Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, an international umbrella organization for organic organizations established in 1972. The overarching goal of organic farming is defined as follows:
Besides Australia, the countries with the most organic area are Argentina (3.1 million hectares), China (2.3 million hectares), and the United States (1.6 million hectares). Much of Argentina's organic farmland is pasture, like that of Australia (2007:42). Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Uruguay, and the UK follow the United States by the amount of land managed organically (2007:26).
In recent years both Europe and North America have experienced strong growth in organic farmland. Each added half a million hectares from 2004 to 2007 -- for the US this is a 29 percent change (IFOAM 2007:11,27). However, this growth has occurred under different conditions. While the European Union has shifted agricultural subsidies to organic farmers in recognition of its environmental benefits, the United States has taken a free market approach. As a result, as of 2001 3 percent of European farmland was organically managed compared to just .3 percent of United States farmland (Lotter 2003:7). By 2005 Europe's organic land was 3.9 percent while the United States' had risen to 0.6 percent (IFOAM 2007:14-15).
IFOAM's The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2007 lists the countries which added the most hectares and had the highest percentage growth in 2007 (IFOAM 2007:27-28). Among these, China is listed third in adding the most hectares behind the United States and Argentina. China jumped from approximately 300,000 hectares of organic land in 2005 to approximately 3.5 million hectares in 2006 -- an increase of over a thousand percent. This rise can be attributed to the certification of China's Organic Food Development Center in 2002 by IFOAM. The end of 2005 marks the end of the three-year transition period begun in 2002..
The organic movement began in the 1930s and 1940s as a reaction to agriculture's growing reliance on synthetic fertilizers. Artificial fertilizers had been created during the 18th century, initially with superphosphates and then ammonia derived fertilizers mass-produced using the Haber-Bosch process developed during World War I. These early fertilizers were cheap, powerful, and easy to transport in bulk. The 1940s has been referred to as the 'pesticide era'. Sir Albert Howard is widely considered to be the father of organic farming. Rudolf Steiner , an Austrian philosopher, made important strides in the earliest organic theory with his biodynamic agriculture. More work was done by J.I. Rodale in the United States, Lady Eve Balfour in the United Kingdom, and many others across the world.
As a percentage of total agricultural output, organic farming has remained tiny since its beginning. As environmental awareness and concern increased, the originally supply-driven movement became demand-driven. Standardized certification brought premium prices, and in some cases government subsidies attracted many farmers into converting. In the developing world, many farmers farm according to traditional methods but are not certified. In other cases, farmers in the developing world have converted out of necessity. As a proportion of total global agricultural output, organic output remains small, but it has been growing rapidly in many countries, notably in Europe.
The term holistic is often used to describe organic farming , Enhancing soil health is the cornerstone of organic farming . A variety of methods are employed, including crop rotation, green manure, cover cropping, application of compost, and mulching. Organic farmers also use certain processed fertilizers such as seed meal, and various mineral powders such as rock phosphate and greensand, a naturally occurring form of potash. These methods help to control erosion, promote biodiversity, and enhance the health of the soil.
Pest control targets animal pests (including insects), fungi, weeds and disease. Organic pest control involves the cumulative effect of many techniques, including, allowing for an acceptable level of pest damage, encouraging or even introducing beneficial organisms, careful crop selection and crop rotation, and mechanical controls such as row covers and traps. These techniques generally provide benefits in addition to pest control—soil protection and improvement, fertilization, pollination, water conservation, season extension, etc.—and these benefits are both complementary and cumulative in overall effect on farm health . Effective organic pest control requires a thorough understanding of pest life cycles and interactions.
Weeds are controlled mechanically, thermically and through the use of covercrops and mulches.
Organic Agriculture also is the only government enforced humane laws, such as limited to de-beaking on chickens, guarantee to pasture time to cows, and more humane ways to deal with bees.
In 1991, the European Commission formulated the first government system to regulate organic labeling, setting the rules for 12 countries. Organic certification became mandatory and was also required for organic imports. The mandatory certification solidified consumer trust in organic products.
The international framework for organic farming is provided by IFOAM. For IFOAM members, organic agriculture is based upon the Principles of Organic Agriculture and the IFOAM Norms. The IFOAM Norms consist of the IFOAM Basic Standards and IFOAM Accreditation Criteria.
The IFOAM Basic Standards are a set of "standards for standards." They are established through a democratic and international process and reflect the current state of the art for organic production and processing. They are best seen as a work in progress to lead the continued development of organic practices worldwide. They provide a framework for national and regional standard-setting and certification bodies to develop detailed certification standards that are responsive to local conditions.
