Organic food is produced according to certain production standards. For crops, it means they were grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers, human waste, or sewage sludge, and that they were processed without ionizing radiation or food additives. For animals, it means they were reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones.
Increasingly, organic food production is legally regulated. Currently, the US, the European Union, Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain organic certification in order to market food as organic.
Historically, organic farms have been small family-run farms – which is why organic food was once only available in small stores or farmers' markets. Now, organic foods are becoming much more widely available – organic food sales within the United States have enjoyed 17 to 20 percent growth for the past few years while sales of conventional food have grown at only about 2 to 3 percent a year. Organic baby food is popular too, sales of which increased 21.6 percent in 2006, while baby food overall has only grown 3.1 percent in the same year. This large growth is predicted to continue, and many companies are jumping into the market.
There is evidence that organic farms are more sustainable and environmentally sound, among other benefits. These claims, however, are subject to dispute and are not settled among scientists. One vocal critic in particular, Anthony Trewavas, has written detailed critiques of organic agriculture.Types of organic food
- See also: Organic farming for information on the production of organic food.
Organic foods can be either fresh or processed, based on production methods.
 Fresh food
Fresh, "unprocessed" organic food, such as vegetables and fruits are purchased directly from growers, at farmers' markets, from on-farm stands, supermarkets, through speciality food stores, and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects. Unprocessed animal products like organic meat, eggs, dairy, are less commonly available in "fresh" form.
 Processed food
Processed food accounts for most of the items in a supermarket. Often, within the same store, both organic and conventional versions of products are available, and the price of the organic version is usually higher (see modern developments). Most processed organic food comes from large food conglomerates producing and marketing products like canned goods, frozen vegetables, prepared dishes and other convenience foods.
Processed organic food usually contains only (or a specified percentage of) organic ingredients and no artificial food additives, and is often processed with fewer artificial methods, materials and conditions (no chemical ripening, no food irradiation, etc.).
 Identifying organic food
At first, organic food comprised mainly fresh vegetables. Early consumers interested in organic food would look for chemical-free, fresh or minimally processed food. They mostly had to buy directly from growers: "Know your farmer, know your food" was the motto. Personal definitions of what constituted "organic" were developed through firsthand experience: by talking to farmers, seeing farm conditions, and farming activities. Small farms grew vegetables (and raised livestock) using organic farming practices, with or without certification, and the individual consumer monitored.
Consumer demand for organic foods continues to increase, and high volume sales through mass outlets, like supermarkets, is rapidly replacing the direct farmer connection. For supermarket consumers, food production is not easily observable, and product labelling, like "certified organic", is relied on. Government regulations and third-party inspectors are looked to for assurance.
A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to know that a processed product is "organic".
 Legal definition
To be certified organic, products must be grown and manufactured in a manner that adheres to standards set by the country they are sold in:
- Australia: NASAA Organic Standard.
- Britain: Organic Farmers and Growers Organic Standards and the Soil Association
- Canada: Canada Gazette, Government of Canada.
- Japan: JAS Standards.
- United States: National Organic Program (NOP) Standards.
In the United States, the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22) required that the USDA develop national standards for organic products. The regulations (7 C.F.R. Part 205) are enforced by the USDA through the National Organic Program under this act. These laws essentially require that any product that claims to be organic must have been manufactured and handled according to specific NOP requirements. A USDA Organic seal identifies products with at least 95% organic ingredients.
 Arguments favoring organic food
Defining the benefits of organic food has largely been left to word of mouth, occasional media coverage, and the promotional efforts of organic advocates. Even though many large food and beverage corporations, like Kraft Foods, have rapidly moved to acquire significant stake in both fresh and processed organic products, the specific sales points of "organics" go largely unmentioned on product packaging and in advertising.
These comparisons need to be evaluated with care because neither conventional nor organic farming practices are uniform.
 For the environment
In several surveys that have looked at smaller studies to build an overall comparison between conventional and organic systems of farming a general agreement on benefits has been built. In these surveys it has been found that:
- Organic farms do not release synthetic pesticides into the environment—some of which have the potential to harm local wildlife.
- Organic farms are better than conventional farms at sustaining diverse ecosystems, i.e., populations of plants and insects, as well as animals.
- When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste, e.g., waste such as packaging materials for chemicals.
See "Organic FAQs" in the journal Nature for more details.
