Organic agriculture is the practice of growing, raising, or processing goods using methods that avoid the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, bioengineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program is the governing entity for certified organic farming in the U.S. The certification standards were described by Congress in the Organic Foods Production Act, and continue to be developed by the National Organic Standards Board. The process of certification and practice of organic agriculture is explicitly detailed through the USDA Organic Standards.
The USDA standards outline a variety of necessities for creating and maintaining an organic agricultural system. These include methods for farmers and processors to preserve natural resources and biodiversity, support animal health and welfare, use only approved materials, and pass regular onsite inspections and certification requirements.
Although some of the materials and mechanisms for chemically intensive farming were developed earlier, the global boom in fertilizer and pesticide use coincided with the end of World War II and the increased sense of urgency surrounding the need to feed a rapidly expanding global population. The first Green Revolution emerged in response to increasing numbers of underfed and malnourished populations and allowed for the spread of agricultural technologies, such as pesticides and fertilizers, to developing countries. These chemical inputs contributed to yield increases around the world. Modern organic farming grew in response to concerns about the impact of chemically intensive farming on ecosystem and human health. Although a “chemical-free” farming movement began earlier, organic agriculture gained significant traction in the 1970s due to an increasing awareness of the negative environmental effects of some synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Though farmers were beginning to practice organic agriculture, there were few ways for consumers to determine whether a product was organically grown or raised. Initially, organic certification programs were decentralized and either nonexistent or unregulated in many states. In response to a growing demand for consumer knowledge and producer responsibility, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. This national standard established a common understanding of the definition of, and requirements for production of, organic produce. The establishment of the National Organic Standards Board in 2002 implemented the final rules and regulations, as well as defined the governing body for enforcing these rules.
All farms or producers selling over $5,000 annually in agricultural products that wish to use the organic label must go through the certification process and abide by the organic production standards. The benefits of becoming certified include price premiums, access to new markets, and access to additional funding and technical assistance programs. Producers with revenues from organic products of less than this amount are exempt from certification.
Though there are many well-documented benefits to using organic production techniques, there are also a variety of challenges and obstacles that growers and processors face. For many small-scale growers, a significant problem is the cost prohibitive-nature of becoming certified and maintaining certification through the National Organic Standards Board. In addition to upfront costs and the time-consuming nature of the certification process, farms must pay annual fees to remain certified. In California the Organic Products Act mandates registration administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, in addition to the federal law that mandates certification by a USDA accredited third-party organization.
Synthetic chemical inputs of fertilizers and pesticides are generally advantageous in terms of decreasing pests and increasing yields, nevertheless the negative consequences on human and environmental health have encouraged many producers to pursue organic options. The economic benefits for farmers converting to organic production systems, however, may not be visible for several years. This is related to potential yield losses that may occur as a result of the transition away from reliance on chemical inputs. Certified organic pesticides and fertilizers are available, but these are typically more expensive, less effective, or require additional labor. During the transition period growers are not certified organic, thus cannot benefit from price premiums, and may also be experiencing a decline in yields. Enhanced ecosystem services through organic practices may mitigate yield declines in the long run. However, the costs endured during the short term may not be feasible for some producers.
University of California Contributions - Research
UC Santa Cruz
- The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) is a center to research, develop, and advance sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.
- UCSC CASFS Farm and UCSC Chadwick Garden serve as an experiential learning and research area
- The Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture is an educational program focusing on practical training in organic gardening and small-scale farming.
- The Student Organic Garden Association was initiated to provide formalized management of the UCB Student Organic Garden
- The UC Gill Tract Community Farm is an organic community farm on 20 acres of agricultural research land which is used to educate local community members on effective organic agricultural practices that can be spread to their other farms and social circles
- The UCD Student Farm is a community supported agriculture operation with a focus on sustainable agriculture and food systems that emphasizes in-field experiential learning and support student exploration, creativity, initiative, and leadership
- Student Collaborative Organic Plant Breeding Education (the SCOPE Project) at UC Davis is an effort to provide California growers with seeds for tomato, bean, pepper, and other crop varieties that are specially bred for organic farming. The project is engaged in developing new cultivars on certified organic land at the UC Davis Student Farm.
- The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Program (SAREP) was started in 1986 to provide California growers the resources and links to successfully implement and execute sustainable agricultural practices. UC SAREP provides a list of UC studies, publications, and online resources related to organic farming and production methods.
Contributors: Leigh Archer, Bev Ransom, Mariah Coley
Reviewed by: Sonja Brodt
How to cite this page
UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. 2017. "Organic Farming." What is Sustainable Agriculture? UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. <https://sarep.ucdavis.edu/sustainable-ag/organic-farming>