Legislated standards are established at the national level, and vary from country to country. In recent years, many countries have legislated organic production, including the EU nations (1990s), Japan (2001), and the US (2002). Non-governmental national and international associations also have their own production standards. In countries where production is regulated, these agencies must be accredited by the government.
In India, standards for organic agriculture were announced in May 2001, and the National Programme on Organic Production (NPOP) is administered under the Ministry of Commerce.
In 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established production standards, under the National Organic Program (NOP), which regulate the commercial use of the term organic. Farmers and food processors must comply with the NOP in order to use the word.
The materials used are tested independently by the Organic Materials Review Institute
Organic farming is labor and knowledge-intensive whereas conventional farming is capital-intensive, requiring more energy and manufactured inputs. Organic farmers in California have cited marketing as their greatest obstacle.
Lotter (2003:10) reports that repeated studies have found that organic farms withstand severe weather conditions better than conventional farms, sometimes yielding 70-90% more than conventional farms during droughts. A 22-year farm trial study by Cornell University published in 2005 concluded that organic farming produces the same corn and soybean yields as conventional methods over the long-term averages, but consumed less energy and used zero pesticides. The results were attributed to lower yields in general but higher yields during drought years. A study of 1,804 organic farms in Central American hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 found that the organic farms sustained the damage much better, retaining 20 to 40% more topsoil and smaller economic losses at highly significant levels than their neighbors.
On the other hand, a prominent 21-year Swiss study found an average of 20% lower organic yields over conventional, along with 50% lower expenditure on fertilizer and energy, and 97% less pesticides. A long-term study by U.S Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists concluded that, contrary to widespread belief, organic farming can build up soil organic matter better than conventional no-till farming, which suggests long-term yield benefits from organic farming. An 18-year study of organic methods on nutrient-depleted soil concluded that conventional methods were superior for soil fertility and yield in a cold-temperate climate, arguing that much of the benefits from organic farming are derived from imported materials which could not be regarded as "self-sustaining".
While organic farms have lower yields, organic methods require no synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. The decreased cost on those inputs, along with the premiums which consumers pay for organic produce, create higher profits for organic farmers. Organic farms have been consistently found to be as or more profitable than conventional farms with premiums included, but without premiums profitability is mixed (Lotter 2003:11). Welsh (1999) reports that organic farmers are more profitable in the drier states of the United States, likely due to their superior drought performance.
Agriculture in general imposes external costs upon society through pesticides, nutrient runoff, excessive water usage, and assorted other problems. As organic methods minimize some of these factors, organic farming is believed to impose fewer external costs upon society.
While organic farming can, with extra cost, easily substitute chemical fertilizer with organic one, finding an alternative method for eliminating weeds as well as insects which feast on crops is difficult. Pest resistant GM crops are an alternative to pesticide use, but one which is unacceptable to many in the organic farming movement.
One natural method to control pests is to introduce a natural predator in place of the pesticide, though this approach has various control issues. Another method is crop rotation, which restricts expansion of the insect population. For weed elimination, the traditional method is to remove weeds by hand, which is still practiced in developing countries by small scale farmers. However, this has proven too costly in developed countries where labor is more expensive. One recent innovation in rice farming is to introduce ducks and fish to wet paddy fields, which eat both weeds and insects.
On the other hand, conventional farming uses large quantities of pesticides through techniques such as crop dusting. Studies have shown that people who work with pesticides have an increased risk of developing Parkinson's disease. The pesticides examined in these two long-term studies, paraquat and dieldrin, are not allowed on organic farms. The herbicide paraquat and fungicide maneb together, but not alone, have been shown to cause brain damage in mice.
Around 31,000 tonnes of pesticides are used in the UK every year, and 40% of fruit, vegetables, and bread sampled in the UK were found to have pesticide residues in 2004.
Despite this vehement opposition to use of any transgenic technologies in organic farming, agricultural researchers such as Luis Herrera-Estrella & Ariel Alvarez-Morales continue to advocate integration of transgenic technologies into organic farming as the optimal means to sustainable agriculture, particularly in the developing world. Similarly, some organic farmers question the rationale behind the ban on the use of genetically engineered seed because they see it a biological technology consistent with organic principles
Although GMOs are excluded from use in organic farming, there is concern that the pollen from genetically modified crops is increasingly contaminating organic and heirloom genetics making it difficult, if not impossible, to keep these genetics from entering the organic food supply. International trade restrictions limit the availability GMOs to certain countries.
The actual dangers that genetic modification could pose to the environment or, supposedly, individual health, are hotly contended. See GM food controversy.
