Organic farming refers to agricultural production systems that do not use genetically modified (GM) seed, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Some of the essential characteristics of organic systems include design and implementation of an organic system plan that describes the practices used in producing crops and livestock products; a detailed recordkeeping system that tracks all products from the field to point of sale; and maintenance of buffer zones to prevent inadvertent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent conventional fields.
Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards that have been verified by USDA. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products. This process, referred to as rulemaking, involves input from the National Organic Standards Board (a Federal Advisory Committee made up of fifteen members of the public) and the public.
To gain organic certification, a farmer (of cropland, pasture or livestock) submits an organic system plan to an accredited certifier each year. This documents how the farmer adheres to NOP standards. Certified organic farms and processing facilities undergo annual inspections to verify that they are meeting the standards. Organic inspectors examine all elements of a farm operation for adherence to the standards and verfiy that the farm is being managed according to the farmer’s organic system plan.
The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table.
A high percentage of organic farms use production practices with environmental benefits such as water management practices, no-till or minimum tillage, habitat maintenance for beneficial insects and vertebrates, and biological pest control. These ecologically protective practices contribute to enhanced ecosystem services and benefit water quality, soil health, and biodiversity. Conventional farming often uses minimal crop rotations, growing the same single crop year after year on the same land. This practice, known as mono cropping causes the depletion of nutrients and minerals. In order to continue growing crops in this depleted soil, nutrients and minerals must be added back in the form of hydrocarbon based fertilizers and mined minerals such as phosphate. Conventional GM farming is dependent on earth-based non-renewable resources. Monocultures and the resulting poor health open the way for infestations of insects, diseases and weeds. Healthy bio-diverse soil keeps these infestations in check. The lack of biodiversity requires synthetic pesticides and herbicides to be used, further destroying the national soil biology
Using biological forms of fertilizer such as compost, animal manures, and legume cover crops, builds soil organic matter, even when routine tillage is used for weed control. Building soil organic matter increases soil water retention and nurtures more active soil microbial communities that retain nitrogen in the soil longer and transform it into non-leachable gaseous forms. There is a small but telling body of research in the US that suggests that improved soil quality influences the ability of crops to withstand or repel insect attack and plant disease.
Organic biological fertilizer sources release their nutrients slowly over time, providing more opportunity for the nitrogen to be digested by soil organisms and taken up by crops before leaching below the root zone. Increased soil organic matter in the soil leads to tighter nutrient cycling and greater water holding capability in organically managed soils, with the result that nitrate leaching from groundwater is about half that of conventionally farmed soils. Recent data from a 12-year study shows that fields under organic management had half the annual nitrate leaching losses than fields under conventional management.
In USDA organic surveys, producers report that achieving yields is one of the most difficult aspects of organic production. Farm data from USDA producer surveys show organic crop yields may be lower than those of conventional production. The yield differences estimated from USDA farm data are similar to those estimated by comparing USDA’s 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey with USDA’s 2011 Crop Production Report. The yield differences revealed by survey data may be due to the unique problems encountered by organic systems outside of the experimental setting, such as effective weed control.
However, while organic agriculture may produce lower yields when compared to conventional agriculture, organic farming is often more profitable, delivers more environmental benefits, and is healthier in terms of increasead nutritional benefit and reduced dietary pesticide exposure.