Organic farming

Organic farming is a way of farming that avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and follows the principles of sustainable agriculture. In many countries, including the US and in the EU, organic farming is also defined by law.

Methods of organic farming vary. Each farm develops its own organic production system, determined by factors like location, crop selection, local regulations, and the preferences of the individual farmer. However, all organic systems share common goals and practices:

  • no use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and no GMOs;
  • protection of the soil (from erosion, nutrient depletion, structural breakdown);
  • promotion of biodiversity (eg: growing a variety of crops rather than a single crop);
  • no drugs (eg: antibiotics, hormones), and access to outdoor grazing, for livestock and poultry.

In many parts of the world, organic certification is available for a fee to farms that choose to formally declare their "organic" status. Depending on the country, certification is either overseen by the government, or handled entirely by private certifiction bodies. Where laws exist, it is usually illegal for a non-certified farm to call itself or its products "organic".

It is important to make the distinction between organic farming and organic food. Farming is concerned with producing fresh products - vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, eggs - for immediate consumption, or for use as ingredients in processed food. The manufacture of processed food is well beyond the scope of farming, although it is the largest food category in developed nations.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Methods
3 History
4 Productivity
5 Issues
6 The Future
7 See Also
8 External Links

Overview

Organic farming is not "new". In fact, it is a reaction against the large-scale, chemical-based farming practices that have steadily dominated food production over the last 80 years. The differences between organic farming and modern conventional farming account for most of the controversy and claims surrounding organic agriculture and organic food.

   
  Organic Conventional
Size relatively small-scale, independent operations (eg: the family farm) large-scale, often owned by or economically tied to major food corporations
Methods low use of purchased fertilizers and other inputs and low mechanization of growing and harvesting process intensive chemical programs and mechanized production, using specialized equipment and facilities
Markets mostly local, direct to consumer, through on-farm stands and farmers' markets (see also local food) wholesale, with products distributed across huge territories (average supermarket produce travels hundreds to thousands of miles)

The contrast is as much economic as it is between methods of production: today, organic farming is typically small business, and conventional farming is big business. However, the situation is also in a state of flux.

Methods

Organic farming is essentially "traditional" farming, based on knowledge and techniques gathered over thousands of years of agriculture, prior to the chemical farming revolution. It is easiest to describe by contrasting it with modern commercial techniques.

In general terms, organic farming involves natural processes and a holistic approach, while chemical-based farming focusses on isolated effects and reductionist strategies (some would argue that this reductionism is greedy reductionism). For fertilization, organic farming relies heavily on the natural breakdown of organic matter, using techniques like green manure and composting to replace nutrients taken from the soil by previous crops. This process provides a full range of essential nutrients, supports insects and microorganisms that in turn contribute to pest control, and so on. In chemical farming, individual nutrients, like nitrogen, are synthesized in a more or less pure form that plants can use immediately. Pest control is addressed by different specific chemicals. Each farming requirement is isolated and addressed separately.

Differing approaches to pest control are equally notable. In chemical farming, applying a specific insecticide may quickly kill off a particular pest. Chemical controls can dramatically reduce pest populations for the short term, yet by killing (or starving) natural predator insects and animals, cause an ultimate increase in the pest population. Organic farming tends to tolerate some pest populations while looking to the long haul. (Note that Integrated Pest Management also uses some of these techniques, while not abandoning some chemical control methods.)

Organic pest control involves the cumulative effect of many techniques, including:

  • encouraging predatory beneficial insects to flourish and eat pests;
  • planting companion crops that discourage pests;
  • using row covers to protect crops during pest migration periods;
  • rotating crops to different locations from year to year to interrupt pest reproduction cycles;
  • allowing for an acceptable level of pest damage.

Each of these techniques also provides other benefits - soil protection and improvement, fertilization, pollination, water conservation, season extension, etc - that are also cumulative. Good organic techniques require a thorough understanding of pest life cycles and interactions.

Crop diversity is another distinctive characteristic of organic farming. Conventional farming focusses on producing large quantities of one crop in one location, a practice called monoculture. This makes apparent economic sense: the larger the growing area, the lower the per unit cost of fertilizer, pesticides and specialized machinery for a single plant species. Particularly in vegetable production, the reverse holds true for organic farming, where smaller tends to be more manageable. Planting a variety of vegetable crops supports a wider range of beneficial insects, soil microorganisms, and other factors that add up to overall farm health, but managing the balance requires close attention and expertise. In large commercial operations, sophisticated machinery does most of the work, and operators' feet may seldom touch the ground. It can take several organic farms to provide the same output as one large-scale, chemical-based farm, but the comparison goes beyond simple numbers: the day-to-day activities and required skill sets are quite different.

Raising livestock and poultry, for meat, dairy and eggs, is the other traditional farming activity. The same concept of inclusion versus exclusion holds true. Organic farms attempt to provide animals with "natural" living conditions and feed. Ample outdoor access, for grazing and exercise, is a distinctive feature, and crowding is avoided. Healthy living produces healthy animals, is the basic idea. By contrast, large-scale, intensive animal farming meets the minimum requirements to produce a saleable product at the lowest cost. Animals are often kept indoors in a minimum of space, fed a variety of synthetic feed that provides essential nutrients, and given a steady dose of antibiotics to prevent disease. In its most intense form, this approach is often called factory farming.

