There has been much talk over the years about "value-added" agriculture, where farmers capture more of the food dollar by doing on-farm processing, special packaging, and/or additional promotion. Occasionally, organic farming is referred to as "value-added."
This is a misnomer. Sure, organic products have additional value for both farmers and consumers. But those values are not "added." They are inherent in organic agriculture's production and management system.
Just what are the values upon which organic agriculture is based? Why do farmers farm organically, and why do more and more consumers choose to purchase organic foods? In my solar system, the Constellation of Organic Values includes the following:
Soil quality. Organic farmers are required by certification standards to maintain or improve the biological, chemical, and physical condition of the soil. Compost and green manure crops, which feed soil organisms and build soil structure, are cornerstones of an organic fertility management system. Healthy soil leads to healthy crops, healthy livestock, healthy people and a healthy planet.
Water quality. Pesticides and excess nutrients are common contaminants of surface-, ground- and rainwater. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by toxins and excess nutrients washed down the Mississippi River, is now 7,000 square miles, larger than the state of New Jersey. Organic farmers do not use toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Instead they use crop rotations, cover crops, grass waterways and filter strips to prevent soil erosion, protecting water from sediments and excess nutrients.
Farm safety. I used to conduct 100 farm inspections a year, and I always liked to ask farmers why they chose to farm organically. The most common responses were things like: "My dad died of cancer." "Our neighbor had a child with birth defects." Or, "We lost five cattle one year from pesticide poisoning." Farmers and farm workers don't like worrying about bringing pesticides into their homes on their bodies and their clothing. By converting to organic, their farms are safer and their families are healthier.
Family. Because it relies less on expensive off-farm inputs, organic farming offers terrific opportunities for younger and other limited-resource farmers. You can see the difference at conferences--organic farming conferences are filled with young farmers and families, whereas conventional agriculture events draw a noticeably older and less diverse crowd. I know many organic farm kids who see their futures on their family farms. In fact, we are already seeing second-generation certified organic farmers.
Flavor. Think of the difference of flavor between a fresh picked tomato from your organic garden and one purchased at the grocery store. There's just no comparison. That difference in flavor is something that chefs and shoppers value about organic food. Since organic food is grown in fertile, biologically active soil, it makes sense that it has more flavor than food grown using synthetic fertilizers.
Food quality. The intense, delicious flavor of organic food indicates higher levels of vitamins, antioxidants and secondary plant nutrients. According to research compiled by The Organic Center (www.organic-center.org), "organic farming methods have the potential to elevate average antioxidant levels, especially in fresh produce. On average, antioxidant levels were about 30 percent higher in organic food compared to conventional food grown under the same conditions."
Food safety. Organic foods must meet the same state and federal food safety requirements as conventional foods. But National Organic Program regulations contain a number of additional requirements with food safety implications, including:
Records. All organic operations must maintain records of their production and handling activities to verify compliance with organic rules. For instance, organic livestock producers must track all animals, including their origin(s); sources and quantities of feed; all medications; and all products generated and sold. This goes well beyond requirements for conventional producers. When BSE turned up in Washington State, 450 calves were slaughtered because one came from a BSE-positive cow but there were no records to indicate which one.
Crop management. Certified operators must prevent prohibited substances-- including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenate compounds and genetically engineered organisms--from coming in contact with organic operations and products. Organic farmers who use animal manure must allow at least 90 days between the application of raw manure and harvest of an organic crop for human consumption.
Livestock management. Organic livestock producers must not feed mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry. The feeding of manure is also prohibited. There have been no cases of BSE in cattle born and raised under organic management.
Process protection. Organic processors are subject to requirements stricter than those imposed on conventional processors. Organic processors must use management practices to prevent pests, including removal of habitat and food sources; prevention of access to handling facilities; and management of environmental factors to prevent pest reproduction. Organic rules also prohibit the use of packaging materials, storage containers, or bins that contain synthetic fungicides, preservatives or fumigants.
Residue tolerances. Federal or state officials or accredited certifying agents may require pre- or post-harvest testing of any agricultural input used or agricultural product to be sold as "organic" if there is reason to believe it may have been contaminated by non-organic materials or methods. If tests detect prohibited substances higher than 5 percent of EPA tolerance levels, the product may not be sold as organic.
Food security. Large confined livestock feeding operations and monocropped fields are more susceptible to diseases, insect damage and terrorist attack than decentralized, diverse organic operations. Organic, local food supplies are both healthier and more secure than conventional food grown on concentrated operations and transported thousands of miles before being consumed.
Health. There are many studies indicating more minerals and vitamins and less heavy metals and pesticide residues in organic food vs. conventional food. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2003 (www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CYP/is_3_111/ai_100730739), demonstrated that dietary choice can have a significant effect on children's pesticide exposure. The study found that children who consume primarily organic produce exhibited lower pesticide residues levels in their urine than children who consume conventional produce.
