food Program

Sustainable Table -- Organic Agriculture

Caption photo by produce app Farmanac

Organic kale being sold at Berkeley Bowl (CA)

The fundamentals of organic farming - the ideals of land stewardship in order to keep the land productive for generations - are not new.1 However, organic farming  G as we know it now came about as a reaction to the wide adaptation of input intensive farming around the time of WWII, as a result of technological advances made earlier in the century and food shortages experienced during the war. During the first half of the last century, synthetic fertilizers were affordably manufactured and tractors were quickly replacing manual labor. Farmers around the world saw the potential detriment of this industrialized farming,  G rejected the idea that this was advancement in agriculture, and began to study and develop methods that increased the long term productivity of their farm system and practiced farming as stewards of the land.2 This type of farming soon came to be known as "organic."

Principles of organic

The philosophy of organic food production maintains certain principles: biodiversity, ecological balance, sustainability, natural plant fertilization, natural pest management, and soil integrity. Since farms vary in product and practice, there is also a wide variety in how these principles are applied.3 However, generally, organic food products:

Traditionally, organic food production has certain characteristics, including:

  • Are grown or raised by a producer who uses practices in balance with the natural environment, using methods and materials that minimize negative impact on the environment. The organic farmer is committed to replicating the ecology of the natural environment by maintaining biodiversity  G and fostering healthy soil and growing conditions.
  • Are produced on land that has been free of known and perceived toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years prior to certification, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used in production.
  • Are planted on a rotating basis within the farm system. Crops are rotated from field to field, rather than growing the same crop in the same place year after year. Cover crops such as clover are planted to add nutrients to the soil and prevent weeds.
  • Organic meat, poultry and egg products come from farms that use organic feed, do not administer added hormones to promote growth or any antibiotics  G and they allow animals the space and freedom to behave naturally.


In October 2002, the production and marketing of organic food came under regulation by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. The National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory panel to the USDA for developing organic legislation, defines organic agriculture as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

Specifically, the regulations:

  • Prohibit most synthetic (and petroleum derived) pesticides and fertilizers (for a list see the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances)
  • Prohibit all antibiotics, genetic engineering,  G irradiation4 and sewage sludge
    Require all organically produced animals have 100% organic feed (which does not contain any animal byproducts or growth hormones)
  • Require all organically produced animals to have access to the outdoors.5
  • Require that processed products labeled organic contain at least 95% organic ingredients.6

After the USDA standards were implemented, all farmers describing their product as organic had to go through a national certification process involving a substantial fee and extensive record keeping. This process was too costly and time consuming for many smaller organic producers, who instead of certifying their farm, stopped using the word organic. These farmers are using growing practices that meet or exceed organic standards, but are legally not allowed to refer to their product as organic. Some grassroots certification schemes now exist to provide farmers and consumers an alternative to using the word "organic" and going through the USDA certification process. An example of a scheme like this is Certified Naturally Grown7, which uses USDA organic standards guidelines, but is less costly to the farmer and is locally regulated.

Internationally, in 1992 the European Community developed organic standards and a certification scheme8 similar to that of the USDA. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)9 also has a set of organic principles which were the basis of the guidelines for organically produced foods of the internationally recognized Codex Alimentarius10 of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (WHO/FAO food standards). Codex Alimentarius is the internationally accepted food safety standard for all food products traded worldwide. There is a set of standards within the Codex Alimentarius that covers organic food.

The Difference between Organic and Sustainable

Organic farming generally falls within the accepted definition of sustainable agriculture. However, it is important to distinguish between the two, since organic products can be (unsustainably) produced on large industrial farms, and farms that are not certified organic can produce food using methods that will sustain the farm’s productivity for generations. Some organic dairy farms, for example, raise cows in large confinement facilities but are able to meet the bare minimum requirements for organic certification, while a non-organic certified small farm could use organic guidelines and be self-sufficient by recycling all the farm’s waste to meet its fertility needs.

