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What is organic agriculture?
Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
What are Organically Certified or Organically Assessed products?
Organically Certified or Organically Assessed products are those which have been produced, stored, processed, handled and marketed in accordance with precise technical specifications (standards) and certified as "organic" by a certification body, or “assessed” by a Participaty Guarantee System (PGS). Once the relevant body has verified conformity with organic standards, the product can be labeled as such. This label will differ depending on the certification or assessment body, but can be taken as an assurance that the essential elements constituting an "organic" product have been met from the farm to the market. It is important to note that an organic mark applies to the production process, ensuring that the product has been produced and processed in an ecologically sound manner. The organic mark is therefore a production process claim as opposed to a product quality claim.
What is behind an organic mark?
The mark. An organic mark indicates that a product has been certified or assessed against specific organic standards. The mark carries the name of the certification or assessment body and the standards with which it complies. To the informed consumer, this mark can function as a guide. Certification or assessment bodies evaluate operations according to different organic standards and can be formally recognized by more than one authoritative body. The mark of a given certification body, therefore, informs the consumer on the type of standards complied with during production and processing as well as on the type of recognition granted to the certification body. Many certification bodies operate worldwide, most of which are private and originate in developed countries.
International voluntary standards. At the international level the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission (the inter-governmental body that sets standards for all foods) has produced international guidelines for Production, Processing, Labeling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods to guide producers and to protect consumers against deception and fraud. These guidelines have been agreed upon by all member states of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The private sector's equivalent to the Codex Alimentarius guidelines is the International Basic Standards for Organic Production and Processing, created by IFOAM. Codex Alimentarius and IFOAM guidelines include accepted management principles for the production of plants, livestock, bees and their products (IFOAM makes provisions also for fibers, aquaculture and non-wood forest products); for handling, storage, processing, packaging and transportation of products, and a list of substances permitted in the production and processing of organic foods. These guidelines are regularly reviewed, particularly the criteria for permitted substances and the process by which inspection is carried out and certification held.
National mandatory standards. The Codex Alimentarius and IFOAM guidelines are minimum standards for organic agriculture, intended to guide governments and private certification bodies in standard setting. As such, they can be considered as standards for standards. Governments can use these texts to develop national organic agriculture programs, which are often more detailed as they respond to specific country needs. Most national standards (e.g. EU countries, Japan, Argentina, India, Tunisia USA), are specified in regulations which are legally binding.
Local voluntary standards. In some countries individual bodies may produce their own standards, which can be more stringent than the regulation in force, usually in response to specific consumer demands. Although these are not legally enforceable, private certifiers may be more restrictive than is required by law.
Accreditation. Accreditation is a procedure by which an authoritative body evaluates and gives formal recognition that a certification program is in accordance with the standards of the authoritative body. For organic agriculture, certification bodies can apply the voluntary international standards and/or the national mandatory standards and be accredited by the related "authority". At international level, the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS) accredits certification bodies according to IFOAM Accreditation Programme criteria by delivering the "IFOAM Accredited" logo.
IOAS is an independent NGO that ensures global equivalency of certification programs and attempts to harmonize standards, taking into consideration local differences. It must be noted that membership of IFOAM by certifying bodies does not constitute IOAS accreditation. At the national level, governments or national accreditation bodies accredit certification bodies operating in their country, if their country has organic agriculture legislation. Both private and public bodies adhere to the International Organization for Standardization basic standards for accreditation of certifiers (ISO 65) in addition to their specific
Why is organic food sometimes more expensive than conventional food?
- Production costs for organic foods are typically higher because of greater labor inputs per unit of output and because greater diversity of enterprises means economies of scale cannot be achieved
- Post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of organic foods results in higher costs because of the mandatory segregation of organic and conventional produce, especially for processing and transportation
- Marketing and the distribution chain for organic products is relatively inefficient and costs are higher because of relatively small volumes
- Organic food supply is limited as compared to demand
Prices of organic foods include not only the cost of the food production itself, but also a range of other factors that are not captured in the price of conventional food, such as:
- Environmental enhancement and protection (and avoidance of future expenses to mitigate pollution): For example, higher prices of organic cash crops compensate for low financial returns of rotational periods that are necessary to build soil fertility; . Higher standards for animal welfare;
- Avoidance of health risks to farmers due to inappropriate handling of pesticides (and avoidance of future medical expenses);
- Rural development by generating additional farm employment and assuring a fair and sufficient income to producers.
