Four Principles of Organic Agriculture

Shannon Jones

What do you say when someone asks you what Organic means? Or what have you heard? I’ll bet you’ve said or heard phrases like “no synthetic pesticides,” “increased animal welfare,” or “no GMOs.”  

While these responses aren’t wrong, they don’t adequately describe the “spirit” of what organic means. 

For decades, people from different backgrounds—farmers, eaters, scientists, politicians—and from different parts of the world have tried to define what it means to call a farm or a food “organic.”  

That’s how we ended up with Organic Standards in the first place. It’s a tough process, made even harder in our globalized world where there is no possibility of a successful “recipe” for every farmer to follow. Even if such a recipe could be created, that’s not what organic farmers or organic eaters are looking for. This isn’t McDonalds. Organic farming is an art as well as a science, and it looks different depending on the ecosystem where it’s located.  

In 2005, organic leaders from around the world (through IFOAM – the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) identified Principles that brought the spirit of the word Organic together. These principles clarified many years of thinking about the fundamental aims and values guiding the organic community (see sidebar “Organic Principles through the Years” on page x).  

The Four Organic Principles identified are: Health, Ecology, Fairness, and Care. This is what the pioneers of organic were working towards, as well as what present-day organic farmers and eaters strive to achieve: more of these four qualities encouraged on our planet. These principles are in the 2015 Canadian Organic Standards.  

The scope of any legal standards, including the Canadian Organic Standards, is limited to what can be tracked and verified; most organic farmers go beyond these minimum standards in their farming practices. And that’s the point. Organic farming (and organic eating/purchasing) is all about continuous improvement in all four of these Principles.  

Health  

While this is definitely important to the majority of organic consumers and farmers, it’s very difficult to define and measure outcomes. “Healthier” is pretty challenging to judge—especially given the many variables. Are we talking increased vitamins or antioxidants? Balanced ratios of minerals or fatty acids?  Lack of or reduced pesticide residues, heavy metals, nitrates?  

This is where we turn to the old organic farming saying “Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants = Healthy Animals/People”. With each passing decade, as we learn more about the incredible ecosystem under the ground, we realize how little we really know. We certainly can’t expect to know enough to replace all the health-giving properties of the soil ecosystem with supplementary fertilizer (or human supplements in capsule form, for that matter).  

Ecology 

This is the principle that our Canadian Organic Standards focus on the most, although there is lots of room to continually improve. 

Organic farms don’t exist in a protective bubble. We are all farming to improve the environment that is already polluted—from the air to the water and soil—by human activities, both agricultural and not.  

We don’t sufficiently consider all the species we share this planet with. Humans are only one among millions (or more) species on Earth. While we’ve come to appreciate the species that serve an obvious purpose for us, ecology is about more than that. Everything in nature is connected to everything else. We tend to forget that when we think about mosquitoes, cucumber beetles, and weeds.  

In discussing weeds, there are certainly organic farmers who say, “I’m still trying to REDUCE biodiversity!” 

Fairness 

This may be the most challenging of these Principles to define or standardize. Who are we speaking about when we discuss fairness?  

We are certainly talking about farmers, especially small-scale farmers, with respect to fair or living wages. Consumers/eaters are also discussed, in terms of accessibility, food deserts, or poverty reduction. Sometimes fairness for farmworkers is brought up, in the context of farm apprentices and both domestic and international (migrant) farmworkers.  

There is more demand for organic food in Canada than there is supply—which means we are importing the majority of organic food. Who are we importing the food from? Are they being treated fairly? What is our definition of fair, in a global context? When we buy food cheaply from other countries, especially countries that are not as wealthy as Canada, are we stealing the true wealth from the people and the producers from these countries? Should we gain our health on the back of other people’s poverty? 

What about the people from this land—the Indigenous peoples and their own food sovereignty? How can we reconcile the unfairness of the past, the unfairness of the present, and current actions that seem to lead to more unfairness in the future?  

In thinking about and promoting fairness, we need to always be asking ourselves “Who is not at the table?” 

Care 

A farmer I really admire said, “If you really care, you’ll be focusing on the other three Principles as well.”  

Every future inhabitant needs to be considered as we make decisions that affect future generations.  

Organic farmers value the scientific Precautionary Principle, which reads, “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”  

We also need to consider the future caretakers of organic farming. How can we better encourage and support the next generation of organic farmers to start their farms and successfully improve on these Four Principles where we’ve left off?   

The Ultimate Goal 

These Four Principles of Organic Agriculture motivate me, as a farmer and as an eater, to always work towards doing the best I know how to do and seeking out ways to improve each year.  

The renowned Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka said in his book The One-Straw Revolution, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” 

 

Shannon Jones owns and operates Broadfork Farm in River Hebert, NS with her partner Bryan. Together, they grow organic vegetables, herbs, seedlings, and seeds as well as specialty cut flowers which they sell directly to their farmers’ market customers and to local restaurants and small retailers. Shannon also serves on the boards of COG, the Organic Federation of Canada, and IFOAM North America.