One study found a 20% smaller yield from organic farms using 50% less fertilizer and 97% less pesticide. Studies comparing yields have had mixed results. Supporters claim that organically managed soil has a higher quality and higher water retention. This may help increase yields for organic farms in drought years. One study of two organic farming systems and one conventional found that, in one year's severe crop season drought, organic soybean yields were 52% and 96% higher than the conventional system and organic maize yields were 37% higher in one system, but 62% lower in the other. Studies are also consistent in showing that organic farms are more energy efficient.
 For producers
For those who work on farms, there have been many studies on the health effects of pesticide exposure. Even when pesticides are used correctly, they still end up in the air and bodies of farm workers. Through these studies, organophosphate pesticides have become associated with acute health problems such as abdominal pain, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, as well as skin and eye problems. In addition, there have been many other studies that have found pesticide exposure is associated with more severe health problems such as respiratory problems, memory disorders, dermatologic conditions, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, miscarriages, and birth defects. Summaries of peer-reviewed research have examined the link between pesticide exposure and neurological outcomes and cancer in organophosphate-exposed workers.
 For consumers
A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet. A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 schoolchildren before and after replacing their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet.
Most conventionally grown foods contain pesticides and herbicide residues. There is controversial data on the health implications of certain pesticides. The herbicide Atrazine, for example, has been shown in some experiments to be a teratogen, even at concentrations as low as 0.1 part per billion, to emasculate male frogs by causing their gonads to produce eggs – effectively turning males into hermaphrodites.
The US Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies periodically review the licensing of suspect pesticides, but the process of de-listing is slow. One example of this slow process is exemplified by the pesticide Dichlorvos, or DDVP, which as recently as the year 2006 the EPA proposed its continued sale. The EPA has almost banned this pesticide on several occasions since the 1970s, but it never did so despite considerable evidence that suggests DDVP is not only carcinogenic but dangerous to the human nervous system – especially in children.
A 2001 study by researchers at Washington State University concluded, under judgement by a panel of tasters, that organic apples were sweeter. Along with taste and sweetness, the texture as well as firmness of the apples were also rated higher than those grown conventionally. These differences are attributed to the greater soil quality resulting from organic farming techniques compared to those of conventional farming.
 Arguments opposing organic food
 Food safety
Conventional food does contain pesticide residues – often multiple residues. In contrast, a study published in 2002 showed that "Organically grown foods consistently had about one-third as many residues as conventionally grown foods." Yet, the potential health effects of pesticide residues found in food are subject to debate. One could argue that modern analytical chemistry is capable of detecting such small quantities of a substance that the meaning of a positive result is difficult to interpret, and many scientists think that such residues are without effect. Pesticides are subjected to a battery of tests before they can be approved by the EPA  and "residue tolerances" are established above which produce exceeding these tolerances cannot be sold.
Furthermore the professors Lois Swirsky Gold and Bruce Ames argue :"Whereas public perceptions tend to identify chemicals as being only synthetic and only synthetic chemicals as being toxic, every natural chemical is also toxic at some dose," and have shown that 50% of all natural chemicals in food gave a positive test as a carcinogen when tested in rodents, casting doubt on any link of food residues and cancer risk.
Author Thomas DeGregori argues that at the heart of the organic food movement are feelings of anti-technology and anti-modern science and points out that it is modern science, after all, that has increased the life expectancy of many people and helps to feed the world's growing population.
- Newer non-organic practices, particularly no-till agriculture, which relies on herbicides to clear the land, offer considerable improvements in energy efficiency. Anthony Trewavas argues that the sustainability of organic agriculture is less than that of conventional agriculture (see Trewavas (2000)).
- Soil benefits: Trevavas also argues that many of the soil benefits of organic agriculture have been demonstrated to be due to crop rotation, which is not an exclusively organic strategy (see Trewavas (2000) cited above).
- Land usage: Organic food growers lose a significantly larger portion of their crops to pests, mold, etc, and therefore require significantly higher land usage to generate the same amount of product. One study shows that a crop of organic tomatoes, for example, would use approximately 642% more land than one grown via conventional methods.
- Pesticide use: While organic agriculture aims to keep pesticide use to a minimum, it is a common misconception that organic agriculture does not use pesticides. Some pesticides used on organic farms contain the heavy metal copper, which can lead to copper accumulation in the soil. Other pesticides that are approved for use by organic producers include ryania, sabadilla, and rotenone.The botanical pesticide sabadilla is toxic to honeybees, and according to the California Department of Environmental Protection its mammalian toxicology has not been fully studied.
