Organic Basics

Organic FAQs: a brief introduction into the basics of organics

Frequently Asked Questions on Organics 

1. What is Organic Agriculture?
2. What are certified organic products?
3. What is behind an organic label?
4. Why is organic food more expensive than conventional food?
5. What are the environmental benefits of Organic Agriculture?
6. Can organic farmers produce enough food for everybody?
7. What’s the difference between "natural" and "organic" foods?
8. How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?
9. Why are synthetic fertilizers not permitted in Organic Agriculture?
10. What keeps Organic Agriculture from spreading more quickly?

1. What is Organic Agriculture?

We define Organic Agriculture as a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people; relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects; and combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. Find this definition in many languages, as well as information on the core principles of Organic Agriculture on our Landmarks page.

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2. What are certified organic products?

Certified organic 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. Once a certification body has verified conformity with organic standards, the product can be labeled as such. This label will differ depending on the certification 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 label applies to the production process, ensuring that the product has been produced and processed in an ecologically sound manner. The organic label is therefore a production process claim as opposed to a product quality claim.

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3. What is behind an organic label?

The label. An organic label indicates that a product has been certified against specific organic standards. The label carries the name of the certification body and the standards with which it complies. To the informed consumer, this label can function as a guide. Certification bodies evaluate operations according to different organic standards and can be formally recognized by more than one authoritative body. The label 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, 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 (e.g. Germany), individual certification 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 requirements.

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4. Why is organic food more expensive than conventional food?

It is actually a misconcpetion that organic food is more expensive than conventional. Overall, the cost to society of producing food organically is significantly lower than the cost of conventional production. For one, the price of conventional food is artificially lowered by production-oriented subsidies drawn from taxpayer money. Also, negative externalities caused by conventional farming are not accounted for in the price of food. 

However, consumers in countries with well developed organic sectors do pay a premium for organic goods, mainly because of higher consumer demand, more rigorous production standards, and the costs of certification, among other reasons. This organic premium is declining somewhat due to increasing economies of scale in the processing and commercialization of organic products. 

In developing countries the situation is quite different: uncertified organic food is generally cheaper to produce and sold at the same price as conventional food. This is because Organic Agriculture increases the productivity of the total farm agro-ecosystem and reduces the amount of purchased external inputs 
needed.

Across the globe, money invested in organic is money well invested. In addition to the direct environmental benefits Organic Agriculture provides, it reduces farm costs in the long-term by increasing soil fertility, ensures animal welfare, protects farmers against dangerous pesticide exposure and contributes to rural development by generating additional farm employment and fair incomes.

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5. 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.

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6. Can organic farmers produce enough food for everybody?

Food security. Nourishing everyone is not foremost a question of the ability to produce food, but rather of the ability to access food. Global food production has long far exceeded what is needed by the global population; the real problem is one of fair distribution. Hunger is due to social, economic and political conditions rather than limitations on agricultural productive capacity. Organic Agriculture can help farmers increase food security by:

  • decreasing dependence on external inputs and food distribution systems over which they have little control 
  • reducing the likelihood of a production drop or yield failure through crop diversification
  • outperforming conventional agricultural systems under conditions of environmental stress. 

Find out more about Organic Agriculture and food security

Organic Agriculture and yields. Global yields in Organic Agriculture are at most 20% lower than in conventional agriculture in specific cases. In fact, many multiple cropping systems, such as those developed by smallholders and subsistence farmers, even 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 resulting from pests and diseases.

Furthermore, Organic Agriculture has a unique ability to reverse processes of soil degredation and desertification and help safeguard the world’s production potential. Find out more about Organic Agriculture and soils

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7. 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.

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8. 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.

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9. Why are synthetic fertilizers not permitted in Organic Agriculture?

The use of synthetic fertilizers is not allowed in Organic Agriculture because they disrupt natural cycles, pollute the environment through runoff and accelerate climate change -- just for starters.

Chemically intensive farming methods can produce short-term benefits for farmers, but they result in the degradation of soil over time, increasing the susceptibility of plants to pests and diseases and requiring ever greater applications of fertilizer in the long-run. The use of organic methods, by contrast, supplies nutrients to plants in a steady manner and nurtures the soil at the same time, keeping farm systems resilient. Traditional methods of fertilizing, like recycling biomass (composting) and planting legumes – peas, beans and other plants – have thus stood the test of time. Find out more about soil and its importance for food security.

But synthetic fertilizers do not just have a negative impact on farmers and soil. A major global problem that has resulted from the use of synthetic fertilizers is the dangerous growth of algae in lakes and water reservoirs. Harmful algal blooms are increasingly appearing due to the exposure of particular algae to the nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers, which enters waterways via farm runoff. Algal blooms deplete oxygen in the water and block the sunlight that other organisms need to live, disrupting aquatic ecosystems everywhere in fundamental ways.

Finally, the production of synthetic fertilizers also uses large amounts of energy. This energy is derived from the burning of fossil fuels, which in turn threatens agricultural systems by worsening climate change. Find out more about agriculture and climate change

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10. What keeps Organic Agriculture from spreading more quickly? 

Government subsidies narrowly focusing on production at the exclusion of other goods – such as resource conservation, environmental quality and farmer and animal health – provide incentives for farmers to stick to conventional farming methods. Likewise, currently very little public support is allocated for research into Organic Agriculture and capacity building.

Organic Agriculture requires a unique combination of knowledge, experience and intuition. Farmers need a holistic understanding especially of the soil ecosystem in order to be successful, and building this knowledge base is more time-consuming than purchasing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Given appropriate allocation of resources for organic research and extension, Organic Agriculture would become more attractive to farmers.

Finally, land tenure remains a key constraint to the growth of Organic Agriculture. An individual is not likely to invest in improving the land if his/her future stewarship of it is not secure.

IFOAM – Organics International is currently working on a Toolkit that will help policy makers better understand how to foster the growth of Organic Agriculture. 

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