Non-certified organic food. In many developing countries, there are agricultural systems that fully meet the requirements of organic agriculture but which are not certified. Non-certified organic agriculture refers to organic agricultural practices by intent and not by default; this excludes non-sustainable systems which do not use synthetic inputs but which degrade soils due to lack of soil building practices. It is difficult to quantify the extent of these agricultural systems, as they exist outside the certification and formal market systems. The produce of these systems is usually consumed by households or sold locally (e.g. urban and village markets) at the same price as their conventional counterparts. Although the uncertified produce does not benefit from price premiums, some cases have been documented where non-certified organic agriculture increases productivity of the total farm agro-ecosystem, and saves on purchasing external inputs. In developed countries, non-certified organic food is often sold directly to consumers through local community support programs such as box schemes, farmers markets and at the farm gate. These allow the producer to know exactly what the consumer wants, while the consumer knows where the produce comes from and in the case of box schemes, saves on transport costs through delivery of produce to their homes. In developed countries, non-certified organic produce usually carries a higher price than its conventional counterpart, in accordance with the specific consumer willingness to pay.
What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture?
Sustainability over the long term. Many changes observed in the environment are long term, occurring slowly over time. Organic agriculture considers the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.
Soil. Soil building practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage are central to organic practices. These encourage soil fauna and flora, improving soil formation and structure and creating more stable systems. In turn, nutrient and energy cycling is increased and the retentive abilities of the soil for nutrients and water are enhanced, compensating for the non-use of mineral fertilizers. Such management techniques also play an important role in soil erosion control. The length of time that the soil is exposed to erosive forces is decreased, soil biodiversity is increased, and nutrient losses are reduced, helping to maintain and enhance soil productivity. Farm-derived renewable resources usually compensate crop export of nutrients but it is sometimes necessary to supplement organic soils with potassium, phosphate, calcium, magnesium and trace elements from external sources.
Water. In many agriculture areas, pollution of groundwater courses with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a major problem. As the use of these is prohibited in organic agriculture, they are replaced by organic fertilizers (e.g. compost, animal manure, green manure) and through the use of greater biodiversity (in terms of species cultivated and permanent vegetation), enhancing soil structure and water infiltration. Well managed organic systems with better nutrient retentive abilities, greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. In some areas where pollution is a real problem, conversion to organic agriculture is highly encouraged as a restorative measure (e.g. by the Governments of France and Germany).
Air. Organic agriculture reduces non-renewable energy use by decreasing agrochemical needs (these require high quantities of fossil fuel to be produced). Organic agriculture contributes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil. Many management practices used by organic agriculture (e.g. minimum tillage, returning crop residues to the soil, the use of cover crops and rotations, and the greater integration of nitrogen-fixing legumes), increase the return of carbon to the soil, raising productivity and favoring carbon storage.
Biodiversity. Organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at all levels. At the gene level, traditional and adapted seeds and breeds are preferred for their greater resistance to diseases and their resilience to climatic stress. At the species level, diverse combinations of plants and animals optimize nutrient and energy cycling for agricultural production. At the ecosystem level, the maintenance of natural areas within and around organic fields and absence of chemical inputs create suitable habitats for wildlife. The frequent use of under-utilized species (often as rotation crops to build soil fertility) reduces erosion of agro-biodiversity, creating a healthier gene pool - the basis for future adaptation. The provision of structures providing food and shelter, and the lack of pesticide use, attract new or re-colonizing species to the organic area (both permanent and migratory), including wild flora and fauna (e.g. birds) and organisms beneficial to the organic system such as pollinators and pest predators.
Genetically modified organisms. The use of GMOs within organic systems is not permitted during any stage of organic food production, processing or handling. As the potential impact of GMOs to both the environment and health is not entirely understood, organic agriculture is taking the precautionary approach and choosing to encourage natural biodiversity. The organic label therefore provides an assurance that GMOs have not been used intentionally in the production and processing of the organic products. This is something that cannot be guaranteed in conventional products, as labeling the presence of GMOs in food products has not yet come into force in most countries.
Ecological services. The impact of organic agriculture on natural resources favors interactions within the agro-ecosystem that are vital for both agricultural production and nature conservation. Ecological services derived include soil forming and conditioning, soil stabilization, waste recycling, carbon sequestration, nutrients cycling, predation, pollination and habitats. By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system. The hidden costs of agriculture to the environment in terms of natural resource degradation are reduced.