There is extensive scientific research being carried out in Switzerland at over 200 farms to determine differences in the quality of organic food products compared to conventional in addition to other tests. The FiBL Institute states that "organic products stand out as having higher levels of secondary plant compounds and vitamin C. In the case of milk and meat, the fatty acid profile is often better from a nutritional point of view. As far as carbohydrates and minerals, organic products are no different from conventional products. However, in regard to undesirables such as nitrate and pesticide residues, organic products have a clear advantage. A £12m EU-funded investigation into the difference between organic and ordinary farming has shown that organic foods have far more nutritional value. A recent study found that organically grown produce has double the flavonoids, an important antioxidant.. A 2007 study found that organically grown kiwi fruits had more antioxidants than conventional kiwi.
A 2007 study found that consumption of organic milk is associated with a decrease in risk for eczema, although no comparable benefit was found for organic fruits, vegetables, or meat.
In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geomorphologist David Montgomery outlines a coming crisis from soil erosion. Agriculture relies on roughly one meter of topsoil, and that is being depleted ten times faster than it is being replaced. No-till farming, which some claim depends upon pesticides, is regarded as one way to minimize erosion. However, a recent study by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service has found that organic farming is even better at building up the soil than no-till.
Agricultural production in most parts of the world will face less predictable weather conditions to those which were experienced during the intensification of agriculture over the last century. Intensive agriculture was, and remains, a short-sighted option. Organic agriculture is fast emerging as the only sustainable long-term approach to food production. Its emphasis on recycling techniques, biodiversity, low external input and high level output strategies make it an ideal replacement for the petroleum intensive agricultural methods that are currently contributing to global warming. In The Organic Answer to Climate Change, Anthony Meleca explains that organic agriculture - with its emphasis on closed nutrient cycles, biodiversity, and effective soil management - has the capacity to mitigate and even reverse the effects of climate change.
Scientists believe that the large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused in large part by agricultural pollution: a combination of fertilizer runoff and livestock manure runoff. A study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found that over half of the nitrogen released into the Gulf comes from agriculture. The economic cost of this for fishermen may be large, as they must travel far from the coast to find fish.
At the 2000 IFOAM Conference, researchers presented a study of nitrogen leaching into the Danube River. They found that nitrogen runoff was substantially lower among organic farms and suggested that the external cost could be internalized by charging 1 euro per kg of nitrogen released.
A 2005 study published in Nature found a strong link between agricultural runoff and algae blooms in California.
Over the past twenty years, however, most of these cooperative distributors have merged or been bought out. Rural sociologist Philip H. Howard has researched the structure and transformation of the organic industry in the United States. He claims that in 1982 there were 28 consumer cooperative distributors but as of 2007 there are only 3, and he has created a graphic displaying the consolidation. His research shows that most of these small cooperatives have been absorbed into large multinational corporations such as General Mills, Heinz, ConAgra, Kellog, and assorted other brands. This consolidation has raised concerns among consumers and journalists of potential fraud and degradation in standards. Most of these large corporations sell their organic products through subsidiaries, allowing them to keep their names off the labels.
Organic Agriculture is a very knowledge intensive production system . Therefore capacity building efforts play a central role in this regard. There are many efforts all around the world regarding the development of training material and the organization of training courses related to Organic Agriculture. Big parts of existing knowledge is still scattered and not easy accessible. Especially in Developing Countries this situation remains an important constraint for the growth of the organic sector.
For that reason, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements created an Internet Training Platform whose objective is to become the global reference point for Organic Agriculture training through free access to high quality training materials and training programs on Organic Agriculture. In November 2007, the Training Platform hosted more than 170 free manuals and 75 training opportunities.
One study published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems argues that organic farming could produce enough food per capita to sustain the current human population; the difference in yields between organic and non-organic methods were small, with non-organic methods resulting in slightly higher yields in developed areas and organic methods resulting in slightly higher yields in developing areas.
Urs Niggli, director of the FiBL Institute contents that the wave of newpaper articles like 'Organic food exposed' or 'The hypocrisy of organic farmers' are a part of a global campaign against organic farming that take their arguments mostly from the book 'The truth about organic farming', by Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute.
In 1998, Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute claimed the risk of E. coli infection was eight times higher when eating organic food rather than non-organic food, using the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a source. When the CDC was contacted, it stated that there was no evidence for the claim. The New York Times commented on Avery's attacks: "The attack on organic food by a well-financed research organization suggests that, though organic food accounts for only 1 percent of food sales in the United States, the conventional food industry is worried.
In the UK, some of the debate has been summarized in an exchange between Prof A. Trewavas and Lord P. Melchett, and published by a major supermarket, concerned about examining the issues. Trewavas contests the notion that organic agricultural systems are more friendly to the environment and more sustainable than high-yielding farming systems.
Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biological Conservation 122: 113-130.