Lentis/The Organic Foods Movement

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Recent increase in US organic farmland

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic food as agricultural products produced by cultural, biological, or mechanical methods while reusing resources, promoting ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity. Organic farming does not permit the use of synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. [1] Animals producing organic meat and dairy cannot be fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic farms replace the use of pesticides and fertilizers in conventional farming by substituting intensive labor and management of food production, which is more expensive. Organic foods cost one to three times more than their non-organic counterparts. However, in the past decade organic food sales have increased by 17 percent. [2]

The adoption of organic foods has gained momentum in recent decades as a response to environmental and health concerns introduced during the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, which began in the 1940s, spawned industrial farming techniques such as the use of synthetic chemicals in crops and livestock and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The fear of health and environmental implications created by the Green Revolution manifested itself into the Organic Food Movement. The Organic Food Movement is more than an environmental and health movement; it is also a social movement involving a power struggle between the elite and the common man. The roles of participants in the power struggle have changed over time. At its conception, the Organic Food Movement was a struggle between the common man and the scientific elite. Today, the Organic Food Movement is no longer exclusively for the elite and is gaining popularity nationally. Evolving technology is advancing the Organic Food Movement, encouraging its mainstream acceptance and promoting organic foods.


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USDA organic certification label.

Sir Albert Howard is considered the father of organic agriculture. He developed organic techniques, such as composting methods, after observing traditional Indian farming practices. Lord Northbourne coined the term "organic farming" in his novel Look to the Land (1940), where he relates the farm to an organism[3]. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. Carson studied the use of industrial pesticides and their harm to the environment. Silent Spring is credited with facilitating the environmental movement[4] in which the organic movement is embedded. The movement gained traction following the publication and was spurred by the anti-establishment era of the 1960s and 1970s. "Back to the land" hippies were the initial participants in the movement. [5]

Organic Certification

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In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act standardized the production of food labeled "organic." The Act recognized the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) as the regulatory program responsible for setting national standards for organic food production. The Act requires the Secretary of Agriculture to provide a National List of substances that may and may not be used in organic food production. [6] The NOP established the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which dictates what substances can be used by organic farmers. Farmers are probhibited from using synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation are also not allowed. Organic farmers must document production and sales, maintain separation of organic and non-organic products, and participate in inspections. Every five years all substances used in organic farming are reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board to ensure that they meet the required criteria. [7] In the U.S., the USDA recognizes three levels or organic certification. Agricultural products containing all certified organic ingredients are labeled "100% Organic." Products processed with certified organic ingredients and non-organic ingredients allowed per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances are labeled "Organic." Foods labeled "100% Organic" and "Organic" may include the USDA organic seal. Multi-ingredient products containing at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients are labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients." Foods labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" may not include the USDA organic seal. [8] Since the Organic Foods Production Act passed in 1990, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have increased by more than 20 percent each year.

Factors Influencing the Organic Foods Movement

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Advocates of the Organic Food Movement often suggest that organic farming is the "green" solution to the use of chemicals in conventional agriculture. Rachel Carson's 1962 publication Silent Spring created national concern about the environmental impact of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, such as increased nitrogen levels in water sources. An estimated 20% of nitrogen (majority of which comes from nitrogen based fertilizers) that humans put into watersheds wash into the river[9] cause eutrophication, the growth of phytoplankton in water, which depletes the water's oxygen supply making it inhabitable by aquatic animals.

The environmental benefits of organic food production is disputed because of the environmental impact caused by the long distance transportation of food. One study found that organic mangoes and green peppers traveled from further distances[10], producing significant CO2 emissions and negating the benefits that organics provide. Other social movements such as the Local Food Movement, the Slow Food Movement, and urban homesteading provide an alternative to long distance transportation of food and encourage community support of local farming.

Further misconceptions about organic production include the guarantee that organic farming is environmentally harmless. The USDA's NOP allows the use of pesticides and fertilizers in organic farming providing they are approved on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. One study has indicated that organic pesticides may be more harmful because they are less selective concerning which insects are targeted. [11]


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Increasing environmental concerns introduced public health concerns. People feared chemical additives in their food. This fear spurred public disputes between Green Revolution advocates and organic advocates. For example, in the 1970s, the increased use of nitrogen fertilizer caused concern about the potential for an elevated risk of methaemoglobinaemia, or blue baby syndrome. [12]

Cornerns regarding environmental illnesses showed up as well. Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome (MCSS), also known as Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI), is said to be the result of complex gene-environment interactions. Individuals who suffer from IEI typically present with non-specific physical symptoms including dizziness, redness, tingling, nausea, digestive disturbances, and heart palpitations.[13] The illness is not yet recognized by the American Medical Association. Some patients and organic food supporters believe that organic food can mitigate these symptoms by eliminating the intake of synthetic chemicals and pesticides.[14]

