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Organic foods are not specific foods, but are any foods that are grown and handled after harvesting in a particular way. In the United States, organic foods are crops that are raised without using synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge fertilizer, and they have not been altered by genetic engineering. Organic animal products come from animals that have been fed 100% organic feed and raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics in an environment where they have access to the outdoors. Standards for organic foods vary from country to country. The requirements in Canada and Western Europe are similar to those in the United States. Many developing countries have no standards for certifying food as “organic.”


The organic food movement has the following goals:

  • improve human health by decreasing the level of chemical toxins in food
  • decrease the level of agricultural chemicals in the environment, especially in groundwater
  • promote sustainable agriculture
  • promote biodiversity
  • promote genetic diversity among plants and animals by rejecting genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • provide fresh, healthy, safe food at competitive prices


Organic farming is the oldest method of farming. Before the 1940s, what is today called organic farming was the standard method of raising crops and animals. World War II accelerated research into new chemicals that could be used either in fighting the war or as replacements for resources that were in short supply because of their usefulness to the military. After the war ended, many of the new technological discoveries were applied to civilian uses and synthetic fertilizers, new insecticides, and herbicides became available. Fertilizers increased the yield per acre and pesticides encouraged the development of single-crop mega-farms, resulting in the consolidation of agricultural land and the decline of the family farm.

Organic farming, although only a tiny part of American agriculture, originally offered aniche

Pesticides in fruits and vegetables

Highest levelLowest level
Sweet bell peppersCorn, sweet, frozen
StrawberriesPeas, sweet, frozen
Grapes, importedCabbage
SOURCE: Developed by the EnvironmentalWorking Group
(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)

market for smaller, family-style farms. In the early 1980s this method of food production began to gain popularity, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington. The first commercial organic crops were vegetables that were usually sold locally at farmers’ markets and health food stores.

By the late 1980s interest in organic food had reached a level of public awareness high enough that the United States Congress took action and passed the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. This act established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). NOSB has developed regulations and enforcement procedures for the growing and handling of all agricultural products that are labeled “organic.”These regulations went into effect on October 21, 2002.

Since the 1990s, the market for organic food has expanded from primarily fruits and vegetables to eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and commercially processed frozen and canned foods. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in mainstream supermarkets than in specialty food outlets. By 2005, every state had some farmland that was certified organic, and some supermarket chains had begun selling their own brand-name organic foods. The demand for organic food is expected to continue to grow rapidly through at least 2010.

Organic certification is voluntary and applies to anyone who sells more than $5,000 worth of organic produce annually. (This exempts most small farmers who sell organic produce from their own farm stands). If a product carries the USDA Organic Seal indicating that it is ‘‘certified organic’’ it must meet the following conditions:


Biodiversity—The presence of many different species of plants and animals within a limited geographical region.

Pathogen—An organism that causes a disease.

Toxin—A general term for something that harms or poisons the body.

  • The product must be raised or produced under an Organic Systems Plan that demonstrates and documents that the food meets the standards for growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and selling an organic product.
  • The producer and/or processor are subject to audits and evaluations by agents certified to enforce organic standards.
  • The grower must have distinct boundaries between organic crops and non-organic crops to prevent accidental contamination with forbidden substances through wind drift or water runoff.
  • No forbidden substances can have been applied to the land organic food is raised on for three years prior to organic certification.
  • Seed should be organic, when available, and never genetically altered through bioengineering.
  • Good soil, crop, and animal management practices must be followed to prevent contamination of groundwater, contamination of the product by living pathogens, heavy metals, or forbidden chemicals, and to reduce soil erosion and environmental pollution.

To meet these requirements, organic farmers use natural fertilizers such as composted manure to add nutrients to the soil. They control pests by crop rotation and interplanting. Interplanting is growing several different species of plants in an alternating pattern in the same field to slow the spread of disease. Pest control is also achieved by using natural insect predators, traps, and physical barriers. If these methods do not control pests, organic farmers may apply certain non-synthetic pesticides made from substances that occur naturally in plants. Weed control is achieved by mulching, hand or mechanical weeding, the use of cover crops, and selective burning.

Selecting organic food

The USDA allows three label statements to help consumers determine if a food is organic.

  • Labels stating “100% organic”indicate that all of the ingredients in the product are certified organic. These items have the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
  • Labels stating “organic”indicate that at least 95% of the ingredients are certified organic. These items also carry the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
  • Labels stating “made with organic ingredients”indicate that at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. These items are not permitted to have the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
  • Items that contain fewer than 70% organic ingredients are not permitted to use either the word “organic” or the USDA Organic Seal on the label.

Consumers may be bewildered by other words on food labels such as “natural”or “grass-fed”that may be confused with organic. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. “Natural”foods are minimally processed foods but, they are not necessarily grown or raised under the strict conditions of organic foods. “Grass-fed”indicates that the livestock were fed natural forage (“grass”), but not necessarily in open pasture or for their entire lives.

Debate continues about the exact requirements to label animal products “cage-free,”“free-range,”or “open pasture.” Cage-free simply means the animals were not kept caged, but does not necessarily mean that they were raised outdoors or allowed to roam freely. There is no certification process for the designation “cage-free.”Animals can spend as little as five minutes per day outdoors and still be considered “free-range.”Animal rights organizations are working to clarify these designations and improve the conditions under which all animals, are raised.

Organic food and health

Certified organic food requires more labor to produce, which generally makes it more expensive than non-certified food. Some consumers buy organic food primarily because the way it is raised benefits the environment. Others believe absolutely in the health benefits of organic food. A larger group of consumers are uncertain if organic food offers enough health benefits to justify the additional cost.

Discussions of the health benefits of organic food can become quite heated and emotional. Advocates of buying organic foods firmly believe that they are preserving their health by preventing their bodies from becoming receptacles for poisonous chemicals that can cause cancer, asthma, and other chronic diseases. Non-organic food buyers take the position that the level pesticide and fertilizer residue in non-organic food is small and harmless. Neither side is likely to change the other’s view. However, below are some conclusions from studies done comparing organic and non-organic foods.

  • The food supply in the United States, whether organic or non-organic, is extremely safe.
  • Fresh organic and non-organic produce are equally likely to become contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli that cause health concerns.
  • Many, but not all, chemical contaminants can be removed from non-organic food by peeling or thorough washing in cool running water.
  • Organic foods are not 100% pesticide and chemical free. However, their chemical load appears to be lower than that of non-organic foods.
  • The nutrient value of identical organic and nonorganic foods is the same.
  • The long-term effect on humans of trace amounts of hormones, antibiotics, and drugs found in milk, meat, and other non-organic animal products is unclear.
  • The long-term effect of genetically modified foods on both humans and the environment cannot yet be known.


Individuals should be informed about food labeling requirements and read food labels carefully so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases.


Organic food does not interact with drugs or other foods in a way that is different from non-organic foods.


No complications are expected from eating organic food.

Parental concerns

Chemicals found in foods may have a greater effect on the growth and development of younger children than older ones. Young children are rapidly growing while still developing their nervous system, immune system, and other organs. Chemicals may have a greater effect on these developing tissues than on adult tissues.


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Lipson, Elaine. The Organic Foods Sourcebook. Chicago, IL:Contemporary Books, 2001.


National Organic Program. USDA-AMS-TM-NOP,ROOM 4008 s. Bldg, Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Room 1180, Washington, DC 20250. Telephone: (202)720-3252. Website: “>

Organic Trade Association. PO Box 547, Greenfield MA 01302. Telephone: (413) 774-7511. Fax: (413) 774-6432. Website: “>


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Helen M. Davidson