December 20, 2015Agriculture Written by Greentumble Editorial Team
since the Neolithic period, when our ancestors turned from hunters and gatherers to farmers, there is no doubt that it is experiencing a bit of a comeback in recent years. The main reason behind this growth in popularity is that the majority of consumers take into consideration the health benefits of chemical-free products, care about animal welfare and make conscious choices to prevent further environmental degradation. With ever-increasing awareness about the toxic chemicals used extensively in modern agriculture, more people are willing to pay higher prices for organically produced food.
The global market for organic products has grown to 80 billion US dollars in 2015, with the U.S. market being the largest, followed by Germany, France and China.
According to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the demand for organic products is constantly on the rise, which makes this way of farming economically interesting for farmers; India is in the lead when it comes to the number of organic producers, while Australia has the largest proportion of organically farmed land (over 22.7 million hectares) worldwide1.
These developments have had a positive impact on the availability of organic food in local markets, which enables more people to enjoy its benefits. But just like any other way of farming, organic agriculture also has its downsides. To find out more about the organic products you are buying, have a look at Greentumble‘s list of pros and cons of organic farming.
Pros of Organic Farming
This is probably one of the strongest arguments in favor of these products. Organic farming does not allow the growth or production of any genetically modified organisms.
Supports healthy soil
Organic farming recognizes the importance of good soil health and the link between soil protection and healthy plants, as well as soil fertility and productivity. Crops are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Instead, natural techniques of soil enhancement are applied.
For example: The Thompson farm in Iowa uses the following pattern of crop rotation to achieve a healthy balance of nutrients for their soils. In the first year they plant corn, followed by oats and then use the land for 6 years as a pasture for livestock. The outcome is soil with a high content of organic matter and diverse soil fauna such as earthworms that aerate soils by making tunnels and distributing organic material to deeper soil layers.
Needless to say that organic techniques also help restore degraded soils and reduce soil erosion.
More nutrition and flavor
The combination of healthy soils and natural farming techniques, makes the food produced through organic farming richer in minerals and micronutrients.
According to the Quality Low Input Food report, the milk of grazing cows found in organic farms is richer in omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamin E when compared to milk from intensive dairy farm systems.
The quality and diversity of fresh feed that pasture offers affects not only the overall wellbeing of an animal, but also the quality of the milk.
Healthy organic fruits and vegetables are often much more flavorful than those produced through conventional farming. Organic peaches have a higher polyphenol content, which makes them tastier compared to their conventionally grown counterparts2.
Farm workers and local communities are not exposed to toxic synthetic agricultural chemicals. Those who come in contact with pesticides have higher risk of neurological diseases. The greater the exposure of farmers to those chemicals during their lifetime, the more likely they are to suffer from a variety of health problems ranging from headaches, fatigue to memory loss3.
Resistance to pests and diseases
Healthy plants that are naturally grown in healthy soils are more resistant to pests and diseases. Plants become naturally stronger and develop their defence mechanisms when grown in the optimum conditions with the right amount of available nutrients and a balanced pH level.
One of the key strategies applied in organic farming is the reinforcement of plant resistance, which is based on the thickening of plant cell walls. This is achieved by applying natural strengthening solutions, such as rhubarb extract or by preparing a “tea” from compost. These solutions promote healthy plant growth and natural pest resistance4.
Fertilizers are created on-site
Organic farmers improve the soil fertility on a farm by using natural methods of boosting the level of available nutrients. Some of these techniques include green manure, cover crops, worm farming or the application of compost. All these methods are highly effective and beneficial not only for maintaining long-term productivity on a farm, but also for local biodiversity.
Opportunity for specializing in niche crops and heirloom varieties
Unlike conventional farming which is heavily reliant upon commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, organic farmers have more opportunities to grow specialty varieties of crops that demand a higher price.
Organic farming is more friendly to our climate because it:
Stores carbon in healthy soil5.
Reduces energy requirements. Organic farming tends to rely more on physical and animal labor rather than fossil fuels. In the case of permaculture and biodynamic agriculture systems, good design significantly reduces the energy that is needed in the first place.
Eliminates the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.
Supports natural ecosystems that store carbon such as forests and prairies.
Reduces the generation of greenhouse gases (due to a reduction in fossil fuel use during production).
Takes future generations into account
Organic farming is restorative and requires low inputs, and therefore it does not destroy the land and natural resources for future generations. This is in contrast to many conventional farming techniques which reduce the natural capital values of our planet.
Cons of organic farming
In most industrialized countries, there are no subsidies provided to organic farmers. This makes organic farmers more vulnerable, from a financial point of view, to bad weather events that could wipe out their entire crop for the year or if the crop itself fails.
Lack of special infrastructure
Most large organic farms still operate in an industrialized agriculture style, including industrial transportation of the food from field to plate. Unfortunately, this involves the adoption of the same environmentally harmful practices as those of factory farms which are however hidden under the cover of being organic.
Many organic farmers use approved organic pesticides and fungicides
Some organic farmers may still use pesticides and fungicides that are approved for organic production. While these substances are derived from natural sources, and therefore, carry a “natural” label rather than synthetic, they are still potentially harmful to our health and to ecosystems because they are being applied over a relatively small area in greater concentrations than would naturally occur. And since natural pesticides are often not as effective as synthetic ones, farmers have to repeat the application more often, which means that some elements might actually exceed safe amounts of concentration in the environment.
Furthermore, it is necessary to consider the chemical burden of soils when switching from conventional farming to organic. In some cases, previously applied synthetic chemicals simply remain in the soil for decades, and if the legislation in the country is not strict enough or is otherwise lacking, a farm may sell products as organic even though they contain traces of these hazardous chemicals.
More work is involved
In general, organic farming requires more manual and physical control of weeds than other cultivation techniques. However, with ecological farming methods such as permaculture or biodynamic agriculture, good and effective design dramatically reduces the labor that is required over time. It is possible to achieve great results by replicating natural processes, and this only requires a basic knowledge of these farming techniques and the willgness to experiment with what works the best for a given area and climate.
More observations required between crops and the farmer
Organic farmers must monitor their crops closely throughout the critical times of growth to ensure that their crops are healthy, and weed- or pest-free. Regular monitoring is an essential part of effective management of an organic farm because it is the most direct way to prevent extensive loses caused by a sudden occurence of a problem. This makes organic farming more labor and time demanding than conventional farming.
Requires significant knowledge
Organic farmers need to have a good understanding of ecology and how the soil works, as organic production is highly dependent upon healthy soils and natural systems. In order to be sucessfull, a farmer has to invest time to learn about innovations and alternative solutions that could work for this farming system.
While conventional farmers generally have a well-defined market for their commodity crops and have a fairly simple field to market process, organic farmers can find it much more difficult to compete and market their products on their own. This challenge has led to the development of collaborative farming co-ops such as The Neighboring Food Co-op Association in New England, which is a network of more than 30 food co-ops, Community supported agriculture initiatives, and increasingly popular farmers‘ markets that give farmers a better opportunity to get their products into public hands (and mouths).
Arduous certification process
Unfortunately, the process of becoming a Certified Organic farmer is often arduous and filled with paperwork and regulations that conventional farmers don’t have to deal with. This has led to some farmers to skipping the official certification process altogether as well as creating alternative certification schemes, such as Certified Naturally Grown.
Higher costs at the beginning
Organic soil amendments such as rock dust can be more expensive than conventional agricultural chemicals. However, as the soil becomes healthier naturally, the need for inputs should be reduced over time, and soil fertility requirements can be maintained on-site through compost and other ecological-based inputs.