Nutritional Benefits

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Consumers often associate the organic methods with higher levels of nutrition.[15] One study by Williams and Hammitt showed that 90% of customers surveyed perceived a reduction in pesticide health risk in organic foods compared with conventional foods. 50% of customers perceived a reduction in risk due to natural pathogens and toxins.[16] The favorable consumer perception of organic food labeling is said to be caused by the "halo" effect, the phenomenon where ethical food labeling leads consumers to have a positive impression of the food. Recent studies have also shown that consumers with values against the organic food will have a corresponding negative perception of the food when sampled. [17]

While there are studies that show some organic foods have more nutrients than conventionally grown foods, [15]

Algae bloom presents problems for the water's ecosystem.

other studies have shown that some organic produce has higher levels of E. Coli and salmonella[18] Organic peanut butter was responsible for an outbreak of salmonella in 2009.[19] Research reviews are mainly inconclusive about the overall health benefits of organics.[15] Nonetheless, consumers' perception of the health and safety of organics has contributed to the recent increase in organic food demand. Skeptics argue that the health benefits are often overestimated without substantial evidence.

Animal Health

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Not only is human health considered in the Organic Food Movement, but animal health has also become a part of the movement. At the beginning, the organic movement solely focused on plants. When antibiotics and growth horimones were approved for animal farming, animals could be contained in more confined spaces without inhibiting their growth rates. This technique was revolutionary in animal production systems. However, animal rights and organic food advocates rejected these new supplements, believing that they could undermine animal health. This dispute received attention in the 1960s as animal diseases gained resistance to antibiotics. People started worrying that antibiotics ingested by humans would cause the same disease resistance as seen in animals. Growth horimones and antibiotics are regulated differently around the world. Organic farming prohibits the use of growth horimones or antibiotics. Without the use of these supplements, organically farmed animals grow at a much slower rate than non-organic. Organic farms produce less animals, yielding lower production rates and consequently higher prices for meat and dairy products from organic animals. [20]


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Social media and interactive websites have pushed acceptance of the Organic Food Movement and the introduction of user-based technologies have allowed the organic food movement to gain mainstream popularity.

Crowd-sourcing has led to the development of websites including Real Time Foods, a food guide allowing users to trace their food back to the farm where it was grown. Real Time Foods is powered by the users and encourages collaboration through posts, promotions, and updates. From foodies to farmers, everyone is able to interact by sharing photos and information about foods and farms. [21]

Relay Foods is a website allowing users to easily access local and organic foods while educating individuals about the food they eat. Their goal is to create a direct pathway from producers to consumers. Through an online medium, consumers can order locally grown produce and sustainable products either for delivery or pickup. Technologies like Relay Foods have increased popularity of organic farm to table produce. [22]

Organic Movement Participants

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Before organic food became popular in mainstream society, there was a stigma associated with the organic food culture. The early adopters were seen as hippies and non-traditionalists. This stigma continues to influence the prevalent perception of organic food consumers in popular culture as "hipsters" and "elitists".[23] The high price points of organic food, when compared to conventionally farmed foods, also boosts the elitist perception of organic food. The high cost of organic products causes organic food to be associated with the rich elite, and as an exclusive product that the lower class doesn't have the means to access. [24] In some countries such as China, the stereotype is the truth. In China, it is well known that be best organic food is supplied to high ranking officials, top athletes, and the cultural elite.[25]


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The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is a vocal group campaigning for "health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics."[26]


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The transition to organic farming techniques may be an attractive option to many farmers for a number of reasons.

One of these reasons is profit. Due to the price premiums consumers are willing to pay, organic farming has the potential to be more lucrative than conventional methods.[27]

Another attractive aspect is robustness. Organic agriculture can withstand weather conditions such as droughts or flooding better than conventional agriculture.[28]

In Germany, some members of the National Democratic Party (NPD), more generally known as Neo-Nazi's, have begun organic farming. Organic farming is supported under the movement to discourage the introduction foreign modified organisms, increase the self-sustaining ability of the country, and aid the depopulated rural former East Germany.[29] The NPD is also interested in championing these eco-causes in order to increase membership.[30]

Urban Homesteading

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Urban homesteading is a subculture of the organic movement where individuals in urban and suburban areas transform their home to a sustainable unit. One example is the Dervaes family of Pasadena, CA, who grows most of their food on a fifth of an acre, producing over 6,000 lbs and 350 varieties of crops. They also produce their own biodiesel and generate two-thirds of their energy using solar panels. Jules Dervaes started the transition to homesteading because of several events, an increase in water rates due to a drought and the introduction of GMOs. Dervaes wanted to protect his family from what he saw as a "mad experiment" by biotech companies. He wanted to "plant [his] way to independence"[31].

