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Organic agriculture is best known as a method of agriculture where no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are used2. This description does not mention the essence of this form of agriculture, however, which is the management of farms in such a way that soil fertility and pest problems are prevented. Although many single techniques used in organic agriculture are used in a wide range of agricultural management systems, what differentiates organic agriculture is the focus of the management. Under the organic system, the focus is on maintaining and improving the overall health of the individual farm's soil-microbe-plant-animal system (a holistic approach), which affects present and future yields. The emphasis in organic agriculture is on using inputs (including knowledge) in a way which encourages the biological processes of available nutrients and defence against pests, i.e., the resource "nature" is manipulated to encourage processes which help to raise and maintain farm productivity. The soil is a central part of that system. Most fertilizers and pesticides are considered to hinder that process and are, therefore, prohibited. As can be seen from the list in Box 1, in organic agriculture, management is directed towards preventing problems, while stimulating processes which assist in nutrition and pest management.

For market purposes, a strict definition of organic agriculture is required to protect both producer and consumer interests. Definitions were first developed in the private sector. The most widely adopted definition was developed and promoted by the International Federal of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), a non-governmental organization that has existed for 25 years (see Box 2). The IFOAM Principle Aims are used as guidelines for setting standards for organic agriculture in individual countries. The word "organic" (or a similar word) is protected by law in a number of countries (see US definition in Box 2). Long before the word was legislated, the need was felt within organic agriculture circles to define the concept, and to spell out, in considerable detail, what it meant in practice. The details, as described in the standards, are the minimum requirements to which those working with organic products (such as farmers, processors, transporters, retailers) need to keep themselves. Apart from indicating to the producer which practices are allowed, standards (and the certification structure which goes with them) safeguard fair competition within organic management. That is, nobody can sell products under the name while using cheaper practices which are not allowed under organic management. At the same time, standards indicate clearly to the consumer what the conditions are under which the products are grown.


Soil management practices include increasing humus content and biological activity as well as meeting mineral deficiency of soils:

  • manipulation of crop rotations and strip-cropping: deep and shallow rooted plants bring different nutrients to the surface; different crops require different nutrients;
  • growing green manure;
  • undersowing;
  • application of rock dust, manure, crop and agro-industry residues, household waste, compost;
  • soil tillage, such as use of an implement which aerates the soil.

Pest management practices include:

  • manipulation of crop rotations, to minimize survival of crop-specific pests (in the form of, for example, insect eggs, fungi) which can infest the next crop;
  • strip cropping, to moderate spreading of pests over large areas;
  • manipulation of pH-level or moisture level of the soil (in irrigated areas);
  • manipulation of planting dates, to plant at a time most optimal for the crop, or least beneficial for the pest;
  • adjustment of seeding rates, to achieve an optimal rate given the need to crowd out weeds or avoid insects;
  • use of appropriate plant varieties and livestock breeds for local conditions;
  • implementation of stock culling programmes, which emphasize genetic resistance against certain diseases;
  • use of stock buying programmes, which minimize the import of diseases onto the farm;
  • limiting field size, which aids in weed management by livestock;
  • biological control methods, to encourage natural enemies of pests by providing habitat (for example hedges) or by breeding and releasing them in areas where they are required;
  • trapping insects, possibly with the use of lures such as pheromones;
  • biological pesticides (for example, derris dust, pyrethrum, rotenone) of which the active ingredient is short-lasting, and which may be produced locally.

Post-harvest practices include:

  • in temperate countries, grains can be well conserved when harvested and stocked in conditions which allow air circulation (in jute sacs, ventilated silos, etc.);
  • in tropical countries, humidity and high temperatures pose problems which can be overcome through: harvesting at complete maturity and during dry weather; storing without stripping off the bark; drying of grains under the sun before storing; mixing sand, china-clay, or wood ash to grains; adding little quantities of nut oil to niebe grains (very effective on weevil); addition of smoke or certain plants to repel insects; etc.;
  • in ancient Europe and the Mediterranean basin, grains were stored in buried pits for several years: the anaerobic conditions of these pits prevented insect proliferation and the grains underwent an initial fermentation which protected it from insects and mouldiness, despite the high degree of humidity;
  • traditional procedures allow conservation and enhancement of the nutritional value of cereals and leguminous, such as: fomenting rice (rice is bathed, steamed and dried) destroys insect eggs; transforming wheat in bourghoul (wheat is germinated, boiled, dried and crushed) enriches the cereal with vitamins and essential amino-acids (lysine) and pre-digest starch; fermenting certain leguminous (for example, soy in the Far East and nere in Africa) gives high nutritional quality products which can be conserved for years; fermented fish sauce (nuoc-nam) allows simple fish conservation and offers an alternative to fish drying, especially that the latter entails inevitable losses in tropical conditions.



The word "organic" is legally protected in some countries. In the EU, for example, this word has been protected since the early 1990s in English-speaking countries. The equivalent in French, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch-speaking countries is "biological", and "ecological" in Danish, German and Spanish-speaking countries.

