10, 2005: There has been much talk over the years
about “value-added” agriculture, where farmers
capture more of the food dollar by doing on-farm processing,
special packaging, and/or additional promotion. Occasionally,
organic farming is referred to as “value-added.”
This is a misnomer. Sure, organic products have additional
value for both farmers and consumers. But those values are
not “added.” They are inherent in organic agriculture’s
production and management system.
Just what are the values upon which organic agriculture is
based? Why do farmers farm organically, and why do more and
more consumers choose to purchase organic foods?
In my solar system, the Constellation of Organic Values includes
1. Soil quality.
Organic farmers are required by certification standards to
maintain or improve the biological, chemical, and physical
condition of the soil. Compost and green manure crops, which
feed soil organisms and build soil structure, are cornerstones
of an organic fertility management system. Healthy soil leads
to healthy crops, healthy livestock, healthy people and a
2. Water quality.
Pesticides and excess nutrients are common contaminants of
surface-, ground- and rainwater. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf
of Mexico, caused by toxins and excess nutrients washed down
the Mississippi River, is now 7,000 square miles, larger than
the state of New Jersey. Organic farmers do not use toxic
pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Instead they use crop
rotations, cover crops, grass waterways and filter strips
to prevent soil erosion, protecting water from sediments and
3. Farm safety.
I used to conduct 100 farm inspections a year, and I always
liked to ask farmers why they chose to farm organically. The
most common responses were things like: “My dad died
of cancer.” “Our neighbor had a child with birth
defects.” Or, “We lost five cattle one year from
pesticide poisoning.” Farmers and farm workers don't
like worrying about bringing pesticides into their homes on
their bodies and their clothing. By converting to organic,
their farms are safer and their families are healthier.
Because it relies less on expensive off-farm inputs, organic
farming offers terrific opportunities for younger and other
limited-resource farmers. You can see the difference at conferences--organic
farming conferences are filled with young farmers and families,
whereas conventional agriculture events draw a noticeably
older and less diverse crowd. I know many organic farm kids
who see their futures on their family farms. In fact, we are
already seeing second-generation certified organic farmers.
Think of the difference of flavor between a fresh picked tomato
from your organic garden and one purchased at the grocery
store. There’s just no comparison. That difference in
flavor is something that chefs and shoppers value about organic
food. Since organic food is grown in fertile, biologically
active soil, it makes sense that it has more flavor than food
grown using synthetic fertilizers.
6. Food quality.
The intense, delicious flavor of organic food indicates higher
levels of vitamins, antioxidants and secondary plant nutrients.
According to research compiled by The Organic Center (www.organic-center.org),
“organic farming methods have the potential to elevate
average antioxidant levels, especially in fresh produce. On
average, antioxidant levels were about 30 percent higher in
organic food compared to conventional food grown under the
7. Food safety.
Organic foods must meet the same state and federal food safety
requirements as conventional foods. But National Organic Program
regulations contain a number of additional requirements with
food safety implications, including:
a) Records. All organic operations must
maintain records of their production and handling activities
to verify compliance with organic rules. For instance, organic
livestock producers must track all animals, including their
origin(s); sources and quantities of feed; all medications;
and all products generated and sold. This goes well beyond
requirements for conventional producers. When BSE turned
up in Washington State, 450 calves were slaughtered because
one came from a BSE-positive cow but there were no records
to indicate which one.
b) Crop management. Certified operators
must prevent prohibited substances-- including synthetic
fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenate compounds
and genetically engineered organisms--from coming in contact
with organic operations and products. Organic farmers who
use animal manure must allow at least 90 days between the
application of raw manure and harvest of an organic crop
for human consumption.
c) Livestock management. Organic livestock
producers must not feed mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products
to mammals or poultry. The feeding of manure is also prohibited.
There have been no cases of BSE in cattle born and raised
under organic management.
d) Process protection. Organic processors
are subject to requirements stricter than those imposed
on conventional processors. Organic processors must use
management practices to prevent pests, including removal
of habitat and food sources; prevention of access to handling
facilities; and management of environmental factors to prevent
pest reproduction. Organic rules also prohibit the use of
packaging materials, storage containers, or bins that contain
synthetic fungicides, preservatives or fumigants.
e) Residue tolerances. Federal or state
officials or accredited certifying agents may require pre-
or post-harvest testing of any agricultural input used or
agricultural product to be sold as “organic”
if there is reason to believe it may have been contaminated
by non-organic materials or methods. If tests detect prohibited
substances higher than 5 percent of EPA tolerance levels,
the product may not be sold as organic.
8. Food security.
Large confined livestock feeding operations and monocropped
fields are more susceptible to diseases, insect damage and
terrorist attack than decentralized, diverse organic operations.
Organic, local food supplies are both healthier and more secure
than conventional food grown on concentrated operations and
transported thousands of miles before being consumed.
