Posted November 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
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 healthy planet.
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 excess nutrients.
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 same conditions.”
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,
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
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 produce.
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 operations.
11. Genetic 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.
12. Humane 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.
13. Erosion 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
14. Carbon 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
19. Spiritual 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.
20. Understand 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.
22. Species survival.
Conventional farming threatens many wildlife species, from amphibians
impacted by herbicides to (www.mindfully.org/Pesticide/2005/Roundup-Aquatic-Communities1apr05.htm)
migratory birds threatened by habitat destruction. Organic practices
avoid toxic pesticides and preserve habitat in tropical and temperate
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?