The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

Growing Organically Since 1982

Organic Standards Page

History of Organic Agriculture

Frequently Asked Questions About Organic Farming 

Current Issues in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture

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History of Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture was born as a result of the rapid industrial changes of the early 20th century that shifted the model and methods on which farming relied. Prior to the dawning of the fossil fuel age, essentially all agriculture was “organic” in the sense that it relied on closed-loop systems that did not import their fertility or energy from elsewhere. However, cheap fuel changed that entirely. The 20th century saw a series of innovations that had dramatic impacts on our entire food system. From diesel tractors to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, many farms started to shift towards an industrial factory-like approach in order to maximize efficiency and yield. The so-called “Green Revolution” of the mid 20th century pushed agriculture even further towards a model that relied on monoculture plantings that was increasingly dependant on chemical inputs and innovations in biotechnology.

The early pioneers of holistic agriculture, such as Sir Albert Howard, Rudolph Steiner, and J.J. Rodale, recognized that by working with nature’s systems rather than in opposition to them, farms can significantly increase fertility and crop quality without relying on synthetic inputs. These pioneers recognized that resilient farming must begin with healthy soils, and developed techniques such as composting, cover cropping, and crop rotations to encourage resilient soil ecology.

Yet these pioneers were just a fringe group until the 1960’s and 1970s, when works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, brought concern for the environment into the public sphere. More and more people started seeking foods grown in an ecologically-friendly manner and this birthed a number of early organic certification programs.

The market for organic foods grew steadily throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. By that time, many states and regions had initiated their own certification programs, all of which had different standards, making interstate sales of organic foods very complicated.  In order to create a single set of national organic standards, the federal government passed the landmark Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. The act tasked the USDA to create these standards, which resulted in the formation of the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2000.

The 21st century has seen a rapid evolution of the organic movement. Through the work of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen-run advisory board, the organic standards keep shifting. As the organic standards continue to evolve, NOFA/Mass works alongside our organizational allies through the National Organic Coalition to ensure that the standards maintain their integrity and transparency. 


FAQ’s about Organic Agriculture

  1.  How is certified organic food different from conventional food? 
  2.  How is the organic label regulated?
  3. Why is organic food more expensive? 
  4. What’s the difference between “natural” and “organic” labels? 
  5. What are the environmental benefits of organic food production? 
  6. What is the difference between “organic” and “sustainable” farming? 
  7. Are genetically modified organisms allowed in organic farming? 
  8. How can I tell if a food is organic? 

1)    How is certified organic food different from conventional food? 

Food that is certified organic must fulfill all of the standards set by the National Organic Program. For fruits and vegetables, that means:

  • No synthetic fertilizers
  • No genetically modified plants
  • No synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides
  • Integrate cover crops, crop rotations, and other soil-building practices

Read more about organic standards for produce here.

In order to have certified organic meat, farmers must meet all of the above standards and also:

  • Avoid giving their animals antibiotics and growth hormones
  • Provide outdoor grazing area whenever weather permits
  • Feed their animals a 100% organic diet

Read more about organic livestock standards here

Other resources about organic standards:

Introduction to Organic Practices

Allowed and Prohibited Substances in Organic Production

USDA Organic Regulations- Includes All Regulations

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2) How is the organic label regulated? 

Any proposed changes to the existing organic regulations must go through a multi-step process before being enacted. Most recommendations are initially crafted by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a 15-member advisory committee that consists of organic farmers, processors, environmentalists, public-interest citizens, and scientists. This advisory board is part of what makes the organic label transparent. During their two annual meetings they receive comments from the public and engage in open dialogue on the organic program. Those meetings often result in specific recommendations, which are then submitted to the National Organic Program (NOP).

The NOSB is also in charge of deciding what remains on the “national list”, which includes all approved substances used in organic production. All materials on the “national list” go through a “sunset” process every five years, at which time the NOSB votes on whether to re-approve the material.

Once the NOSB submits their recommendations, they then go to the National Organic Program (NOP), a branch of the USDA. At this point, the NOP can issue a draft proposal of the new rule, which then goes through a public comment period. Once those comments are processed and integrated, the final rule is then published.

