The first thing that comes to mind for most people is: No Chemicals.
A second concept is: Healthy.
Other ideas are: Costly Production. Expensive. Weedy. Low Yields.
The answers are: Not True!
The Canadian association for the organic industry is the Canadian Organic Growers, COG. They define organic as "the only type of agriculture with a set of principles that puts nature first." The term 'organic' is translated in French as 'biologique'. In English this also translates as 'biological'. Organic growing is about promoting the biological element of the soil, the soil organisms.
Following the 7 principles, as outlined on the COG website, organic growing is about:
protecting the environment
1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
biological maintenance of soil fertility
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.
promoting animal well being
5. Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioral 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.
renewable and local
7. Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.
The principles are general. They are a guide. How a grower interprets these principles into their growing regime varies greatly. Separate auditing bodies ensure that the organic principles set out in the organic bible, the Canadian Organic Standards, COS, are followed. The Canadian organic logo is only displayed on those products that are verified.
So what about being chemical free, healthy, costly to produce, expensive, weedy and low in yields?
If there is an organic logo on it has been verified by a third party as having followed the organic rules. Synthetic chemicals as nutrient amendments, pesticides or herbicies are not approved. I encourage you to investigate the COS on a product you are curious about to find out just exactly is allowed.
Is it healthy? Everyone assumes that it must be if chemicals were not used. We assume that nature's way is the healthiest. I think the best answer is to take a look at how the soil food web works. It begins with photosynthesizing plants and organic matter (plant and animal matter decomposing). The soil's food chain develops on the second trophic level to include bacteria, fungi and root-feeding nematodes. The third trophic level grows to include arthropods, fungal & bacterial nematodes and protozoa. Level 4 has larger arthropods and predatory nematodes. Level 5 and higher includes birds and animals.
Soils or growing medium that have the first four levels functioning will generally grow healthy plants. Plants can only be healthy if the soil is healthy or, as we describe it in soil science, fertile. Soil health or fertility mean the same. A healthy/fertile soil has full nutrient cycling: that includes nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, etc. These essential nutrients are being exchanged in the growing environment continuously. It's described as Times Square on New Years Eve (Dr. Elaine Ingham). Up until recently we have understood soil only in terms of its chemical makeup. Soil microbiology is showing us that its these soil organisms that are working symbiotically with plants, bringing the right nutrients in the right form and at the right rate to the plant roots.
All of this means that if a grower's soil is populated in good numbers and diversity of kind with beneficial soil organisms the plants growing in it will be optimizing in nutrient uptake and in pest and disease resistance and therefore will be very healthy.
There is more to say on what a healthy food is but this explanation captures the basics. Sometimes an 'organic' growers' produce at a market won't look too appetizing. Don't be fooled by the word 'organic'. If it's wrinkled and limp don't buy it! That produce may have been healthy at some point but that optimal point was some time earlier! Be a picky consumer. Your demand for premium will drive the market; changing practices, supply, etc.
Organic production, referring back to the 7 principles, is not a more costly production. It requires less inputs than other kinds of land management (conventional or conservational). The produce usually costs more to the consumer because it's a premium product and not produced in as large a quantity. Keep in mind the health component discussed above.
Organic product may have more weeds. Simply put weeds are only unwanted plants. We know that plants contribute to the growing environment. Above and below the ground plants are giving off exudates (proteins, carbohydrates, and sugars) to attract the right biological organisms to protect and feed it. The more complex the growing environment the more complex the biological environment and therefore there is complexity in plant protection and nutrient cycling. Take a look at Rodale Institute for more information on how 'other plants' contribute to the growing environment as well as Best Practices to control 'other plants'.
Organic production has similar if not better yields. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, has published and simplified answer to how yields change in conversion to organic practice. Note that land that transitions from conventional to organic may have a decrease in yield. There are several reasons to explore - in another post! Follow the FAO publications to find out more reliable research on this topic.
Organic growing has multiple, long term benefits that can not be overlooked. Today poor soil management is driving input costs higher and higher, tightening farm margins, putting increasing pressure on farmers to farm more land and increase yields. All in efforts to maintain good profits. Modern conventional farming is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. The global tolerance to rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is at or beyond its threshold. Change needs to happen!
Organic growing has incredible potential to bring the right changes.
Think about it.