Organic foods are crops which have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as genetic modification and certain preservation techniques such as food irradiation. The term also encompasses meat and other animal products (milk, cheese, honey) which have been produced without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. Organic farming was pioneered by alternative medicine promoter Jerome Rodale (né Cohen) in the early part of the 20th century based on the idea that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides damaged the flavor and nutritional value of foods, and has become big business as consumers seek to reduce the environmental impact of food consumption and eliminate food safety issues such as pesticide persistence in food ingredients.
Governments usually set standards along these lines which must be adhered to in order for food to be legally sold as "organic." However, the scientific definition of an "organic" compound is any which contains carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bonds, which applies to the overwhelming majority of carbon compounds as well as pretty much everything and anything of biological origin. In some countries, the regulatory role is taken on by non-governmental agencies. The Soil Association performs such a function in the UK In the United States, the USDA does have a certification program (which still allows pesticides), but so long as the food does not use the USDA Certified Organic logo, it can be sold as "organic" without any regulation.
Organic agriculture is one of those curious fields that started out as woo, but proved to be very amenable to a scientific approach in implementation. Not everyone does, sadly, but it can be handled in a practical, woo-free manner.
 Methods and benefits
Studies have found that organic farming can, if properly implemented, have environmental benefits over conventional farming. One of the earliest scientific verifications of organic productivity was demonstrated in a 22 year study by Cornell University, which found yields of organic to be equal or better and had the added benefit of containing fewer toxic chemicals when compared with other non-genetically modified food.
Sustainability — the ability to leave the soil and growing environment fertile enough to grow more crops without major chemical or other intervention — is a major goal of many organic farmers. Avoiding pesticides is another major issue, since many pesticides are also toxic to humans and other animal life. Common methods used to achieve these goals include:
- Crop rotation: The replanting of fields with different crops between seasons to repair damage done by a crop in the previous season; for example, swapping maize (a very soil-damaging crop requiring massive intervention by the farmer) with legumes such as soybeans or alfalfa (which live in symbiosis with "nitrogen-fixing" bacteria that can convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into bioavailable forms in the soil).
- Composting and "natural" fertilizers: Instead of using inorganic salts and substances such as anhydrous ammonia, organic agriculture prefers fertilizers such as compost, manure, fermented fish guts (similar to the old New England native American practice of burying dead fish under maize plantings) and "green manure" (i.e. cover crops as mentioned above, plowed into the soil to decay and provide organic matter for the next growing season).
- Integrated pest management: A "defense in depth" method of dealing with pests, where blanket pesticide use is replaced with intercropping (planting of less-valuable, more-attractive barrier crops between plots of more valuable crops to attract pests), predators such as ladybugs and lacewings, pest traps, and more precisely targeted applications of biodegradable pesticides.
- Companion planting: Placing plants with common care needs in close proximity. The iconic "Three Sisters" combination used by North American Indians to raise beans, squash, and corn is one famous example; the beans use the corn stalk as support while enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, while the crawling squash plant provides a sort of mulch effect to protect the area from weeds. From there, entire books have been written on the subject.
- Bee health: Neonicotinoid and pyrethroid, two pesticides forbidden by USDA organic standards, have been tagged as potentially harmful to bee colony health and a contributing factor in Colony Collapse Disorder.
Organically-raised meats are usually taken only from animals fed only plant matter (thus preventing the transmission of prion diseases and other illnesses carried in livestock feed containing animal by-products) and generally raised in less-stressful surroundings than the factory farms commonly used by meat producers.
Organic farming practices are generally not evidence-based, but rather arbitrarily decided upon based on a vague notion of what is "natural." As such, it is a form of appeal to nature. It may very well be that certain techniques used in organic farming have positive results, but other organic techniques have no impact or even negative results. There's no way to tell them apart without testing each technique (or specific technique-combination) on its own — and that happens only rarely. Proponents and producers of organic food also engage in other pseudoscientific actions, such as scare campaigns against genetic engineering, food irradiation, and other provably safe methods.