To distinguish between organic and sustainable, here are some comparisons:


Organic farms must be independently certified every year and approved by the USDA, while a farm using sustainable practices do not require any official certification. Organic is an actual certification; sustainable is more a philosophy or way of life. The best way to be sure about the growing practices is to buy directly from a farmer - that way you can ask questions if you are uncertain about the sustainability of his or her practices.

Animal Welfare

Organic farmers need to give animals "access" to outdoors, but they can actually confine animals and gain organic certification with as little as an open door leading to a cement patio. In recent years, on larger USDA certified organic farms, a system of semi-confinement has been implemented. In this case, animals can spend their entire life in housing, but are granted "access to the outdoors" through screened windows.11 In a more sustainable system, animals must be permitted to carry out their natural behaviors, like rooting, pecking or grazing. A farmer using sustainable methods might keep his or her animals indoors in bad weather, but the animals are given ample space to move around naturally and are healthy, comfortable and well cared for.


While no antibiotics can be fed to organic-certified livestock, there is no legal restriction for antibiotic use in sustainable farming. Many farmers using sustainable practices do not administer any antibiotics at all, but some may do so when their animals are sick and need to be treated. The milk and meat of animals given antibiotics on these farms are not used for human consumption until the antibiotics have fully passed out of the animals' systems.

Artificial Hormones

No added or artificial hormones are allowed for organic farming, nor are they used for sustainable farming.

Corporate Involvement

Organic food can be produced by large corporations, while sustainable food production is carried out by small farmers and families who live on the land where they farm.

Size of the farm

For organic farming, there is no limitation on how many acres can be used to grow crops. Sustainable farmers plant crops in relatively small, mixed plots as a form of pest control and to build soil fertility.

Food Miles

Organic food can travel thousands of miles before reaching your dinner plate, and certification does not take into consideration the use of fossil fuels used to truck food.  Sustainable food, however, is distributed and sold as close to the farm as possible.

Corporate Takeover

Organic agriculture is becoming more popular because consumers are demanding healthful and environmentally-friendly food. This shift in consumer behavior is good news, but unfortunately, increased demand for organic foods has attracted large agribusiness corporations that intend to profit from the trend.

Although it’s not obvious to consumers, large corporations own many popular organic food brands. For example, Silk soymilk and Horizon dairy products are produced by Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk producer.12 Since 1997, Heinz has acquired many smaller organic/sustainable labels, such as Celestial Seasonings, Rice/SoyDream and WestBrae13. Additionally, supermarket chains have now developed their own organic brands and are large players in the organic market. Since 2003, major chains such as Safeway and Krogers have added organic lines.14 The corporate takeover of organic food is further encouraged by Wal-Mart (the number one food retailer in the country), as it recently expanded their organic food sales in spring 2006.15 While the impact of Wal-Mart’s involvement in the organic food sector is still uncertain, corporate involvement in organic farming has raised questions.. Such corporate involvement can threaten the existence of small sustainable farmers by encouraging farm consolidation and making it harder for small organic farms to compete in a large market.

Corporate-owned organic brands can push down the prices of organic products because they're willing to cut corners in the production process and share a smaller portion of their profits with the farmers. They'll confine dairy cows most of the year and sacrifice animal welfare,16which allows them to sell their “organic” milk at low prices that small organic farms with higher standards can’t match.

With corporate players in the organic market, the integrity of the standards themselves is also threatened. One ongoing debate is about the process by which ingredients in processed foods that are certified organic are approved.17 Substances that are synthetic, or not widely available using organic production methods, can be used in organic processed foods as long as they are first approved by the USDA. But the agency’s list of these allowable non-organic ingredients keeps growing and there are worries that continual additions to the list will weaken the meaning of organic certification and not live up to what consumers expect. A 2005 court decision forced USDA to revise its procedures for allowing ingredients onto the list of acceptable substances, but unfortunately the agency’s response was a proposal to allow 38 more synthetics onto the list, sparking a wave of controversy and public outcry. By summer of 2008, the issue still wasn’t settled. This is a good example of how important it is that consumers keep an eye on the integrity of the standards behind the labels they rely on.

