Organic foods are crops which have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and sometimes 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.
The original organic farming movement is called biodynamic agriculture. It began in 1924 and was based upon the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic agriculture is still practiced, primarily in Germany, but is much less common than modern organic farming. Biodynamics eschews usage of synthetic chemicals, and views farming as a holistic process that integrates soil fertility, plant growth and livestock care, but it also includes spiritual/mystical aspects including sympathetic magic and astrology.
Modern organic farming was pioneered by alternative medicine promoter J. I. Rodale (née Jerome Irving Cohen)[note 1] when he started his farm in 1940, 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. Most proponents of organic food also want it to be free of genetic modification, although some proponents regard the use of genetically modified food as a valid form of organic farming.
Governments usually set standards along these lines which must be adhered to in order for food to be legally sold as "organic." 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, so long as they're not synthetic), but so long as the food does not use the USDA Certified Organic logo, it can be sold as "organic"—and attract elevated prices—without any regulation.
"Organic" is a
synthetic made-up, unscientific label which has no link to the scientific definition of an "organic" compound. The scientific definition of organic (as in "organic chemistry") is any compound which contains carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bonds. This applies to the overwhelming majority of carbon compounds as well as pretty much everything and anything of biological origin, and many non-biological compounds. (e.g., gasoline consists of organic molecules, ancient biological compounds like crude petroleum, and some amino acids form inorganically). As such, the actual definition of "organic" as it pertains to the food industry is based essentially entirely on arbitrary chemophobia, with the idea that "natural" compounds are somehow better for you than other chemicals. In the US, the definition can also depend on marketing forces influencing the FDA as in the case of an organic-labelled oil additive that is derived from industrial vats of unicellular Schizochytrium mixed with corn syrup.
Contrary to popular belief, in the US, organic does not mean "pesticide free", and organic farmers can use "natural" pesticides, including Bt and copper sulfate. These pesticides are, unsurprisingly, no better than synthetic pesticides, and are frequently worse, having inferior efficacy and in some cases exceeding safe levels on produce due to their persistence, whereas many modern synthetic pesticides are designed to break down rapidly.
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, though contrary to popular belief, many pesticides are used on organic crops in the United States. 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[note 2]) 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.[note 3]
- 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. Although the companion planting techniques are commonly used in organic gardening scale, professional farmers tend to stay away from the practice for logistic reasons (machinery, harvesting, species-specific pesticides, etc.) and focus more on crop rotation over seasons for mutual plant and soil benefits.
- Bee health: Neonicotinoid and pyrethroid, two pesticides forbidden by USDA organic standards, have been tagged as potentially harmful to bee colony health and a possible contributing factor in colony collapse disorder. However, since Spinosad insecticides are both approved for and used by organic farms, organic farms may also be contributing to CCD. The pyrethrum insecticide approved for use on organic farms is also highly toxic to bees. There is currently no clear link between any of the four and CCD, but all four have negative effects on bees.
- Higher employment rates: Organic farming is much more labor intensive than conventional farming, the advantage of this is that it provides more job units per area. It has been suggested that organic farming may provide 60% more employment than currently, and that it can create 47 million additional jobs over the next 40 years. By enforcing organic agriculture and food distribution, more calories per person per day, more jobs and business opportunities especially in rural areas, and market-access opportunities, especially for developing countries, will be available.
- Increased biodiversity: Modern organic farming practices such as the removal of pesticides and the inclusion of animal manure, crop rotation and multi-cultural crops provide the chance of biodiversity to thrive. On average, species abundance is 30% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms. This is a major advantage because it promotes the thriving of bacteria and fungi to break down chemicals, plant matter and animal waste into productive soil nutrients, which leads to healthier yields and more arable soil for future crops. A switch to organic farming does however not imply an increase in biodiversity. To guarantee an increase in biodiversity requires a conservation ethic that is often overlooked because it requires physical and economical efforts from the producer and common weed-processes in organic farming like undercutting and controlled burning provide little opportunity for species survival and often leads to comparable populations and richness to conventionally managed landscapes when performed in excess.
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. Milk from cows fed on grass instead of corn, as is common in organic farming, may also contain a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Organic farming practices are not evidence-based, but 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 genetically modified food, 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%. (For forage crops such as alfalfa, it's possible for organic farming techniques to equal or even exceed the yield of conventional farming techniques.) Organic farms also have higher shadow land use, since they tend to use manure from other farms as fertilizer. While "recycling" manure is usually a good idea, organic farming faces a cap of "all of it"; if the whole world was to be fed by organic agriculture, there wouldn't be anywhere enough enough fertilizer to maintain productivity and consequently nowhere near enough food to feed the world.
