Organic food

Organic food
Organic vegetables at a farmers' market in Argentina

Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.[1]

For the vast majority of human history, agriculture can be described as organic; only during the 20th century was a large supply of new synthetic chemicals introduced to the food supply. The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture known as the Green Revolution.[2]

The weight of the available scientific evidence has not shown a significant difference between organic and more conventionally grown food in terms of safety, nutritional value, or taste.

Organic food production is a heavily regulated industry, distinct from private gardening. Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food as organic within their borders. In the context of these regulations, organic food is food made in a way that complies with organic standards set by national governments and international organizations. In the United States, organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.[3] If livestock are involved, the livestock must be reared with regular access to pasture and without the routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones.[4] In the United States, a food can be labelled as "organic" if it contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients.[5] In most countries, organic produce may not be genetically modified. It has been suggested that the application of nanotechnology to food and agriculture is a further technology that needs to be excluded from certified organic food.[6] The Soil Association (UK) has been the first organic certifier to implement a nano-exclusion.[6]


Meaning and origin of the term

In 1939, Lord Northbourne coined the term organic farming in his book Look to the Land (1940), out of his conception of "the farm as organism," to describe a holistic, ecologically-balanced approach to farming—in contrast to what he called chemical farming, which relied on "imported fertility" and "cannot be self-sufficient nor an organic whole."[7] This is different from the scientific use of the term "organic," to refer to a class of molecules that contain carbon, especially those involved in the chemistry of life. This class of molecules includes many chemicals that would not be used in organic farming.

Identifying organic food

Mixed organic bean sprouts
  • See also: Organic farming for information on the production of organic food.

Processed organic food usually contains only organic ingredients. If non-organic ingredients are present, at least a certain percentage of the food's total plant and animal ingredients must be organic (95% in the United States,[8] Canada, and Australia) and any non-organically produced ingredients are subject to various agricultural requirements. Foods claiming to be organic must be free of artificial food additives, and are often processed with fewer artificial methods, materials and conditions, such as chemical ripening, food irradiation, and genetically modified ingredients. Pesticides are allowed so long as they are not synthetic.

Early consumers interested in organic food would look for non-chemically treated, non-use of unapproved pesticides, fresh or minimally processed food. They mostly had to buy directly from growers: "Know your farmer, know your food" was the motto. Personal definitions of what constituted "organic" were developed through firsthand experience: by talking to farmers, seeing farm conditions, and farming activities. Small farms grew vegetables (and raised livestock) using organic farming practices, with or without certification, and the individual consumer monitored. As demand for organic foods continued to increase, high volume sales through mass outlets such as supermarkets rapidly replaced the direct farmer connection. Today there is no limit to organic farm sizes and many large corporate farms currently have an organic division. However, for supermarket consumers, food production is not easily observable, and product labeling, like "certified organic", is relied on. Government regulations and third-party inspectors are looked to for assurance.

The USDA carries out routine inspections of farms that produce USDA Organic labeled foods.[9] Of the 30 third party inspectors 15 of them have been placed under probation after an audit.[citation needed] On April 20, 2010, the Department of Agriculture said that it would begin enforcing rules requiring the spot testing of organically grown foods for traces of pesticides, after an auditor exposed major gaps in federal oversight of the organic food industry.[10]

Legal definition

The National Organic Program (run by the USDA) is in charge of the legal definition of organic in the United States and does organic certification.

To be certified organic, products must be grown and manufactured in a manner that adheres to standards set by the country they are sold in:

Environmental impact

Several surveys and studies have attempted to examine and compare conventional and organic systems of farming. The general consensus across these surveys[11][12] is that organic farming is less damaging for the following reasons:

  • Organic farms do not consume or release synthetic pesticides into the environment—some of which have the potential to harm soil, water and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
  • Organic farms are better than conventional farms at sustaining diverse ecosystems, i.e., populations of plants and insects, as well as animals.
  • When calculated per unit area, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste, e.g., waste such as packaging materials for chemicals.

A 2003 investigation by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in the UK found, similar to other reports, that organic farming "can produce positive environmental benefits", but that some of the benefits were decreased or lost when comparisons are made on "the basis of unit production rather than area".[13]

The environmental impact of pesticides as well as the impact to the health of farm workers are reasons given for purchasing organic food.[citation needed]

However, critics of organic farming methods believe that the increased land needed to farm organic food could potentially destroy the rainforests and wipe out many ecosystems.[14] [15]


One study found a 20% smaller yield from organic farms using 50% less fertilizer and 97% less pesticide.[16] Studies comparing yields have had mixed results.[17] Supporters claim that organically managed soil has a higher quality[18] and higher water retention. This may help increase yields for organic farms in drought years.

