Section A: What is Organic Agriculture?

Projected outcomes:

  1. Students will learn some basic information about what organic agriculture is
  2. Students will learn about the history of the organic agriculture movement and market
  3. Students will be introduced to the politics of organic agriculture

Background /Lessons:


Most people have heard of organic agriculture and have at least a partial idea of what it means. More and more people are buying at least some organic foods, and more and more farmers are growing them. Organic products are now available in most mainstream groceries. But despite the widespread familiarity with the word, few people fully understand what organic agriculture and organic products are. And among those who do have an in-depth understanding of what organic foods are, there is heated debate about what organic agriculture should be. Through this module students will learn about organic agriculture and what some of the key controversies and opportunities are for this sector of the food system.

For a humorous introduction to this unit, you can show the 6 minute flash movie (“Grocery Store Wars.”](

A Little History

There is no precise beginning to organic agriculture. Some people say that all agriculture before the 20th century was organic, but in fact organic agriculture is much more than the absence of modern fertilizers and pesticides. In the first half of the 20th century several people began to question the movement towards intensification and monoculture in agriculture and to look for holistic, ecological, systems approaches that would preserve the quality of the land.

Some of the best known of these figures are Sir Albert Howard in India and Britain , Rudolf Steiner in Germany , and I.J. Rodale in the US . Many people credit Sir Alfred Howard with being the founder of organic agriculture and look to his book, An Agricultural Testament, as laying the groundwork for the field.

However, until the 1970s, the ideas of these thinkers remained on the fringe. Almost all of the agricultural and scientific community eagerly pursued the gains in productivity promised by new synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and by more powerful mechanical equipment.

After the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, more farmers and consumers began to question the costs of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and a small market for foods grown without those inputs began to evolve. Early in the 1970s, with the sale of organic products through natural foods cooperatives and buying clubs, the first organic certifying agencies were established. The number of private certifying agencies grew quickly. Each agency had slightly different requirements. Some states, such as California, established standards to create consistency at least at the state level.

Activity 1: Dig for Organic Agriculture’s Roots

The market for organic agriculture grew slowly but steadily through the 1970’s and 80’s. By 1990 the organic market was established enough that large food processors and retailers became interested, and the US Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. This act was designed to bring consistency to the standards for organic foods, and it provides the authority for the current federal regulation of organic agriculture.

The US Department of Agriculture published draft regulations for organic agriculture in 1997. More than 200,000 consumers and farmers submitted comments on the draft regulations. This huge public response showed the strength and commitment of the organic market. Finally, in 2002, more than ten years after the enabling legislation, the USDA organic label went into effect.

According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic food sales have grown between 17 and 21 percent each year since 1997, to nearly triple in sales, while total U.S. food sales over this time period have grown in the range of only 2 to 4 percent a year. By 2005 organic food sales represented approximately 2 percent of U.S. food sales. (From the Organic Trade Association “Food Facts” factsheet, accessed Sept. 2006)

Brief historical summaries of organic agriculture are also available at Rainbow Grocery and

Legally Speaking

Activity 2: Survey the Field

Organic agriculture in the US is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The regulations issued by the USDA have set the minimum requirements for growing, processing, and selling organic products since 2002.

These regulations are extremely complex. Most people know that organic agriculture prohibits the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers. But there are a lot more requirements than that. Here are just a few key requirements for organic products:

  • Organic farms must be certified by an independent certification agency approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This certifier reviews the farm plan to make sure it complies with organic standards and visits the farm at least once a year for an on-site inspection.
  • Organic processors must also be certified by an independent certification agency.
  • In order to be certified organic, land must not have had prohibited substances (including most pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) applied to it for at least three years.
  • The farm must have a plan to manage pests and nutrients in a way that maintains or improves the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil and minimizes soil erosion. The plan should include crop rotations, cover crops, sanitation, and the application of plant and animal materials.
  • All equipment used with conventional crops and products must be cleaned thoroughly before it touches organic products. This includes machinery used in the field, storage and transport containers, and machinery in processing plants.
  • No antibiotics may be used on organic livestock. If an animal is sick and needs to be treated with antibiotics, it cannot be sold as organic.
  • Raw manure may not be applied to crop fields within 90 days of harvest of any crop and within 120 days of harvest of a crop that comes into contact with the soil. Composted manure may be applied within 90 days of harvest if it has been composted in accordance with organic standards.
  • The farm must use organically grown seeds, seedlings, and planting stock, unless the desired varieties are not commercially available in organic form.
  • Organic livestock must be fed organic feed.
  • Genetically engineered materials may not be used in organic agriculture and food processing, including genetically engineered seeds, hormones, and enzymes.
  • The farm must keep extensive records on all inputs used on the farm,

Organic agriculture regulates how foods are grown and processed; it does not regulate nutritional content.

Organic farms and processors are certified, that is an independent third party checks to make sure they are complying with organic standards.

The US organic program only applies to foods. Cosmetics and other personal care products cannot be certified organic in the US , at least at present.

The Organic Trade Association’s factsheet about organic agriculture provides a good summary of the legal status of organic agriculture in the US.

One way to get a feel for the complexity of the organic standards is to look at the Questions and Answers from the National Organic Program. You can also look at the program regulations.

The ATTRA publication Organic Crop Production Overview offers an excellent overview of organic agriculture. See other ATTRA publications on organic agriculture.

Sections C and D of this module will provide more specifics on requirements of organic agriculture.

Why Choose Organic?

1) For health

The USDA points out that organic agriculture regulates how foods are grown and processed; it does not guarantee nutritional content or pesticide levels in the food. Pesticides show up throughout our environment: in rain and snow, in soils, in Antarctic glaciers. Even the most carefully managed organic crop could contain traces of pesticides or genetically engineered cells. However, scientific studies show that organic foods contain much lower concentrations of pesticides than conventionally grown foods, and people who eat them have lower concentrations of pesticides in their urine. And organic farmers do not handle as many pesticides as their conventional counterparts. Organic foods must meet all the health and safety requirements of conventional food, and have some additional safety standards of their own, such as much more stringent regulation of manure use. Thus there is good reason to believe that organic agriculture may lower certain health risks.

2) For the environment

Organic standards focus primarily on environmental issues. Although they cannot eliminate environmental impacts, they seek to minimize the likelihood of water pollution, to build soil quality, and to enhance biodiversity. See Section C for more information

3) For economic reasons

Organic foods usually cost more than conventional foods. For most consumers the price of organic foods is a deterrent, but for most farmers the high prices of organic commodities are very attractive. See Section D for more information.

4) For other social and ethical reasons

Many consumers and farmers feel that organic agriculture does a better job of supporting small and family farms. Areas with numerous small and medium size farms tend to have more stable and prosperous communities than rural areas dominated by very large farms. Some like organic agriculture’s consideration of animal welfare. Although organic agriculture has historically been practiced by small and medium size farms, the standards do not address farm size, and as the organic market has grown, so has the percentage of large organic farms.

While an increasing number of consumers and farmers are choosing organic foods and production methods, a few people argue that organic agriculture is bad for health and the environment. For a brief summary of common arguments for and against organic agriculture see Claims and Myths About Organic Agriculture.

An Ongoing Process

With a growth rate of nearly 20 percent a year, the organic market is changing very quickly.

In Wisconsin the number of certified organic farms more than doubled in seven years, from 432 farms in 2000 to 905 in 2007. The organic acreage in the state went from 80,285 acres in 2000 to 122,338 acres in 2005, an increase of 52% in five years.

In Iowa the number of certified organic farms rose from 332 in 2000 to 546 in 2007 (a 64% increase), and the total certified acreage in the state went from 68,939 acres in 2000 to 74,964 acres in 2005 (a 9% increase). (USDA, ERS, 2009, accessed April, 2009)

The processing and retail sector of organic agriculture is changing rapidly too. Ten years ago organic foods were mainly found in small specialty stores, and even in those stores selection was often limited. Today most grocery stores offer at least some organic products, and even Wal-Mart is beginning to stock organic foods. National natural foods chains Whole Foods and Wild Oats continue to expand. Major food processors such as General Mills and Heinz have acquired many small organic companies. See Structure of Organic Industry chart showing ownership of organic processing companies.