Biodiversity. The NOP's definition of organic production requires organic farmers to "promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity." Organic farmers use practices such as crop rotations, intercropping, strip cropping, establishing wildlife cover and providing habitat for beneficial organisms such as predatory insects, pollinators, birds, and bats. Organic farms are typically more biologically diverse than conventional operations.
Genetic diversity. Conventional agriculture uses a small number of crop and livestock species, breeds and varieties with a high level of genetic uniformity. Parent stock is chosen from a relatively narrow gene pool and bred for a few traits such as high yield and responsiveness to chemical inputs. Organic agriculture uses a wider range of genetic material--often including heirloom plant varieties and heritage livestock breeds--valued for numerous traits such as drought tolerance, nutrient utilization, vigor and flavor.
Humane animal husbandry. Organic livestock regulations emphasize preventive health care practices, including selection of disease- and parasite-resistant breeds, nutritious feeds and appropriate housing, pasture and sanitation conditions. Organic livestock producers must maintain living conditions that accommodate the health and natural behavior of the animals, including access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise, fresh air and direct sunlight. In other words, organic livestock producers practice humane animal husbandry.
Erosion control. Organic farmers are required to minimize erosion. It is not enough to avoid the use of toxic inputs - organic farmers cannot be certified if erosion is not controlled on their fields. This value is realized through soil building crop rotations, cover crops, windbreaks, diversions, filter strips, grass waterways, contour planting, terraces, and other practices that have additional environmental benefits.
Carbon sequestration. Data from The Rodale Institute's long-running comparison of organic and conventional cropping systems confirm that organic methods are far more effective at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fixing it as beneficial organic matter in the soil. (www.newfarm.org/depts/NFfield_trials/1003/carbonsequest.shtml) In 23 years, the Institute's two organic systems have shown an increase in soil carbon of 15-28% while the conventional system has shown no statistically significant increase. When it comes to possibilities for reversing global climate change, organic farming has real value.
Traceability. Traceability is a fundamental requirement for organic certification. All organic operations must maintain records of their production and handling activities. Records of organic authenticity (certificates, invoices, bills of lading, etc.) constitute an "audit trail" from farm to consumer. The audit trail links products on market shelves back through each stage of production and handling, assuring consumers that the organic products they buy were indeed produced on organic farms.
Farm income. Organic farmers need sustainable prices to stay in business. Fortunately, consumers value organic food enough to pay farmers fair prices for their products. Organic agriculture is rare in the US in that it functions largely in the free market. In a 10-year study, the University of Minnesota found that organic farming resulted in equivalent yields and equivalent profits when crops were sold with no premium, and higher profits when crops were sold at organic prices. (www.apec.umn.edu/faculty/weaster/Italconf/olsonorganic.pdf)
Rural communities. Since organic farmers receive fair prices, they're able to reinvest in their farms and their communities. Regions with high numbers of organic farms have economically stronger rural communities, including functioning feed mills, creameries, greenhouses, nurseries, seed dealers, slaughterhouses, farmers' markets, CSAs and food processors.
Integrity. Whenever there have been attempts to weaken organic standards, organic farmers and consumers have joined together to protect organic integrity. Farmers deserve to know that other farmers using the word "organic" meet the same standards, even though their farms may be in different regions and produce different crops. Consumers deserve to know that the organic products they buy were produced according to rigorous organic standards.
Spiritual needs. Humans have a spiritual need to connect with the earth. I find this spiritual connection working in my garden, or hunting for morels, when I turn off my inner voice and let the earth speak to me. Even if you don't garden or hunt mushrooms, taking the time to appreciate fresh, local organic foods that are full of vitality can help you make a spiritual connection to the earth.
Understand life. The green revolution, once full of promise, was based on ecological shortcuts such as the use of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These shortcuts are now proving ecologically unsustainable, as evidenced by global warming, depleted ecosystems, faltering rural communities, continued famine and the loss of nutritional value in our foods. Organic agriculture, on the other hand, helps us understand life's cycles. Understanding and establishing ecologically sound agricultural systems is now cutting-edge science.
Work with nature. Organic agriculture works with nature instead of pretending that we can control nature. Conventional agriculture uses chemical pesticides, fertilizers and genetic engineering to subdue nature. Genetically engineered crops are now producing serious negative ecological impacts, such as the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds and precipitous declines in Monarch butterfly populations. None of these methods or products is allowed in organic agriculture. Instead, organic farmers use natural controls and work with nature's cycles to produce healthful, abundant yields.
Fun! Organic farming is fun! Organic farmers report that converting to organic management makes farming more challenging and more rewarding. And if you have ever attended an organic farming conference, you know that organic farmers and consumers like to dance, eat delicious food, tell stories, make music, and share creative energy. What could be better?