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What's Organic?


What's Organic?
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Frequently Asked Questions About Organic Farming

What is
organic farming?

Organic refers to the agricultural systems used to produce food and fiber. Organic farming systems do not use toxic chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, they are based on the development of biological diversity and the maintenance and replenishment of soil fertility. Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of the food without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation.

What does certified organic mean?

Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to strict uniform standards, verified annually by independent state or private organization. Certification includes inspection of farm fields and processing facilities. Farm practices inspected include long term soil management, buffering between organic farms and any neighboring conventional farms, product labeling, and record keeping. Processing inspections include review of the facility’s cleaning and pest control methods, ingredient transportation and storage, and record keeping and audit control.

Is there a national standard for organic?

At present, each state has its own regulations for organic production and certification. With the passage of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, the USDA began the process of developing federal standards for organic foods. When a set of guidelines is finally approved and implemented, all organic foods will be required to be certified and meet these national standards. This will cover all organic crops and processed foods, including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, and fiber. To learn more about the Proposed Rule, visit the National Organic Program's website at

How do organic farmers control pests, diseases, and weeds? How do they fertilize?

Organic farmers’ primary strategy in controlling pests and diseases is prevention. Organic farmers build healthy soils--fertilizing and building soil organic matter through the use of cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments. This produces healthy plants which are better able to resist disease and insect predation. Organic farmers also rely on a diverse population of soil organisms, insects, birds, and other organisms to keep pest problems in check. When pest populations get out of balance, growers will implement a variety of strategies such as the use of insect predators, mating disruption, traps, and barriers. As a last resort, botanical or other non-toxic pesticides may be applied under restricted conditions. Weeds are controlled through increased cultivation, as well as through cover crops, mulches, flame weeding, crop rotation and similar management methods.

How are organic livestock and poultry raised?

Organic meat, dairy products, and eggs are produced from animals which are fed organic feed and allowed free range and outdoor access. Organic livestock and poultry are not given antibiotics, hormones, or medications (other than vaccinations) applied in the absence of illness. They are given wormers and similar products that have been derived from natural sources. Livestock diseases and parasites are controlled through preventative measures such as rotational grazing.

Why does organic cost more?

Prices for organic foods reflect many of the same costs as conventional foods in terms of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage. Storage is especially costly because fresh organic produce does not contain any preservatives, so retail stores have a higher waste factor. For this reason, retail operations charge more for the same produce. Buying organic foods and especially produce within a food co-op saves you from paying these extra retail price mark-ups.

Organically produced foods must meet stricter regulations governing all these steps so the process is often more labor and management intensive, and farming tends to be on a smaller scale. There is also mounting evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production (cleanup of polluted water, replacement of eroded soils, costs of health care for farmers and their workers) were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same, or, more likely be cheaper.

Is organic food really a significant industry?

Approximately 1% of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods. In 1996, this represented over $3.5 billion in retail sales. Over the past six years sales of organic products have shown an annual increase of at least 20%. Organic foods can be found at natural foods stores, health food sections and produce departments of supermarkets and at farmers’ markets, as well as through grower direct-marketing such as C.S.A.s (Community Supported Agriculture). Many restaurant chefs across the country are using organic produce because they desire its superior quality and taste. Organic food is also gaining acceptance on a worldwide basis, with nations like Japan and Germany becoming important international organic food markets.