Organic farming is a way of farming that avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and usually subscribes to the principles of sustainable agriculture. Its theoretical basis puts an emphasis on soil health. Its proponents believe that healthy soil, maintained without the use of man-made fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock raised without drugs, yields higher quality food than conventional, chemical-based agriculture. In many countries, including the US and in the EU, organic farming is also defined by law and regulated by the government.
Methods of organic farming vary. Each farm develops its own organic production system, determined by factors like climate, crop selection, local regulations, and the preferences of the individual farmer. However, all organic systems share common goals and practices:
In many parts of the world, organic certification is available to farms for a fee. Depending on the country, certification is either overseen by the government, or handled entirely by private certification 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 most processed food is well beyond the scope of farming.
It is also important to note that 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. Until recently, the comparison looked something like this:
| ||Organic ||Conventional |
|Size ||relatively small-scale, independent operations (e.g. the family farm) ||large-scale, often owned by or economically tied to major food corporations |
|Methods ||low use of purchased fertilizers and other inputs; low mechanization of the growing and harvesting process ||intensive chemical programs and reliance on mechanized production, using specialized equipment and facilities |
|Markets ||often local, direct to consumer, through on-farm stands and farmers' markets (see also local food), and through specialty wholesalers and retailers (eg: health food stores) ||wholesale, with products distributed across large areas (average supermarket produce travels hundreds to thousands of miles) and sold through high-volume outlets |
The contrast is as much economic as it is between methods of production. To date, organic farming has been typically small business, often based in local economies, and conventional farming is big business (often called agribusiness or, negatively, corporate farming) that is closely integrated with all aspects of the global food production chain. However, the situation is changing rapidly as consumer demand encourages large-scale organic production.
Development of modern organic farming techniques is also a function of economics. Most of the agricultural research over the last several decades has concentrated on chemical-based methods - little funding and effort have been put into using current scientific tools to understand and advance organic agricultural approaches.
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, often taking place over extended periods of time, and a holistic approach, while chemical-based farming focusses on immediate, isolated effects and reductionist strategies (some would argue that this reductionism is greedy reductionism).
The central farming activity of fertilization illustrates the differences. 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 biological process, driven by microorganisms, allows the natural production of nutrients in the soil throughout the growing season, and is often referred to as feeding the soil to feed the plant. In chemical farming, individual nutrients, like nitrogen, are synthesized in a more or less pure form that plants can use immediately, and applied on a man-made schedule. Each nutrient is defined and addressed separately. Problems that may arise from one action (e.g. too much nitrogen left in the soil) are usually addressed with additional, corrective products and procedures (e.g. using water to wash excess nitrogen out of the soil).
Differing approaches to pest control are equally notable. In chemical farming, a specific insecticide may be applied to quickly kill off a particular insect pest. Chemical controls can dramatically reduce pest populations for the short term, yet by unavoidably killing (or starving) natural predator insects and animals, cause an ultimate increase in the pest population. Repeated use of insecticides and herbicides and other pesticides also encourages rapid natural selection of resistant insects, plants and other organisms, necessitating increased use, or requiring new, more powerful controls.
In contrast, organic farming tends to tolerate some pest populations while looking to the long haul. Organic pest control involves the cumulative effect of many techniques, including:
- allowing for an acceptable level of pest damage;
- encouraging predatory beneficial insects to flourish and eat pests;
- planting companion crops that discourage or divert 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.
Each of these techniques also provides other benefits——soil protection and improvement, fertilization, pollination, water conservation, season extension, etc.—and these benefits are both complementary and cumulative in overall effect on farm health. Effective organic pest control requires a thorough understanding of pest life cycles and interactions.
