In the early 1900s, the introduction of gasoline-fueled farm machinery, hybrid plant seeds and various pesticides and herbicides drastically changed traditional farming practices. As a backlash to these new industrialized agricultural methods, the “organic movement” emerged in the 1940s. Organic farmers embraced an ecologically-friendly approach to agriculture by balancing the interactions of the soil, plants and animals. Having started out as a holistic farming philosophy practiced in personal gardens and small farms, “organic” is now defined by specific criteria set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 officially defines the word “organic” as it pertains to agriculture and the food system. According to this legislation, organic food means it is grown “by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” Organic produce is grown without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, genetically modified ingredients or radiation.
In order for a food to be officially labeled organic, it must not only adhere to specific production guidelines but it must also be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. When applying for certification, a producer needs to submit an organic system plan that describes in detail how the food is grown, what substances are used, how the records are kept and how the producer prevents the mixing of organic and non-organic products.
It is important to note that many farmers had been growing produce organically or without pesticides decades before the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. This legislation created a specific legal definition for food labeling standards. Some farmers are in transition to organic while some farmers consider the certification process too labor intensive and costly. Undoubtedly, though, the organic certification has played a significant role in increasing consumer awareness about how food is grown and continues to influence current agricultural practices.