Organic Farming Boom

November 2, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 39
Are health and environmental claims valid? By Marc Ferris


A sign at a farmers market in New York City (Cover: Getty Images/Universal Images Group/Jeffrey Greenberg)  
A sign at a farmers market in New York City highlights a key reason people buy organic — to avoid synthetic pesticides. As the industry expands, debate is intensifying about whether organic food is healthier and more environmentally friendly than food grown conventionally. (Cover: Getty Images/Universal Images Group/Jeffrey Greenberg)

The number of U.S. farmers seeking organic certification from the federal government is increasing amid surging public demand for organic food. Health and environmental concerns fuel much of that demand, polls show. But researchers disagree on whether crops and livestock raised organically are healthier or more environmentally friendly than those produced with conventional farming methods. The organic industry's rapid growth also has fueled debates over whether the practices of large, corporate-owned organic farms are compatible with strict animal-welfare standards and other core tenets of sustainable farming. Some organic traditionalists complain that recent regulatory moves by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — including a decision to continue certifying produce grown without soil as organic — threaten to erode consumers' trust in the agency's organic label. U.S. fish farmers, meanwhile, are pushing for organic certification, saying they are losing market share to other countries. But others say the nature of fish-farming makes it unsuitable for an organic label.

Go to top


By the time Steve Reuter decided to make his family's small Minnesota dairy farm fully organic several years ago, he already had taken many of the steps needed to obtain government certification.

For example, his herd of 45 cows grazed freely on pasture grass — a requirement for raising organic dairy animals. And unless it was unavoidable, Reuter did not treat sick cows with antibiotics, which would disqualify them for organic certification. Reuter also started buying soybean meal for his herd, keeping meticulous expense records and complying with a long list of other requirements.

It was worth all the trouble, he says. When his cows were certified as organic this year, the price for his milk almost doubled. “If I'm going to do all this work, it's nice to get paid for it,” Reuter says.

As the nation's appetite for organic food continues to grow, an increasing number of dairy and other farmers have responded in much the same way. U.S. farms and ranches sold $7.6 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016 — up 23 percent from 2015 — according to the most recent federal figures. Although only a tiny fraction of total U.S. farmland is used to grow organic crops and raise livestock, the number of organic farms has risen 17.8 percent — to 17,648 — since 2016, according to Mercaris, a Maryland company that tracks organic farming.1

As the industry matures, however, debate about its health and environmental claims — and even its core principles — has intensified.

Steve Reuter stands inside a barn at his dairy farm (Courtesy Steve Reuter)  
Steve Reuter stands inside a barn at his dairy farm in May Township, Minn. Reuter said obtaining government certification as an organic farm was worth the trouble and expense because it means he will receive a much higher price for his milk. (Courtesy Steve Reuter)

Polls show that the growing demand for organic food is driven largely by consumers' beliefs that organic food is healthier and safer, and that organic farming is more environmentally sustainable than conventional agriculture.

“Whether it's enhanced nutritional content of organic foods or the reduced exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and other drug residues, it's clear that organics benefit human health,” said Anne Ross, farm and food policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy watchdog group in Wisconsin that works to maintain high organic standards.2

Indeed, some studies have found that food grown organically is higher in key nutrients, antioxidants and healthy fatty acids, and lower in toxic metals such as cadmium. It also is significantly lower in pesticide residue, which surveys show is a major reason consumers are willing to pay more for organic fruits, milk and vegetables.

But the question of whether organic food is healthier is intensely debated among medical and food-science experts.

The Mayo Clinic, an academic medical center in Rochester, Minn., is equivocal on the issue. “There is a growing body of evidence that shows some potential health benefits of organic foods when compared with conventionally grown foods,” Mayo said in April. But it added that, “While these studies have shown differences in the food, there is limited information to draw conclusions about how these differences translate into overall health benefits.”3

Moreover, when researchers at Stanford University analyzed the results of 237 studies comparing organic food to conventional alternatives, they did not find strong evidence that organic food is more nutritious. “It's critical you stop short of saying [organic food] is going to be healthier for you,” said Nate Lewis, an organic farmer and farm policy director for the Organic Trade Association. “We don't know that.”4

Similar debates have emerged about whether organic food is more environmentally sustainable than food grown using conventional methods.

Advocates for organic farming say it promotes diversity of soil microbes, helps prevent erosion by building up topsoil, and increases the amount of carbon stored in soil, which helps curb global warming.5

“Organic production is more sustainable,” said Sharon Palmer, a nutrition expert and author of The Plant-Powered Diet. “It uses less energy, produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and creates healthier soils.”6

But other experts say organic farming in some ways is worse for the environment than conventional growing methods. They acknowledge that organic farmers avoid synthetic pesticides but say nonorganic farms require less land — reducing the need to cut down trees — because they are more efficient and produce larger yields per acre.

“The common perception that organic food … is an ideal way to reduce environmental impact is a clear misconception,” said Hannah Ritchie, a researcher at Oxford University in England.7

Organics now account for about 5.5 percent of total U.S. food sales and are increasing at a much faster rate than overall food sales. “In the last decade alone, the U.S. organic market has more than doubled in size,” according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in Washington, which represents organic farmers throughout North America.8

Last year, sales of organically grown food at traditional grocery retailers, health food stores, farmers markets and other outlets increased 6.4 percent to $45.2 billion. Fruits and vegetables are the most popular organic items, accounting for almost 40 percent of organic food sales.9

The line graphs show U.S. organic food sales in billions of dollars from 2008 to 2017, and U.S. total food sales in billions of dollars from 2008 to 2017.  

Long Description

Organic food sales more than doubled between 2008 and 2017 — to $45.2 billion — while overall food sales increased about 25 percent. Organics accounted for about 5 percent of total food sales in 2017, up from about 3 percent in 2008.

Source: “U.S. Organic Food vs. Total Food Sales, Growth and Penetration, 2008–2017,” 2018 Organic Industry Survey, Organic Trade Association, 2018,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Year U.S. Organic Food Sales, in Billions of Dollars U.S. Total Food Sales, in Billions of Dollars
2008 $20.4 $659.0
2009 $21.3 $669.6
2010 $23.0 $677.4
2011 $25.2 $714.0
2012 $28.0 $740.5
2013 $31.4 $760.5
2014 $35.1 $787.6
2015 $39.0 $808.0
2016 $42.5 $812.9
2017 $45.2 $822.2

Food certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) costs about 47 percent more, on average, than nonorganic food, but 59 percent of U.S. adults say they buy organic food sometimes or always, according to a recent Michigan State University poll. Parents in the 18- to 34-year-old age range are the biggest organic buyers in the country, according to the OTA.10

The pie chart shows how frequently U.S. adults say they purchase organic foods in 2018.  

Long Description

About six in 10 U.S. adults purchase organic food sometimes or always, according to a 2018 survey. Health claims about organic food help drive demand, other polls have found.

Source: “MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll: Wave III,” Michigan State University, Oct. 11, 2018,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Response Percentage U.S. Adults Who Say of How Frequently They Purchase Organic Foods
Always 13%
Sometimes 46%
Rarely 25%
Never 16%

To obtain organic certification, farmers must show that, during the three years before their first organically certified harvest, they have complied with USDA rules that mostly restrict them to using natural — not synthetic — pesticides. Organic farms are barred from using genetically engineered seeds and certain chemical fertilizers, and organic dairy farmers are barred from using antibiotics, synthetic hormones or feeding their cattle genetically modified plants. At least 30 percent of their cows' diet must be pasture grass.11

Going organic also means rotating crops more frequently, investing in conservation practices and, often, hiring more labor.

Those challenges help explain why organic farms still account for less than 1 percent of total U.S. farmland. To help bridge the gap between supply and demand for organic food, the country depends heavily on imports. In 2016, for example, more than 50 percent of soybeans and more than 70 percent of corn in the United States was imported, largely to meet growing demand for organic livestock feed.12

As their share of the food market expands, some organic farmers contend that decisions by the USDA, which has overseen the certification of organic farm operations since 2002, threaten to compromise the industry's commitment to animal welfare and environmentally responsible practices, and are undermining public trust in organic labeling.

Many farmers were furious, for example, when the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which advises the USDA on organic food products, refused last November to ban organic certification for hydroponic crops. Hydroponic farmers grow plants, often indoors, in water-based nutrient solutions without using soil. Organic traditionalists say soil is the most important element of organic agriculture.13

“Some of the cornerstones of what organic means are being taken away,” said Dave Chapman, an organic farmer and a member of the executive and standards board of the Real Organic Project. The group formed in January to create its own additional seal of approval for organic food that it says exceeds federal organic requirements.14

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended the decision to allow organic certification for hydroponics. “Shouldn't we in the United States be about how we can … feed people more efficiently and more effectively?” he said.15

Another industry debate focuses on the lack of organic certification for farmed seafood. Canadian and European companies sell organically farmed fish to U.S. consumers, which domestic fish farmers say is unfair. “We can't compete in that market,” said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association and a member of a group that worked on devising federal standards for organic farmed fish.16

But some food production experts say that most farmed fish, including salmon, cannot meet organic standards because they are carnivorous and their feed is made at least partially from fish that have not been farmed organically. They also say confining fish in pens goes against the animal welfare tenets of the organic farm movement.

Meanwhile, rising consumer demand for organic food has led to fraudulent use of the USDA's organic label. In October, for example, three Nebraska farmers pleaded guilty to wire fraud after they were charged with selling conventionally grown corn and soybeans to an Iowa company that marketed the grain as organic. Authorities said the seven-year scheme netted at least $10.8 million.17

In addition, food imported from other countries has been found to bear fraudulent organic labels.

As farmers, federal regulators and consumer advocacy groups debate the future of organic farming, here are some of the questions they are asking:

Is organic farming better for the environment than conventional farming?

Comparing organic to conventional farming is like comparing solar panels to power plants that burn fossil fuels, says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute.

“The organic model focuses on grass-based livestock raising and regenerative crop and vegetable production using plant material and manure,” Kastel says. “When you throw toxic chemicals on the land, they don't go away — they end up in the food supply and in our water.”