Urban homesteading presents the organic movement as a social movement for independence. The Dervaes and other homesteaders are consumers who want control over what is in their food and how it is processed. Individuals often use internet and blogging to give tips (e.g. blogs on how to make a compost bin[32]) and teach others how to create a sustainable homestead.

On a larger scale, urban agriculturists seek to have the same effect on cities[33] Cities are consumers of food and other agricultural products. As part of the organic movement, local farms and individual residents are growing crops in and around cities, utilizing urban waste to create a sustainable system. This makes the city more independent, relying less on imports. An important motivation is food security; the proximity gives cities an emergency backup food supply[33].


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Agricultural Chemical Producers

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Monsanto is one example of a chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, and is a leading producer of genetically engineered seed as well as well as herbicide. Recognizing the growing popularity of organic foods, Monsanto challenges the idea that there are only two sides to the organic farming and food debate. They state that there can be a common ground between conventional farming and organic farming, and there is no need for a strong division between the two markets. They also defend conventional farming by discussing the fact that significant scientific evidence shows there is no difference between organic and conventional products in terms of taste, nutrition, and safety. Monsanto believes that the major problem lies in the problem of choosing sides in this debate, leading to the belief that there is one good way and one bay way to grow food. However, the reality is that there is a common ground between organic and non-organic crops and it should be recognized. In this common ground, society should place a greater importance on the best way to increase sustainable produce while shying away from the debate over organic food. [34]

Smaller, unorganized participant groups have risen in protest of large pesticide corporations. Millions Against Monsanto is an example of such group. Their goal is to take action against Monsanto by facilitating the signing of petitions as well as informing the public of the hidden truths of Monsanto. [35]


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The Alliance for Food and Farming is non-profit organization comprised of American farmers and farm groups. Their mission is to allow farmers to voice their commitment to food safety and sustainability. This Alliance pushes the idea that conventional farmers are also environmentalists, and that modern farmers are focused on the safe use of pesticides through regulation and testing. Directly on their website, they provide "food for thought" articles on pesticides use. These articles include ideas such as the public being misinformed on organic food and a quality check on organic food and the fact that the organic label does not guarantee quality or taste. [36]

SafeFruitsandVeggies.com is an informational website setup by The Alliance for Food and Farming and it provides information to the public regarding the safety or organic and conventional produce. The website promotes the balanced consumption of both organic and conventional products, and they state that the worries of pesticide residue can be negated by simply washing the produce to make it safe for consumption. They also present a plethora of studies which state that the presence of residue on produce does not make produce harmful, and current conceptions about organic foods and pesticides can be proven wrong. Through the use of selected research to challenge mainstream contentions, this group makes a stance against a solely organic platform while encouraging the consumption of organic as well as conventional pesticides grown with pesticides [37]

Consumer decision making

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Organic and conventional bananas at a supermarket. The organics are placed closer to the front of the store.

Some consumers choose to purchase only organic foods, while others may purchase their food based on the lowest price. Between these extremes are those who make the decision on a case-by-case basis which is where psychology of choice becomes relevant.

The Weighted Additive Rule is a procedure for exhaustively evaluating a number of choices by considering all the relevant attributes. This is often difficult, and sometimes impossible when not all factors can be quantified or not all information is readily available. Thus, people employ heuristics when facing complex decisions. In Satisficing, one such heuristic, the alternatives are examined in the order they are encountered. If they do not meet a cutoff threshold in each of the desired attributes, they are rejected as long as there are more options to consider.[38] Applying this rule to the decision of selecting produce in a grocery store, the desired attributes considered may include ripeness, damage, size, quantity, organic certification, and price.


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The organic movement represents a long running industrial movement that has gained traction through a relatively free market. There is government regulation involved, but it is limited to defining the specifications for the organic label. This is a sharp contrast to top-down, EPA-style environmental regulations. The consumer is given a way to "put their money where their mouth is," and the producer is given the economic incentive necessary to make the transition as organic products become more mainstream. Several advocates and critics from what seems shockingly different areas strive to guide the movement further toward their cause. For some the movement serves as a way to gain a greater political following. For others it serves as a means to live free of environmental illness. While the implications of organic farming are complex and often debated, the Organic Food Movement can provide useful lessons for advancing other environmental or societal goals.


