What is this thing called organic? – How organic farming is codified in regulations

Verena Seufert*, Navin Ramankutty, Tabea Mayerhofer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Organic farming is one of the fastest growing sectors of world agriculture. Although it represents only 1% of world agricultural area, organic is one of the most recognized food labels and most people in developed countries consume some amount of organic food today. There is a wide range of interpretations of what organic means by different actors in the sector. Here we examine eight different organic regulations from across the world to understand how they have codified the large diversity of ideas inherent in organic agriculture. Our analysis shows that organic practices and regulations do not differ substantially between countries – across the board organic regulations define organic mainly in terms of 'natural' vs. 'artificial' substances that are allowed (or not) as inputs. This interpretation of organic as “chemical-free” farming, largely void of broader environmental principles, does not fully incorporate the original ideas of organic theoreticians who conceived it as a holistic farming system aimed primarily at improving soil health, thereby leading to improved animal, human, and societal health. This narrow focus of organic regulations can be explained by the interest of organic consumers who predominantly buy organic because they believe it is healthier and more nutritious due to the absence of harmful substances. Organic regulations need to place more emphasis on environmental best practices in order to ensure that organic agriculture can contribute to sustainability objectives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-20
Number of pages11
JournalFood Policy
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2017


  • Content analysis
  • Organic agriculture
  • Organic policy
  • Sustainability


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