But some researchers say such comparisons are simplistic. They note that because conventional crop farms are more efficient and need less land than organic farms — 25 to 110 percent less land, according to one study — they often have a smaller environmental impact.18

“To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land,” said Steve Savage, an agricultural scientist and consultant in California.19

Studies have produced ambiguous, sometimes conflicting findings on the environmental impacts of organic versus conventional farming, and many of those findings depend on untested assumptions.

A guiding principle of organic farming is that soil containing plenty of organic matter, nutrients and beneficial microbes does not need synthetic pesticides. Advocates for organic farming note that conventional farmers are allowed to use hundreds of synthetic pesticides, while the USDA restricts organic farmers to several dozen.20

Organic farmers in northern Maine harvest potatoes (Getty Images/Corbis/Andrew Lichtenstein)  
Organic farmers in northern Maine harvest potatoes in September 2018. Organic food sales more than doubled between 2008 and 2017. Parents between 18 and 34 years old are the biggest organic buyers in the country, according to industry surveys. (Getty Images/Corbis/Andrew Lichtenstein)

But conventional farmers who use pesticides and herbicides efficiently do not need to disturb soil by tilling. That improves soil quality and reduces erosion and the release of carbon that contributes to global warming, some researchers say.

“Likewise, when organic farmers turn to mechanical weeding, they can inadvertently harm nesting birds and other animals — while contributing to erosion and fuel emissions,” said Suzy Friedman, sustainable agriculture director at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group in Washington. “And while manure is beneficial to soils in organic systems, it can also pollute waterways and lead to health problems if not properly applied,” she said, noting that each method of farming has benefits and drawbacks.21

And many noncertified farmers have adopted organic practices — such as using compost and manure, and rotating crops to avoid depleting nutrients in the soil. “All conventional is not the same, and all organic is not the same,” said USDA agricultural scientist Michel Cavigelli.22

USDA scientists say organic farming clearly has some advantages over conventional farming, such as improving soil quality. In one agency study, researchers compared organic farming, which tills the soil to mix in manure and to control weeds, with a type of conventional farming that does not depend on tilling. They found that over a nine-year period, organic farming was better at building healthy soil.23

“It takes time for organic matter to build up, so we wouldn't have seen these surprising results had we only looked after a few years,” said John Teasdale, the study's lead scientist.24

Other studies, including one published by German researchers in October, have found that organic farming is better for the environment when its effects are measured per acre but worse when its effects are measured per unit of food produced. The German study found that organic farming uses too much land to be a practical solution to global food shortages. But the researchers said that “smart combinations of organic and conventional methods could contribute toward sustainable productivity increases in global agriculture.”25

Ritchie at Oxford University said focusing on environmental differences between organic and conventional farming techniques often misses an important point: “If [you are] looking to reduce the environmental impact of your diet, what you eat can be much more influential than how it is produced,” she said. She and other researchers say the best way to help the environment is to eat less meat and dairy and switch to a diet focusing more on plants, whether grown organically or not.26

Can consumers trust the USDA organic label?

The USDA's green and white organic label, the only government-regulated food label that tells consumers how their food was produced, comes with an agency promise: “Organic integrity from farm to table, consumers trust the organic label.”

Small organic farmers typically say they willingly comply with the strict standards that come with the seal — out of devotion to what they believe are healthier, more environmentally responsible farming practices.

“We are land stewards, first and foremost, and we take this very seriously,” says Matt Seeley, CEO and co-founder of the Organic Produce Network, an educational organization in Monterey, Calif. “Those who do not follow the rules are called out and have their certification taken away.”

But some organic farming advocates say consumers have fewer reasons these days to believe the USDA seal still represents unwavering commitment to ecological health and animal welfare.

Industrial agriculture operations that have been organically certified are partly to blame for skirting the spirit behind organic standards, those advocates say. They point to corporate-owned egg operations that cram hundreds of thousands of hens into windowless barns equipped with small, screened-in “porches” that technically meet federal requirements for access to direct sunlight and fresh air.

“This is not at all what consumers expect of an organic farm,” said Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group for organic farming in Minnesota. “It's damaging to the image of the entire industry. People will wonder, ‘Why the hell am I paying more for this?’”27

The map shows the number of certified organic farms in each state in 2016.  

Long Description

California leads the nation in the number of federally certified organic farms, with more than 2,700, about 19 percent of the U.S. total of 14,217, according to the latest Agriculture Department data. Wisconsin and New York follow.

Source: “Certified Organic Survey,” United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, updated October 2017,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

State Number of Certified Organic Farms
Alabama 18
Alaska 8
Arizona 38
Arkansas 64
California 2,713
Colorado 181
Connecticut 57
Delaware 2
Florida 123
Georgia 83
Hawaii 113
Idaho 166
Illinois 205
Indiana 420
Iowa 732
Kansas 86
Kentucky 100
Louisiana 21
Maine 494
Maryland 111
Massachusetts 127
Michigan 402
Minnesota 545
Mississippi 29
Missouri 302
Montana 156
Nebraska 162
Nevada 34
New Hampshire 107
New Jersey 53
New Mexico 75
New York 1,059
North Carolina 247
North Dakota 114
Ohio 575
Oklahoma 34
Oregon 461
Pennsylvania 803
Rhode Island 25
South Carolina 44
South Dakota 86
Tennessee 38
Texas 217
Utah 51
Vermont 556
Virginia 165
Washington 677
West Virginia 14
Wisconsin 1,276
Wyoming 48

Large organic dairy farms such as Herbruck's Poultry Ranch in Michigan counter that they are committed to keeping their hens healthy and that the porches in their barns help protect their birds from predators and disease.28

Some organic farmers also bitterly criticized a USDA decision in March to withdraw a rule finalized under the Obama administration aimed at making sure animals on organic-certified farms are treated humanely, with plenty of room to move around and year-round access to the outdoors.

USDA officials said the proposed rule exceeded the department's statutory authority and was unnecessary. But Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs in New Hampshire said the rule was designed to “close loopholes so that consumers would get what they thought they were paying for.”

Industry groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council opposed the proposal because it would have required large corporate-owned agribusinesses to make expensive changes to their facilities to keep their organic certification.29

In 2017, Consumer Reports released a survey finding that 86 percent of consumers who often or always buy organic food consider it very important that organic farms maintain high standards for animal welfare.30

And while the share of U.S. consumers buying organic food is surging, only 26 percent say they trust organic labels, according to a report issued last year by Mintel, a market research firm in London. Younger consumers and young parents tend to believe organic-certified food is healthier and more environmentally friendly, said Billy Roberts, the firm's senior analyst for food and drink, but “other consumers appear to lack trust in the organic label.”31

Some organic farming purists, unhappy with recent federal actions on animal welfare and hydroponics, are working to create at least two new certification programs, each with its own label. One, the Real Organic Project (ROP), would certify only farms that adhere to strict animal welfare practices and organic methods that focus on the soil.

Lisa Stokke, a member of the ROP's executive board, says misguided decisions by the USDA's National Organic Standards Board have betrayed organic farming's central aims. “The NOSB was once community-based, but now the meetings are completely bureaucratic and controlled,” she says. “A lot of industry folks stand there hat in hand, asking for handouts, like approving carrageenan so they can have organic gummy bears.”

Carrageenan, a seaweed-based additive used to stabilize processed foods, has been the focus of intense debate within the organic farming community. In April, USDA officials decided organic food companies could continue using carrageenan, despite vehement protests from the Cornucopia Institute and other organic farming proponents. “Carrageenan continues to be necessary for handling agricultural products because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitutes,” the USDA said.32

The Regenerative Organic Alliance also is developing its own certification program. The coalition is led by the Rodale Institute, an organic advocacy research group in Pennsylvania; the Patagonia clothing company; and Dr. Bronner's, an organic soap company in California. The group, which formed in March, says its certification “builds upon the standards set forth by USDA Organic and similar programs internationally, particularly in the areas of animal welfare and farmer and worker fairness.” Its label, like the one issued by the Real Organic Project, would be an add-on to the USDA label.33

Restaurants' use of “organic” also has eroded consumers' trust in the term, some advocates say. The USDA allows restaurants to advertise their food as organic if they make a “reasonable” effort to use organic ingredients. That is far below the agency's strict requirements for organic farmers.34

Some consumers say restaurants do not deserve special treatment. Gil Rosenberg of Queens, N.Y., was angry after finding out that the patties served at Bareburger, which advertised itself as “organic,” did not contain enough organic beef to qualify for the USDA's organic seal. “It seems like an attempt to deceive,” he said.35

Organic food also has been the target of outright fraud. In one example, The Washington Post uncovered evidence last year that a shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans from Ukraine was falsely labeled organic somewhere between its port of origin and California. The fraud boosted the value of the shipment by about $4 million, the paper reported.36

Should federal officials create an organic certification program for fish?

After almost two decades of work, advocates for creating a new federal label certifying farmed fish as organic seemed on the verge of success in December 2016.

As the final weeks of the Obama administration wound down, White House budget officials directed the USDA to seek public comment on guidelines for organic seafood, a crucial step toward final approval.

Since then, however, the idea has gone nowhere. The guidelines are sitting on the USDA's “inactive list,” according to George Lockwood, chairman of the Aquaculture Working Group, which has advised the USDA on organic standards for farmed fish.

U.S. consumers do buy seafood certified as organic by the European Union and Canada, but Lockwood and other organic advocates say those certifications are based on standards that are far below those of the proposed U.S. guidelines. The EU, for example, allows organic fish farmers to treat their fish with antibiotics twice before harvest. The proposed U.S. standards bar antibiotic use.37

The organic fish that U.S. consumers buy now “are inferior to what USDA organic aquaculture would be,” Lockwood said.38

But not all organic advocates agree the USDA's organic label should appear on seafood. Critics of the idea say there is no way to farm fish without keeping them confined in pens, which goes against a basic tenet of organic farming — that animals raised for food should have space to roam.

“Anyone who cares about animal welfare would agree that salmon should not be put in a cage,” says Lisa Bunin, co-founder of Organic Advocacy, a consultancy that works to expand organic agriculture.

Moreover, fish caught in the wild, where they have plenty of swimming space, do not qualify for organic certification because their environments cannot be controlled to meet organic standards.

Organic fish advocates cite economics as a major argument for developing U.S. standards. “U.S. [fish] farmers are losing market share to a variety of [foreign] products sold domestically under the organic label,” says Paul Zajicek, executive director of the National Aquaculture Association, a group in Tallahassee, Fla., that represents some 3,000 fish farms around the country.