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3) Why is local, organic food more expensive?

Industrial conventional agriculture follows the factory model in order to deliver the cheapest possible product to their buyer. This creates a race to the bottom, a process which encourages shortcuts and creates costly societal damages such as water pollution, unfair labor practices, and carbon emissions. But, if one includes the external and future costs of conventional food on society, then there is strong evidence that organic food prices are actually comparable to their conventional counterparts.

National agricultural food policy in the United States also contributes to the illusion that organic food is more expensive. The vast majority of our agricultural subsidies and crop insurance dollars (70% of which are subsidized by the tax payer) go towards conventional commodity crops, thus lowering the price floor significantly.

The additional confounding factor is globalization. The impacts of international trade deals such as North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have paved the way for multinational corporations to do business in whichever country has an abundance of cheap labor and an unregulated business environment. This means that farmers who must meet rigorous organic regulations and pay their employees a living wage must by necessity charge a higher premium on their food

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4) What’s the difference between “natural” and “organic” labels? 

Unfortunately, as of now, the term “natural” on food packaging means next to nothing. According the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the use of the word “natural:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. For more information, see "Natural" on Food Labeling.

Fortunately, the FDA has decided to revisit how they define that term after much criticism that it was being used inappropriately and counter to consumer expectations.

For now, the organic label remains the gold standard for food production standards.

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5) What are the environmental benefits of organic food production? 

Before examining the positive impacts of organic agriculture, we must first look at the environmental repercussions of contemporary industrial agriculture:

Toxic Pesticides

Most conventional farms rely on a vast laboratory of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and paracitides to keep crop damage to a minimum. Despite claims from the agri-chemical industry to the contrary, these chemicals have impacts on the entirety of the ecosystem, from the farm workers who apply the chemicals to the flora and fauna of the watershed.

Some of the chemicals commonly used as pesticides have also been implicated in the collapse of pollinator species, particularly with Apis Mellifora, the honeybee. Neonicotinoids, synthetic pyrethroids, and other pesticides have been consistently linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, which has devastated honeybee populations, and yet, conventional agriculture continues to use these chemicals in startling quantities.

Climate Change

As it turns out, fossil fuels are not the only factor driving carbon emissions. Global agriculture is responsible for at least 25% of all carbon, and surprisingly, the great majority of those emissions are due to the production methods used on farms. Soils are the second greatest carbon sink on our planet (bested only by oceans), but when soils are left bare, disturbed, or otherwise mistreated, the carbon stored within the soil oxidizes and returns to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Organic practices require farmers to recycle crop residues, incorporate compost and manure, keep the ground covered with cover crops, and encourage year-round grazing. All of these practices incorporate organic matter into the soil, protect soil from being eroded, and thus create defenses against carbon loss.

Indeed, there is good evidence to suggest that these practices can actually reverse climate change by using plants to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into a stable form within the soil. Read more about how NOFA/Mass is working to promote soil carbon restoration here.

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6) What is the difference between “organic” and “sustainable” farming? 

With the growth of the food movement over the past decade, there is now a plethora of terms to describe “good” farming: natural, sustainable, agro-ecological, biodynamic, and organic. Most of these terms are somewhat synonymous, but there are also important differences worth noting.

Terms such as “natural” and “sustainable” describe a certain ethic of farming, though they do not extend into details of production and farming practices. Simply put, “sustainable” farming implies a system of agriculture that can be extended into the future indefinitely, without pillaging our natural resources or causing irreparable ecosystem damage.

Organic farming is more specific. While almost all organic farmers would consider themselves to be running a “sustainable” farm, they must follow a well-defined and regulated set of practices in order to be certified organic.

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7) Are genetically modified organisms allowed in organic farming? 

Simply put, no. Organic farmers must rely on traditional plant breeding for their seeds.

The organic standards clearly state that no genetically engineered seed or plant is allowed. Animals grown for organic meat or dairy also cannot eat any GMO feed.

Relevant resources:

USDA- Organic 101: Can GMOs be Used in Organic Production

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8) How can I tell if a food is organic? 

