Organic Food and Global Sustainability

Geneva Massiello



What is Organic Food?

The National Organic Standards Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a national standard for the term “organic” in December 2000.  Organic food is defined by how it cannot be made instead of how it can be made.  It must be grown without the use of sewer-sludge fertilizers, most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones, irradiation, and antibiotics. 


A Little History

Organic farming is the oldest form of agriculture.  It wasn’t until after World War II that petroleum-based chemicals were used for farming.  Farming-based applications for technologies used in the war include ammonium nitrate, which was used as munitions, as fertilizer and organophosphates used for nerve gas as insecticide. 



Organic farming is a small industry (there are about 12,000 organic farmers in the US today), but the number of organic farmers is growing by about 12% per year. 



As of October 21, 2002, anyone selling more than $5,000 per year in organic food must be certified by an agency accredited by the USDA.  According to the USDA, organic farmers are required to:

  1. Have an Organic System Plan (OSP) describing how their operation will achieve, document and sustain compliance with applicable regulations.
  2. Maintain records concerning the production and handling of agricultural products that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic.
  3. Submit to audits and evaluations conducted by accredited certifying agents.
  4. Have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to land under organic management.
  5. Use organic seeds when commercially available.
  6. Minimize soil erosion; implement crop rotations; and prevent contamination of crops, soil, and water by plant and animal nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals or residues of prohibited substances.
  7. Have had no prohibited substances applied to their land for at least three years prior to harvest.


Organic vs. Conventional Production

Organic farmers use natural fertilizer to grow their crops.  Natural fertilizer feeds and builds the soil.  Conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers to grow their crops.  Organic farmers use insect predators, mating disruption, and traps and barriers to protect crops from pests and disease, while conventional farmers spray with insecticides.  Organic farmers use crop rotation, mechanical tillage and hand-weeding, cover crops, mulches, and flame weeding to control weed growth.  Conventional farmers use synthetic herbicides to control weed growth.  Animal products that are labeled “organic” come from animals that are fed organic feed and are allowed outside.  Organic livestock must be kept in living conditions that are similar to their natural habitat.  For example, cows, sheep, and goats must have access to pasture.  Animals can be vaccinated against disease, but they can’t be given antibiotics, hormones, or medications unless they are sick. 


Benefits of Organic Food

According to the USDA, “organic food production allows farmers to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.”  Organic agriculture also promotes sustainability.  It does this by establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility and pest problems.  Over time, organic farmers conserve energy.  It increases biodiversity.  Herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides used in conventional agriculture kill many soil organisms, insects, and larger species.  This means there are fewer food sources for other animals.  Organic farming also provides a wide range of habitats: compared to conventional farming there are more hedges, wider field margins, and a greater variety of crops.  Nutrient losses are minimized and soil productivity increases because organic agriculture makes use of practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops and minimum tillage that decrease the length of time the soil is exposed to erosive forces.  Because organic agriculture doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, pollution of groundwater is reduced.  It also minimizes the greenhouse effect and global warming by locking carbon in the soil instead of releasing it to the atmosphere. 


Negatives to Organic Food

Organic food is more expensive than conventionally-produced food.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) suggests the following reasons for the higher price: the organic food supply is limited compared to demand, production costs for organic foods are typically higher because of greater labor input and because farmers don’t produce enough of a single product to lower the overall cost, and the marketing and distribution chain for organic products are relatively inefficient, and costs are higher because of relatively small volumes.  Included in the price of organic food are factors that are not included in the price of conventional food such as environmental enhancement and protection, higher standards of animal welfare, and avoidance of health risks to farmers due to inappropriate handling of pesticides.  Critics say that eating organic foods increases your exposure to biological contaminants.  Specific concerns have been raised about manure, mycotoxins from molds, and e.coli bacteria. 


Can Organic Food Sustain the Global Population?

With a world population of over six billion people, feeding everyone has become a major concern.  The question remains whether or not organic food can sustain the global population.  There are many conflicting studies on whether organic yields are higher or lower than conventional yields (see  More research needs to be conducted.  But one thing is for sure, “Loss of topsoil, of salinity of soil as a result of irrigation, and ultimate reliance on petrochemicals…are, obviously, not renewable.  That clearly isn’t sustainable (quotation by Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro).”  Organic farming seems to be a viable solution to the problem.