Domestic fish farmers could charge higher prices for organic-certified fish. In Europe, for example, farmed salmon sells for 50 percent more if it is certified organic.39

Sales of fish certified organic by Canada and the EU now account for at most 1 percent of the U.S. seafood market, according to Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. Lockwood predicts that organic fish raised by U.S. producers eventually could capture 5 percent of domestic fish sales.40

The Aquaculture Working Group has recommended that any proposed rule for organic fish cover sea-based as well as inland fish farms. But sea-based fish farms are particularly ill-suited for organic certification, many aquaculture experts say. They say such farms pollute surrounding water, harming wild fish attracted to the farms by the uneaten food flowing out.

“Not only will these standards harm the ocean's ecosystem, but they will impact the integrity of the organic seal,” said Max Goldberg, founder of Organic Insider, a weekly newsletter for the organic food industry.41

In a 2014 report, the Center for Food Safety said that “ocean-based fish farming can never be organic,” noting that ocean fish farms are highly vulnerable to damage from attacks by outside predator fish and frequently allow farm-raised fish to escape and breed with wild fish. The report also noted that there is no way to prevent toxic, synthetic chemicals from flowing into open-ocean fish farms.42

Deciding what organic fish should be allowed to eat — especially carnivorous fish such as salmon — has been a major focus of debate. Some organic advocates say a fish cannot be organic unless its feed is 100 percent organic. “To the best of my knowledge there is no ‘organic’ fish meal,” says Dan Burden, program coordinator at the Agricultural and Natural Resources program at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The Aquaculture Working Group formed in 2005 and submitted recommendations to the USDA five years later on standards for organic fish. USDA officials started drafting a proposed rule in 2014 and submitted it to White House budget officials in 2015, a year before progress on the rule stalled in the waning days of the Obama administration.43

The working group recommended that the USDA ban antibiotics, genetically modified organisms and chemical treatments for fish that are certified as organic. It urged tight restrictions on what fish could eat while allowing fish meal containing some wild-caught fish. The group also recommended prohibiting the practice of packing fish too tightly into pens.44

Go to top


Rise of Pesticides

In the 1700s, long before the introduction of agricultural chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, farmers used centuries-old methods that would qualify as organic under today's government standards. Farms were generally small, plows were horse- or oxen-driven and chemical fertilizers were unknown.

But important technological change began to arise in the 19th century: The mechanical reaper, introduced in the 1830s, altered work rhythms on the farm. Pesticides emerged in the mid-1800s, and chemists turned their attention to identifying sources of nitrogen for farm fertilizer.

By the early 1900s, food manufacturers had perfected canning, freezing and other processing methods.

In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl — a series of severe dust storms and droughts in the Great Plains — ravaged arable land and led thousands of farmers to abandon their homesteads and migrate to California and other states. The disaster encouraged farmers to increase mechanization, and farm size began to grow in an effort to boost efficiency.

Contrarians first used the term “factory farming” in 1939 to describe the changes as “tractors, combines, mechanical pickers and other gasoline-powered equipment replaced horse-drawn plows,” wrote Robin O'Sullivan, author of American Organic. 45

With mechanization and science altering the rural landscape, a series of developments led to the birth of the organic movement. English agriculturalist Lord Northbourne coined the phrase “organic farming” in his 1940 book, Look to the Land. British botanist Albert Howard perfected composting, drawing on a method used in India to recycle decomposing organic waste. And pioneering British farmer Lady Eve Balfour founded the Soil Association in England in 1946, one of the first organizations to promote organic farming and soil health.46

In the United States, J.I. Rodale, who suffered from poor health as a child in Brooklyn, N.Y., began preaching the virtues of organic farming and food during the 1940s.

He moved his family to Emmaus, Pa., where he planted 60 acres of fruits and vegetables. One of the first farmers to connect health with organic growing methods, Rodale, viewed today as the father of the modern organic farming movement, refused to use artificial fertilizers or chemical sprays and developed the slogan “healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people.” He said “the better-earning class of the public will pay a high price if they can be shown its value, and that they will save on doctor bills.”47

To fulfill his dream of establishing a successful publishing empire, he introduced Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942. The premier issue contained articles about composting, earthworms, soil fertility and the superiority of manure over chemical fertilizers.48

Rodale's 1945 book, Pay Dirt: Farming & Gardening With Composts, warned of the hazards linked to the pesticide DDT. To advance the organic movement through education and organization, he founded the Rodale Institute in 1947. In 1950, Rodale began publishing Prevention magazine, which focused on nutrition and wellness as an extension of the organic farming lifestyle.49

Scientific Farming

Scientific advances in the mid-20th century, meanwhile, were further altering agriculture and the food industry. “World War II marked a turning point in American manufacturers' ability to manipulate our food into forms never seen in nature” as preservatives allowed for the proliferation of processed foods, according to San Francisco food critic Jonathan Kauffman.50

In the 1950s, the Green Revolution — a series of technological advances, including improved irrigation and new fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides — produced higher agricultural yields and new breeds of rice and corn.

These advances helped turn the U.S. Midwest into the world's breadbasket, but a growing number of farmers called for a return to a time when small farmers and traditional farming methods dominated agriculture. In 1957, The Wall Street Journal reported on a “flourishing cult of gardeners who shun chemicals entirely.”51

In 1954, Helen and Scott Nearing published Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, which harkened to ideas introduced by naturalist Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s, and advocated modern-day homesteading. The book became a best-seller.

Celebrities influenced new diet trends during the 1950s. In 1958, the Aware Inn — one of the first restaurants to print the word “organic” on a menu — opened in Los Angeles, serving Greta Garbo, Marlon Brando and other movie stars.52

That same year, fitness pioneer Robert “Gypsy Boots” Bootzin began entertaining at the Health Hut, his bohemian hangout on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles that served organic fare and promoted healthy eating. Fans of his cooking included actors Kirk Douglas, Joan Collins and Natalie Wood. Ever the showman, Bootzin became a regular on “The Steve Allen Show,” a popular television variety show, pausing his musical shenanigans to fix the host a banana and soy milk smoothie.53

Biologist Rachel Carson sits at a desk (Getty Images/CBS)  
Biologist Rachel Carson sits at a desk in 1962 at her summer home in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Her landmark book, Silent Spring, focused public attention on the environmental effects of chemical pesticides at a time when farmers were increasingly relying on pesticides to increase crop yields. (Getty Images/CBS)

Media coverage of food-borne scares affected consumer behavior and boosted the organic movement. In 1959, federal authorities warned that aminotriazole, an herbicide used by cranberry growers, caused cancer in lab rats. Sales of fresh cranberries dropped 63 percent almost overnight.54

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a damning indictment of the environmental damage being done by DDT, a synthetic pesticide widely used at the time that was found to harm the environment, especially birds, and was later determined to be a probable human carcinogen. The best-selling book raised the country's awareness of the costs of using chemicals to control the environment and caused widespread alarm during a decade when pesticide use by farmers doubled.55

As Rodale pressed his claims against synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the government resisted. In 1964, the Federal Trade Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to Rodale Press, maintaining that Rodale's book The Health Finder contained false medical and dietary claims. Four years later, a federal appeals court vacated the order.56

The medical establishment also criticized organic advocates. Frederick Stare, a nutritionist at Harvard University, called Rodale a purveyor of “nutritional nonsense” during the 1960s and '70s.57

Hippie Influence

As the 1960s counterculture movement helped publicize the organic lifestyle, formerly exotic references to macrobiotic diets, brown rice and whole grain bread became common.58

Hippies followed the rock star trail to Morocco and India, learning about vegetarianism. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished an earlier quota system that restricted immigration from outside Northern Europe, changing both the country's demographics and its palates.

Seeking a simpler life, the back-to-the-land movement exerted influence beyond its numbers. In 1968, the hippie guidebook the Whole Earth Catalog espoused the virtues of composting and organic food. Between 1965 and 1970, 3,000 communes, which sought self-sufficiency by growing their own food in an organic manner, sprouted across the United States.59

In 1970, environmentalists held the first Earth Day to demand stronger environmental protections. That same year, Congress created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rodale died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 72 while taping an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” where, ironically, he was boasting about his health. The episode never aired. By that time, his Prevention magazine had 1 million subscribers.60

That same year, Samuel Kaymen helped found the first regional farming organization (now known as the Northeast Organic Farming Association) in Vermont, and 12 years later established organic dairy giant Stonyfield Farm.

The National Nutritional Foods Association, the nation's oldest nonprofit dedicated to the natural products industry, based in Washington, identified 250 manufacturers and distributors in 1971, along with 2,000 retail stores, specializing in organic products. Around 5,000 consumer co-ops selling whole, unrefined food operated by the end of the 1970s.61

Also in 1971, Rodale's Organic Gardening and Farming magazine led an attempt in California to create the country's first organic certification program, but two years later it abandoned the effort as too ambitious. That attempt was followed by Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic Farmers, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association along with other grassroots organic farming organizations.62

In 1974, comedian Dick Gregory published his Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat, and the former owners of the Aware Inn opened The Source restaurant, which served salads to Hollywood tough guys, such as Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.63

New foods entered the nation's consciousness during the 1970s. In 1975, the Book of Tofu and the best-seller Diet for a Small Planet extolled the virtues of soy. The Farm, a Tennessee commune, introduced Americans to a soy product called tempeh. Nutritionists touted the benefits of alfalfa sprouts, vegetable juices, fruit smoothies, herbal teas, avocado and dried fruits and nuts.

The country's use of napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, meanwhile, had increased consumers' fears of the ways chemicals affect the human body. “Buying vegetables grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides became a political act,” Kauffman wrote. For gourmands across the country, he said, “ingredients had to arrive in the kitchen looking like they were pulled out of the fields, not a package.”64

During the late 1970s, health food acolytes created their own outlets, establishing farmers markets and buyers co-operatives.