- Toxicity of "organic pesticides": Conventional pesticides must be thoroughly studied before they can be placed on the market. However, such studies are not required for the pesticides used in organic agriculture.
- John Kent, Lecturer in Agricultural Protection, from the School of Agriculture at Charles Sturt University in Australia supports the idea that organically grown food is not as sustainable, arguing that while organically grown food certainly has its place in today's free market, the world population could not be fed with pesticide-free agriculture.
 Organic food is expensive
Critics claim that organic food is more expensive than conventional food and thus too highly priced to be affordable to persons on a lower income. Organic products typically cost 10 to 40% more than similar conventionally produced products.
 Organic food has "sold out"
Organic food began as a small movement with farmers rejecting the use of conventional farming practices. With the market share of Organic food outpacing much of the food industry many big companies have moved into this market. With these large companies, and with the creation of a legal certification framework (2002 in the US), there is worry that the very definition of organic food will change from what it used to be.
Modern agriculture, utilizing large amounts of artificial chemical inputs, monocultures, and intensive farming methods, is a recent phenomenon. Indeed, one could argue that almost the entire history of agriculture consists of what would be now termed "organic farming".
Rising consumer awareness of organic methods began in the 1950s with the promotion of organic gardening. In the 1960s and 1970s, one effect of a growing grassroots concern with environmental issues was the appearance of more elaborate approaches to organic food, including food-buying co-ops and dedicated organic producers. In the 1970s and 1980s, private sector organic certification and development of regulations at the governmental level began around the world. In the 1990s, formal organic certification began to be legislated in various countries, and this trend continues to today. During the same period, the organic food market experienced a sustained surge in growth, expanding at around 20% a year (exceeding the rest of the food industry by a factor of at least 10). The first years of the 21st century saw multinational food corporations taking major stakes in the organic market, and this has dramatically increased the variety, availability and falling cost of processed organic food.
 Modern developments
The prices for organic food have been, and continue to be, higher than their conventional counterparts. This is because farmers who grow organic food have to meet stricter quality standards to have their products certified organic. More labor is required to achieve this, bringing up the cost.
Since the 1980's there has been a growth trend in supermarkets that carry large volumes of organic food. This includes Whole Foods Market in the US, and Waitrose in the UK. With large volume sales, these retailers have been bringing the price of organic food down.
In the United States the pressure to bring the cost down will vastly increase soon because in 2006, Wal-Mart, the largest grocery retailer, announced plans to increase the amount of organic food available in its stores. Both conventionally grown and organic versions of certain products will be available, but Wal-Mart intends to keep the price of the organic versions to no more than 10% over the price of the conventionally grown counterparts.
Because of Wal-Mart's size and business practices, their move into selling organic food has some people worried. Specifically, the increase in demand for organic food will require that more organic produce be imported. Secondly, the push to lower prices might "virtually guarantee that Wal-Mart's version of cheap organic food is not sustainable".
 Related movements
Various alternative organic standards are emerging. They generally bypass formal certification, which can be expensive and cumbersome, and provide their own definition of organic food. One such, the Authentic Food standard, proposed by leading US organic farmer Eliot Coleman, includes criteria that are incompatible with current agribusiness:
- All foods are produced by the growers who sell them.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat products are produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of their final sale.
- The seed and storage crops (grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, etc.) are produced within a 300-mile radius of their final sale.
- Only traditional processed foods such as cheese, wine, bread and lactofermented products may claim, "Made with Authentic ingredients."
Some are also implementing new approaches to defining and buying food. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one such approach, that cuts out all the middlemen by having consumers partner with local farmers. CSA members prepurchase "shares" in a season's harvest, and pick up their weekly portions from distribution sites. Thus, consumers provide direct financing for farms, participate in the risks and rewards of annual growing conditions, and participate with farmers in distribution networks.
CSA is one example of "buying locally," which is often valued by both the organic food consumer and producer. Generally speaking, locally-grown seasonal food can be brought to market more quickly than food that has to be transported long distances, and therefore can be better tasting and to some degree more nutritious by virtue of its freshness. Additionally, the act of buying foods that are locally-grown benefits local farmers and other employers. This local food approach is seen as a direct investment in one's own community and a way to reduce economic dependence.