However, the fact that corporations have involved themselves in organic food production is not all bad. As large corporations sell more organic food, more acres of land are being protected from chemical pesticides and fertilizers, thus helping the environment and the soil in which our food is grown. Additionally, corporate organic products have significantly raised awareness of organics among consumers. Buying organic products is the first step in the learning processes necessary to create a more sustainable food system.

What You Can Do

The organic label is a useful tool when you're shopping in a conventional grocery store, because it helps you find food free of pesticides, antibiotics and artificial hormones. But don’t go by the label alone! The easiest way to avoid the confusion around the organic standards is to purchase whole fruits, grains, vegetables, and meat and dairy products - and to get them directly from an organic producer. If you want to buy processed goods, try to get these from independent, local sources as well, as these are less likely to include preservatives and additives. If you have a question about their practices or ingredients, you can ask the person that produces your food - or better, visit the farm or look in the kitchen.


The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. “Organic Food Production.” National Agricultural Library, USDA 2003.
Lockeretz, William, Ed. Organic Farming An International History. CAB International. Cambridge, MA. 2007.
Kuepper, George and Gegner, L. "ATTRA Publication #IP170 : Organic Crop Production Overview:Fundamentals of Sustainable Agriculture". National Center for Appropriate Technology. August 2004.
"Fact Sheet: National Organic Production and Handling Standards." USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Accessed online April 2008.
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. "Organic Livestock Workbook."National Agricultural Library, USDA. 2007.
"Fact Sheet: Organic Labeling and Marketing Information". USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Accessed online April 2008.
Certified Naturally Grown website. Accessed online April 2008.
"Fact Pages: Organic Farming." European Commission Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development. (Europa Website). 2007. Accessed online April 2008.
About IFOAM. IFOAM. Accessed online April 2008.
"Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Marketing and Labelling of Organically Produced Foods." The Codex Alimentarius Commission and the FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. 1999. Accessed online April 2008.
"National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Organic Livestock Workbook". National Agricultural Library, USDA 2007.
Gogoi, Pallavi. “Wal-Mart’s Organic Offensive.” Business Week. March 2006.
Howard, Pill. "Organic Industry Structure: Top 30 Acquisitions." Michigan State University. January 2008. Accessed online April 2008.
Howard, Pill. Organic Industry Structure: Private Label Brands." Michigan State University. January 2008. Accessed online April 2008.
“Organics at Walmart.” (accessed October 20, 2006).
Warner, Melanie. “A Milk War over More than Price.” New York Times, September 2006.
Wilson, Scott J. "'Organic' food rule could have up to 38 loopholes." Los Angeles Times. June 10, 2007.
Howard, Pill. "Organic Industry Structure: Private Label Brands." Michigan State University. January 2008. Accessed online April 2008.
"Briefing Rooms: Organic Agriculture: Consumer Demand Continues To Expand". USDA Economic Research Service. Accessed April 2008.
Demitri, Carolyn, and Catherine Green. “Recent Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Foods Market,” USDA Economic Research Service September 2002.
"Organic farming produces same corn and soybean yields as conventional farms, but consumes less energy and no pesticides, study finds." Cornell University. July 2005.
"Data Sets: Organic Production: Data Files: Certified Organic Pasture and Cropland, by State 1997 ; Certified Organic Pasture and Cropland, by State 2003." USDA Economic Research Service. 2008. (Accessed online April 2008 )
"Data Sets: Organic Production." USDA Economic Research Service. 2008. (Accessed online April 2008 )
"Fact Sheet: National Organic Production and Handling Standards." USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. April 2008. (Accessed online April 2008 )
Fact Sheet: Organic Labeling and Marketing Information." USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. April 2008. (Accessed online April 2008 )
"Fact Sheet: National Organic Production and Handling Standards." USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. April 2008. (Accessed online April 2008 )