It’s easy! Just look for the USDA Organic label in your local shop. If you shop at a farmers’ market, most farms will display signage if they are certified organic, but if not, make sure you ask them!

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Organic Check-off

Check-off programs, also known as research and promotion programs, are designed to promote a single commodity crop. These are the folks who brought you “Pork: The Other White Meat” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”. Until recently, all of these programs were voluntary (hence, the name check-off), but they are now mandatory for most commodity groups.

With the backing of the Organic Trade Association, organic is now classified as a commodity, and is therefore creating its own specific check-off program meant to provide funding for organic research and promotion.

Many organic farmers are opposed to this change for a number of reasons. For one, that money will end up in a USDA-appointed Organic Research and Promotion Board, where much of that money will go towards bureaucracy. The other issue is the lack of choice; this is essentially a mandatory tax that does not benefit all equally. Producers and large organic commodity growers will reap more of the benefits from this check-off than small family farms.

The organic check-off program application is still being processed and has yet to go into effect. If you want to take action and oppose the check-off, go to No Organic Check-Off.

Relevant Resources:

Organic Check-Off Background Document

Jim Riddle's Thoughts on the Check-Off

Current Issues in Organic and Sustainable Agriculture

 

The organic movement is in a constant state of evolution. From the very beginning of the movement, farmers, consumers, and producers have been in constant dialogue over the exact boundaries and definitions of the term “organic”.

NOFA/Mass’s policy team is constantly scrutinizing the organic standards and monitoring what is happening within the National Organic Program. When the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990, the crafters ensured that the standards would continue to evolve and be open to change.

Hydroponics

When the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was crafting the organic standards in the 1990s they defined organic as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.” Clearly, they felt that organic production is integrally connected to the soil. At that time, no one thought that hydroponics- a soil-less plant production system that relies on soluble nutrition delivered through water- would ever qualify for the organic label.

The NOSB has been ruminating on the role of hydroponic systems since the early 2000s, and by 2010 they submitted a formal recommendation to the National Organic Program (NOP) that said, “Growing media shall contain sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse soil ecology. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited.” However, the NOP decided to ignore this recommendation and take no action, and thus, opening the gateway for hydroponic growers to be certified.

With our partners at the National Organic Coalition, NOFA has been advocating for the NOP to halt the certification of hydroponic producers until more clear guidelines for what constitutes “organic hydroponics” are issued.

Relevant resources:

The Organic Hydroponics Dichotomy- Cornucopia Institute

GMO Contamination

Many organic crops grow side by side with conventional genetically-modified crops, which puts the organic crops at risk of being pollinated with GMO plant material. Since all GMOs are strictly prohibited in organic production, farmers can face massive losses due to this “genetic drift”. In fact, a USDA survey from 2014 reported that organic farmers saw $6.1 million in crop losses due to contamination from GMOs. And, unfortunately, those farmers have no legal recourse to recover their losses, even though they are not at fault. 

The USDA has failed to provide an adequate solution. Instead, they put the burden on the organic farmers to create wider hedgerows, or stagger their planting so as to avoid crops flowering at the same time as their conventional neighbors.

Relevant Resources:

Organic Farmers Pay The Price For Contamination

Organic Check-off

Check-off programs, also known as research and promotion programs, are designed to promote a single commodity crop. These are the folks who brought you “Pork: The Other White Meat” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”. Until recently, all of these programs were voluntary (hence, the name check-off), but they are now mandatory for most commodity groups.

With the backing of the Organic Trade Association, organic is now classified as a commodity, and is therefore creating its own specific check-off program meant to provide funding for organic research and promotion.

Many organic farmers are opposed to this change for a number of reasons. For one, that money will end up in a USDA-appointed Organic Research and Promotion Board, where much of that money will go towards bureaucracy. The other issue is the lack of choice; this is essentially a mandatory tax that does not benefit all equally. Producers and large organic commodity growers will reap more of the benefits from this check-off than small family farms.

The organic check-off program application is still being processed and has yet to go into effect. If you want to take action and oppose the check-off, go to No Organic Check-Off.

 

Relevant Resources:

Organic Check-Off Background Document

Jim Riddle's Thoughts on the Check-Off

 


 



 

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