At the same time, consumption of tuna and swordfish dipped following revelations of their elevated mercury levels. The 1970s also saw the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban certain chemicals, including Red Dye No. 2 and the growth hormone DES, widely used in cattle, as suspected carcinogens. The EPA banned DDT in 1972.65

In 1977, environmental activist Wendell Berry published his influential book The Unsettling of America, which lauded the traditional, manual farming techniques used by the Amish — traditionalist Christians known for their simple lifestyle — and argued that “if all the farms in the country were managed organically, both our people and our land would undoubtedly be healthier.”66

The 1980s farming crisis, when farm debt nearly doubled from $120 billion in 1978 to $215 billion in 1984, focused new attention on the plight of small and family farms, including organic farms. Consolidation, poor harvests, falling land values and declining exports helped shrink the number of farms to 2.2 million by the middle of the decade, down from 6.8 million in 1935.67

The federal government first considered adopting a national organic farming standard in the early 1980s, by which time 22 states had adopted their own standards. At that time, just one USDA employee dealt with organic farming issues, while 200 agency scientists worked on regulating agricultural chemicals.68

Responding to soaring obesity rates in the 1980s, the FDA approved the terms “low-fat,” “fat-free,” “sugar-free” and “high-fiber” for food packaging. The USDA issued its first dietary guidelines for consumers in 1980 and updates them every five years.69

Mainstream nutritionists, meanwhile, continued to resist the organic food industry's claims. In 1983, Elizabeth M. Whelan, an epidemiologist, satirized those claims in The One-Hundred Percent Natural, Purely Organic, Cholesterol-Free, Megavitamin, Low-Carbohydrate Nutrition Hoax. 70

Gains and Setbacks

Organic farmers developed new ways to attract customers and initiated Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, where customers paid a flat subscription fee to local farmers and received boxes of produce every week throughout the growing season. The subscriptions started in 1986 with two farms and grew to 1,700 by 2007.71

In 1988, in one of the early fraud scandals to rock the organic food industry, The San Jose Mercury News broke the story about workers at a food distribution center in Rainbow, Calif., moving nonorganic carrots to a bag marked “organic.”72

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned Alar, designed to make apples ripen more slowly, in 1989, saying it caused cancer. The decision reinforced the organic movement's skepticism about modern farming's use of pesticides and other technological advances.

Responding to the growing popularity of organic farming methods, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. The act directed the USDA to adopt standards for organic farmers, which took effect in 2002, and created the National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board, a citizen advisory board responsible for advising the secretary of agriculture on organic standards. The 1990 law also introduced the official green-and-white label designating organic-certified products.73

The labeling move drew immediate criticism from conventional-farming advocates, who said it might lead consumers to believe nonorganic foods were unsafe.74

During the 1990s, scientists introduced a process that used genetic engineering to change plants' DNA, increasing crop yields and making plants more resistant to pests. Crops grown using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been controversial ever since. In 1993, the FDA's approval of rBGH, a synthetic growth hormone that increases a cow's milk yield, generated consumer backlash due to the modification of a cow's natural milk production. Cows treated with the hormone also were infection-prone, so they had to be given large doses of antibiotics.

Fraud cases continued to damage the organic food industry's image throughout the decade. In 1997, the USDA fined a food wholesaler for selling $700,000 worth of conventionally grown grains and beans as organic.75

Still, the organic market continued to boom. Certified organic farmland rose sharply between 1997 and 2001, from 1.3 million acres to 2.3 million acres.76

The amount of certified organic cropland increased 50 percent between 2005 and 2008, as farmers sought to meet rising consumer demand. By 2008, there were 12,941 organic growers in the country. The farm bill that Congress passed that year was the first to acknowledge organic farming. It included mandatory funding for research and for helping farmers handle the costs of going organic. Between 2008 and 2014, sales from organic farms increased 72 percent to $5.5 billion. Meanwhile, the number of the largest farms certified as organic rose 15 percent to 12,634.77

In 2016, Vermont became the first state to require labels designating food made with GMOs. But a month later, President Barack Obama signed legislation overturning the Vermont law and directing federal officials to set up their own standards for when food must be labeled as bioengineered.78

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of organic farms in the country increased 11 percent — to 14,217 — according to the most recent USDA figures. California led the way, with 2,713 organic farms.79

During the final weeks of the Obama administration in 2016, White House officials told the USDA to seek public comment on a proposal to make farmed fish eligible for organic certification. But the agency failed to act before the Trump administration took office, and the proposal has not moved since then.80

In September 2017, the Organic Trade Association filed suit against the USDA, saying the agency had violated the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act by delaying action on a proposal to increase federal regulation of livestock and poultry on organic farms. The USDA withdrew the proposal this year. The suit is proceeding.81

Go to top

Current Situation

Farm Bill Dilemma

Congress hopes to act by the end of the year to pass a five-year, $867 billion 2018 Farm Bill after failing to meet an end-of-fiscal-year deadline for reconciling separate House and Senate bills. As a result, money for organic agriculture programs ran out on Sept. 30.

Organic farmers generally prefer the Senate bill. The two measures differ in these key areas, among others:

Certification cost-sharing. The Senate bill would provide full funding — $11.5 million — for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which helps organic farmers cover the cost of receiving and maintaining organic certification. The House bill would eliminate mandatory funding for the program.82

Organic standards. Both bills contain provisions that organic farmers say would make it easier for the industry to use synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, and would weaken the integrity of the National Organic Standards Board. Many organic farmers object to a Senate provision, for example, that would allow a synthetic chemical to remain on the list of substances approved for organic use unless two-thirds of the board's 15 members voted to take it off the list.83

Conservation. The Senate bill would cut some funding from the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers who take steps to preserve natural resources, and create a new allocation within the program to support organic farming. The House bill would repeal the program entirely.

Research. The Senate bill would increase — from $20 million a year to $50 million a year — federal funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, which invests in organic research with the goal of increasing domestic production of organic crops to meet growing consumer demand. The House bill would raise the funding to only $30 million a year.84

“U.S. organic production lags far behind U.S. organic demand,” the Organic Farmers Association, a group in Pennsylvania that formed in 2016 to represent small and mid-size organic farmers, says on its website. “This market gap hurts U.S. farmers, and it is crucial that we invest in organic research to support the domestic production of organic crops.”85

Both bills would nearly double funding for the National Organic Program over the next five years to $24 million, with the goal of expanding efforts to prevent fraudulent organic imports.86

The USDA's inspector general's office said in September 2017 that the agency “was unable to provide reasonable assurance that … imported agricultural products labeled as organic were from certified organic foreign farms and businesses that produce and sell organic products.”87

“There's a growing concern about the capacity of the Agriculture Department to accurately monitor products that are labeled organic but may not actually be,” said Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., who introduced the funding boost in the House version of the farm bill. “Because you can get a premium price, there are inevitably going to be people who will try to trick the system.”88

Alleged Conflicts

Critics of the USDA's organics policies say they allow potential conflicts of interest: To obtain certification as organic, farmers hire and pay inspection companies that they choose. The USDA reviews the third-party certifications, but critics of the system say a farmer could seek certification from a company willing to overlook problems that might keep that farm from winning approval.89

Apart from developments on the farm bill, organic farmers generally distrust the Trump administration's push for deregulation, contending that it has diluted standards for their industry and has allowed large agribusinesses to cut corners in complying with USDA organic requirements.

Fishermen harvest catfish from an aquaculture farm (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Zach Gibson)  
Fishermen harvest catfish from an aquaculture farm in Uniontown, Ala., in 2015. U.S. fish farmers are pushing for organic certification, saying they are losing market share to imports from other countries that have organic fish programs. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Zach Gibson)

“For whatever reason, they think it's in their constituents' interest to diminish the organic program as much as possible,” Jesse Laflamme, CEO at Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs, said of administration officials.90

In May, the USDA canceled plans to raise money for an advertising campaign designed to promote organic food — along the same lines as past food-related promotions such as “The Incredible, Edible Egg” or “Got Milk?” The campaign, backed by the Organic Trade Association, would have been financed with payments from organic producers. USDA officials said they canceled the plan due to lack of support during a three-month public comment period.91

“We had a solid deal in place to get that off the ground and a lot of groups worked to set it up, but the USDA withdrew it without giving notice and blindsided everyone,” says Greg Fogel, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an alliance based in Washington of organizations advocating to improve policies on sustainable agriculture.

Organic farmers say cancelation of the ad campaign is another action — along with relaxing animal welfare requirements and allowing organic certification for hydroponics and carrageenan — that proves the USDA is compromising organic standards.

USDA officials deny those claims. They also say they are drafting a new rule aimed at increasing oversight of organic products, and are working harder to intercept shipments of bogus organic food from overseas.92

Jennifer Tucker, who became deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program in June, says her priorities include instituting “robust enforcement” polices and addressing accusations by small organic farm operations that large corporate farms are skirting the spirit of organic standards.

When Tucker's boss, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, was asked about those accusations recently, he said, “If you believe in socialism, you probably ought to export your operation somewhere.”93

New Labels

Some small, family-operated organic dairy farmers say competition from large agribusiness operations has left many of them struggling to stay in business. Patti and Brian Wilson, who operate an organic dairy farm in Orwell, Vt., said they put their 50 cows up for sale in August.

“It's been a slow decline, kind of a slow death,” Patti Wilson said.94

Meanwhile, the price of organic milk has declined recently, as more consumers seek out nondairy alternatives such as soy or almond milk. Reuter, the dairy farmer in Minnesota, says he postponed his first delivery of organic milk to his buyer, the Organic Valley farmer co-operative in Wisconsin, until October 2019 because there is so much organic milk on the market.

“[W]e are in a milk-heavy world right now,” Melissa Hughes, Organic Valley's chief mission officer and general counsel, said in August. Organic Valley and some other large organic milk buyers have imposed production quotas on farmers and told some of them their contracts will not be renewed.95

On the food labeling front, USDA officials aim to publish a final rule by December on labeling food made with genetically modified ingredients, with an enforcement date of 2020. White House budget officials are reviewing the proposed rule, which was developed under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Law that Obama signed in 2016.96

Under that law, food manufacturers can choose among three packaging options alerting consumers to the presence of GMOs: text, a symbol — to be developed by USDA officials — or an electronic or digital link, such as a bar code. The USDA has proposed three possible symbols for food made with GMOs. Each features the letters “BE,” for bioengineered.97

Many consumers believe the letters alone are not enough and that GMO labels should specify “bioengineered,” according to a poll conducted by the International Food Information Council, a research group in Washington financed largely by the food, beverage and agricultural industries.98

Meanwhile, debate over how much pesticide residue in food is safe escalated following recent reports from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy group in Washington financed partly by organic food companies.