Can organic farmers produce enough food for everybody?
Food security. Food security is not only a question of the ability to produce food, but also of the ability to access food. Global food production is more than enough to feed the global population; the problem is getting it to the people who need it. In marginalized areas, organic farmers can increase food production by managing local resources without having to rely on external inputs or food distribution systems over which they have little control and/or access. It is to be noted that although organic management of natural resources can substitute external agricultural inputs, land tenure remains a main constraint to the labor investments needed for organic agriculture. Organic farms grow a variety of crops and livestock in order to optimize competition for nutrients and space between species: this results in less chance of low production or yield failure in all of these simultaneously. This can have an important impact on local food security and resilience. In rain-fed systems, organic agriculture has demonstrated to outperform conventional agricultural systems under environmental stress conditions. Under the right circumstances, the market returns from organic agriculture can contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes.
Organic agriculture and yields. The performance of organic agriculture on production depends on the previous agricultural management system. An over-simplification of the impact of conversion to organic agriculture on yields indicates that:
- In industrial countries, organic systems decrease yields; the range depends on the intensity of external input use before conversion
- In the so-called Green Revolution areas (irrigated lands), conversion to organic agriculture usually leads to almost identical yields
- In traditional rain-fed agriculture (with low-input external inputs), organic agriculture has the potential to increase yields
In fact, many multiple cropping systems, such as those developed by small holders and subsistence farmers show higher yields in terms of total harvest per unit area. These yield advantages have been attributed to more efficient use of nutrients, water and light and a combination of other factors such as the introduction of new regenerative elements into the farm (e.g. legumes) and fewer losses to pests and diseases. It can be concluded that increased yields on organic farms are more likely to be achieved if the departure point is a traditional system, even if it is degraded. Results will vary depending on management skills and ecological knowledge, but this can be expected to improve as human capital assets increase. However, it is important to have a good land tenure system because an individual is not likely to invest in improving the land if his/her future there is not secure.
What’s the difference between "natural" and "organic" foods?
Organic agriculture is based upon a systematic approach and standards that can be verified and are recognized internationally. Natural foods, on the other hand, have no legal definition or recognition, and are not based on a systematic approach. While natural products may generally be minimally processed, there are no requirements to provide proof, leaving open the possibility for fraud and misuse of the term.
How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?
Organic farmers build healthy soil. Organic matter in soil contributes to good soil structure and water-retention capacity. Organic farmers increase organic matter in soil through the use of cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments, producing healthy disease and insect resistant plants. Organic agriculture emphasizes good plant nutrition, which is key to the prevention of plant diseases. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to improve ecological relationships in the field. Weeds are controlled through crop rotation, mulching, cover crops, hand weeding, and mechanical methods such as flame weeding and other methods. Organic farmers also rely on diverse populations of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests under control.
Why are synthetic fertilizers not permitted in organic agriculture?
The use of synthetic fertilizers is not allowed in organic agriculture because the substitution of natural, renewable resources for plant nutrition with non-renewable petrochemicals is not sustainable, disrupts natural cycles, pollutes the environment through runoff and leaves toxic residues in the soil, just to name a few of the negative implications.
Organic farmers use legumes – peas, beans and other plants – that naturally fix and enrich nitrogen in the soil. The application of synthetically produced phosphorous, another important plant nutrient, is also not allowed in organic agriculture. Because organic farm management creates a healthy soil structure, fungi called mycorrhiza enable plants to utilize phosphorus in the soil.
Organic farmers use on-farm recycling (composting) of biomass to supply nutrients to plants. Farms that use chemically intensive farming methods have largely abandoned traditional and natural methods of nutrient recycling, resulting in the degradation of the soil and increasing the susceptibility of plants to pests and diseases.
The use of synthetic fertilizers has caused a great deal of environmental pollution. One major problem all over the planet that has resulted from the use of synthetic fertilizers is the increased growth of algae in lakes and water reservoirs. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) occurs when certain types of microscopic algae grow quickly in water, forming visible patches that harm the health of the environment, plants, or animals. HABs deplete oxygen in the water and block the sunlight that other organisms need to live, and some HAB-causing algae release toxins that are dangerous to animals and humans.
The production of synthetic fertilizers uses large amounts of energy, which mostly comes from the burning of fossil fuels, thereby increasing dependency on external energy inputs.