IFOAM definition:

The International Federation for Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), established in the early 1970s, represents over 600 members and associate institutions in over 100 countries. IFOAM (1996) defines the "organic" term as referring to the particular farming system described in its Basic Standards. The "Principle Aims of Organic Agriculture and Processing" are based on the following equally important principles and ideas:

  • to produce food of high nutritional quality in sufficient quantity;
  • to interact in a constructive and life enhancing way with all natural systems and cycles;
  • to encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving micro organisms, soil flora and fauna, plants and animals;
  • to maintain and increase long-term fertility of soils;
  • to promote the healthy use and proper care of water, water resources and all life therein;
  • to help in the conservation of soil and water;
  • to use, as far as is possible, renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems;
  • to work, as far as possible, within a closed system with regard to organic matter and nutrient elements;
  • to work, as far as possible, with materials and substances which can be reused or recycled, either on the farm or elsewhere;
  • to give all livestock conditions of life which allow them to perform the basic aspects of their innate behaviour;
  • to minimize all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural practices;
  • to maintain the genetic diversity of the agricultural system and its surroundings, including the protection of plant and wildlife habitats;
  • to allow everyone involved in organic production and processing a quality of life conforming to the UN Human Rights Charter, to cover their basic needs and obtain an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment;
  • to consider the wider social and ecological impact of the farming system;
  • to produce non-food products from renewable resources, which are fully biodegradable;
  • to encourage organic agriculture associations to function along democratic lines and the principle of division of powers;
  • to progress towards an entire organic production chain, which is both socially just and ecologically responsible.

IFOAM notes that "Genetic engineering focuses on the genetic makeup without taking into account the complete organism or system in which the organism functions. It is thus a contradiction to the above mentioned principle aims of organic agriculture."

US definition:

In 1980 the US Department of Agriculture defined the concept of organic agriculture as follows: "...a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic agriculture systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manure, legumes, green manure, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds, and other pests'. The report also included the following observation: "The concept of the soil as a living system which must be "fed" in a way that does not restrict the activities of beneficial organisms necessary for recycling nutrients and producing humus is central to this definition."

Organic standards, in which the definition is set out for practical application, stipulate not only the prohibition of use of certain inputs but usually dictate a range of practices to be followed that will ensure a farm maintains its sustainable productive capacity. In other words, farms on which no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are used but where no alternative measures are taken to cope with fertility and pest issues are not necessarily accepted as organic. The factors required to classify as organic agriculture depend partly on local circumstances in terms of needs and availability of resources. For example, in a country where organic agriculture is not widely adopted, and where no organic seedlings are available, seedlings originating in conventionally managed enterprises may be used on an interim basis. Similarly, in such a situation, manure may not always be available from organic farms, and sourcing it from conventional farms may sometimes be allowed. Restrictions, such as the requirement to compost the material, may be in force. Since no technology is available to determine whether organic standards have been adhered to, certification of the production process at the farm level, as opposed to product certification, was specifically chosen to ensure that organic products were indeed grown according to organic standards. Consequently, the certification process is complicated, since it includes ascertation that the farmer has incorporated a number of practices to cope with soil fertility and pests, as appropriate, in the particular area where the farm is located.

Although minimum standards have been set for many countries, standards differ between countries. However, if fundamental differences are found between local standards and those of IFOAM, an organization with those standards would be deemed unacceptable by IFOAM and hence by many traders in organic products. As mentioned before, the aim of organic agriculture is to stimulate biological processes in order to encourage nutrient needs of crops and livestock, and pest management. Since conditions influencing these factors are not the same in all countries, differences in standards are acceptable. In fact, from an economic point of view, total homogeneity of standards worldwide would be rather inefficient. At present, FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission is developing internationally applicable organic agriculture standards to protect consumers against deception and fraud. The Codex definition of organic agriculture is quoted in Box 3. The Codex Alimentarius Commission will also assist in harmonizing national legislation and settling international disputes on trade in organic produce.


Most recently, the Codex Committee on Food Labeling has debated "Draft Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labeling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods"; adoption of a single definition for organic agriculture by the Codex Alimentarius Commission is expected at its next meeting in June, 1999.

According to the proposed Codex definition, "organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system."

Many organizations or countries have their own certification scheme, which needs to be of the same level as, or of higher standard than, IFOAM's guidelines. In total, more than 100 national or regional standards have been developed, some of them in developing countries, in particular in Latin America. Certification can be carried out by an organization outside the country, especially if no national standards for organic agriculture are available, and no local certifying organization exists. Developing countries in particular make use of this possibility, as setting up the infra-structure needed for certification of organic products (standards, inspection scheme, ratification, appeal procedures, etc.) can be costly, and is seldom self-financing, especially in the early stages. In the early days of organic certification, traders found it sometimes difficult to know which schemes genuinely certified organic produce. IFOAM has developed an Accreditation Program, which evaluates certification schemes and hence assists both the traders and the evaluated scheme.

If the gains from organic agriculture are internalized (that is, if the total benefits of adopting organic management are received on the farm itself) production standards may not be critical. However, if the word "organic" is not protected and no effective certification exists, it may be considerably more difficult to safeguard a premium, if one exists. In one study (UNDP, 1992) the absence of the protection of the word "organic" was mentioned as a reason for the organic farmers being unable to make the most of the available premium. In some countries (such as China) interest in organic markets is mainly due to price premiums in the market (Thiers 1997). In such cases, an official certification system is essential.


2 . The word "pest" is used in this paper as an umbrella word referring to all forms of life of negative influence on farm productivity, including insects, weeds, fungi, nematodes, livestock parasites, etc. Similarly, the word "pesticide" covers all agricultural biocides such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, nematicides and anthelmintics.


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