Crop diversity is another distinctive characteristic of organic farming. Conventional farming focusses on mass production 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 and efficient. 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 expertise and close attention. In large commercial operations, technology is used to regulate local conditions—hybrid seed, synthetic chemicals, high-volume irrigation—while 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, complementary farming activity to growing. Here, the same concept of inclusion versus exclusion holds true. Organic farms attempt to provide animals with "natural" living conditions and feed. Ample, free-ranging outdoor access, for grazing and exercise, is a distinctive feature, and crowding is avoided. Also, horses and cattle used to be a basic farm feature that provided labor, for hauling and plowing, fertility, through recycling of manure, and fuel, in the form of food for farmers and other animals. While today, small growing operations often do not include livestock, domesticated animals are a desirable part of the organic farming equation, especially for true sustainability, the ability of a farm to function as a self-renewing unit.
Organic farming systems
There are 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 for grain crops. There is the French intensive method, biointensive farming, and other approaches, some strictly organic, others simply well-suited to organic principles. A farm may choose to adopt a particular method, or mix and match useful techniques.
Organic and conventional farming methods are quite different, however, large-scale agriculture and organic farming are not mutually exclusive. For example, Integrated Pest Management is a multifaceted strategy, that can include synthetic pesticides as a last resort - both organic and conventional farms use IPM systems for pest control.
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. Advocates for organic farming dispute this, arguing that the hidden costs of chemical-using approaches are surfacing, including environmental damage and potential health risks.
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 (http://www.fibl.net/english/news/2002/2002-05-science/release.php). 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 (http://www.ofrf.org/publications/news/IB10.pdf). Comparative yield studies are still scarce, and overall results remain "inconclusive".
In fact, the issue of productivity is more complex than a summary of yield, which is the measure is often assumed. For one, productivity is often calculated in labour time rather than by land area - chemical farming sometimes requires much more physical space than organic farming to produce the same yield, but much less labor. Also, the majority of world agricultural grain production is fed to animals, not humans - broad calculations of how much agriculture is feeding people is therefore complicated when feeding animals to feed people is factored in.
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, and increased health care costs.
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. The long-distance transport required to distribute produce that is mass-produced in one region also contributes to energy consumption. 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.
The development of organic farming is one of methods and markets. It is also largely the history of the organic movement, which began as an insiders group of agricultural scientists and farmers, and later expanded to become a grassroots consumer cause. Initially, organics focussed on the methods, as a definite reaction against the industrialization of agriculture, and remained below the awareness of the food buyer. Only when the contrasts between organics and the new conventional agriculture became overwhelming, did organics rise to the attention of the public, creating a distinct organic market. World War II marks the two phases.
Pre-World War II
The first 40 years of the 20th century saw simultaneous advances in biochemistry and engineering that rapidly and profoundly changed farming. The introduction of the gasoline internal combustion engine ushered in the era of the tractor, and made possible hundreds of mechanized farm implements. Research in plant breedling led to the commercialization of hybrid seed. And a new manufacturing process made nitrogen fertilizer - first synthesized in the mid-1800s - affordably abundant. These factors changed the labor equation: there were some 600 tractors in the US around 1910, and over 3,000,000 by 1950; in 1900, it took one farmer to feed 2.5 people, where currently the ratio is 1 to well over 100. Fields grew bigger and cropping more specialized to make more efficient use of machinery.
In England in the 1920s, a few individuals in agriculture began to speak out against these agricultural trends.
The British botanist Sir Albert Howard is often referred to as the father of modern organic agriculture. From 1905 to 1924, he worked as an agricultural adviser in Pusa, Bengal, India, where he documented traditional Indian farming practices, and came to regard them as superior to his conventional agriculture science. His research and further development of these methods is recorded in his writings, notably, his 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament, which influenced many scientists and farmers of the day.
In Germany, Rudolf Steiner's development biodynamic agriculture was probably the first comprehensive organic farming system.
In the early 1900s, American agronomist F.H. King toured China, Korea, and Japan, studying traditional fertilization, tillage, and general farming practices. He published his findings in Farmers of Forty Centuries (1911). King probably did not view himself as part of a movement, organic or otherwise, but in later years his book became an important organic reference.
In 1939, 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. Widely read, it lead to the formation of a key international organic advocacy group, the Soil Association.
The coinage of the term organic farming is usually credited to Lord Northbourn, in his book, Look to the Land (1940), wherein he described a holistic, ecologically-balanced approach to farming.
