to produce and market crops in the farm. If the original fertility of the soil is deficient, the plans detail what will be done to rectify this problem. The certification process also includes taking soil samples to evaluate soil fertility and to detect the possible presence of any unacceptable pesticides in the soil. To ensure that the farm remains in compliance, organic inspectors will visit the farm annually. The record-keeping maintained by the farm helps the inspector to double-check that the farm operations are being conducted as indicated in the original farm plans.
Risks and Benefits of Organic Foods
Currently, organic products are sold at premium prices in an ever-increasing number of stores, and increasingly compete for shelf space with conventionally grown produce in supermarkets. Reasons for the premium prices obtained for organic products include that they are grown without pesticides and thus may be more expensive to produce because of the added labor; because they are grown in a way that does minimal harm to the environment; because no genetically modified organisms are used in the production process; because of a perception that they are better tasting; and also because the produce may have been grown locally and the consumer wishes to support small family farms. Because conventionally grown products are often bred to withstand shipping and to withstand a long shelf life after harvest, often at the expense of flavor, consumers often prefer to purchase tastier varieties, grown locally under organic conditions. However, consumers should be aware that exceptions may occur, and that in some instances conventionally grown products may actually be more nutritious, tastier, and grown in ways that minimized damage to the environment. Also, in some instances some organic farms may not be managed correctly, resulting in environmental problems such as excess erosion. Botanical pesticides, even though they are "natural," should also be evaluated for their risk to humans, wildlife, and the environment. Similarly, improper handling of organic produce after harvest may result in product contamination and in food-borne illnesses. Thus, it is important that the consumer becomes educated about both the benefits and possible risks of purchasing either conventional or organic products, so that better decisions can be made about what products to buy, and whether it pays to invest in products with a premium price.
Current Trends for Organic Foods
Because of its popularity, the organic industry grew at a fast pace since the mid-1980s. Throughout the 1990s in the United States, the organic industry grew by 20 percent annually. Similar trends were observed in regions where affluent and educated consumers support environmentally sound production programs, small family farms, locally grown produce, and products free of pesticide residues or bioengineered materials. Thus the organic industry has also grown in Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, sometimes at a faster pace than in the United States. However, questions exist as to the future expansion of the industry. Even though many conventional farmers are interested in converting to organic production, this process becomes more difficult as the area under production increases. As the area of production increases significantly, from farming only a few acres, into farming hundreds of acres, problems of soil fertility or pest outbreaks become more difficult to manage with organic techniques. This lack of appropriate technology is explained in part because in the past little formal research was conducted by universities to support organic farmers. During the twentieth century, most agricultural researchers were busy supporting an agricultural system that relied on the use of expensive synthetic chemicals. Thus, considerable research support will be necessary in the future to develop production techniques that will allow for the successful production of organic crops on a wider scale than is possible today. Considerable consumer support will also be necessary to facilitate the expansion of the organic industry. Better informed consumers may learn to accept products with minor blemishes, realizing that the minor defects do not affect taste or nutrition and that these products were grown without the use of toxic chemicals. Educated consumers may also be willing to pay a premium price for organic products, knowing that a large organic industry translates in the long term into a healthier environment with cleaner lakes and rivers and potable aquifers.
If the organic farming movement is to expand the area under cultivation and into other countries, the industry will have to grow in sophistication, to establish a seamless delivery system from the farm to the dinner table. The organic industry also will need to better educate the public about what organic farming is, and what it is not. The newly released national organic standards in the United States, and equivalent certification programs in Europe and elsewhere, will facilitate this process. Because the certification standards clearly delineate the entire production system, the public will be better assured of what they are purchasing when they see an organic label. Misconceptions about organic products will have to be overcome to build public trust in the industry. For example, proponents often claim that organic products are tastier and more nutritious than conventional products. While some isolated studies have indicated that in some cases organic food was more nutritious (more vitamins, etc.), this cannot be generalized to all crops and locations. On the other hand, contrary to some public perceptions, organic produce is not often infected with microbial contaminants, and the risk of food-borne illnesses from organic produce is minimal.
Thus, from the consumer's standpoint, there are several important reasons to purchase organic products. These include supporting the production of farm products that are grown in a manner that minimizes negative impacts on the environment; advocating a system that protects the health of the agricultural workers by minimizing their exposure to toxic chemicals; supporting a system that helps to maintain a rich wildlife in rural areas; and standing for an agricultural system that provides a fair price for the food that is purchased, thus allowing small organic farmers to lead independent, productive lives. A number of innovative marketing techniques bring urban consumers into closer contact with the land. One example of this trend is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), or subscription farming. With CSA, community members purchase "shares" of an organic farmnd thus help the farmer to purchase needed inputs prior to the production season. By doing this, the community shares the risk of crop losses that farmers face every season. As part of the program, the CSA farm distributes to its members products from the farm on a weekly basis, providing a bounty of fruits, vegetables, and often dairy products. The urban family members also visit the farm, sometimes to help with the harvest, once or more during the growing season. This type of marketing program helps bridge the wide gap that exists between urban and rural areas, and both parties benefit from this innovative arrangement. The urban families, especially children, learn about where their food comes from, allowing them to become better consumers, and to understand the impacts of agriculture on the environment. In turn, this symbiotic association allows the CSA farmer to become more savvy about the likes and dislikes of the urban consumer, allowing the farmer to modify and improve the farm's menu of products year after year.
See also Adulteration of Food; Artificial Foods; Biodiversity; Biotechnology; Crop Improvement; Farmers' Markets; Genetic Engineering; Green Revolution; High-Technology Farming; Natural Foods; Organic Agriculture; Organic Farming and Gardening; Sustainable Agriculture.
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