Organic standards, in which the definition is set out for practical application, stipulate not only the prohibition of use of certain inputs but usually dictate a range of practices to be followed that will ensure a farm maintains its sustainable productive capacity. In other words, farms on which no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are used but where no alternative measures are taken to cope with fertility and pest issues are not necessarily accepted as organic.
The factors required to classify as organic agriculture depend partly on local circumstances in terms of needs and availability of resources. For example, in a country where organic agriculture is not widely adopted, and where no organic seedlings are available, seedlings originating in conventionally managed enterprises may be used on an interim basis. Similarly, in such a situation, manure may not always be available from organic farms, and sourcing it from conventional farms may sometimes be allowed. Restrictions, such as the requirement to compost the material, may be in force.
Since no technology is available to determine whether organic standards have been adhered to, certification of the production process at the farm level, as opposed to product certification, was specifically chosen to ensure that organic products were indeed grown according to organic standards. Consequently, the certification process is complicated, since it includes ascertation that the farmer has incorporated a number of practices to cope with soil fertility and pests, as appropriate, in the particular area where the farm is located.
The Codex Committee on Food Labeling has debated "Draft Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labeling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods"; adoption of a single definition for organic agriculture by the Codex Alimentarius Commission is expected at its next meeting in June, 1999. According to the proposed Codex definition, "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."
In total, more than 100 national or regional standards have been developed, some of them in developing countries, in particular in Latin America. Certification can be carried out by an organization outside the country, especially if no national standards for organic agriculture are available, and no local certifying organization exists. Developing countries in particular make use of this possibility, as setting up the infra-structure needed for certification of organic products (standards, inspection scheme, ratification, appeal procedures, etc.) can be costly, and is seldom self-financing, especially in the early stages.
If the gains from organic agriculture are internalized (that is, if the total benefits of adopting organic management are received on the farm itself) production standards may not be critical. However, if the word "organic" is not protected and no effective certification exists, it may be considerably more difficult to safeguard a premium, if one exists. In one study (UNDP, 1992) the absence of the protection of the word "organic" was mentioned as a reason for the organic farmers being unable to make the most of the available premium. In some countries (such as China) interest in organic markets is mainly due to price premiums in the market (Thiers 1997). In such cases, an official certification system is essential.