Possibly the biggest issue with organic farming is that it has lower yields than conventional methods, and therefore requires more land to produce the same amount of crop. For fruits, yields are a negligible 3% lower. For oilseed crops, the yield gap is a more significant 11%; for cereals, 26%; and for vegetables, a very significant 33%. Organic farms also have higher shadow land use, since they tend to use manure from other farms as fertilizer.
Organic food does sometimes taste better due to less emphasis on things such as fruit size and yield over quality; however, this is often at the cost of visible insect damage and other cosmetic blemishes.
 Animal cruelty?
One requirement for meat to be labelled as organic is that the animal it comes from must never have been fed any antibiotics. This mandate stemmed from a genuine concern over the overuse of antibiotics in cattle, and over the possibility that some of the antibiotics might be present in the meat after slaughter. However, it has one disturbing side effect: A livestock animal that gets sick cannot be treated with antibiotics, even if such treatment would follow the best veterinary practices known, without forcing the rancher to reclassify the animal among his "not organic" stock. Thus, infected animals are made to suffer through their illnesses, some of which are lethal. One cattle farmer, when asked if he'd like to sell to the organic market, replied "Hell no. I love my cows."
 Organic woo
Organic food is generally sold with vague, unsubstantiated claims that organic food is "safer," "healthier," or "more natural," leading organic food to become a fad diet and a form of nature woo. A more extreme form is biodynamic agriculture, which is broadly similar in its application to organic agriculture, but is based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophy religion, an offshoot of Theosophy; this particular species of woo (popular in the wine industry for some reason) is highly ritualistic, including aspects of homeopathy and possibly feng shui in its required techniques.
Organic food isn't any healthier or more nutritious than conventional food. Indeed, a huge market exists for prepared organic foods that aren't drastically different from their conventional equivalents, and certainly aren't inherently a whole lot healthier for you just because they're certified organic (though they do tend to use no preservatives, no high fructose corn syrup, and less saturated fat).
A common misconception among dirty hippies is that buying organic means you are supporting local farmers and more sustainable agriculture. This is not necessarily the case, as much of the organic food in your local supermarket is likely provided by big agribusiness corporations such as Dean, Cargill, and ConAgra. In this context, organic food preference shouldn't be confused with focused locavorism, which instead targets food grown locally, with organic preparation often a secondary aim.
- USDA publications on organic food
- Is Organic Food the Answer?
- The Truth About Organic Farming
- Hoefkens, C., Verbeke, W., Aertsens, J., Mondelaers, K., Van Camp, J. (2009). The nutritional and toxicological value of organic vegetables : consumer perception versus scientific evidence. British Food Journal 111 (10), 1062‐1077. Full text
- Gillman, Jeff, The Truth about Organic Gardening. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0881928624. Written by a horticulture professor at the University of Minnesota, this book is guardedly pro-organic, but warns the reader not to assume that "natural" means safe.
- Cornell 22 Year Study - Organic farming produces same corn and soybean yields as conventional farms, but consumes less energy and no pesticides, study finds- http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July05/organic.farm.vs.other.ssl.html
- Skeptoid dissects a lot of the myths surrounding organic food
- ↑ Yes, this would be the same guy who dropped dead during a taping of the Dick Cavett show after bragging he'd live to 100.
- ↑ according to Wikipedia
- ↑ 
- ↑ Among other things, corn fields are often fertilized with anhydrous ammonia, to say nothing of the massive use of oil that conventional agriculture normally requires.
- ↑ IPM is arguably not an organic technique as such, but it's in the same spirit, with a much stronger connection to science than Rodale's original ideas.
- ↑ As reported in Nature
- ↑ Mark Lynas: How land-inefficient is organic agriculture?
- ↑ When it comes to animal health and welfare, there are worse things than antibiotics
- ↑ Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review
- ↑ Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature
- ↑ Should I Buy Organic Foods? USDA
- ↑ Organic Processing Industry Structure, Philip H. Howard, Michigan State University
- ↑ Lockie et al. Eating Green: Motivations behind organic food consumption in Australia. Sociologia Ruralis, Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 23–40, January 2002
- ↑ The organic woo propaganda documentary Food Matters is a big offender in this area as it mixes legitimate criticisms of corporate influence over the food supply and food security with cancer woo like Gerson's quackery and raw foodism. See also the review by the Pike's Peak Skeptics Society.