One study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that, area-for-area, organic farms of potatoes, sugar beet and seed grass produce as little as half the output of conventional farming.[19] Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, responds to this by pointing out that the average yield of world agriculture is substantially lower than modern sustainable farming yields. Bringing average world yields up to modern organic levels could increase the world's food supply by 50%.[20]

A 2007 study[21] compiling research from 293 different comparisons into a single study to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems has concluded that methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. (from the abstract)

The researchers also found that while in developed countries, organic systems on average produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms in developing countries, because the materials needed for organic farming are more accessible than synthetic farming materials to farmers in some poor countries. On the other hand, communities that lack sufficient manure to replenish soils would struggle with organic farming, and the soil would degrade rapidly.[22]

Energy efficiency

A study of the sustainability of apple production systems showed that in comparing a conventional farming system to an organic method of farming, the organic system is more energy efficient.[23] A more comprehensive study compared efficiency of agriculture for products such as grain, roughage crops, and animal husbandry. While the study did not investigate specific additional requirements of arable land or numbers of farm laborers to produce total yields for organic farming vs. conventional farming, leaving open the question of overall capacity of organic farming to meet current and future agricultural needs, it concluded that organic farming had a higher yield per unit of energy over multiple crops and for livestock. However, conventional farming had higher total yield.[24] Conversely, another study noted that organic wheat and corn production was more energy efficient than conventional methods while organic apple and potato production was less energy efficient than conventional methods.[25] A long-term study, spanning two decades, noted that crop yields were 20% lower in organic systems while fertilizer plus energy input was 34% to 53% lower. However, pesticide input was reduced by 97% in organic farm systems.[26]

Consumer safety

There is widespread belief that organic food is significantly safer for consumption than food grown conventionally, based mainly on anecdotal evidence and testimonials rather than scientific evidence, which has fueled increased demand for organic food despite higher prices.[27] Reviews of the available body of scientific literature comparing the safety of organic to conventional foods have found neither to be significantly more safe than the other.[27][28][29] Firm conclusions about the relative safety of organic foods has been hampered by the difficulty in proper study design and relatively small number of studies directly comparing organic food to conventional food.[27]

Claims of improved safety of organic food has largely focused on pesticide residues. While studies have shown organically grown fruits and vegetables have significantly lower pesticide residue levels, the significance of this finding on actual health risk reduction is debatable as both conventional foods and organic foods generally have pesticide levels well below government established guidelines for what is considered safe.[27] This view has been echoed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture[30] and the UK Food Standards Agency.[31] Claims of increased risk related to pesticide residue and rates of infertility or lower sperm counts have not been supported by the evidence in the medical literature.[27] Reviews have noted that the risks from microbiological sources or natural toxins are likely to be much more significant than short term or chronic risks from pesticide residues.[27][29]

Some focus has been placed on the amount of nitrogen content in certain vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables and tubers when grown organically as compared to conventionally. While these vegetables, when grown organically, have been found to have lower nitrogen content, there is no consensus as to whether consumption of lower levels of nitrogen translates to improved health risk. When evaluating environmental toxins such as heavy metals, the USDA noted that organically raised chicken may have lower arsenic levels,[30] while a literature review found no significant evidence that levels of arsenic, cadmium or other heavy metals differed significantly between organic and conventional food products.[27]

In looking at possible increased risk to safety from organic food consumption, reviews have found that although there are theoretical increased risk from microbiological contamination due to increased manure use as fertilizer from organisms like E. coli O157:H7 during organic produce production, there does not exist sufficient evidence of actual incidence of outbreaks that can be clearly tied to organic food production to draw any firm conclusions.[27][28] Other possible sources of increased safety risk from organic food consumption like use of biological pesticides or the theoretical risk from mycotoxins from fungi grown on products due to the lack of effective organic compliant fungicides have likewise not been confirmed by rigorous studies in the scientific literature.[27][29]

Nutritional value and taste

According to the UK's Food Standards Agency, "Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view."[32] A 12-month systematic review commissioned by the FSA in 2009 and conducted at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine based on 50 years' worth of collected evidence concluded that "there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content."[33] Other studies have found no proof that organic food offers greater nutritional values, more consumer safety or any distinguishable difference in taste.[34][35][36][37] A review of nutrition claims showed that organic food proponents are unreliable information sources which harm consumers, and that consumers are wasting their money if they buy organic food believing that it contains better nutrients.[38]

Although it is commonly claimed that organically grown food tastes better than conventionally grown food, reviews of the literature that looked at the sensory qualities of the two have not found convincing evidence that there is any significant differences.[29][28]

Organic baby products

Organic baby products are commercially produced infant formulas and baby foods that have obtained organic certification. They are often recommended as substitutes for conventionally marketed baby foods in order to reduce the amount of chemical exposure for rapidly developing infants. Since babies' bodies are smaller and their brains grow faster, they are more vulnerable to environmental toxins as they absorb more pesticides per pound of body weight than adults.[39]

