Organic FAQs

What is organic farming?

Organic farming refers to agricultural production systems used to produce food and fiber. Organic farming management relies on developing biological diversity in the field to disrupt habitat for pest organisms, and the purposeful maintenance and replenishment of soil fertility. Organic farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. All kinds of agricultural products are produced organically, including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibers such as cotton, flowers, and processed food products. Some of the essential characteristics of organic systems include: design and implementation of an "organic system plan" that describes the practices used in producing crops and livestock products; a detailed recordkeeping system that tracks all products from the field to point of sale; and maintenance of buffer zones to prevent inadvertent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent conventional fields.

What does "certified" organic mean?
Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards, verified by independent state or private organizations accredited by the USDA. All products sold as "organic" must be certified. Certification includes annual submission of an organic system plan and inspection of farm fields and processing facilities. Inspectors verify that organic practices such as long-term soil management, buffering between organic farms and neighboring conventional farms, and recordkeeping are being followed. Processing inspections include review of the facility's cleaning and pest control methods, ingredient transportation and storage, and recordkeeping and audit control. Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of food without artificial ingredients or preservatives. Certified organic requires the rejection of synthetic agrochemicals, irradiation and genetically engineered foods or ingredients. Since 2002, organic certification in the U.S. has taken place under the authroity of the USDA National Organic Program, which accredits organic certifiying agencies, and oversees the regulatory process. To find out more about the national organic certification requirements and organic program, please go to the USDA National Organic Program website www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

Is organic food more nutritious than conventional food?
The definitive study has not been done, mainly because of the multitude of variables involved in making a fair comparison between organically grown and conventionally grown food. These include crop variety, time after harvest, post-harvest handling, and even soil type and climate, which can have significant effects on nutritional quality. However, a 2002 report indicates that organic food is far less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional food (13% of organic produce samples vs. 71% of conventional produce samples contained a pesticide residue, when long-banned persistent pesticides were excluded). For more information on this 2002 report (Baker, B.P., C.M. Benbrook, E. Groth III, and K.L. Benbrook. 2002. Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic food: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants 19:427-446.) go to the Organic Materials Review Institute website www.omri.org.

Is organic food safe?
Yes. Organic food is as safe to consume as any other kind of food. Just as with any kind of produce, consumers should wash before consuming to ensure maximum cleanliness. As cited above, organic produce contains significantly lower levels of pesticide residues than conventional produce. It is a common misconception that organic food could be at greater risk of E. coli contamination because of raw manure application although conventional farmers commonly apply tons of raw manure as well with no regulation whatsoever. Organic standards set strict guidelines on manure use in organic farming: either it must be first composted, or it must be applied at least 90 days before harvest, which allows ample time for microbial breakdown of pathogens.

Is organic food really a significant industry?
Approximately 2% of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods. Over the past decade, sales of organic products have shown an annual increase of at least 20%, the fastest growing sector of agriculture. In 2005, retail sales of organic food and beverages were approximately $12.8 billion (Natural Marketing Institute, Health & Wellness Trends Database, March 2006). Organic foods can be found at natural food stores and major supermarkets, as well as through grower direct marketing such as CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and farmers' markets. Many restaurant chefs across the country are using organic produce because they desire superior quality and taste. Organic food is also gaining international acceptance, with nations like Japan and Germany becoming important international organic food markets.

Why does organic cost more?
The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals, the health and environmental costs of which are borne by society. These costs include cleanup of polluted water and remediation of pesticide contamination. Prices for organic foods include costs of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage. In the case of processed foods, processing and packaging costs are also included. Organically produced foods must meet stricter regulations governing all these steps than conventional foods. The intensive management and labor used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms. There is mounting evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same, or, more likely, be cheaper than conventional food. Cost, however, is very dependent upon market venue and consumer product choice. It is possible to consume a moderately priced diet of organic foods by purchasing directly from farmers at venues such as farmers markets, and by choosing unprocessed organically grown foods at the grocery store.