In August, the group said it had found glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup and other weedkillers, on 43 of 45 food products it tested made with conventionally grown oats, including cereals and health bars. In 31 of those cases, it said, glyphosate levels were above its health-risk benchmark of 160 parts per billion.

The group said just five of 16 products made with organic oats showed evidence of the herbicide, and levels on those five were all below what the EWG considers dangerous. Glyphosate has been linked to cancer at high levels.

However, the amount of glyphosate that the EPA considers dangerous in food is 187 times higher than the EWG's danger level, and 10 times above the highest level the EWG found on the food it tested. In 2015, the World Health Organization said that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans,” but a year later the organization and the United Nations said dietary exposure to the herbicide was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.”99

Go to top


Continued Expansion

Organic industry representatives see no signs that demand for their products, especially produce, will slow.

The Organic Trade Association predicts that by 2030, organic food will account for 10 percent of food consumed in the United States, organic food sales will near $90 billion a year and organic farmland acreage will double.100

“We're seeing innovations in baby and children's foods, and there's a lot of evidence that better-for-you snacking is continuing to be on trend,” said Laura Batcha, the association's executive director. “You look in the retail space and retailers are continuing to accelerate their investment in organic options in their stores.”101

The same trends are apparent globally. By 2020, the global organic food market is expected to increase by 16 percent over 2015 levels, as consumers around the world become increasingly health conscious.102

Overall food demand will increase rapidly as the world's population grows to an estimated 9 billion by 2050. Experts say agricultural output will have to increase 50 percent to meet that demand. Some food security experts say it might be possible to fulfill that demand through organic agriculture alone, but only if people around the world adopted drastic lifestyle changes.103

European researchers said in a study released in November 2017 that a wholesale conversion to organic farming would require up to 33 percent more land unless people cut the amount of food they waste in half and sharply reduce their meat consumption. Such changes “could substantially reduce land demand, while alleviating environmental impacts and contributing to global food availability,” the researchers said.104

Even if organic farming is not the answer to the world's future food problems, it still has a bright future, according to Victor Shorrocks, author of Conventional and Organic Farming — A Comprehensive Review through the Lens of Agricultural Science.

Shorrocks said organic farming is best suited for developed countries where food is not in short supply, and in developing countries with plenty of land for cultivation. It is not a feasible option, he said, in countries such as China with large populations and little available farmland or where demand for food is soaring, like India.

“Organic farming will continue where consumers believe organic food is superior, where farmers can obtain premium prices from being certified organic and where it is not economically viable to use fertilizers and pesticides,” Shorrocks said.105

Go to top


Should welfare standards for animals raised on organic farms be tightened?


Suzanne Mcmillan
Content Director, Farm Animal Welfare Campaign, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Written for CQ Researcher, November 2018

Sales of meat, milk and eggs bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's “USDA Organic” seal continue to boom, reflecting consumers' growing desire to purchase food produced more responsibly, including with high standards of animal welfare. In a 2017 Consumer Reports survey, 86 percent of Americans who always or often buy organic said it is highly important that the animals used to produce organic food are raised on farms with high standards for animal welfare.

But the organic certification program has gradually been hijacked by industrial interests that threaten to erode consumer trust in the organic label by exploiting gaps in the program's rules — including for animal welfare.

For example, loose interpretations of the phrase “access to the outdoors” have allowed organic egg producers to keep birds indoors year-round on enclosed concrete “porches.” Meanwhile, 83 percent of consumers who regularly buy organic products said it is highly important that eggs labeled organic come from hens that were able to go outdoors and had sufficient outdoor space to move freely.

Over the past decade, a historic collaboration among organic producers, retailers, distributors, nongovernmental organizations, consumers and the USDA led to the January 2017 issuance of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule. It is a carefully considered overhaul of USDA Organic's animal welfare standards to protect the label's integrity, ensure consumer confidence and level the playing field for farmers.

Among many improvements, the OLPP introduced transport and slaughter requirements for all species; minimum indoor and outdoor space allowances for chickens that required true outdoor access — not porches; environmental enrichments that allow natural behaviors; and prohibitions on certain painful practices like docking dairy cows' tails. A 2014 Organic Egg Farmers of America survey found that 95 percent of organic chicken farmers already met or exceeded key OLPP requirements.

Sadly, conventional trade groups and a small yet powerful group of “faux-ganic” producers who represent a large proportion of overall organic production pressured the Trump administration to derail and ultimately retract the OLPP. The USDA must not shirk its duty to the millions of animals raised each year under the organic label, the responsible farmers who meet higher welfare standards and the organic consumers who reasonably expect more humane treatment of farm animals. It is time for the USDA to implement meaningful animal welfare regulations for the organic label.


Michael Nepveux
Economist, American Farm Bureau Federation. Written for CQ Researcher, November 2018

The American Farm Bureau opposes adding animal welfare standards to rules focused on ecological balance and biodiversity in the fields. Doing so would harm animals and farmers alike.

Take, for instance, the Agriculture Department's recently withdrawn livestock and poultry practices rule. Right now, organically produced poultry have ample access to the outdoors via covered and screened-in porches attached to the sides of their houses. These porches let birds wander in and out of the fresh air as they please, pecking and scratching at the dirt and grass as they go.

The withdrawn rule would have “improved” animal welfare by substituting an open-air, uncovered area in which birds could roam. There is no strong evidence that birds actually want this. There is plenty of evidence, however, that open barnyards can lead to major outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, thanks to the droppings of geese and other migratory birds that fly over farmland on a regular basis.

It is hard to overstate how lethal and fast-moving avian flu is. Agriculture Department regulations and standard procedures for controlling outbreaks require euthanizing 100 percent of any flock infected. Nothing in our view of animal well-being justifies exposing birds to this sort of risk.

In 2015, a single outbreak led to the destruction of 42.1 million chickens and 7.5 million turkeys. Fifty-six countries banned U.S. poultry in whole or part.

Problems don't stop with avian flu. Open-air barnyards create breeding grounds for bacteria, viruses and parasites that closed-in areas do not. This would affect the safety of egg production and thus likely violate Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules. In any case, farmers could not possibly meet FDA sanitization standards.

The economic impacts of the withdrawn rule would surely have forced many organic growers out of business. The Agriculture Department's own economists found that the open-space requirements would force some farmers to buy more land, tear down some hen houses, or both, to comply with the rule. In all, the department estimated a 43 percent drop in organic egg supply as farmers unable to meet onerous requirements exited the business to produce for lower-margin, “cage-free” markets.

Farmers work diligently to utilize proven practices developed by animal-care professionals. Their livelihoods depend on it. This is no less true for organic poultry farmers who are dedicated to producing a safe, wholesome product for their customers.

Go to top


1910s–1940sThe organic movement begins to form.
1911Former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official F.H. King publishes Farmers of Forty Centuries, praising Asian farmers who minimally disturb the land.
1924In a lecture series, German scientist Rudolf Steiner promotes biodynamic agriculture, which stresses balancing the needs of animals, plants and soil.
1940English botanist Albert Howard's organic farming manifesto, An Agricultural Testament, influences farmers and scientists…. British agriculturist Lord Northbourne coins the phrase “organic farming.”
1942Rodale Press, founded by editor and organic farming pioneer J.I. Rodale, publishes the influential Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.
1946Lady Eve Balfour of Britain spearheads the founding of the Soil Association to promote organic farming methods.
1947Rodale founds the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania to conduct research on organic farming and promote its use.
1950s–1980sStates and private groups establish organic guidelines across the United States.
1950sNew technologies lead to large-scale commercial farming in the United States.
1953Natural Food Associates forms in Atlanta, Texas, to connect buyers and sellers of organic foods.
1962The best-selling book Silent Spring by conservationist Rachel Carlson raises awareness of the dangers of DDT, a powerful pesticide.
1970Some 20 million Americans rally for environmental protections on the first Earth Day.
1971Rodale's Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine initiates an organic certification program in California.
1972DDT banned.
1973Organic farmers and scientists establish the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, known as FiBL, as a private foundation in Switzerland.
1977Environmental activist Wendell Berry's book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture challenges the “community-killing” aspects of conventional farming and argues for more sustainable methods.
1980The first Whole Foods store opens in Austin, Texas, to connect buyers and sellers of unprocessed and organic food.
1984Oregon Tilth, an organic advocacy group, introduces an organic certification system.
1990s–PresentThe federal government defines, standardizes and regulates organic farming.
1990Organic Foods Production Act creates the National Organic Program within the USDA and establishes a framework for organic rules and policies.
1992Organic Farming Research Foundation, an advocacy group, conducts the first National Organic Farmers' Survey.
1994A California biotech company brings the first genetically engineered crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, to market.
2002USDA's National Organic Program becomes fully operational.
2016Obama administration directs the USDA to seek public comment on a proposal to certify farmed seafood as organic, but the agency fails to act.
2018The USDA says hydroponic crops will continue to qualify for organic certification, angering many organic farmers…. USDA officials withdraw proposal to apply animal welfare standards to organic farms, saying it exceeds their statutory authority…. Congress fails to agree on a new farm bill before a Sept. 30 deadline, threatening organic farming programs…. French study suggests that eating organic food lowers cancer risks.

Go to top

Short Features

“What is the true essence of organic?”

Organic farmers attending a rally in Thetford, Vt., two years ago carried signs with a simple message: “Soil is the soul of organic.”

Their aim was to persuade federal agriculture officials that produce grown hydroponically — in water-based nutrient solutions, without dirt — should not be eligible for organic certification. “As far as we're concerned, if it's not grown in soil with all the wonderful features that soil puts into the plants, there's no way you can call it organic,” said Eliot Coleman, one of the farmers attending the November 2016 rally.

He and other farmers held similar rallies the next year, but they ultimately lost their fight. In November last year, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on organic industry issues, voted to continue allowing organic certification for hydroponic as well as aquaponic operations, which combine hydroponics and aquaculture to grow fish and plants together in a single, integrated system. In January, USDA officials affirmed that the NOSB's recommendation would stand.1

The decision continues to roil the organic industry and stir passionate responses from farmers on each side of the debate.

Hydroponic growers say their approach adheres to the overarching ideals of organic farming: rejecting pesticides and protecting water supplies from overuse and chemical contamination.