Organic farms have higher rates of species abundance than conventional farms though, as yet, there are no scientific studies that sketch a whole picture of the influence organic farming has on biodiversity, it remains an open problem whether or not organic agriculture would actually decrease or increase biodiversity. However, organic farming is an ecological man-made disaster for aquatic life due to its lower yield, which means that it uses more water per unit of food produced and due to its higher eutrophiation potential (see below). If the whole world was fed with organic agriculture, it would lead to a humongous scarcity and extinction of most aquatic lifeforms on the planet.
One requirement for meat and milk to be USDA Certified 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 in the hopes that they recover on their own (and thus, maintain the higher price per pound of organic meat), which sometimes results in their deaths.
However, this criticism does not apply in the UK, as their organic certification body, the Soil Association, does allow for the use of antibiotics in specific instances where an animal is suffering greatly, but does not allow the routine use of antibiotics as per conventional farming. Under Soil Association standards, organically farmed livestock are guaranteed "access to fields (when weather and ground conditions permit) and are truly free range… plenty of space, to reduce stress and disease… a diet that is as natural as possible…", none of which are guaranteed with inorganic farming.
Organic food is frequently much more expensive than the equivalent non-organic food due to its inferior yield and higher costs, with no demonstrable scientific benefits to consumers. This makes it a form of conspicuous consumption at best. At worst, it is a scam perpetuated on the scientifically uneducated, who are made to fear eating non-organic food.
This reaches its apex of absurdity in the sale of "organic" salt, which is by its very nature neither an organic molecule nor something which is meaningfully produced in a non-"organic" fashion, with the additives added to salt being anti-caking agents (and in North America, iodine, which is necessary to prevent iodine deficiency, once a major cause of mental and physical deformity). Assuming of course we are talking about sodium chloride, and not actual organic salts such as MSG or lead sugar.[note 4]
A proposition by the Flemish green party is to reduce the value-added tax for organic food to 0%, which would make little difference for most conventional food, but could definitely make the organic product cheaper than the conventional one for expensive luxury foods such as caviar, oysters and crabs, which all have a high value-added tax, guaranteeing at least a small niche composed of organic products that is cheaper than their non-organic counterpart.
Organic farming standards prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers. The hope is that farmers will switch to techniques such as companion planting and crop rotation so as not to need fertilizer, but the reality is that most organic farmers simply use natural fertilizers instead. And by natural fertilizers, we mean manure.
This has three drawbacks: (1) Manure comes from farm animals, which means any crops grown with it can't be called vegan;[note 5] (2) higher shadow land use, as mentioned above; and (3) manure particles can wind up on the final product, resulting in increased risk of foodborne illnesses such as salmonella or E. coli.
Organic plants emit more N2 and similar amounts of nitrous oxide and ammonium and eutrophiate much faster than other more conventional plants. This is because of the bacterial activity in the grass cover. This N2 offgassing reduces the amount available for leaching. The yields remain similar (study was of a fruit orchard). "The results of our study indicate that use of organic fertilizers in orchards significantly reduces harmful nitrate leaching" This is a very major advantage that organic farming faces compared to conventional because it also means that organic farming is less likely to cause major ecological damage in aquatic life as this type of farming causes a higher presence of nutrients in lakes. Although nutrients in lakes by themselves aren't harmful, it is a major and very pressing environmental problem due to their excessive presence in the environment, which can cause algal blooms and subsequent dead zones if left untreated.
Neither a benefit nor a drawback
Depending on the type of agriculture, organic agriculture can be more or less polluting than conventional agriculture. In the debate on how to combat global warming the debate should go beyond conventional vs. organic and start by finding specific solutions to specific problems. 
Proponents of organic farming like to talk about how it doesn't use chemicals. This is of course nonsense, as everything is chemicals. But the idea that organic crops are treated with nothing more toxic than a ladybug's footsteps is very misleading. To be certified as organic, farmers can only use particular "certified inputs" approved by certifying bodies or governments, rather than other fertilisers and treatments. This includes a wide range of fertilisers for all the chemicals your crops might be lacking (sulfur, phosphorus, magnesium, and other nutrients). You can even add a range of micro-organisms, for soil treatment, silage, nitrogen fixing, pest control, and other purposes. While organic farming seeks to reduce pesticide usage, there are still a variety of pesticides possible, including spearmint oil, citronella, quartz sand, iron, potassium, beeswax, and gelatine. (Obviously not all of these are vegan.) Synthetic pest pheromones are also sometimes used as a form of pest control, but only in traps not directly on crops.
Copper, generally as copper sulfate, is sometimes used as a pesticide in both organic and non-organic farming; copper compounds accumulate in soils and can be found in organic food. There have been efforts to phase out usage in some places, including the UK and EU.
There are also concerns that organic fertilisers such as manure, compost, guano, and wood ash can contain high quantities of heavy metals, meaning that they're not terribly healthy to be forking onto crops.