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  1. National Organic Program www.ams.usda.gov
  2. Kutz, M. (2007). Handbook of Farm, Dairy, and Food Machinery. Delmar, NY: Myer Kutz Associates Inc. p.24
  3. Paull, J. (2006). The Farm as Organism: The Foundational Idea of Organic Agriculture. Elementals: Journal of Bio-Dynamics Tasmania 80: 14–18.
  4. Glausiusz, J. (2007, Nov. 20). Better Planet: Can A Maligned Pesticide Save Lives? Discover Magazine. 34.
  5. Lockeretz, W. (Ed.). (2007). Organic Farming: an international history (pp. 1-7). Trowbridge, United Kingdom: CABI International
  6. What is Organic Production? http://www.nal.usda.gov/
  7. National Organic Program http://www.ams.usda.gov/
  8. "Labeling organic products". U.S. Department of Agriculture. October 2012. 10 Dec 2013.
  9. Moffat, A.S. (1998) Global nitrogen overload Science. 279: 988–989.
  10. University of Alberta (2007, June 6). Organic Food Miles Take Toll On Environment. ScienceDaily.
  11. Bahlai C.A., Xue Y., McCreary C.M., Schaafsma A.W., Hallett R.H. (2010) Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11250
  12. Lockeretz, W. (Ed.). (2007). Organic Farming: an international history (pp. 1-7). Trowbridge, United Kingdom: CABI International.
  13. Baliatsas, C., Van Kamp, I., Lebret, E., & Rubin, G. J. (2012, August 11). Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF): A systematic review of identifying criteria [Electronic version]. BMC Public Health, 12(643). doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-643
  14. Luther, D. (2013, July 22). Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: victims of a toxic civilization. In The Organic Prepper. Retrieved December 11, 2013
  15. a b c Williams, C.M. (2002) Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 61(1): 19.
  16. Williams P.R., Hammitt J.K. (2001) Perceived risks of conventional and organic produce: pesticides, pathogens, and natural toxins. Risk Anal. 21(2):319–330.
  17. Ramanujan, K. (2012, December 6). Attitudes to organic labels depend on consumers' values. In Cornell Chronicle.
  18. Mukherjee A., Speh D., Dyck E., Diez-Gonzalez F. (2004) Pre-harvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. J Food Prot. 67:894–900.
  19. Severson, K., Martin, A. (2009, March 3) It's Organic, but Does That Mean It's Safer? The New York Times. D1.
  20. Reed, M. (2010). Rebels for the Soil: The Rise of the Global Organic Food and Farming Movement. Washington, DC: Earthscan.
  21. About Real Time Farms. www.realtimefarms.com
  22. About Relay Foods. www.relayfoods.com
  23. How To Be A Hipster: Chapter 3. (2011, September 16). In Verbal Vomit.
  24. Comparing Organic and Conventionally Grown Food. (2013, October 30). In National Pesticide Information Center
  25. Demick, B. (2011, September 16). In China, what you eat tells who you are. In Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 11, 2013
  26. Organic Consumers Association. "About the OCA: Who We Are and What We're Doing". Retrieved December 6, 2011.
  27. Chavas JP; et al. (2009). "Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial: II". Agronomy Journal. 101 (2): 288. doi:10.2134/agronj2008.0055x. Retrieved 2011-11-06. {{cite journal}}: Explicit use of et al. in: |author= (help)
  28. Lotter, D. (2003). "Organic Agriculture" (PDF). Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. 21 (4). pp. 9-10
  29. McGrane, S. (2013, January 11). The Right-Wing Organic Farmers of Germany. In The New Yorker. Retrieved December 11, 2013
  30. Diehn, S. A. (2012, August 3). Neo-Nazis cloak themselves in eco-rhetoric. In Deutsche Welle. Retrieved December 11, 2013
  31. Dervaes, J. (2009, Feb./March). "An Amazing and Prolific Urban Homestead". Mother Earth News (Ogden Publications). Retrieved December 3, 2011 from http://www.motherearthnews.com/Modern-Homesteading/Amazing-Urban-Homestead-Dervaes.aspx
  32. Anisa. (2011, March 8)DIY Pallet Compost Bin. The Lazy Homesteader. Retrieved December 3, 2011 from http://lazyhomesteader.com/2011/03/08/diy-pallet-compost-bin/
  33. a b Smit, J., & Nasr, J. (1992) Urban agriculture for sustainable cities: Using wastes and idle land and water bodies as resources. Environment and Urbanization. 4(2): 141-152.
  34. Organic and Conventional Agriculture www.monsanto.com
  35. Millions Against Monsanto www.organicconsumers.org
  36. About Us. www.foodandfarming.info
  37. Research. www.SafeFruitsAndVeggies.com
  38. Consumer Decision Making (in: Handbook of consumer behavior) (PDF). Prentice Hall. 1991. p. 58. Retrieved 2011-12-06. {{cite book}}: Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)