“We can grow our tomatoes organically with three to five gallons of water per pound of production as opposed to growing tomatoes in open fields, which can use anywhere from 26 to 37 gallons of water,” said Jessie Gunn, vice president of marketing at hydroponic grower Wholesum Harvest in Arizona. “I mean, what is the true essence of organic?”2

An employee checks on produce growing in hydroponic pools (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Daniel Acker)  
An employee checks on produce growing in hydroponic pools at a BrightFarms greenhouse in Rochelle, Ill., in 2017. The federal government's decision to continue allowing organic certification for hydroponic operations is at the center of a debate over whether growing crops without soil is consistent with the principles of organic farming. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Daniel Acker)

Because hydroponic crops are typically grown indoors, consumers can buy a range of affordable produce year-round, says Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a hydroponics advocacy group based in New Orleans. She also says the ability to grow fresh produce anywhere, including inside abandoned urban factories, helps reduce transportation costs.

On the other side of the debate, many organic farmers argue that hydroponic farming runs counter to the spirit of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which states that organic growing methods are designed to “foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation and manuring.” They also argue that hydroponic produce is inferior in taste and quality to soil-grown produce, citing “water-logged” strawberries and “woody” celery.3

Organic industry experts say “dirt-first” organic farmers are not just worried about compromising the integrity of the organic seal, they also are worried about losing market share, and some organic farmers agree.

“What will happen, very quickly, is that virtually all of the certified organic tomatoes in supermarkets will be hydroponic,” said Dave Chapman, an organic vegetable farmer in Vermont. “Virtually all of the peppers and cucumbers [will be hydroponic]. A great deal of the lettuce. And most of the berries.”4

Market research firm IBISWorld in Los Angeles says hydroponic industry revenue rose 3.4 percent annually to $848 million between 2012 and 2017, aided partly by weather. “Extreme weather conditions damaged many crops for fresh field farmers, so grocery stores and farmers markets quickly turned to hydroponic farmers to meet their demand,” the firm said. It said there are about 2,800 hydroponic operations in the country.5

Organic farming traditionalists say large corporations are becoming more involved in hydroponic growing, which they say erodes the integrity of the USDA organic label. They say that is partly because, while soil-based organic farmers must show that their crops have complied with federal organic rules for three years prior to certification, hydroponic growers can obtain certification almost instantly.

“There is a growing pressure from big business to weaken the organic standards in order to increase their profits,” said Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer in Iowa and a former member of the NOSB.6

Investors also are taking an interest in hydroponic operations. In June, Bowery, a startup that grows greens under artificial light inside a large New Jersey warehouse, raised $20 million in venture capital from Google's parent company, Alphabet, and other investment firms. Plenty, a Silicon Valley hydroponic operation with backing from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has raised more than $200 million and plans to build 300 vertical farms — a hydroponic method of growing crops in vertically stacked layers — in China.7

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a hydroponic operation called Square Roots, co-founded by Kimbal Musk, brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, is looking to expand into major cities around the country. “By 2050, there'll be 9.6 billion people on the planet and 70 percent of them in urban areas,” Kimbal Musk said. “That's driving a lot of investment and interest in urban farming.”8

Many other countries have been less receptive to hydroponic farming's bid to go organic. The European Union (EU), Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Japan, for example, all require that organic crops be grown using soil. Hydroponic growers in those countries are eager to export to the United States and sell their produce as organic at premium prices.9

— Marc Ferris

[1] Rebecca Sananes, “Some Growers Say Organic Label Will Be Watered Down If It Extends To Hydroponics,” WBUR, Nov. 16, 2016,; Emily Monaco, “Organic Farmers Reject Hydroponics With 16 Protest Rallies,” Organic Authority, Oct. 23, 2017,; Tom Karst, “Updated: USDA clarifies hydroponic organic status, draws criticism,” The Packer, Jan. 25, 2018,

[2] Dan Charles, “Hydroponic Veggies Are Taking Over Organic, And A Move To Ban Them Fails,” NPR, Nov. 2, 2017,

[3] “25. Organic Foods Production Act of 1990,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nov. 10, 2005,; Sarah Pope, “The Hydroponic Invasion of USDA Organic,” the healthy home economist, updated May 24, 2018,

[4] Charles, op. cit.

[5] “Hydroponic Crop Farming in the US: US Industry Market Research Report,” IBISWorld, October 2017,

[6] Francis Thicke, “Thanks to Big Ag, that ‘organic’ label might not mean what you think,” The Hill, Dec. 6, 2017,

[7] Leanna Garfield, “A Jeff Bezos-Backed Warehouse Farm Startup is Building 300 Indoor Farms Across China,” Business Insider, Jan. 23, 2018,

[8] Leanna Garfield, “A Google-backed warehouse farm just raised $20 million to build in cities across the US,” Business Insider, June 16, 2017,; Zlati Meyer, “This Musk — Elon's brother — looks to revolutionize urban farming,” USA Today, Feb. 18, 2018,

[9] Kathleen Marshall, “Will Hydroponic Crops Ever Become Organic Certified?” Maximum Yield, June 30, 2017,; “European Parliament Sets Stronger Organic Regulations than U.S., Rejects Labeling Hydroponic as Organic,” Beyond Pesticides, April 27, 2018,

Go to top

“What we have been able to do is unbelievable.”

This past spring, Calyxt, a small start-up in suburban Minneapolis, planted 17,000 acres of the world's first gene-edited soybeans in South Dakota and Minnesota.

The soybean seeds had been altered to remove the gene for trans fat — a type of unsaturated fat linked to heart disease. Calyxt's scientists also had modified the seeds to make the soybeans resistant to drought and disease while requiring less water and pesticide use than conventional soybeans. The company hopes to create a line of more nutritious, convenient and sustainable crops that could be used to make a healthier soybean oil than products currently on the market.10

Gene editing, which adds or removes traits from a plant by rewriting its DNA, is the newest revolution in food technology. Food experts say it has the potential to replace genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which use a different approach to altering genetic material and have struggled to win public approval.

“There's a long way to go, but what we have been able to do in the last four or five years is unbelievable,” said Zachary Lippman, a genetics professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State. “It's science fiction.”11

Farmers have long sought to fortify their hardiest crops and weed out the weakest ones through hybridization techniques. But when large biotech companies introduced GMOs in the 1990s, consumer groups and food purists around the world raised alarms, warning of potential health risks. GMO technology inserts genes from one organism into another to increase crop yield or improve nutrient values. Europeans referred to the results as “Frankenfood,” and most European Union countries blocked cultivation of new GMO crops within their borders.12

U.S. consumers successfully lobbied to have GMOs labeled. Under the 2016 National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, food manufacturers must disclose the presence of GMO ingredients in their products by Jan. 1, 2020.13

Gene-editing uses different technologies, including CRISPR and TALEN, which employ enzymes to cut away specific pieces of DNA. Instead of cross-breeding two plants, as with GMOs, gene-editing enables “a previously unachievable targeted and precise modification” of a single plant's genome, according to a recent study.14

Swiss-based biotechnology giant Sygenta is using gene-editing to try to develop a hardier, better-tasting tomato. Cargill, an international agribusiness in Minnesota, seeks a healthier canola oil. DowDuPont in Michigan is field-testing a variety of corn designed to achieve higher yields than conventional corn. Smaller startups and university labs also are working to advance gene-editing technology.15

The public has a long-standing distrust of genetically modified food, based largely on fears the technology could make food unhealthy or could run out of control and infect conventional crops. Calyxt CEO Federico Tripoldi said consumers welcome most technological advances, “but technology and food has been something scary. We need to figure out how to engage in that conversation.”16

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which certifies organic farms, does not intend to regulate gene-edited plants, despite a 2016 recommendation from the agency's National Organic Standards Board to exclude such plants from organic certification. “USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in March. “Using this science, farmers can continue to meet consumer expectations for healthful, affordable food produced in a manner that consumes fewer natural resources.”17

Many organic farmers view gene-edited crops as akin to GMOs, which are vigorously opposed by the organic food industry. “It's pretty clear that this new kind of gene editing is genetic engineering and is therefore an excluded method within the organic standards,” says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, an organic advocacy group in Washington.

Organic advocates reacted with shock when Klaas Martens, an organic grain and livestock farmer in New York and a prominent organic hardliner, said in June he might be willing to accept gene-edited crops as long as they mimic naturally occurring varieties.

“I think there are some uses of CRISPR that are fully compatible with the goals of organic agriculture,” Martens said. “There are others that are not compatible…. I would hope that, as we go forward, we could discuss the different uses and make a distinction based on how that technology is being used.”18

— Marc Ferris

[10] Caitlin Dewey, “The Future Of Food,” The Washington Post, Aug. 11, 2018,; Rod Nickel, “Insight — Gene-editing startups ignite the next ‘Frankenfood’ Fight,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2018,

[11] Eric Niler, “Why Gene Editing Is the Next Food Revolution,” National Geographic, Aug. 10, 2018,

[12] “Where are GMOs grown and banned?” Genetic Literacy Project, undated,

[13] Greg Jaffe, “Ins and Outs of the US GMO Disclosure Law,” Cornell Alliance for Science, Sept. 25, 2017,

[14] Nina Duensing et al., “Novel Features and Considerations for ERA and Regulation of Crops Produced by Genome Editing,” Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotech, June 18, 2018,

[15] Nickel, op cit.

[16] Dewey, op cit.

[17] “USDA Refuses to Regulate Genome Editing in Plants,” Cornucopia Institute, April 3, 2018,

[18] Ed Maixner, “CRISPR conference assesses promises and pitfalls of gene editing,” Agri-Pulse, June 6, 2018,

Go to top



Barton, Gregory A. , The Global History of Organic Farming , Oxford University Press, 2018. In the first comprehensive history of the organic farming movement, a history professor in Australia and South Africa examines the movement's impact on agriculture and society.

Fromartz, Samuel , Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew , Harcourt, 2006. A business and food journalist traces the organic movement from its origins in the 1920s to the present and offers case studies of innovators and their impact on the food industry.

Kauffman, Jonathan , Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat , William Morrow, 2018. A food journalist presents a history of how organic and other alternative food movements of the 1960s and '70s became mainstream.