There are also different organic farming systems. Biodynamic farming is a comprehensive approach, with its own international governing body. The Fukuoka method focusses on a minimum of mechanical cultivation and labor. There is the French intensive method, biointensive farming, and other approaches. A farm may choose to adopt a particular method, or mix and match useful techniques.

History

The history of organic farming is largely the history of the organic movement, which started as a reaction against large-scale agriculture. The movement can be traced back to England, around the 1920s, when individuals began to speak out against a variety of agricultural "innovations".

One of the early pioneers of organic farming, Sir Albert Howard, is often referred to as the father of modern organic agriculture. He began as a British botanist, working as an agricultural adviser in India, where he observed traditional Indian farming practices, and came to regard them as superior to his conventional agriculture science. He documented and developed these organic farming methods. His writings, and notably, the 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament, influenced many scientists and farmers of the day.

In 1939, strongly influenced by Sir Howard's work, Lady Eve Balfour launched the Haughley Experiment on farmland in England. It was the first scientific, side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming. Four years later, she published The Living Soil, based on the initial findings of the Haughley Experiment. It was widely read, and lead to the formation of a key international organic advocacy group, the Soil Association.

In a parallel development in Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka, a microbiologist working in soil science and plant pathology, began to doubt the modern agricultural movement. In the early 1940s, he quit his job as a research scientist, returned to his family's farm, and devoted the next 30 years to developing a radical organic approach, now known as Fukuoka farming.

Things really got moving after World War II, when two chemicals produced in quantity for warfare, were found to have agricultural uses. Ammonium nitrate, used in munitions, became a cheap source of nitrogen, one of the main plant nutrients. And DDT, used to control disease-carrrying insects, became a general pesticide.

At the same time, increasingly powerful and sophisticated farm machinery allowed a single farmer to work ever larger areas of land. Fields grew larger, and agribusiness as we know it today was well on its way. The Green Revolution, launched in Mexico in 1944 with private funding from the US, encouraged the development of hybrid plants, chemical controls, large-scale irrigation, and heavy mechanization around the world.

As agribusiness developed, so did the oppposing organic movement.

During the 1950s, sustainable agriculture was a topic of scientific interest, but science tended to concentrate on the new chemical approaches.

In 1962, Rachel Carson, a prominent scientist and naturalist, published Silent Spring, chronicling the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment. A bestseller in many countries, including the US, and widely read around the world, Silent Spring was instrumental in the US government's 1972 banning of DDT. The book and its author are often credited with launching the worldwide environmental movement.

In 1975, Fukuoka released his first book, One Straw Revolution, with a wide impact on the agricultural world.

As the distinction between organic and conventional food became clear, one goal of the organic movement was to encourage consumption of locally grown food, which was promoted through slogans such as "Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer".

Since the early 1990s, the retail market for organic farming in developed economies has been growing by about 20% annually due to increasing consumer demand. Concern for the quality and safety of food, and the potential for environmental damage, are apparently responsible for this trend.

Today, organic farming is the focus of much public attention and agricultural industry debate. To date, the rise of organic farming has been driven by small, independent producers, and consumers. In recent years, explosive organic market growth has encouraged the participation of agribusiness interests, and they may soon dominate organics. As the volume and variety of "organic" products increases, the viability of the small organic farm is at risk, and the meaning of organic farming as an agricultural method is ever more easily confused with the related but separate areas of organic food and organic certification.

Productivity

Proponents argue that chemical-based farming is necessary to meet the demand for affordable food. Over the last 50 years, agribusiness is responsible for higher availability and greater choice, at lower cost, apparently illustrating its effectiveness. Now, as the hidden costs of agribusiness are surfacing, including environmental damage and potential health risks, the productivity argument is increasingly disputed.

The basic claim is that organic farms are less productive. One prominent 21-year Swiss study found an average 20% lower organic yields over conventional methods, however, that came with consumption of 50% less fertilizer and energy, and 97% less pesticide[1]. A major survey published in 2001, analyzed of over 154 growing seasons of data on various crops and concluded that organic yields were 95-100% of conventional yields[1]. Comparitive yield studies are still scarce, and overall results remain "inconclusive".

In fact, the issue of productivity is more complex than a summary of yield per acre, which is the measure is often assumed. For one, productivity is often calculated in manhours rather than by land area - chemical farming generally requires much more physical space than organic farming to produce the same yield, but much less labor. On a purely economic level, the hidden costs of dealing with side-effects, like environmental clean-up, are generally not included in the cost of doing agribusiness, but are paid by the public in other ways, such as through taxation to fund services like pollution control measures.

Another hidden cost is the depletion of non-renewable energy sources, and related pollution. The production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides relies on large amounts of cheap energy, which comes mostly from petroleum today. Organic farming reduces the dependence on non-sustainable energy sources.