Even cigarettes are being offered as "natural" and "organic" for containing only tobacco and water. Never mind that the burning of tobacco yields dangerous chemicals.
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 organic food supporters 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. Indeed, U.S. organic sales were $39 billion in 2014, so the organic food industry can hardly be considered a small mom-and-pop operation. 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 or in the case of food grown in Cuba[note 6] even if a majority would contest that all their food is organic because the farmers there use Genetic Modification techniques.[note 7]
Another misconception is that organic foods are pesticide-free. In fact, organic crops are sprayed with pesticides; the difference is that they are usually different types (not necessarily less toxic) than the ones sprayed on conventional crops. There are even some synthetic pesticides allowed for use on organic crops, including copper(II) sulfate, which is toxic to damn near every animal species on the planet.
Due to the huge popularity of organic food, large-scale organic farms may not always be meeting organic standards, and in the case of milk, the product may not always be measurably different than regular milk despite it being double the price.
- Organic Consumers Association, a group that also opposes genetically modified food.
- Food, Inc, a 2008 documentary that demonizes conventional meat farming practices.
- 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
- Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture on Scientific American blogs
- Also, Organic food causes autism
- 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.
- Among other things, corn fields are often fertilized with anhydrous ammonia, to say nothing of the massive use of petroleum 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. IPM allows for strategic use of pesticides.
- The Romans used to flavor their food with this. Yes, lead. One must wonder not why they fell, but how the hell they lasted as long as they did. Srsly.
- Vegan organic food that isn't grown with animal-sourced fertilizers is sometimes called "veganic."
- Most agricultural output in Cuba has been organic since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this has prevented them from importing synthetic materials.
- Yes, you read it right. Even commies use GMO's.
- Power of Narrative in Environmental Networks by R. P. Lejano et al. (2013). MIT Press. p. 155. ISBN 9780262519571.
- Organics Olympiad 2011: Global Indices of Leadership in Organic Agriculture by John Paull (2011) Journal of Social and Development Sciences Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 144-150.
- "Overview of organic agriculture" by Paul Kristiansen and Charles Mansfield (2006). In Organic Agriculture: A Global Perspective, edited by Acram Taji Paul Kristiansen & John Reganold CSIRO Publishing. ISBN 0801445248.
- "Blut und Bohnen: Der Paradigmenwechsel im Künast-Ministerium ersetzt Wissenschaft durch Okkultismus" by Peter Treue (2002) Die Gegenwart Nr. 61, S. 12 (archived from April 17, 2003).
- The Planting Calendar Rhythms Bio-Dynamic Association of India
- Dick Cavett — When That Guy Died On My Show by Eric Williams (2010) YouTube.
- according to Wikipedia
- How millions of cartons of ‘organic’ milk contain an oil brewed in industrial vats of algae by Peter Whoriskey (June 5, 2017) The Washington Post.
- Copper Sulfate. ams.usda.gov. Retrieved September 17, 2022.
- As reported in Nature
- "Spinosad toxicity to pollinators and associated risk."
- UNEP, 2011, Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, www.unep.org/greeneconomy
- See the Wikipedia article on Organic farming and biodiversity.
- Benbrook et al., Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study, PLOS one, 9-Dec-2013 – although the article implies that milk from any grass-fed cows, organic or not, would have the same benefit. Note also that this article was published in PLOS One, which, although it is a peer-reviewed journal, employs a "publish first, judge later" methodology.
- Howy Jacobs: Poison running through my veins, EMBO reports, DOI: 10.1002/embr.201338286
- Organic Crops Impressively Productive When Compared With Conventionally Grown Crops, American Society of Agronomy, 26-March-2008
- Mark Lynas: How land-inefficient is organic agriculture?
- When it comes to animal health and welfare, there are worse things than antibiotics
- Terry J. Allen, The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards, In These Times, 31-Aug-2013
- Warning, clicking this link may cause you to lose hope in humanity: https://www.groen.be/standpunten/voeding-en-landbouw
- Preharvest Evaluation of Coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Organic and Conventional Produce Grown by Minnesota Farmers, Journal of Food Protection Number 5, May 2004, pp. 894-900(7)
- Approved Inputs For Organic Farms, Soil Association
- Fertilisers, Soil Association
- Micro-organisms, Soil Association
- Pesticide use in organic farming, Go Organic UK
- EU renews toxic pesticide amid safety uncertainty, Euractiv
- Rusted Roots, Slate, Sept 2008
- Why Natural American Spirit cigarettes could be especially dangerous (Jul. 29, 2019) Truth Initiative.
- 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
- Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Industry, USDA Economic Research Service, 24-Oct-2013
- Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron, NPR.
- USDA National Organic Program, Subpart G. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- 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.
- Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic by Peter Whoriskey (May 1, 2017) The Washington Post.