Organic Agriculture

The Leopold Center has been able to significantly add to the body of knowledge about organic agriculture over the past two decades, even though less than 10 percent of the Center's research dollars goes to studying organic systems. 

What is organic agriculture?

According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), organic agriculture is "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, or enhance ecological harmony. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."

The term "certified organic" is governed by uniform standards of production and processing that can be verified by independent state or private organizations accredited by the USDA.

In general, crop produce or products that qualify as organic must be:

  • free from genetic modification,
  • grown without conventional fertilizers and pesticides, and
  • processed without food additives or ionizing radiation.

In addition to these requirements, organic animals also must be raised without growth hormones and antibiotics.

Why organic?

We can learn a lot about how to implement Aldo Leopold’s idea of the ‘biotic community’ from organic agriculture, which takes a system-wide approach. Consumer demand for healthier food and cleaner environments provide a compelling reason to look at alternative systems and their impacts.

Organic systems research also adds to our scientific knowledge regarding ecological theory and can be transferred to non-organic farming systems, thus strengthening all aspects of agriculture. For example, organic farming fosters biodiversity, which offers unique services such as pest management in the ecosystem. How biodiversity affects pest management on farms is not fully understood and can be tested in organic systems.

One of the fundamental differences is in the farm operator’s role in organic agriculture. Farmers continue to play a significant role in developing this farming system. Organic agriculture is grounded in diverse crop rotations, which requires both research and management strategies that are integrated and systems-based. Organic practices and measures of success are intentionally multifunctional over time: the goal is not to simplify.

Linkages between organic agriculture and the Leopold Center mission include:

  • more than 100,000 acres in Iowa under organic systems, with many more in transition,
  • documented benefits in relation to water and soil quality, energy use and local production/economic development, and
  • at least 20 percent of program participants reporting an 11-20 percent increase in farm income (latest five-year survey of clientele).

Leopold Center research in organic agriculture systems include:

  • Organic Soybean Fertility Treatments, Neely-Kinyon Farm
  • Disease Management of Organic Grapes, Neely-Kinyon Farm
  • Management of Soybean Staining Disease and Soybean Aphid in Organic Soybeans, Neely-Kinyon Farm
  • Insect Pest Management in Organic Sweet Corn, Neely-Kinyon Farm
  • No-Till Organic Corn, Soybean and Oats, ISU Agronomy Farm and Neely-Kinyon Farm
  • Organic Soybean Variety Trial: ISU Southeast Research Farm
  • On-Farm Evaluation of Organic Apple Pest Management, with Maury Wills on the Wills Family Farm, Adel
  • On-Farm Evaluation of Natural Nitrogen for Organic Corn, Shriver Farm, Jefferson.

Related resources


Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) research

This experiment at the ISU Neely-Kinyon Research and Demonstration Farm near Greenfield was set up in 1998, the capstone of the Organic Ag program at Iowa State University. It is one of the longest running comparisons of organic and conventional crops in the country. The Leopold Center has supported the LTAR project and the ISU Organic Ag Program since they began.

Visit the LTAR webpage for details on this experiment.


Scientific Findings About Organic Agriculture website


Scientific Findings About Organic Agriculture is a project of the Leopold Center that includes summaries from nearly 300 peer-reviewed, scientific articles about organic agriculture on this website, organized by topic.

The summaries do not make any attempt to recommend organically grown food over conventionally-produced food, or to infer that organically grown food could provide nutritional health benefits, perceived or otherwise. Research cited involves a comparison or specific trait of organic food. Original citations are included with the summaries. Additional information may be available from the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) website.

Submissions of articles for review can be directed to the Leopold Center director, or by sending an email to: