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What is organic?

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There are many definitions for organic. Some are simple to understand, while other explanations require more effort in comprehending. Nevertheless, they are geared towards you knowing what is organic, and especially as it relates to food and farming.

The various interpretations basically convey the idea of going back to our roots; the idea of working with Mother Nature; the idea of having little or no negative impact on the environment; and the idea of not using toxic and poisonous chemicals on our food and the environment.

With the help of the book – Why Organic Farming Is Great For Canada by Leroy A. Brown, we will be sharing with you different definitions that we think covers what is organic. Additionally, we will use the headings Local, National and International just to separate the various meanings.


According to the book - Why Organic Farming Is Great For Canada by Leroy A. Brown, “Organic is a process within which crops are grown, animals are reared, food and beverages are manufactured using non-conventional methods, such as not using synthesized herbicides and pesticides for weeds and crops; not using genetically modified (GM) seeds; and not using growth hormones in animals, just to highlight a few. It involves the use of compost and worm castings as fertilizers; it is planting legumes to help return nutrients back to the soil; it is crop rotating and intercropping; it is growing animals like cows on grass, organic alfalfa and organic grain as food, and allowing them to grow and develop as nature intended for them, and so on.

Therefore, organic farming is doing agriculture in such a way that it protects the environment, and makes humans, plants and animals healthier.

In order to let the general public know that a product is indeed organic, if word of mouth and/or touring the farm/food operation is not sufficient, the producer will have his/her establishment assessed by an authorized certifier, before organic designation is given. This certification allows the farmer to sell not just locally, but nationally and globally.

Organic farming is more about wholesomeness rather than financial gains. And if done properly, it will result in a lot of money being earned, like what is being experienced by many of the stakeholders (such as farmers, distributors and retailers). However, if the aim is solely to make money, and to do so at any cost like in many large conventional food operations, then there will be far more losses than gains”.


The Canadian Organic Growers (COG) goes on to define organic as “… the only type of agriculture with a set of principles that puts nature first. These principles are enshrined in industry-developed standards approved by consumers and verified annually by third-party organizations. As of 2009, federal organic standards are now backed by government regulation and oversight.

Organic standards are based on seven general principles:

  1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
  2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
  3. Maintain biological diversity within the system.
  4. Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
  5. Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
  6. Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing, and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
  7. Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.”[1]


Internationally, organic can be defined as “… a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”[2]

The Organic World foundation (OWF) – an institution that supports the global development of organic agriculture, and works closely with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) Global Action Network, has described organic agriculture as being based on the following four (4) principles:


“Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

This principle points out that the health of individuals and communities cannot be separated from the health of ecosystems. Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems and it is not simply the absence of illness. Immunity, resilience and regeneration are key characteristics of health.

In particular, organic agriculture is intended to produce high quality, nutritious food that contributes to preventive health care and well-being. In view of this it should avoid the use of fertilizers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may have adverse health effects.”[3]


“Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

Those who produce, process, trade, or consume organic products should protect and benefit the common environment including landscapes, climate, habitats, biodiversity, air and water.

Organic farming, pastoral and wild harvest systems should fit the cycles and ecological balances in nature. These cycles are universal but their operation is site-specific. Organic management must be adapted to local conditions, ecology, culture and scale. Inputs should be reduced by reuse, recycling and efficient management of materials and energy in order to maintain and improve environmental quality and conserve resources.

Organic agriculture should attain ecological balance through the design of farming systems, establishment of habitats and maintenance of genetic and agricultural diversity.”[4]


“Organic Agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

This principle emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties - farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. Organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life, and contribute to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty. It aims to produce a sufficient supply of good quality food and other products.

This principle insists that animals should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that agree with their physiology, natural behavior and well-being.

Natural and environmental resources that are used for production and consumption should be managed in a way that is socially and ecologically just and should be held in trust for future generations. Fairness requires systems of production, distribution and trade that are open and equitable and account for real environmental and social costs.”[5]


“Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

Organic agriculture is a living and dynamic system that responds to internal and external demands and conditions. Practitioners of organic agriculture can enhance efficiency and increase productivity, but this should not be at the risk of jeopardizing health and well-being. Consequently, new technologies need to be assessed and existing methods reviewed. Given the incomplete understanding of ecosystems and agriculture, care must be taken.

This principle states that precaution and responsibility are the key concerns in management, development and technology choices in organic agriculture. Science is necessary to ensure that organic agriculture is healthy, safe and ecologically sound. However, scientific knowledge alone is not sufficient. Practical experience, accumulated wisdom and traditional and indigenous knowledge offer valid solutions, tested by time. Organic agriculture should prevent significant risks by adopting appropriate technologies and rejecting unpredictable ones, such as genetic engineering. Decisions should reflect the values and needs of all who might be affected, through transparent and participatory processes.”[6]




[1]“What is Organic?” Canadian Organic Growers, Cog.ca. http://www.cog.ca/about_organics/what_is_organics/

[2]“Organic Agriculture” Organic World Foundation, Organicworldfoundation.org http://www.organicworldfoundation.org/organic_agriculture.html

[3]“Organic Agriculture” Organic World Foundation, Organicworldfoundation.org http://www.organicworldfoundation.org/organic_agriculture.html

[4]“Organic Agriculture” Organic World Foundation, Organicworldfoundation.org http://www.organicworldfoundation.org/organic_agriculture.html

[5]“Organic Agriculture” Organic World Foundation, Organicworldfoundation.org http://www.organicworldfoundation.org/organic_agriculture.html

[6]“Organic Agriculture” Organic World Foundation, Organicworldfoundation.org http://www.organicworldfoundation.org/organic_agriculture.html