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What does “organic” mean?

Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.

The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) clearly defines organic as follows:

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Environmental Impact of Organic Foods.

What about protecting the environment, and sustainability? How does organic foods compare with conventional foods.For some years agricultural ecologists have warned that much of agriculture implemented today is unsustainable. E.g., there is a worldwide debate over the effects of conventional farming practices on soil fertility, which may be declining at the same time as the world′s human population is increasing by an estimated 80 million per annum.

Maintenance of soil fertility is critical to sustainability of the food supply – crop rotation, fallowing and organic amendment, strict pollution management and control, and integration of the farming system into local environments are all necessary components of any well-managed agricultural and horticultural system. Organic farming is not unique in practising these, but organic farmers have strict standards under which they are required to practice. The European Union, United States of America and Japan (to name just a few) require organic farmers to meet strict standards, rules and regulations before they can market their produce as organic. This means a more reliable outcome for these quality values.

Further, one of the side-effects of the use of toxic pesticides is the inadvertent killing of non-target animals, plants and insects, which not only reduces biodiversity, but may also exacerbate pest management problems by promoting pest resistance.

Assessing the health and environmental benefits of any system requires a full life-cycle analysis with evaluation of pros and cons at each stage. For example, although organic agriculture clearly has benefits in preservation of wildlife and habitat, results in less environmental pollution and preserves soil fertility, critics argue that there are also disadvantages compared to conventional food production. As two examples, mechanical energy inputs are greater in organic production and ‘zero-till’ agriculture, which uses herbicides, may be more environmentally friendly than the mechanical weed control used in organic cultivation.

Even so, according to a study reported in 2004 by New Scientist: “Organic farming increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain – all the way from lowly bacteria to mammals. This is the conclusion of the largest review ever done of studies from around the world comparing organic and conventional agriculture.”

Organic agriculture is contributing to “energy efficiency, non-pollution, animal welfare ... sustainability and (less) social impact”. Furthermore, the “greater insect and bird diversity or general environmental quality are positive values that are appreciated by consumers.”

It is clear that many scientists see organic farming as having a legitimate role to play in the struggle to feed the world′s human population in a sustainable manner.