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What is organic agriculture?

Utilizing both traditional and scientific knowledge, organic agricultural systems rely on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs. It is a system that excludes the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives and irradiation.

Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system.

What's the difference between "natural" and "organic" foods?

Organic agriculture is based upon a systematic approach and standards that can be verified and are recognized internationally. Natural foods, on the other hand, have no legal definition or recognition, and are not based on a systematic approach. While natural products may generally be minimally processed, there are no requirements to provide proof, leaving open the possibility for fraud and misuse of the term.

How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?

Organic farmers build healthy soil. Organic matter in soil contributes to good soil structure and water-retention capacity. Organic farmers increase organic matter in soil through the use of cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments, producing healthy disease and insect resistant plants. Organic agriculture emphasizes good plant nutrition, which is key to the prevention of plant diseases. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to improve ecological relationships in the field. Weeds are controlled through crop rotation, mulching, cover crops, hand weeding, and mechanical methods such as flame weeding and other methods. Organic farmers also rely on diverse populations of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests under control.

Why are synthetic fertilizers not permitted in organic agriculture?

The use of synthetic fertilizers is not allowed in organic agriculture because the substitution of natural, renewable resources for plant nutrition with non-renewable petrochemicals is not sustainable, disrupts natural cycles, pollutes the environment through runoff and leaves toxic residues in the soil, just to name a few of the negative implications.

Organic farmers use legumes - peas, beans and other plants - that naturally fix and enrich nitrogen in the soil. The application of synthetically produced phosphorous, another important plant nutrient, is also not allowed in organic agriculture. Because organic farm management creates a healthy soil structure, fungi called mycorrhiza enable plants to utilize phosphorus in the soil.

Organic farmers use on-farm recycling (composting) of biomass to supply nutrients to plants. Farms that use chemically intensive farming methods have largely abandoned traditional and natural methods of nutrient recycling, resulting in the degradation of the soil and increasing the susceptibility of plants to pests and diseases.

The use of synthetic fertilizers has caused a great deal of environmental pollution. One major problem all over the planet that has resulted from the use of synthetic fertilizers is the increased growth of algae in lakes and water reservoirs. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) occurs when certain types of microscopic algae grow quickly in water, forming visible patches that harm the health of the environment, plants, or animals. HABs deplete oxygen in the water and block the sunlight that other organisms need to live, and some HAB-causing algae release toxins that are dangerous to animals and humans.

The production of synthetic fertilizers uses large amounts of energy, which mostly comes from the burning of fossil fuels, thereby increasing dependency on external energy inputs.

What are certified organic products?

Certified organic products are those which have been produced, stored, processed, handled and marketed in accordance with precise technical specifications (standards) and certified as "organic" by a certification body. Once a certification body has verified conformity with organic standards, the product can be labeled as such. This label will differ depending on the certification body, but can be taken as an assurance that the essential elements constituting an "organic" product have been met from the farm to the market. It is important to note that an organic label applies to the production process, ensuring that the product has been produced and processed in an ecologically sound manner. The organic label is therefore a production process claim as opposed to a product quality claim.

What is behind an organic label?

The label. An organic label indicates that a product has been certified against specific organic standards. The label carries the name of the certification body and the standards with which it complies. To the informed consumer, this label can function as a guide. Certification bodies evaluate operations according to different organic standards and can be formally recognized by more than one authoritative body. The label of a given certification body, therefore, informs the consumer on the type of standards complied with during production and processing as well as on the type of recognition granted to the certification body. Many certification bodies operate worldwide, most of which are private and originate in developed countries.

International voluntary standards. At the international level the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission (the inter-governmental body that sets standards for all foods) has produced international guidelines for Production, Processing, Labeling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods to guide producers and to protect consumers against deception and fraud. These guidelines have been agreed upon by all member states of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The private sector's equivalent to the Codex Alimentarius guidelines is the International Basic Standards for Organic Production and Processing, created by IFOAM. Codex Alimentarius and IFOAM guidelines include accepted management principles for the production of plants, livestock, bees and their products (IFOAM makes provisions also for fibers, aquaculture and non-wood forest products); for handling, storage, processing, packaging and transportation of products, and a list of substances permitted in the production and processing of organic foods. These guidelines are regularly reviewed, particularly the criteria for permitted substances and the process by which inspection is carried out and certification held.

National mandatory standards. The Codex Alimentarius and IFOAM guidelines are minimum standards for organic agriculture, intended to guide governments and private certification bodies in standard setting. As such, they can be considered as standards for standards. Governments can use these texts to develop national organic agriculture programs, which are often more detailed as they respond to specific country needs. Most national standards (e.g. EU countries, Japan, Argentina, India, Tunisia USA), are specified in regulations which are legally binding.

Local voluntary standards. In some countries (e.g. Germany), individual certification bodies may produce their own standards, which can be more stringent than the regulation in force, usually in response to specific consumer demands. Although these are not legally enforceable, private certifiers may be more restrictive than is required by law.

Accreditation. Accreditation is a procedure by which an authoritative body evaluates and gives formal recognition that a certification program is in accordance with the standards of the authoritative body. For organic agriculture, certification bodies can apply the voluntary international standards and/or the national mandatory standards and be accredited by the related "authority". At international level, the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS) accredits certification bodies according to IFOAM Accreditation Programme criteria by delivering the "IFOAM Accredited" logo. IOAS is an independent NGO that ensures global equivalency of certification programs and attempts to harmonize standards, taking into consideration local differences. It must be noted that membership of IFOAM by certifying bodies does not constitute IOAS accreditation. At the national level, governments or national accreditation bodies accredit certification bodies operating in their country, if their country has organic agriculture legislation. Both private and public bodies adhere to the International Organization for Standardization basic standards for accreditation of certifiers (ISO 65) in addition to their specific requirements.

Reference: IFOAM FAQs

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