There are many explanations and definitions for organic agriculture but all converge to state that it is a system that relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs. It is a system that begins to consider potential environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives and irradiation. These are replaced with site-specific management practices that maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pest and diseases.
“Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasises 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 fulfil any specific function within the system.” (FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1999).
Organic agriculture systems and products are not always certified and are referred to as “non-certified organic agriculture or products”. This excludes agriculture systems that do not use synthetic inputs by default (e.g. systems that lack soil building practices and degrade land). Three different driving forces can be identified for organic agriculture:
- Consumer or market-driven organic agriculture. Products are clearly identified through certification and labelling. Consumers take a conscious decision on how their food is produced, processed, handled and marketed. The consumer therefore has a strong influence over organic production.
- Service-driven organic agriculture. In countries such as in the European Union (EU), subsidies for organic agriculture are available to generate environmental goods and services, such as reducing groundwater pollution or creating a more biologically diverse landscape.
- Farmer-driven organic agriculture. Some farmers believe that conventional agriculture is unsustainable and have developed alternative modes of production to improve their family health, farm economies and/or self-reliance. In many developing countries, organic agriculture is adopted as a method to improve household food security or to achieve a reduction of input costs. Produce is not necessarily sold on the market or is sold without a price distinction as it is not certified. In developed countries, small farmers are increasingly developing direct channels to deliver non-certified organic produce to consumers. In the United States of America (USA), farmers marketing small quantities of organic products are formally exempt from certification.