As the market changes, the organic regulations are subject to change too. In some cases the regulations are unclear and need clarification. In other cases companies have sought to reduce the burden of organic requirements.

For example, in February 2003 an amendment to the organic law was slipped into a general appropriations bill in Congress. This amendment removed the requirement that organic livestock be fed 100% organic feed. Within a week legislation to repeal that amendment was introduced in both the US House of Representatives and Senate. Both the initial amendment and the repeal were done at the request of potential and existing organic businesses with very different interpretations of the purpose and meaning of the program.

National Agricultural Law Center, CRS Report for Congress, Organic Agriculture in the United States: Program and Policy Issues.

The “Today’s News” section of the National Organic Program web site offers a window into the ongoing refinement of organic standards.

Around the World

Organic agriculture is not just a US phenomenon. In fact, the US lags behind most European countries in both the production and consumption of organic foods.

Amber Waves, feature: EU and U.S. Organic Markets Face Strong Demand Under Different Policies

North America only accounts for 4 % of the world’s organic farmland. Australia has the most certified organic farmland in the world, with roughly 30 million acres (12.1 million hectares).

Developing countries are also making major strides in organic agriculture, though most of it goes for export to Europe, Japan , and the US , rather than internal markets. China has 8.6 million acres (3.5 million hectares) and Argentina has 6.9 million acres (2.8 million hectares) of organic farmland. Asia accounts for 13% and Latin America for about 20% of the world’s organic acreage. (Statistics taken from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)


Organic agriculture has moved from obscurity to the spotlight in the food system. Though organic foods only account for about two percent of total US food sales at present, the fact that sales have grown by about 20% per year over the past decade has drawn the attention of farmers as well as large food processors and retailers.

Organic agriculture is based on a rigorous set of production standards, combined with a system for inspection and certification by independent agents. USDA regulations set the basic standards in the US . Details of the standards continue to change, based on input from consumers, farmers, and food processing companies.

Most analysts expect the growth in organic sales to remain strong, though closer to 10% per year than the explosive growth rate of the recent past. This approach to food production is here to stay.

Career Pathway content standards

Projected Outcome National Agricultural Education Standards
Performance Element or
Performance Indicators
Activity Number(s)
(in this section)
1. Define organic agriculture. PS.03.04 Apply principles and practices of sustainabile agricutlure to plant production. A-1
2. Explain the history of organic agriculture movement and markets. FPP.01 Examine components of the food industry and historical development of food products and processing. A-1
3. Compare and contrast traditional agriculture and organic agriculture. (explain why there are two sides to the organic agriculture issue) FPP.01 Examine components of the food industry and historical development of food products and processing.
FPP.01.01 Evaluate the significance and implications of changes and trends in the food products and processing industry.
4. Compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the key historic people in the organic agriculture movement. FPP.01 Examine components of the food industry and historical development of food products and processing.
FPP.01.01 Evaluate the significance and implications of changes and trends in the food products and processing industry.
5. Formulate an opinion about organic agriculture practices and approaches. CS.01.05 Desire purposeful understanding related to professional and personal activities.
CS.11 Utilize scientific inquiry as an investigative method.
CS.11.01 Recognize the questions and theory needed to guide scientific investigations.
6. Formulate questions about organic agriculture and research answers. CS.11 Utilize scientific inquiry as an investigative method.
CS.11.01 Recognize the questions and theory needed to guide scientific investigations.
7. Compile and analyze survey results. CS.11 Utilize scientific inquiry as an investigative method.
RST.9-10.7 & RST.11-12.7. Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words. (English Language Arts Standards for Science & Technical Subjects)
RST.9-10.8 & RST.11-12.8. Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claim or a recommendation for solving a scientific or technical problem. ( English Language Arts Standards for Science & Technical Subjects )