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What Is Organic Agriculture?

A man picks organic strawberries on a farm.
A farmer uses a tractor to till a field before planting.
Organic rice.
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  • Written By: James Gapinski
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 27 March 2014
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Organic agriculture is a form of agriculture that relies entirely on natural methods of pest control, fertilization, and plant growth. Organic agriculture is often practiced as an alternative to "conventional" agriculture, which often relies on chemical pesticides and fertilizers to produce higher yields. Organic farming is considered more sustainable and healthier than traditional farming by many experts, though it is not widely practiced when compared to conventional farming methods.

To be officially labeled as "organic," farms in participating countries must comply with regulations set forth by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). The IFOAM emphasizes the use of natural ecological processes for increased agriculture productivity. Certified organic products must come from farms free of pesticides and genetic manipulation.

Organic agriculture often relies on biological pest control rather than using potentially harmful chemicals. Biological pest control involves stocking farmland with the natural predators of common agricultural pests. The natural predators eat the parasites or herbivores responsible for crop degradation, thereby eliminating the need for pesticides.

In general, organic farming is considered sustainable and ecologically friendly, but biological pest control sometimes brews ecological controversy. Biological pest control can, in some cases, disrupt an area’s natural ecosystem. Even though so-called "pests" are considered bad for agricultural crops, they are a vital part of the local ecosystem. The destruction of local pests can upset the natural balance, as can the addition of new predators.

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Less controversial than pest control, natural fertilization is also a staple of organic agriculture. Natural fertilization often encourages healthy plants using "green manure." Green manure involves growing a "cover crop" designed to add nutrients to the soil. Cover crops are grown for a short period, then tilled into the soil for decomposition. The decomposing crop adds nutrient-rich organic matter to the ground. This method is sometimes used in tandem with animal manures free of growth hormones.

Crop rotation is also used in organic agriculture to ensure fertile soil. Crop rotation is an age-old practice whereby crops are grown in rotating cycles as most appropriate for specific seasons and soil conditions. Crop rotation ensures healthy soil without excessive fertilizer use.

Produce from organic farms must be entirely natural without any genetic alternations. Modern conventional farms often rely heavily on gene manipulation to encourage faster growth and increased pest protection. While in the US the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved many genetically altered foods, few long-term studies exist on the subject, and many worry that the genetically altered food is not as healthy as organic produce.

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