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Frequently Asked Questions
Organic farming is agriculture that makes healthy food, healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy environments a priority, along with crop productivity. Organic farmers use biological fertilizer inputs and management practices such as cover cropping and crop rotation to improve soil quality and build organic soil matter. By increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, organic farmers enhance the soil’s ability to absorb water, reducing the impacts of drought and flooding. Improving soil organic matter also helps it to absorb and store carbon and other nutrients need to grow healthy crops, which, in turn, are better able to resist insects and diseases.
The National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products. This process, referred to as rulemaking, involves input from the National Organic Standards Board (a Federal Advisory Committee made up of fifteen members of the public) and the public.
The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer cannot plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table.
Organic farms use production practices with environmental benefits such as water management practices, no-till or minimum tillage, habitat maintenance for beneficial insects and vertebrates, and biological pest control. These ecologically protective practices contribute to enhanced ecosystem services and benefit water quality, soil health, and biodiversity.
Using biological forms of fertilizer such as compost, animal manures, and legume cover crops, builds soil organic matter, even when routine tillage is used for weed control. Building soil organic matter increases soil water retention and nurtures more active soil microbial communities that retain nitrogen in the soil longer and transform it into non-leachable gaseous forms. There is a small but telling body of research in the US that suggests that improved soil quality influences the ability of crops to withstand or repel insect attack and plant disease.
Organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, one of the primary contributors of greenhouse gases. Healthy soils help crops obtain nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients from organic soil organic matter. This reduces the need for fertilizers that can threaten water quality and minimizes the release of greenhouse gases from soils.
The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals. These costs may include cleanup of polluted water and remediation of pesticide contamination.
Public funding such as USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and private funding from organizations such as OFRF, is critical to training the next generation of scientists and developing new talent. Research delivers valuable information, tools, and resources that help all farmers—both organic and non-organic—increase the environmental and economic sustainability of their operations. The continued growth of organic agriculture requires investment in research, education, and extension programs that provide sound information and assistance to America’s farmers.
USDA offers several programs and tools to support the success of organic farmers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps producers plan and implement conservation practices to support the environmental sustainability of their organic operations.
February 25, 2021 – OFRF is pleased to announce a three-year agreement with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The agreement focuses on strengthening conservation partnerships between NRCS field staff and organic producers. It will leverage OFRF’s unique expertise to expand knowledge and outreach focusing on the best science-based organic practices.
OFRF, organic producers, and NRCS conservationists share a commitment to restore and protect natural resources through agricultural conservation. The USDA National Organic Program Standards require certified organic growers to maintain and improve soil and water quality, species diversity, woodlands, wetlands, wildlife, and other resources to help in these efforts. Organic producers and NRCS both recognize the urgent need to address the climate crisis through conservation systems that mitigate climate change and build resilience.
H.R. 2436, the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, was introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) with cosponsors Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA). This bipartisan legislation was approved in the 2018 Farm Bill and will provide $395 million for organic agriculture research and education over the next ten years. This milestone is the biggest win for organic farming in the Farm Bill in decades, securing permanent funding for organic research at USDA.
Healthy soils form the foundation of organic production. Healthy soils have good structure (tilth), which allows them to absorb and hold moisture, drain well, maintain adequate aeration, and foster deep, healthy crop root systems. Such soils sustain crops through dry spells, require less irrigation water, and undergo less ponding, runoff, and erosion during heavy rains.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified four guiding principles that support healthy soils: 1) minimize disturbance, 2) maximize biodiversity, 3) keep soil covered, and 4) maintain living roots. These principles provide the foundation for a resilient farm system.
The USDA National Organic Standards require certified producers to implement crop rotation, cover cropping, tillage, nutrient management, and other practices that improve and maintain the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil.