In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecology of Organic Agriculture

  • Introduction
  • The Historical Foundations of Organic Agriculture
  • General Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Long-Term Studies
  • Extent and Significance of Organic Agriculture
  • Conversion to Organic Farming
  • Agroecological Features of Organic Farming Systems
  • Organic Farming and Biodiversity
  • Soil Management, Biology, and Crop Nutrition
  • Pest Management Strategies
  • Yield Potential of Organic Agriculture
  • Organic Agriculture and Climate Change
  • Organic Agriculture and the World Food Crisis

Ecology Ecology of Organic Agriculture
Miguel A. Altieri, Marcos Lana, Karin Stein-Bachinger, Johann Bachinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0157


Organic agriculture can be defined as a holistic production management system that avoids use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals, and people. Organic agriculture is a way of farming that attempts to be in partnership with the natural world rather than dominating it. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to improve soil fertility or prevent pest problems, taking a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge. To meet the objective of producing healthy food while preserving natural resources, organic agriculture farmers need to implement a series of practices that optimize nutrient and energy flows and minimize risk, such as crop rotations and enhanced crop diversity, different combinations of livestock and plants, symbiotic nitrogen fixation with legumes, application of organic manure, and biological pest control. All these strategies seek to make the best use of local resources. These internal resources include solar or wind energy, beneficial biodiversity such as soil organisms, predators, parasitoids, pollinators, etc., and biologically fixed nitrogen and other nutrients released from organic matter or from soil reserves. USDA 1980 states that organic farmers rely heavily on the use of crop rotations, cover cropping and green manuring, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insect pests, weeds, and diseases. The most important difference between organic farming (OA) and conventional agriculture (CA) is that organic farmers avoid or restrict the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in their farming operations, while conventional farmers may use them extensively. A large number of organic farmers do use modern machinery, recommended crop varieties, certified seed, sound livestock management, recommended soil and water conservation practices, and innovative methods of organic waste recycling. Carefully designed, timed, and intensively managed cover cropping and rotations are commonly an integral part of weed, pest, and disease management strategies in OA systems. When planted between annual crops, cover crops can help restore soil fertility, increase biomass, and reduce soil compaction and erosion. They also contribute to moisture retention, weed control, and while flowering are useful for pest management by creating a habitat for beneficial insects. In orchard and vineyard systems, cover crops enhance biological diversity and aid in pest regulation.

The Historical Foundations of Organic Agriculture

Some people consider that the origin of organic agriculture lies in the “Agricultural Course” held by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, which consisted in eight lectures and answers to concerned farmers out of the stream of anthroposophical work (Steiner 1993). He laid the foundation of an ecological approach to agricultura, now called “biodynamic farming,” that increases soil fertility and plant health using preparations made from healing plants, minerals, and cow manure applied to the soil and crops to strengthen self-sustaining farming. A key principle of biodynamic farming is that the farm as a whole is seen as an organism that must be managed with a holistic approach. As reviewed in Heckman 2006, others trace the origins of OA to Sir Albert Howard, whom for years while conducting agricultural research and observations in India developed the philosophy and concept of organic farming that he espoused in his book The Agricultural Testament. Howard 1943 emphasizes soil fertility and the need to effectively recycle waste materials, including sewage sludge, onto farmland. Howard developed a system of composting that became widely adopted. Howard’s concept of soil fertility centered on building soil humus with an emphasis on how soil life was connected to the health of crops, livestock, and humankind. Many people think that Howard was inspired by King 1911, which documented how traditional farming systems of China, Korea, and Japan stood the test of time documenting a successful and resilient indigenous agricultural strategy, representing models of sustainability as they promote biodiversity, thrive without agrochemicals, and sustain year-round yields. Howard’s approach was coined as organic farming; Balfour 1948 compared organic and non-organic farming and helped to popularize organic farming. Jerome Rodale, a publisher and an early convert to organic farming, was instrumental in the diffusion and popularization of organic concepts in the United States. Both Howard and Rodale saw organic and nonorganic agriculture as a conflict between two different visions of what agriculture should become as they engaged in a war of words with the conventional agricultural establishment. Organic agriculture gained significant recognition and attention with USDA 1980. The passage of the Federal Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 began the era of accommodation for organic farming in the United States, followed by another milestone with official labeling as USDA Certified Organic in 2002. Organic agriculture will likely continue to evolve in response to ongoing social, environmental, and philosophical concerns of the organic movement.

  • Balfour, E. B. 1948. The living soil. London: Faber and Faber.

    This is a pioneering book exploring he role of soil biology on soil quality and health.

  • Heckman, J. 2006. A history of organic farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 21:143–150.

    DOI: 10.1079/RAF2005126

    Describes the important role played by Sir Albert Howard and others of his generation, including F. H. King, Walter Northbourne, Lady Balfour, J. I. Rodale, and Louis Bromfield, in the development and diffusion of organic farming concepts.

  • Howard, A. 1943. An agricultural testament. New York and London: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A seminal book establishing the basis of soil fertility and composting, which greatly influenced the practice of organic agricultura.

  • King, F. H. 1911. Farmers of forty centuries.

    A pioneering paper documenting successful traditional farming techniques in China, Korea, and Japan in the early 20th century.

  • Nandwand, D., ed. 2016. Organic farming for sustainable agriculture. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    Contains a chapter that explores in detail the history of organic farming and the role of people like King, Howard, Balfour, Northbourne, and others.

  • Steiner, R. 1993. Agriculture: Spiritual foundations for the renewal of agriculture. Kimberton, PA: Bio-dynamic Farming and Gardening Association.

    A summary of Steiner’s eight lectures laying the foundations of biodynamic agriculture.

  • USDA. 1980. Report and recommendations on organic farming. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

    An early official report on the features and potential of organic agriculture in the United States.

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