O'Sullivan, Robin , American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping and Eating , University Press of Kansas, 2015. A history and philosophy professor examines organic farming as a cultural phenomenon in the United States and details how a 1990 federal organic food law has affected consumer behavior.


Blaustein-Rejto, Dan , “The Problems with a Large-Scale Shift to Organic Farming,” Breakthrough Blog, Nov. 30, 2017, A food and agricultural analyst at a California think tank says increasing the number of organic farms would have environmental implications that clash with the organic movement's goals.

Bloch, Sam , “At CRISPRcon, An Organic Luminary Embraces Gene Editing. Will the Industry Follow Suit?” The New Food Economy, June 6, 2018, A farmer known as a passionate advocate for organic agriculture surprised the industry when he said gene-edited crops might be suitable for organic certification.

Dewey, Caitlin , “A Fast-Moving Future for Gene-Edited Foods,” The Washington Post, Aug. 12, 2018, Gene-edited crops pose a new challenge to the organic farming movement.

Karst, Tom , “Updated: USDA clarifies hydroponic organic status, draws criticism,” The Packer, Jan. 25, 2018, Organic farmers reacted angrily after federal officials said hydroponic crops remain eligible for organic certification.

Krishna, Priya , “An ‘Organic’ Menu? Well, Not Entirely,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2018, Restaurants can pitch their food as organic even if it does not meet the same requirements that apply to organic farms.

Nosowitz, Dan , “The Real Organic Project: Disgusted With the USDA, Farmers Make Their Own Organic Label,” Modern Farmer, March 5, 2018, Some organic farmers are taking steps to create their own organic label in response to what they say are misguided decisions by federal agriculture officials.

Orlowski, Aaron , “Organic Standards for US Farmed Seafood Goes Nowhere Despite Market Demand,” Seafood Source, Dec. 9, 2017, Domestic fish farmers say lack of U.S. organic certification for their seafood puts them at a disadvantage in competing with fish certified as organic by Canada and the European Union.

Whoriskey, Peter , “‘Why the Hell Am I Paying More for This?’ Major Egg Operation Houses ‘USDA Organic’ Hens at Three Per Square Foot,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2017, Large organic egg farmers engage in practices that smaller farmers say betray the intent of requirements designed to protect the welfare of animals on organic farms.

Reports and Studies

“Certified Organic Survey, 2016 Summary,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, September 2017, Federal agriculture officials offer a statistical snapshot of organic farming.

Demko, Iryna , et al., Report to the Organic Trade Association, U. S. Organic Trade Data: 2011 to 2016, May 12, 2017, A trade group analyzes federal import and export data for organic products.

Seufert, Verena, and Navin Pakratty , “Many Shades of Gray: The Context-Dependent Performance of Organic Agriculture,” Science Advances, Vol. 3, No. 3, March 10, 2017, Two Canadian researchers assess the benefits and costs of organic farming for the environment, consumer health and other areas.

Go to top

The Next Step

Environmental Impact

Haspel, Tamar , “Is organic agriculture really better for the environment?” The Washington Post, May 14, 2016, Tests by U.S. agriculture officials show that organic farming is superior to conventional agriculture on a number of environmental measures, even though conventional methods produce higher crop yields.

Jones, Kirstie , “Pa. farmer: Prioritize climate-change action on personal and state levels,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 12, 2018, Organic farms help reduce global warming by trapping carbon in soil, but they also are more vulnerable than conventional farms to extreme weather events caused by climate change, according to the manager of an organic farm in Pennsylvania.

McGrath, Matt , “Intensive farming ‘least bad option’ for food and environment,” BBC, Sept. 14, 2018, A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England challenges the assumption that “intensive” conventional farming designed to maximize crop yields is more damaging to the environment than organic farming.

Health Debate

“Despite studies, it's still hard to prove eating organic food lowers risk of developing cancer,” The Japan Times, Oct. 25, 2018, Studies on organic food consumption and health often are contradictory and unreliable.

Georgiou, Aristos , “Eating Organic Foods Linked to Lower Cancer Risk,” Newsweek, Oct. 23, 2018, A French study found that people who eat organic food most frequently are 25 percent less likely to develop cancer.

Haspel, Tamar , “The truth about organic produce and pesticides,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2018, Many consumers believe pesticides used to grow non-organic food presents an unacceptable health risk, but even organic food contains some pesticide residue.


Allen, Lee , “Hydroponic Organic Produce: Year One,” Growing Produce, Oct. 10, 2018, One year after federal officials affirmed that food grown hydroponically is eligible for organic certification, hydroponic growers are looking to play an increasingly significant role in meeting demand for organic food.

Baker, David , “Vertical farms have nailed leafy greens. Next up: tasty fruit,” Wired, March 19, 2018, A San Francisco hydroponic startup called Plenty is working on technology aimed at making its fruits and vegetables taste better than conventionally grown food.

Meyer, Zlati , “This Musk — Elon's brother — looks to revolutionize urban farming,” USA Today, Feb. 18, 2018, Kimbal Musk, brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has founded a hydroponic urban farm in Brooklyn, N.Y., and plans to expand his operation to major cities across the country.

Organic Standards

“What does the ‘organic’ label really mean?” CBS News, July 12, 2018, U.S. agriculture officials face increasing criticism for what some organic farmers say is weak enforcement of organic standards and problems making sure organic imports are not fraudulently labeled.

Rathke, Lisa , “More organic than thou? Rebel farmers create new food label,” The Associated Press, The Seattle Times, April 11, 2018, Farmers and scientists who say U.S. Agriculture Department policies are diluting the standards that inspired the organic farming movement are developing a new label for organic food that exceeds federal requirements.

Go to top


Cornucopia Institute
PO Box 126, Cornucopia, WI 54827
Advocacy group for small, organic family farms.

IFOAM Organics International
Charles-de-Gaulle St., 5, D-53113, Bonn, Germany
+49 228 9265010
Nongovernmental international membership organization that represents the organic agricultural movement.

National Organic Program
1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, DC 20250
U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that sets national standards for organic products.

Organic Farmers Association
611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530
Organization established in 2016 to represent small and midsize organic farms.

Organic Farming Research Foundation
303 Potrero St., Suite 29–403, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Group established in 1990 to advance the organic movement through scientific research.

Organic Trade Association
444 N. Capitol St., N.W., Suite 445A, Washington, DC 20001
Trade organization for organic agriculture and product industries in North America.

Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)
Acher Strasse 113, Postfach 219 CH-5070, Frick, Switzerland
+41 62 865 72 72
Private foundation established by organic farmers and scientists in 1973.

Rodale Institute
611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530
Organization founded in 1947 by organic farming pioneer J.I. Rodale to promote organic farming through research and outreach.

Go to top


[1] “2016 Certified Organic Survey,” National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, October 2017,; Gina Geffrard, “That's a Wrap: New Certified Organic Data Released during National Organic Harvest Month,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oct. 24, 2017,; “U.S. Now has 6.5 Million Acres of Organic Certified Land,” American Ag Radio Network, Oct. 18, 2018,; Ken Roseboro, “U.S. Organic Farmland Hits Record 4.1 Million Acres in 2016,” Civil Eats, Nov. 9, 2016,

[2] Anne Ross, “Authentic Organic: Always the Best Choice,” The Cultivator, Cornucopia Institute, Winter 2017,

[3] “Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious?” Mayo Clinic, undated,

[4] Michelle Brandt, “Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, study finds,” Stanford Medicine, Sept. 3, 2012,; Tamar Haspel, “The truth about organic produce and pesticides,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2018,

[5] Lisa Bunin, “What Eating Organic Food Does for the World,” The Huffington Post, Dec. 6, 2017,

[6] Judith C. Thalheimer, “The Organic Foods Debate — Are They Healthier Than Conventional?” Today's Dietician, July 2013,

[7] Hannah Ritchie, “Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?” Our World in Data, Oct. 19, 2017,

[8] “Maturing U.S. organic sector sees steady growth of 6.4 percent in 2017,” Organic Trade Association, undated,

[9] Ibid.; “Robust organic sector stays on upward climb, posts new records in U.S. sales,” Organic Trade Association, undated,

[10] “The cost of organic food,” Consumer Reports, March 19, 2015,; “MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll: Wave III,” Michigan State University, Oct. 11, 2018,; Zlati Meyer, “Organic food is pricier, but shoppers crave it,” USA Today, July 27, 2017,; “Organic Industry Survey,” Organic Trade Association, 2018,; “Organic Market Analysis,” Organic Trade Association, undated,

[11] “Organic Agriculture,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, undated,; “Guidelines for Organic Certification of Dairy Livestock,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, undated,

[12] Peter Whoriskey, “‘Uncertainty and dysfunction’ have overtaken USDA program for organic foods, key lawmaker says,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2017,

[13] Dan Nosowitz, “National Organic Standards Board Decrees That Hydroponic Can Be Organic,” modern farmer, Nov. 2, 2017,

[14] “More organic than thou? Rebel farmers create new food label,” The Associated Press, WTOP, April 10, 2018,

[15] “Video Interview: USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is Asked About the Legality of Hydroponics in Organic,” Organic Insider, Oct. 3, 2018,

[16] Aaron Orlowski, “Organic standards for US farmed seafood going nowhere despite market demand,” SeafoodSource, Dec. 19, 2017,

[17] “3 farmers to plead guilty in organic grain fraud scheme,” The Associated Press, Des Moines Register, Oct. 11, 2018,; “Organic Enforcement,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, undated,

[18] Michael Clark and David Tilman, “Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice,” IOPScience, June 16, 2017,

[19] Steven Savage, “The Lower Productivity Of Organic Farming: A New Analysis And Its Big Implications,” Forbes, Oct. 9, 2015,

[20] “§205.601 Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production,” Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Government Publishing Office, Oct. 25, 2018,

[21] Suzy Friedman, “Organic farming: The best choice for our environment and growing world?” Environmental Defense Fund, May 5, 2016,

[22] Tamar Haspel, “Is organic agriculture really better for the environment?” The Washington Post, May 14, 2016,

[23] “No Shortcuts in Checking Soil Health,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, July 2007,

[24] Ibid.

[25] Eva Marie-Meemken and Matin Qaim, “Organic Agriculture, Food Security, and the Environment,” Annual Review of Resource Economics, October 2018,

[26] Clark and Tillman, op. cit.; Ritchie, op. cit.