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 no-till organic method for growing grain, now known as Fukuoka farming.
Post-World War II
Technological advances during World War II accelerated post-war innovation in all aspects of agriculture: mechanization (including large-scale irrigation), fertilization, and pesticides. In particular, two new chemicals that had been produced in quantity for warfare, were found to have agricultural uses. Ammonium nitrate, used in munitions, became a cheap source of nitrogen. And a range of new pesticides appeared: DDT, used to control disease-carrying insects, became a general insecticide, launching in the age of widespread pesticide use.
At the same time, increasingly powerful and sophisticated farm machinery allowed a single farmer to work ever larger areas of land. Fields grew bigger, 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.
During the 1950s, sustainable agriculture was a topic of scientific interest, but science tended to concentrate on the new chemical approaches. In the US, J.I. Rodale began to popularize the term and methods of organic growing, particularly through promotion of organic gardening.
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 highly influential in the US government's 1972 banning of DDT. The book and its author are often credited with launching the worldwide environmental movement.
In the 1970s, global movements concerned with pollution and the environment increased their focus on organic farming. As the distinction between organic and conventional food became clearer, one goal of the organic movement was to encourage consumption of locally grown food, which was promoted through slogans like "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food".
In 1975, Fukuoka released his first book, One Straw Revolution, with a wide effect on the agricultural world. His approach to small-scale grain production emphasized a meticulous balance of the local farming ecosystem, and a minimum of human interference and labor.
In the 1980s, around the world, various farming and consumer groups began seriously pressuring for government regulation of organic production. This led to legislation and certification standards being enacted through the 1990s and to date.
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 from conventional agriculture, are apparently responsible for this trend.
Throughout this history, the focus of agricultural research, and the majority of publicized scientific findings, has been on chemical, not organic farming. This emphasis has now shifted to biotechnologies like genetic engineering. One recent survey of the UK's leading government funding agency for bioscience research and training indicated 26 GM crop projects, and only one related to organic agriculture. (http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/) This imbalance is largely driven by agribusiness in general, which, through research funding and government lobbying, continues to direct science and policy.
Agribusiness is also changing the rules of the organic market. The rise of organic farming was driven by small, independent producers, and by consumers. In recent years, explosive organic market growth has encouraged the participation of agribusiness interests. 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.
Intense and escalating debate surrounds all aspects of organic farming and organic food. Environmentalists, 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.
The controversy centers around the overall value and safety of chemical agriculture, with organic farming popularly regarded as the "opposite" of modern, large-scale, chemical-based, vertically integrated, corporate food production. As public awareness increases, several factors act as obstacles to an easy understanding of the overall situation.
In recent decades, food production has moved away from the public eye. In developed nations, where most of the world's wealth, consumption, and agricultural policy-making are centered, many people are no longer aware of how their food is produced, or even that food, like energy, is not unlimited. If the methods used to produce food are rapidly destroying the capacity for continued production, then sustainable, organic farming is as critical a topic as renewable energy and pollution control. 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.
Another important distinction lies between organic farming and organic certification. Defining organic farming with checklists of acceptable and prohibited inputs and practices runs into some of the same criticisms aimed at chemical farming. With rules come exceptions, whether well-intentioned or purely profit-oriented, and critics hold that this can only undermine organic principles. For example, in some organic standards, compost made from sewage is acceptable, a decision based on best-guess science (that the carryover of unacceptable inputs is negligible) and necessity. Exceptions like this often seem necessary to make certified organic farming commercially viable for independent farmers, although they might be questionable to the consumer. Certification also allows agribusiness to lobby for favorable definitions - anything that can be approved becomes "organic".
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.
Organic farming does not result in the release of synthetic pesticides into the food supply or the environment, nor the leaching of artificial fertilizer. It does, however, allow the release of what are described as natural pesticides. 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, and that the distinction between "artificial" and "natural" pesticides is arbitrary and no basis in their safety to humans and the environment. 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.)
Workplace safety is a separate, related issue. Toxic agrichemicals create a hazardous work environment. Chemcial accidents and the effects of long-term exposure are both well-known risks faced by many farmers. Also, the effect of chemicals, airborne after spraying, and in the groundwater, on neighboring communities is a concern.