In many countries mothers who are not breastfeeding can find organic versions of infant formulas and baby foods using various substances (e.g. soy, dairy milk, wheat) through various channels (e.g. hospitals, grocery stores, mail order). However the marketing of organic baby products for newborns and infants under six months of age, just like the marketing of other breastmilk substitutes, has met with increasing skepticism and controversy (see International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes). The World Health Organization, UNICEF and many national health departments recommend that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal health, growth and development.[40]

Organic baby products are more expensive to produce and get certified, therefore often priced higher than conventional goods and not as accessible to middle and lower income families.[citation needed] The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) says that while prices have been declining, there are reasons the costs of certified organic products remain higher than conventional products. They include limited supply as compared to demand, greater labor and transportation costs per unit produced. The smaller number of units involved also means marketing and distribution costs have to be spread out over a smaller number of units. As demand for organic food and products increases, technological innovations and economies of scale should reduce costs of production, processing, distribution and marketing for organic produce.[41]


Demand for organic foods is primarily concern for personal health and concern for the environment.[42] Organic products typically cost 10 to 40% more than similar conventionally produced products.[43] According to the USDA, Americans, on average, spent $1,347 on groceries in 2004;[44] thus switching entirely to organics would raise their cost of groceries by about $135 to $539 per year ($11 to $45 per month) assuming that prices remained stable with increased demand. Processed organic foods vary in price when compared to their conventional counterparts.

While organic food accounts for 1–2% of total food sales worldwide, the organic food market is growing rapidly, far ahead of the rest of the food industry, in both developed and developing nations.

  • World organic food sales jumped from US $23 billion in 2002[45] to $52 billion in 2008.[46]
  • The world organic market has been growing by 20% a year since the early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10%–50% annually depending on the country.

North America

United States
  • Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace.[47][dead link]
  • Organic food sales have grown by 17 to 20 percent a year for the past few years[48] while sales of conventional food have grown at only about 2 to 3 percent a year.[49]
  • In 2003 organic products were available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73% of conventional grocery stores.[50]
  • Organic products accounted for 3.7% of total food and beverage sales, and 11.4% of all fruit and vegetable sales in the year 2009.[51]
  • Two thirds of organic milk and cream and half of organic cheese and yogurt are sold through conventional supermarkets.[52]
  • Organic food sales surpassed $1 billion in 2006, accounting for 0.9% of food sales in Canada.[53]
  • Organic food sales by grocery stores were 28% higher in 2006 than in 2005.[53]
  • British Columbians account for 13% of the Canadian population, but purchased 26% of the organic food sold in Canada in 2006.[54]


In the European Union (EU25) 3.9% of the total utilized agricultural area was used for organic production in 2005. The countries with the highest proportion of organic land were Austria (11%) and Italy (8.4), followed by the Czech Republic and Greece (both 7.2%). The lowest figures were shown for Malta (0.1%), Poland (0.6%) and Ireland (0.8%).[55]

  • 11.6% of all farmers produced organically in 2007.[56] The government has created incentives to increase the figure to 20% by 2010.[57]
  • In 2006, 4.9% of all food products sold in Austrian supermarkets (including discount stores) were organic.[58] In the same year, 8,000 different organic products were available.[59]
  • Since 2000, the use of some organic food is compulsory in Italian schools and hospitals. A 2002 law of the Emilia Romagna region implemented in 2005, explicitly requires that the food in nursery and primary schools (from 3 months to 10 years) must be 100% organic, and the food in meals at schools, universities and hospitals must be at least 35% organic.[60]
  • In 2005 168,000 ha of land were under organic management. 7 percent of Polish consumers buy food that was produced according to the EU-Eco-regulation. The value of the organic market is estimated at 50 million Euros (2006).[61]
  • Organic food sales increased from just over £100 million in 1993/94 to £1.21 billion in 2004 (an 11% increase on 2003).[62][where?]

Latin America

  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, agricultural inputs that had previously been purchased from Eastern bloc countries were no longer available in Cuba, and many Cuban farms converted to organic methods out of necessity.[63] Consequently, organic agriculture is a mainstream practice in Cuba, while it remains an alternative practice in most other countries. Although some products called organic in Cuba would not satisfy certification requirements in other countries (crops may be genetically modified, for example[64][65]), Cuba exports organic citrus and citrus juices to EU markets that meet EU organic standards. Cuba's forced conversion to organic methods may position the country to be a global supplier of organic products.[66]
  • Although certification seals have become more common on Mexican produce, mainly for export, there have been strong internal movements to block GMOs and decrease pesticide practice. As the country does not have as long a history of using pesticides as developed nations, it is striving to regain the purity of much of its arable land.
  • Much of its internal and domestic produce consumption is not labeled as organic, even when the practice is sustainable. This is mainly due to cultural differences.

See also


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