Organic refers to agricultural production systems used to produce food and fiber. All kinds of agricultural products are produced organically, including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibers such as cotton, flowers, and processed food products. Organic farming management relies on developing biological diversity in the field to disrupt habitat for pest organisms, and the purposeful maintenance and replenishment of soil fertility. Organic farmers are not allowed to use 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 from adjacent conventional fields.
Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards, verified by independent state or private organizations. All products sold as “organic” must be certified. Certification includes annual submission of an organic system plan and inspection of farm fields and processing facilities. Inspectors verify that organic practices such as long-term soil management, buffering between organic farms and neighboring conventional farms, and recordkeeping are being followed. Processing inspections include review of the facility’s cleaning and pest control methods, ingredient transportation and storage, and recordkeeping and audit control. Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of food without artificial ingredients or preservatives. Certified organic requires the rejection of synthetic agrochemicals, irradiation and genetically engineered foods or ingredients..
The definitive study has not been done, mainly because of the multitude of variables involved in making a fair comparison between organically grown and conventionally grown food. These include crop variety, time after harvest, post-harvest handling, and even soil type and climate, which can have significant effects on nutritional quality. A 2002 report indicates that organic food is far less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional food (13% of organic produce samples vs. 71% of conventional produce samples contained a pesticide residue, when long-banned persistent pesticides were excluded).
Organic food is as safe to consume as any other kind of food. Just as with any kind of produce, consumers should wash before consuming to ensure maximum cleanliness. As cited above, organic produce contains significantly lower levels of pesticide residues than conventional produce. It is a common misconception that organic food could be at greater risk of E. coli contamination because of raw manure application although conventional farmers commonly apply tons of raw manure as well with no regulation whatsoever. Organic standards set strict guidelines on manure use in organic farming: either it must be first composted, or it must be applied at least 90 days before harvest, which allows ample time for microbial breakdown of any pathogens.
Organic farmers build healthy soils by nourishing the living component of the soil, the microbial inhabitants that release, transform, and transfer nutrients. Soil organic matter contributes to good soil structure and water-holding capacity. Organic farmers feed soil biota and build soil structure and water-holding capacity. Organic farmers feed soil biota and build soil organic matter with cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments. These produce healthy plants that are better able to resist disease and insect predation. Organic farmers’ primary strategy in controlling pests and diseases is prevention through good plant nutrition and management. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to change the field ecology, effectively disrupting habitat for weeds, insects, and disease organisms. Weeds are controlled through crop rotation, mechanical tillage, and hand-weeding, as well as through cover crops, mulches, flame weeding, and other management methods. Organic farmers rely on a diverse population of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests in check. When pest populations get out of balance, growers implement a variety of strategies such as the use of insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers. Under the National Organic Rule, growers are required to use sanitation and cultural practices first before they can resort to applying a material to control a weed, pest or disease problem. Use of these materials in organic production is regulated, strictly monitored, and documented. As a last resort, certain botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides may be applied.