Genetically modified organisms
A key characteristic of organic farming is its rejection of genetically engineered products, including plants and animals. "GMO-free" is also a popular marketing point for organic food. Actively avoiding GM seeds, growth hormones and the like represents one aspect. Less publicized, but with potentially greater effect, is the contamination of organic farms with GM product. The mechanism of cross-contamination is not understood, and only beginning to be studied. Meanwhile, cases of cross-contamination have been documented, while the extent is still unclear. A first-time study of genetic cross-contamination, published in Feb-2004, found that at least two-thirds of conventional corn, soybeans and canola in the US contain traces of genetic material from GM varieties. (http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/biotechnology/seed_index.html) Along with commercial GM crops, trials for new GM plants producing food, pharmaceuticals (pharmacrops) and industrial materials (eg: plastics), are being conducted in the US, Canada, and elsewhere. It is conceivable that genetic contamination could make GMO-free farming next to impossible.
The environmental argument, from the pro-organic view, holds that conventional agriculture is rapidly depleting natural resources, namely,fossil fuels and fresh water, and seriously polluting soil, water and air. Cited are the large quantities of agricultural chemicals in use (synthetic pesticides and fertilizers), water wastage through high-volume irrigation, heavy use of petrochemicals for farm machinery and long-distance shipping, high densities of various waste products from conentrated operations, and the list goes on. While there is no argument that conventional agriculture relies on an abundance of these resources and creates a high volume of waste, agribusiness supporters (which naturally includes the majority of conventional farmers) argue that the negative claims are exaggerated or inaccurate. The fact that the current food industry exists and has fed the world for several decades, is the biggest pro-argument to date.
On the flip side, large-scale organic operations that don't follow sustainable practices would require many of the same resources as conventional operations. For example, an organic farm that made heavy use of farm machinery and indoor production facilities (requiring artificial heat and light), and shipped to far-off markets, would still be a major consumer of energy resources.
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 (http://www.agriculture.gouv.fr/spip/IMG/pdf/d37.pdf). Food contamination is usually caused by unhygienic handling and storage, including use of contaminated water, which can occur on-farm, in transit, and at the point of preparation.
The practice of ploughing (see tillage) to prepare soil for planting is claimed to increase soil damage compared to using herbicides, like the market-leading glyphosate, Roundup. In fact, this argument applies primarily to large-scale, chemical-based agriculture, where huge areas are repeatedly tilled and planted with the same crops. By using artificial fertilizer rather than replacing organic material, the soil structure is progressively destroyed, and becomes increasingly susceptible to wind and water erosion. Use of herbicides to kill weeds, instead of plowing them under, may present a short-term solution to this problem. However, repeated use of herbicides also kills microorganisms that contribute to the decomposition of plant residues that help rebuild the organic matter that holds the soil together. It also encourages the selection of the most herbicide-resistant weeds, which necessitates increased herbicide use.
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.
It should be noted that the conventional, chemical-based approach is also widely practiced in countries that do not heavily subsidise their farmers, such as Australia.
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. According to these critics, 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.
As discussed previously, the entry of large-scale businesses into production of organic food undermines the belief that a preference by consumers for organic food will necessarily translate into a substantive change in the nature of agribusiness.
Although it is common to equate organic farming with sustainable agriculture, the two are not synonymous. Sustainability in agriculture is a concept, with the ideal of approaching as closely as possible a balance between what is taken out of the soil - the local ecosystem - and what is returned to it, without outside inputs. An organic operation that, for example, imports the manure it uses for compost, must take into account the resources required to produce and transport that manure, when calculating sustainability. Organic farming today is a small part of the agricultural landscape, with a relatively minor impact on the environment. Looking forward, as organic practices become much more prevalent, a new set of large-scale considerations will have to be tackled, in order for the broad positive claims of organics over conventional farming to remain arguable.
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.
- Back to the land
- WWOOF stands for World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, and is an organisation which facilitates placement of volunteer workers on organic farms.