Are organic yields lower?
Based on 154 growing seasons' worth of data on various crops, organic crops yielded 95% of crops grown under conventional, high-input conditions (Liebhardt, B. "Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good," OFRF Information Bulletin #10, Summer 2001.). This was by using organic farming methods developed and refined by years of grower experience, independent of the billions of dollars of support provided the agrichemical industries through USDA and the land grant system. If USDA would increase the small proportion of its research funds currently directed toward optimizing organic farming practices, organic has the potential to produce yields fully matching or surpassing those of conventional crops. Growers who go through the 3-year transition period from conventional to organic management usually experience an initial decrease in yields, until soil microbes are re-established and nutrient cycling is in place, at which point yields return to previous levels.

Is there a national standard for organic?
Yes. Since October 2002, organic regulations under the USDA National Organic Program have been in effect. This means there are a uniform set of organic production, processing, and labeling standards across the United States. Anyone who sells a product as "organic" is required by law to be certified (The National Organic Rule and other policies of USDA's National Organic Program may be accessed on the web at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/index.htm). USDA oversees implementation of the Rule through its National Organic Program but does not certify organic operations itself; instead, it accredits independent certifiers to certify growers and processors on USDA's behalf.

How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?
Organic farmers build healthy soils by nourishing the living component of the soil, the microbial inhabitants that release, transform, and transfer nutrients. Soil organic matter contributes to good soil structure and water-holding capacity. Organic farmers feed soil biota and build soil structure and water-holding capacity. Organic farmers build soil organic matter with cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments. These produce healthy plants that are better able to resist disease and insect predation. Organic farmers' primary strategy in controlling pests and diseases is prevention through good plant nutrition and management. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to manage the field ecology, effectively disrupting habitat for weeds, insects, and disease organisms. Weeds are controlled through crop rotation, mechanical tillage, and hand-weeding, as well as through cover crops, mulches, flame weeding, and other management methods. Organic farmers rely on a diverse population of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests in check. When pest populations get out of balance, growers implement a variety of strategies such as the use of insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers. Under the National Organic Program Rule, growers are required to use sanitation and cultural practices first before they can resort to applying a material to control a weed, pest or disease problem. Use of these materials in organic production is regulated, strictly monitored, and documented. As a last resort, certain botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides may be applied.

How are organic livestock and poultry raised?
Organic meat, dairy products, and eggs are produced from animals that are fed organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors. They must be kept in living conditions that accommodate the natural behavior of the animals. Ruminants must have access to pasture. Organic livestock and poultry may not be give antibiotics, hormones, or medications in the absence of illness; however, they may be vaccinated against disease. Parasiticide use is strictly regulated. Livestock diseases and parasites are controlled primarily through preventative measures such as rotational grazing, balanced diet, sanitary housing, and stress reduction.

How can I reach an organic certification agency that serves my area?
Depending on where you live or farm in the U.S., there may be one or several organic certifications agencies that serve your region. There are many organic certifying agencies accredited through the USDA National Organic Program, and these include non-profit organizations, state- or county-affiliated agencies, and for-profit corporations. Some agencies work solely within a particular county or state, while others conduct organic certifications regionally or nationwide. Depending on the type of agency, an organic certifier may also provide additional services to farmers and the public, such as information about organic food and farming, sponsorship of workshops and conferences, or organic marketing materials. Together with The Rodale Institute/NewFarm, OFRF has developed a Guide to U.S. Organic Certifiers or you can contact the USDA National Organic Program.

Where can I find organically grown products?
Organically grown products are becoming more widely available throughout the U.S. Many national food store chains such as Albertson's, Safeway and Wal-Mart carry some organically grown selections. National natural food store chains such as Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Market carry a wide array of organic products, as do regional and local independent natural food stores. Farmers markets offer locally and regionally-grown organic products available directly from the farmer. Organic products may also be mail-ordered from many farms and retailers, and a web search will likely yield a variety of options for consumers who have a difficult time finding organic products in their area. The Local Harvest website is a useful resource for finding locally produced, organic, and specialty farm products throughout the U.S.

How many organic farmers are there in the United States?
As of 2007, there are approximately 13,000 certified organic producers in the U.S. The growth in the number of organic farmers has increased steadily, similar to the growth of the U.S. organic industry, which has increased by rates of approximately 20% per year for more than 10 years. When OFRF first began tracking certified organic producer numbers in 1994, there were approximately 2,500 -3,000 certified organic growers in the U.S. at that time. Consumer awareness of the value of organic farming and food products continues to grow, making organic a viable and attractive economic option for a growing number of producers.