There are many studies indicating more minerals and vitamins
and less heavy metals and pesticide residues in organic food
vs. conventional food. A study published in Environmental
Health Perspectives, March 2003 (www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CYP/is_3_111/ai_100730739),
demonstrated that dietary choice can have a significant effect
on children's pesticide exposure. The study found that children
who consume primarily organic produce exhibited lower pesticide
residues levels in their urine than children who consume conventional
The NOP's definition of organic production requires organic
farmers to “promote ecological balance and conserve
biodiversity.” Organic farmers use practices such as
crop rotations, intercropping, strip cropping, establishing
wildlife cover and providing habitat for beneficial organisms
such as predatory insects, pollinators, birds, and bats. Organic
farms are typically more biologically diverse than conventional
diversity. Conventional agriculture uses a small
number of crop and livestock species, breeds and varieties
with a high level of genetic uniformity. Parent stock is chosen
from a relatively narrow gene pool and bred for a few traits
such as high yield and responsiveness to chemical inputs.
Organic agriculture uses a wider range of genetic material--often
including heirloom plant varieties and heritage livestock
breeds--valued for numerous traits such as drought tolerance,
nutrient utilization, vigor and flavor.
animal husbandry. Organic livestock regulations
emphasize preventive health care practices, including selection
of disease- and parasite-resistant breeds, nutritious feeds
and appropriate housing, pasture and sanitation conditions.
Organic livestock producers must maintain living conditions
that accommodate the health and natural behavior of the animals,
including access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise,
fresh air and direct sunlight. In other words, organic livestock
producers practice humane animal husbandry.
control. Organic farmers are required to minimize
erosion. It is not enough to avoid the use of toxic inputs
– organic farmers cannot be certified if erosion is
not controlled on their fields. This value is realized through
soil building crop rotations, cover crops, windbreaks, diversions,
filter strips, grass waterways, contour planting, terraces,
and other practices that have additional environmental benefits.
sequestration. Data from The Rodale Institute’s
long-running comparison of organic and conventional cropping
systems confirm that organic methods are far more effective
at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fixing
it as beneficial organic matter in the soil. (www.newfarm.org/depts/NFfield_trials/1003/carbonsequest.shtml)
In 23 years, the Institute's two organic systems have shown
an increase in soil carbon of 15-28% while the conventional
system has shown no statistically significant increase. When
it comes to possibilities for reversing global climate change,
organic farming has real value.
Traceability is a fundamental requirement for organic certification.
All organic operations must maintain records of their production
and handling activities. Records of organic authenticity (certificates,
invoices, bills of lading, etc.) constitute an "audit
trail" from farm to consumer. The audit trail links products
on market shelves back through each stage of production and
handling, assuring consumers that the organic products they
buy were indeed produced on organic farms.
16. Farm income.
Organic farmers need sustainable prices to stay in business.
Fortunately, consumers value organic food enough to pay farmers
fair prices for their products. Organic agriculture is rare
in the US in that it functions largely in the free market.
In a 10-year study, the University of Minnesota found that
organic farming resulted in equivalent yields and equivalent
profits when crops were sold with no premium, and higher profits
when crops were sold at organic prices. (www.apec.umn.edu/faculty/weaster/Italconf/olsonorganic.pdf)
17. Rural communities.
Since organic farmers receive fair prices, they're able to
reinvest in their farms and their communities. Regions with
high numbers of organic farms have economically stronger rural
communities, including functioning feed mills, creameries,
greenhouses, nurseries, seed dealers, slaughterhouses, farmers'
markets, CSAs and food processors.
Whenever there have been attempts to weaken organic standards,
organic farmers and consumers have joined together to protect
organic integrity. Farmers deserve to know that other farmers
using the word “organic” meet the same standards,
even though their farms may be in different regions and produce
different crops. Consumers deserve to know that the organic
products they buy were produced according to rigorous organic
needs. Humans have a spiritual need to connect
with the earth. I find this spiritual connection working in
my garden, or hunting for morels, when I turn off my inner
voice and let the earth speak to me. Even if you don’t
garden or hunt mushrooms, taking the time to appreciate fresh,
local organic foods that are full of vitality can help you
make a spiritual connection to the earth.
life. The green revolution, once full of promise,
was based on ecological shortcuts such as the use of toxic
pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These shortcuts are
now proving ecologically unsustainable, as evidenced by global
warming, depleted ecosystems, faltering rural communities,
continued famine and the loss of nutritional value in our
foods. Organic agriculture, on the other hand, helps us understand
life’s cycles. Understanding and establishing ecologically
sound agricultural systems is now cutting-edge science.
21. Work with
nature. Organic agriculture works with nature
instead of pretending that we can control nature. Conventional
agriculture uses chemical pesticides, fertilizers and genetic
engineering to subdue nature. Genetically engineered crops
are now producing serious negative ecological impacts, such
as the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds and precipitous
declines in Monarch butterfly populations. None of these methods
or products is allowed in organic agriculture. Instead, organic
farmers use natural controls and work with nature’s
cycles to produce healthful, abundant yields.
survival. Conventional farming threatens many
wildlife species, from amphibians impacted by herbicides to
migratory birds threatened by habitat destruction. Organic
practices avoid toxic pesticides and preserve habitat in tropical
and temperate climates.
Organic farming is fun! Organic farmers report that converting
to organic management makes farming more challenging and more
rewarding. And if you have ever attended an organic farming
conference, you know that organic farmers and consumers like
to dance, eat delicious food, tell stories, make music, and
share creative energy. What could be better?