A related aspect is the amount of money that actually reaches the farmer: currently, large-scale farms receive around 20% of the supermarket retail price. The other 80% is absorbed by the food distribution system, for processing, transport, packaging, marketing. The organic argument holds that more efficient distribution, through decentralization of production (eg: family farm vs factory farm), and development of local and regional markets, would put more money in the hands of the farmer, allowing them to improve production.

Overall, comprehensive scientific and economic research is still scarce, and there is no indication that chemical agriculture is generally more productive than the organic approach.

Issues

Intense and fascinating debate currently surrounds all aspects of organic farming and organic food. Enivronmentalists, food safety advocates, various consumer protection, social justice and labor groups, small independent farmers, and a growing number of food consumers - among others - are ranged against agribusiness and many existing and proposed government agricultural policies.

This is not surprising. Organic farming is popularly regarded as the "opposite" of modern, large-scale, chemical-based, vertically integrated, corporate food production. And, after all, food is central to human existence. This fact is easily forgotten, the further one moves away from observable food production. Stroll through any urban mall or shopping district, and "food" seems like just another item for sale, when, in fact its usually the only thing in sight that people simply can't live without. Many people, particularly in developed nations, where most of the world's wealth and consumption are concentrated, are not aware that food, like energy, is not unlimited. If the methods we use to produce our food are rapidly destroying our capacity for continued production, then sustainable farming - organic farming - is at least as critical a topic as renewable energy, and right up there with drinkable water and breathable air. This proposition is at the center of most organic farming issues.

In terms of the debate, it is useful to make a distinction between organic farming and organic food. Whether organic food is tastier or safer or more nutritious has nothing to do with the effects of chemical agriculture on the environment. And, most food dollars are spent on processed food products, the manufacture of which is beyond the scope of farming. There are separate food and farming issues - lumping the two together only confuses the discussion.

Of course, the issues, particularly the social ones, will shift if agribusiness fully adapts to and dominates organic farming. Then, large-scale, certified organic farms would probably operate much more like conventional farms today. Environmental benefits may accrue from a change in types of pesticides and fertilizer used, more crop diversity, and the like, but if the overall agribusiness philosophy remains essentially unchanged, "organic farming" could become the norm, without any great environmental or social improvements.

In any case, here are a number of specific topics, argued from, and supporting, both sides.

Pesticides

Organic farming does not result in the release of chemical pesticides into the food supply or the environment, nor the leaching of artificial fertilizer. Critics claim that many synthetic pesticides are improvements on natural pesticides, with the goal of making them less dangerous to humans and more environmentally friendly. Organic advocates in turn respond that they use natural pesticides as a last resort, rather controlling pests through growing healthier, disease-resistant plants, using cover crops and crop rotation, and encouraging beneficial insects and birds. Organic pesticides include Bt, petroleum oil, soybean oil, pyrethrum, and rotenone. A new non-toxic insecticide based on kaolin clay, that forms a physical barrier to pest insects is rapidly increasing in use in both organic and conventional farming.

Another argument against organic farming is that while it works acceptably at present because pests are kept under control in surrounding conventional farms and thus do not spread into organic farms, if it became universal, the "islands" they operate on would disappear and pests would become a severe issue. (This also works in reverse, as organic farms can be islands of safety for predator insects and pollinators.)

Soil conservation

Some organic farming practices are claimed to do more damage than conventional practices – for instance, the practice of ploughing (see tillage) to prepare soil for planting is claimed to increase soil damage compared to using Roundup, a herbicide.

Food contamination

Some critics point out organic food could be less safe than non-organic food, by increasing the risk of exposure to biological contaminants and food-borne diseases. In particular concerns are related to the use of manure, well known for carrying human pathogens and presence of mycotoxins from molds. One large, influential French study, evaluating organic and conventional food during 1999-2000, warned that biological toxins in certain organic products (apples, wheat) should be closely monitored[1]. Food contamination is usually casued by unhygienic handling and storage, including use of contaminated water, which can occur on-farm, in transit, and at the point of preparation.

Government subsidies

Some organic farming advocates believe that, even if yields are currently lower, these results are obtained without the huge subsidies paid to conventional farmers, and expect yields to be equivalent or higher if organic farming were subsidised to the same level.

Social damage

Critics condemn agribusiness practices for putting small, independent farmers out of business, destroying rural communities in the process, and causing the "art of farming" to be lost. Small-scale organic farming encourages local economies, and provides social and employment alternatives to concentrated, energy-dependent urban living, thus improving the quality of life for everyone.

The Future

Organic farming is at a crossroads. Despite the growth in the organic food market over the last decade, the future of the small, independent farmer, organic or otherwise, is as much in jeopardy now as it has been in recent decades. The local infrastructure to support small farmers is all but non-existent in most developed nations - the current food distribution system favors high-volume production, and large farming operations. What is commonly known as "organic farming" may change quite dramatically in the coming few years.

See Also

External Links




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