[27] Peter Whoriskey, “Why the hell am I paying more for this? Major egg operation houses ‘USDA Organic’ hens at three per square foot,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2017,

[28] Ibid.

[29] “USDA Decides Not to Impose Additional Regulatory Requirements for Organic Producers and Handlers,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, March 12, 2018,; Jesse Laflamme, “Saving Organic Egg Farms,” Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs,; Dan Nosowitz, “Trump Administration Cuts Law Designed to Ensure Organic Animal Welfare,” modern farmer, Dec. 20, 2017,; “USDA withdraws Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule,” Farm Futures, March 12, 2018,; Emma Sarran Webster, “The USDA Is Withdrawing the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule,” Teen Vogue, Jan. 18, 2018,

[30] “Consumer Reports Survey Finds Consumers think its Important to Have High Animal Welfare Standards for Food Labeled Organic,” Consumer Reports, April 20, 2017,

[31] “Twenty-Six Percent of U.S. Consumers Trust Organic Food Labels,” Organic Produce Network, Aug. 17, 2017,

[32] Dan Charles, “USDA Defies Advisers, Allows Carrageenan To Keep Organic Label,” NPR, April 4, 2018,

[33] “Launch of the Regenerative Organic Certification Pilot Program: Program & Participants,” Rodale Institute, undated,; Ariana Reguzzoni, “What Does the New Regenerative Organic Certification Mean for the Future of Good Food?” Civil Eats, March 12, 2018,

[34] Priya Kishna, “When the Menu Says ‘Organic,’ but Not All the Food Is,” The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2018,

[35] Ibid.

[36] Peter Whoriskey, “The labels said ‘organic.’ But these massive imports of corn and soybeans weren't,” The Washington Post, May 12, 2017,

[37] Orlowski, op. cit.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Aquaculture,” Agricultural and Rural Development, Organic Farming, European Union, updated Oct. 26, 2018,

[40] Orlowski, op. cit.

[41] Max Goldberg, “Take Action: Organic Fish May Be Coming Soon and it is a Horrible Idea,” LivingMaxwell, Nov. 15, 2014,

[42] “Like Water And Oil: Ocean-Based Fish Farming and Organic Don't Mix,” Center for Food Safety, October 2014,

[43] Orlowski, op. cit.

[44] “Aquaculture Working Group USDA Recommendations,” The Conservation Fund, Oct. 14, 2015,

[45] Robin O'Sullivan, American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping and Eating (2015).

[46] Samuel Fromartz, Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (2006).

[47] O'Sullivan, op. cit.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.; Fromartz, op. cit.

[50] Jonathan Kauffman, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat (2018).

[51] Ibid.; O'Sullivan, op. cit.

[52] Kauffman, ibid.; O'Sullivan, ibid.

[53] Kauffman, ibid.

[54] Michael Tortorello, “The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959,” The New Yorker, Nov. 24, 2015,

[55] “DDT — A Brief History and Status,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, undated,; Kauffman, op. cit.

[56] Joshua C. Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (2017).

[57] Kauffman, op cit.

[58] O'Sullivan, op cit.

[59] William Lockeretz, ed., “Organic Farming: An International History,” CAB International, 2007,; O'Sullivan, ibid.

[60] Dick Cavett, “When That Guy Died on My Show,” The New York Times, May 3, 2007,; O'Sullivan, ibid.

[61] Kauffman, op cit.

[62] Ibid.

[63] O'Sullivan, op. cit.

[64] Kauffman, op. cit.

[65] Ibid.; Philip M. Boffey, “Red Dye No. 2, a Food Coloring Consumed daily By Millions of Americans, was Tested Time and Again for Safety. Yet Now, Nearly a century After Its Introduction, the Government's Top Regulatory Officials Have Concluded that Its Safety Remains Uncertain,” The New York Times, Feb. 29, 1976,; Will Allen, The War on Bugs (2008).

[66] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books (1977).

[67] William Serrin, “the Story of An American Farmer,” The Alicia Patterson Foundation, March 28, 2011,; Kurt Lawson, “Taking a Look Back at the 1980s Farm Crisis and Its Impacts,” Corn+Soybean Digest, Aug. 22, 2016,; O'Sullivan, op cit.; Tim Franklin, “Survivors of Midwest Farm Crisis Reaping Rewards,” The Chicago Tribune, March 27, 1988,

[68] O'Sullivan, ibid.

[69] Kauffman, op. cit.

[70] O'Sullivan, op. cit.

[71] Fromartz, op. cit.

[72] Bob Scowcroft, “From the Organic History Book: Carrot Fraud, Meryl Streep and Organic Certification,” New Hope Network, Feb. 13, 2015,; Fromartz, ibid.

[73] “National Organic Program,” Organic, It's Worth It, undated,

[74] O'Sullivan, op. cit.

[75] Fromartz, op. cit.

[76] “U.S. Adoption Patterns, 1997-2001,” Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture,; “Organic food sales in the United States from 2005 to 2017 (in billion U.S. dollars),” Statista, undated,

[77] Ann Butkowski, “Understanding the Farm Bill: What's Organic Got to Do With It?” Simple Good and Tasty, June 6, 2011,; Tom Polansek, “Sales from organic U.S. farms reached $5.5 bln last year — USDA,” Reuters, Sept. 17, 2015,

[78] Stephanie Strom, “G.M.O.s in Food? Vermonters Will Know,” The New York Times, June 30, 2016,; Stephanie Dinan, “Obama signs bill overturning Vermont's GMO labeling law,” The Washington Times, Aug. 2, 2016,

[79] “Certified Organic Survey,” United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, updated October 2017,

[80] Orlowski, op. cit.

[81] Maggie McNeil, “Organic Trade Association ups challenge to USDA withdrawal of animal welfare rule,” Organic Trade Association, April 12, 2018,

[82] “What's at Stake: Organic Agriculture,” Natural Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Sept. 20, 2018,

[83] “Tell Congress: Don't Weaken Organic Standards!” Organic Consumers Association, undated,

[84] “Organic Scorecard on the 2018 Farm Bill,” National Organic Coalition, undated,

[85] “2018 Policy Platform,” Organic Farmers Association, undated,

[86] “2018 Farm Bill Summary of Organic Programs and Priorities,” Organic Trade Association, undated,; “Bills Aimed at Better Review of Organic Products,” Vegetable and Specialty Crop News, Aug. 6, 2018,

[87] “National Organic Program — International Trade Arrangements and Agreements,” Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Agriculture, September 2017,

[88] Peter Whoriskey, “Organic food fraud leads Congress to weigh bill doubling USDA oversight,” The Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2017,

[89] Ibid.

[90] Andrew Martin and Shruti Singh, “Trump's USDA Is Killing Rules That Organic Food Makers Want,” Bloomberg, July 11, 2018,

[91] Chris Koger, “Updated: USDA Puts the Brakes on National Organic Checkoff,” The Packer, May 14, 2018,

[92] Martin and Singh, op. cit.

[93] Ibid.

[94] “Organic dairy farmers vow to compete,” The Associated Press, Morning Ag Clips, Aug. 27, 2018,

[95] Cathy Siegner, “Can organic milk survive dairy's decline?” Food Dive, April 23, 2018,

[96] Catherine Boudreau, “USDA aims to debut ‘bioengineered’ GMO food labels by December 1,” Genetic Literacy Project, Sept. 14, 2018,

[97] Ibid.; Gregory Jaffe, “Forecasting the USDA's final GMO labeling rule,” Alliance For Science, Aug. 7, 2018,

[98] Jaffe, ibid.; “International Food Information Council,” Source Watch, undated,

[99] Don Reisinger, “Roundup Weed Killer Chemical Found in Cheerios and Quaker Oats, Researchers Say,” Fortune, Aug. 15, 2018,; David Meyer, “A New Study Found Weedkiller in 28 Cereals and Other Kids' Foods. Why Parents Shouldn't Freak Out Just Yet,” Fortune, Oct. 25, 2018,; Arthur Neslen, “Glyphosate unlikely to pose risk to humans, UN/WHO study says,” The Guardian, May 16, 2016,

[100] “State of the Organic Industry,” Organic Trade Association, undated,

[101] “The ongoing evolution of organic: Why it's popular and where it's heading,” Food Dive, Daymon, March 19, 2018,

[102] “Global Organic Food Market to Grow at Over 16% by 2020,” press release, TechSci Research, August 2015,

[103] Lauren Sigfusson, “Organic Farming Could Feed the World, But …,” Discover, Nov. 15, 2017,

[104] Adrian Muller et al., “Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture,” Nature Communications, Nov. 14, 2017,

[105] Victor M. Shorrocks, “The future of organic farming and gene editing,” Alliance For Science, March 27, 2018,

Go to top

About the Author

Marc Ferris, author of this week's edition of CQ Researcher  

Marc Ferris, is the author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem (2014). His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun and other publications. He has a master's degree in history from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Go to top

Document APA Citation
Ferris, M. (2018, November 2). Organic farming boom. CQ researcher, 28, 921-944. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2018110200
Document URL:
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Farm Policy
Nov. 02, 2018  Organic Farming Boom
May 01, 2012  Farm Subsidies
Dec. 02, 1994  Farm Policy
Aug. 05, 1994  Genetically Engineered Foods
Mar. 25, 1983  Farm Policy's New Course
Oct. 28, 1977  Farm Policy and Food Needs
Apr. 06, 1966  Reversal of Farm Policy
May 02, 1962  Milk Surpluses
Dec. 07, 1949  Brannan Plan
May 01, 1939  Agriculture Under the Trade Agreements
Sep. 20, 1937  Farm Legislation and the Ever-Normal Granary
Nov. 05, 1935  Potato Control Under the A.A.A.
Apr. 25, 1934  Stabilization of the Dairy Industry
Jan. 24, 1930  The Federal Farm Board
Sep. 24, 1928  Wheat Pools in Canada and the United States
Feb. 10, 1927  The McNary-Haugen Bill
Dec. 10, 1924  The President's Agricultural Conference
Agriculture and the Environment
Consumer Protection and Product Liability
Earth Sciences
Economic Analyses, Forecasts, and Statistics
General Social Trends
Regulation and Deregulation
Soil and Watershed Conservation
No comments on this report yet.
Comment on this Report