National Organic Standards: The Roots

Mike TrueseArticlesLeave a Comment

On October 21st USDA organic foods labeling standards will take full effect in the United States. The production of organic foods has grown at an annual rate of 20% over the last ten years and currently represents $7.7 billion of the $400 billion generated annually by the American food industry. It is the fastest growing sector of food products. But what is organic food really in the US? This is a question that the new organic standards attempts to answer, but the real validity of these rules cannot be gauged without first knowing a bit about the history of organic agriculture in the US.

The generally accepted definition of organic food is food grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides or herbicides. So in this sense all agriculture before the development of these products in the 1940s could be termed organic. But to many farmers and eaters the concept of organic has more philosophical and holistic undertones.

British author Lord Northbourne originally adapted the term from the word organism, which is how he viewed farms that function as living and balanced systems. The term was popularized in the US by organic food pioneer J.I. Rodale who made direct links between healthy soil and healthy people. Both men contributed to the development of the original concept which included notions of composting, crop rotation, and natural weed and pest control. In a certain sense they were attempting to create sustainable agricultural systems that mimicked natural ecosystems.

The marketing of agricultural products identified as organic began nearly four decades ago. As of 1990, about 50 different private and state organic certification programs operated in the US, but there were no nationally uniform standards. This, of course, presented uncertainties for some consumers who had a general sense that organically grown food was healthier than conventionally grown food, but did not know precisely what the term organic represented. Meanwhile producers lacked credibility in marketing their organic products.

So in 1990 the National Organic Program was proposed under the Organic Foods Production Act in the 1990 Farm Bill. The program required the establishment of clear standards and guidelines for production and handling, labeling, accreditation of state and independent certifying agents, and other such aspects of the organic food industry. In next week?s newsletter you?ll find out what standards they finally settled on and what these standards will mean for you, organic farmers, and the future of organic food.

Special thanks to Sarah Johnson of NOFA New York and Just Food volunteer Ana Lacina.

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