Definition of Organic

“An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence and the benign dependence of an organism.”Wendall Berry, Farmer and Author, Henry County, Kentucky, 1982.

We think that Wendall Berry had it right back in 1982. But the process of arriving at a consensus for the definition of organic took many more years and lots of input from thousands of people. We’d like to take you through a brief history of the process and the significant milestones that marked the way to the present Definition of Organic Production, which has a huge influence on the burgeoning organic foods market or on what some call the organic revolution.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)

IFOAM as it is commonly called, was founded in 1972 by organic agriculture advocates and practitioners, and was the original inspiration for the codification and national standards and policies we have in the US today. IFOAM now includes over 700 organizations from over 100 countries worldwide. One of the primary purposes of the IFOAM founders was to write standards for organic farming and processing in a democratic and participatory manner.

While not a legislative body, they have had an enormous influence on the development of organic legislation in over 100 countries, 50 of which have national policies in place today. They have done this through an exhaustive process of consensus building from the grassroots.

The IFOAM efforts have served as the basis for many of the laws that govern organic food production and processing including our Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (our Organic Law). The IFOAM Standards are organized around four basic principles: 1. health, 2. ecology, 3. fairness, and 4. care.

It’s significant to note that IFOAM predated the US Organic Food Production Act of 1990 by more than a decade.

Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) – Definition of Organic Production

The OFPA did not define the term “organic” but rather mandated the US Secretary of Agriculture to create a rule that would establish the definition. As you can imagine, (think Health Care Reform) there were many special interests that weighed in to try and influence the final rule to suit their particular constituencies. These special interests, as well as private citizens became the “stakeholders” in the debate. (Stakeholders are persons or companies that have an interest in a particular issue.)

After several years (more than a decade actually) of input from all stakeholders, the USDA established the definition of “Organic Production”. This completed its obligation which was mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA to define “organic production”.

Here is the sequence of events that led to the final definition: First the NOSB spent 5 years criss-crossing the country to get input from all citizens and special interest groups commonly called the “stakeholders”.

Below are the recommendations the NOSB made to the Secretary (of Agriculture) in April of 1995.

USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) Definition of Organic

o Organic agriculture is 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.

o ‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

o Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.

o Organic food handlers, processors, and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.

After receiving the recommendations from the NOSB, the Secretary through its administrative body, the National Organic Program (NOP) took another 5 years to make a final ruling that was accepted by all the stakeholders.

National Organic Program (NOP) Definition of Organic (Final Rule – 2000)

“Organic production. A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

Global Harmonization of Organic Production Standards

Unfortunately, the global effort to harmonize organic production standards has not been completely successful to date. However, more than 50 countries now have national organic policies and/or regulations and there is an increasing movement in that direction. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) continues to further the agenda of this global harmonization effort and has recently adopted the following definition of organic.

Definition of Organic – (IFOAM adopted March 2008)

Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.

A careful reading of this latest version of the organic definition embodies the evolving awareness and intention that organic production systems are much more than just a system of inputs and managed processes. They are a fundamental and symbiotic relationship of all biological elements and processes that must be present in the production of organic foods. The most important element in this relationship is the human element. It reflects our vision and direction for the definition of organic as we move forward in the hopes of a larger more significant role of organic foods in the global diet.