Story: Organic farming

Page 1. What is organic farming?

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The organic farming movement (sometimes called biological or ecological farming) started in New Zealand in the 1940s as an alternative to using synthetic chemicals in farming and food production. The skills and techniques which had been developed in home vegetable gardens and orchards began to be applied to larger commercial enterprises.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent spring warned against the effects of pesticides on the environment, adding to the impetus for organic farming in New Zealand and elsewhere. There was a growing concern that toxic agricultural chemicals such as DDT had become widespread and persistent in the environment, in food, and in humans.


Biodynamics is a farming method that has developed in parallel with organics. They both use natural materials and methods, but biodynamics also considers things such as the effects of the moon on plant and animal growth. Some organic farmers also use biodynamic principles and techniques, but a number of these lack scientific support.

Definition of organic

Most consumers understand organic food to be that which has been produced without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. However, for producers, it is more complicated – organic food production involves a philosophy, key principles, and defined practices that create and maintain fertile soils and produce healthy crops and livestock in a sustainable manner.

Organic methods

The challenge for pioneers of commercial organic farming was to develop large-scale systems that used natural materials and methods economically. There are a number of organic management techniques:

  • Compost, animal manure, naturally occurring mineral fertilisers, green manure crops (crops planted and dug into the soil to fertilise it) and crop rotation enhance and maintain soil health.
  • Mechanical or heat treatments control weeds.
  • Biological controls, such as the insect predators of pests, are used to reduce weeds, pests and diseases.
  • Rotational grazing and mixed pastures keep stock healthy and minimise the likelihood of getting internal parasites.

These techniques are labour intensive and need careful management.

Standards, certification and accreditation

Certification agencies check that growers and processors have adhered to organic standards. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), formed in Germany in 1972, defines standards and has an accreditation system for organic certification. Organic products are often more expensive than non-organic, and certification is important to ensure consumers are not cheated.

Once organic produce has left the farm or orchard, it needs to maintain its quality. Packing and processing is designed to involve the fewest additives possible.

How to cite this page:

Seager Mason, 'Organic farming - What is organic farming?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 June 2023)

Story by Seager Mason, published 24 Nov 2008