Organic food production is legally regulated. Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada , Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain organic certification in order to market food as organic.
Historically, organic farms have been relatively small family-run farms — which is why organic food was once only available in small stores or farmers' markets. However, since the early 1990s organic food production has had growth rates of around 20% a year, far ahead of the rest of the food industry, in both developed and developing nations. As of April 2008, organic food accounts for 1-2% of food sales worldwide. Future growth is expected to range from 10-50% annually depending on the country.
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 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 (no chemical ripening, no food irradiation, and no genetically modified ingredients, etc.).
They may also be required to be produced using energy-saving technologies and packaged using recyclable or biodegradable materials when possible.
Early consumers interested in organic food would look for non-chemically treated, 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 continues to increase, high volume sales through mass outlets such as supermarkets are rapidly replacing the direct farmer connection. 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. A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to know that a processed product is "organic".
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:
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.
One study found a 20% smaller yield from organic farms using 50% less fertilizer and 97% less pesticide. Studies comparing yields have had mixed results. Supporters claim that organically managed soil has a higher quality 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. Findings like these, and the dependence of organic food on manure from low-yield cattle, has prompted criticism from many scientists that organic farming is environmentally unsound and incapable of feeding the world population. Among these critics are Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution," and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who asserts that organic farming practices can at most feed 4 billion people, after expanding cropland dramatically and destroying ecosystems in the process. Third world countries have saved millions from starvation by utilizing fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields of wheat, rice, and corn in the Green Revolution.
A 2007 study compiling research from 293 different comparisons into a single study to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems has concluded that
organic 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 .
Imported fruits and vegetables from South America are more likely to contain high level of pesticides, even pesticides banned for use in the United States. Migratory birds, such as Swainson's hawks, have wintering grounds in Argentina where thousands of them were found dead from monocrotophos insecticide poisoning.
Monitoring of pesticide residues in the United States is carried out by the Pesticide Data Program (part of USDA, which was created in 1990. It has since tested over 60 different types of food for over 400 different types of pesticides - with samples collected close to the point of consumption. Their most recent results found in 2005 that:
These data indicate that 29.5 percent of all samples tested contained no detectable pesticides [parent compound and metabolite(s) combined], 30 percent contained 1 pesticide, and slightly over 40 percent contained more than 1 pesticide.|20px|20px|USDA|Pesticide Data Program
Several studies corroborate this finding by having found that while 77 percent of conventional food carries synthetic pesticide residues, only about 25 percent of organic food does.
A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet. A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 schoolchildren before and after replacing their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet. Food residue limits established by law are set specifically with children in mind and consider a child's lifetime ingestion of each pesticide.
There are controversial data on the health implications of certain pesticides. For example, the herbicide Atrazine has been shown in some experiments to be a teratogen, causing demasculinization in male frogs exposed to small concentrations. Under the effects of Atrazine, male frogs were found to have greatly increased occurrencesof either malformed gonads, or testicular gonads which contain non-degenerate eggs. Effects were however significantly reduced in high concentrations, as is consistent with other teratogens affecting the endocrine system, such as estradiol.
Organic farming standards do not allow the use of synthetic pesticides, but they do allow the use of specific pesticides derived from plants. The most common organic pesticides, accepted for restricted use by most organic standards, include Bt, pyrethrum, and rotenone. Some organic pesticides, such as rotenone, have high toxicity to fish and aquatic creatures with some toxicity to mammals. It causes Parkinson's disease if injected into rats.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies periodically review the licensing of suspect pesticides, but the process of de-listing is slow. One example of this slow process is exemplified by the pesticide Dichlorvos, or DDVP, which as recently as the year 2006 the EPA proposed its continued sale. The EPA has almost banned this pesticide on several occasions since the 1970s, but it never did so despite considerable evidence that suggests DDVP is not only carcinogenic but dangerous to the human nervous system — especially in children. The EPA "has determined that risks do not exceed levels of concern, a study of longterm exposure to DDVP in rats showed no toxic effects.
These concerns over the particular impact of pesticides on children have not gone unheeded. Fio360, an eco early-care center in Atlanta, GA, has even gone so far as to prepare organic foods for its clients' children.
Some studies have shown higher nutrient levels in organic fruit and vegetables compared with conventionally grown products. However, due to the difficulty with designing such experiments, the evidence was not considered conclusive.
A 2001 study by researchers at Washington State University concluded, under judgement by a panel of tasters, that organic apples were sweeter. Along with taste and sweetness, the texture as well as firmness of the apples were also rated higher than those grown conventionally. These differences are attributed to the greater soil quality resulting from organic farming techniques compared to those of conventional farming.
A 2002 meta-analysis (a review of all past studies on the subject) found no proof that organic food offers greater nutritional values, more consumer safety or any distinguishable difference in taste.
Some are also implementing new approaches to defining and buying food. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one such approach, that cuts out all the middlemen by having consumers partner with local farmers. CSA members prepurchase "shares" in a season's harvest, and pick up their weekly portions from distribution sites. Thus, consumers provide direct financing for farms, participate in the risks and rewards of annual growing conditions, and participate with farmers in distribution networks.
CSA is one example of "buying locally," which is often valued by both the organic food consumer and producer. Generally speaking, locally-grown seasonal food can be brought to market more quickly than food that has to be transported long distances, and therefore can be better tasting and to some degree more nutritious by virtue of its freshness. Additionally, the act of buying foods that are locally-grown benefits local farmers and other employers. This local food approach is seen as a direct investment in one's own community and a way to reduce economic dependence.
The "buy local" movement is also related to the organic movement. Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma”, notes that in the whole chain of food production and distribution, only one-fifth of the energy is used on the farm, the rest in distribution. Yet a report published by DEFRA, Britain's environment and farming ministry, concluded that shifts toward a local food production and distribution system, as advocated by many organic food proponents, would actually increase the amount of energy being invested in food due to the a higher level of small-scale transport systems, which suffer from inefficiencies compared to standard large-scale supermarket systems.
As highlighted by a recent New York Times article, food supply is a global issue that will become increasingly prominent in the near future. "Everywhere, the cost of food is rising sharply. Whether the world is in for a long period of continued increases has become one of the most urgent issues in economics. ... Farmers the world over are producing flat-out. American agricultural exports are expected to increase 23 percent this year to $101 billion, a record. The world’s grain stockpiles have fallen to the lowest levels in decades. 'Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,' said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a Chicago consultancy. 'But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.' Given the debate around Organic's ability to match the yields of conventional methods and the rising global demand for food, this debate is likely to see increased scrutiny in the future.