Organic Agriculture

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What Does “Organic” Mean?

People think of organic agriculture in many ways. Some define it by what it disallows — i.e., organic production should involve no pesticides, synthetic chemicals, or processing technologies you wouldn’t have in your kitchen. Others think about it in terms of food value — organic food should be nutritious and safe to eat without washing. And some think of it as ecologically based agriculture. Still others think of the economic opportunity provided by a market for a premium product.

For the originators of the organic method, it was all about the soil. They believed that the soil must be regarded as a living organism. Organic gardening and farming literally grew out of the study of composting. As J.I. Rodale and the Rodale staff wrote in The Complete Book of Composting, "At the very foundation of good nutrition is the soil — soil that is fertile and alive, that is kept in shape to grow plants as nature meant them to be grown. The life and balance in this soil [are] maintained by returning to it those materials which hold and extend life in a natural cycle, and aid in replenishing the nutrients needed to produce healthy, life-supporting crops. Soils that lack vital plant nutrients cannot give these food values to what is grown in them.”

Hence the saying, “Feed the soil to feed the plant.”

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was written with the intention of ensuring that organic food meets all of these expectations. And it offers opportunities to engage in protecting our vision of organic food. Protecting the integrity of the organic label depends on our views of what “organic” means to us being repeatedly voiced in response to proposals that might weaken the legal meaning. Under OFPA, organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation.

Hungry for more?

  • National Organic Standards: the history of the USDA organic standards; what is permitted; labeling; the importance of organic integrity
  • Health benefits: organic agriculture’s advantages for farmworkers and consumers
  • Environmental benefits: organic agriculture’s contribution to slowing climate change and ensuring ecological health
  • Buying organic products (on a budget): how to buy local, organic products; what to do about non-certified farms; buying from a co-op or buying club; considering fair trade; talking to your local farmers
  • Growing your own organic food: soil testing; organic gardening products; community gardens and farms

Beyond Pesticides and Organic Agriculture

Beyond Pesticides is a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC). The coalition’s materials provide up-to-date information on organic agriculture policy in the U.S., including Farm Bill recommendations and discussions.

Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture because it implements good land stewardship and achieves reductions in hazardous chemical exposures for farmworkers. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to this serious public health and environmental threat.

National Organic Action Plan

The National Organic Action Plan: From the Margins to the Mainstream: Advancing Organic Agriculture in the U.S. (NOAP) presents a shared vision and blueprint for an organic future for the U.S. — “To establish organic as the foundation for food and agriculture in the U.S.” It represents the culmination of a five-year dialogue process with organic stakeholders across the country. The NOAP describes the current status of organic in the U.S. and provides a concrete framework for the development of organic food and agriculture practices, programs, and policies for the future. It informs and empowers the grassroots to engage in public policy debates on organic by providing a detailed plan of action that can be adapted to meet community, state, and national needs. To download a copy or for more information, visit www.NationalOrganicCoalition.org.

Federal Court Finds USDA Process for Allowing Pesticide-Contaminated Compost Improper and Stops Use. The case focused principally on whether USDA, in failing to conduct a formal public review, was operating “at its whim.” The court found that is exactly what USDA did and ordered the agency to stop allowing the use of contaminated compost by August 22, 2016. For further information, see our press release here.