Organic Farming

You might have seen in a grocery store some food labelled as organic, and it's usually more expensive than the other options. The word organic means different things to different people and is also regulated by certain governments. All organic food has to start on organic farms. But what exactly is the definition of organic farming? What are the methods involved in organic farming? Are there different pros and cons? Let's take a look!

Organic Farming Organic Farming

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Table of contents

    Organic Farming Definition

    Modern commercial farming uses lots of different agrochemicals and high levels of mechanisation. Fertilisers, pesticides, and technology combine to ensure the best crop yields possible. Crucially, modern farming techniques rely on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Organic farming still uses fertilisers and pesticides but derives them from naturally occurring sources instead.

    Organic farming is an agriculture system that uses natural sources of agrochemicals and non-chemical-based solutions for crop management and production.

    Depending on the country or jurisdiction, organic farming and food can have a more specific set of standards. A well-known example is the organic label given by the United States Department of Agriculture. The European Union also has a set of regulations for labelling food as organic. There are some overall commonalities between all countries, and we'll go over some of the most typical organic farming methods next.

    Organic Farming Methods

    Organic farming is not just one cookie-cutter way of farming. It's a collection of techniques and practices that shun certain industrialized aspects of modern agriculture.

    Naturally-Derived Agrochemicals

    Every plant requires an array of nutrients to grow well, with the two biggest ones being nitrogen and phosphorous. These nutrients are found in nature, but humans can artificially add them to the soil to ensure crops grow better, faster, and more reliably. While the synthetic fertilisers and pesticides used today are more potent than ever before, humans have actually been using naturally found versions of them for thousands of years.

    Organic farming do not spray apple sign StudySmarterFig. 1 - Sign warning gardeners to not spray pesticides on an apple orchard in Washington State.

    Ground-up bones, animal manure, and even some essential oils have a history of usage as fertilisers and pesticides. All of these are found naturally occurring in nature with minimal processing required, so they are considered acceptable in organic farming.

    Some households and farms maintain compost piles, where they mix leftover food and natural debris with soil. As food and plants rot, they actually release tons of nutrients into the soil, resulting in a very rich mixture suitable for planting. Compost is commonly used on organic farms as a key source of fertiliser.

    Compared to conventional farming, the overall agrochemical use on organic farms is much less.

    Crop Rotation

    While also practised in some non-organic farms, crop rotation is especially important in organic farming. Growing the same crop on a plot of land over and over is known as monocropping. While this can be a profitable practice, it is very damaging to the soil, depriving it of key nutrients, eroding it, and dooming future crops to failure if no intervention is made. By switching out what crop is used each season or every couple of growing seasons, the negative impact on soils can be reduced or eliminated.

    Cover Cropping

    As previously stated, planting the same crop over and over results in soil erosion, meaning the nutrient-rich upper soils are removed. Often, as part of a crop rotation schedule, cover crops are planted outside the regular growing season. During times of the year when profitable crops can't be grown, a cover crop is planted to protect the soil, which prevents erosion and restores nutrients. Cover crops can also be used as feed for livestock before a new crop is planted. Not all cover crops add nutrients to the soil, but some, like clover, can increase nitrogen levels in the soil, which is one of the most impactful fertilising nutrients.

    Integrated Pest Management

    To reduce the impact on the environment and human health that comes from using synthetic fertilisers while still combatting pests, a system called integrated pest management (IPM) has been implemented on many organic farms. The focus of IPM is not on the total eradication of pests but on controlling their populations in the least invasive ways possible, balancing crop health with the environment.

    Organic farming ploughing with seagulls StudySmarterFig. 2 - Plough in Lincolnshire, England, turning up the soil and exposing insects to natural predators, in this case, gulls. Using natural predators compared to chemicals is a component of integrated pest management.

    The traditional solution to pests is to apply heavy amounts of pesticide, both as a preventative measure and in response to pests. IPM seeks to use small amounts of pesticides only once a threat is present, but focuses on non-chemical controls like weeding by hand or introducing natural predators to reduce pests. Prevention is also a key part of IPM, ensuring that farms are not creating environments conducive to pest infestations.

    Advantages of Organic Farming

    The appeal of organic farming is not just for people who want to eat more "natural" foods. It comes with several tangible benefits.

    Sustainability

    Today's modern farming, while highly productive, causes much more environmental damage than traditional agriculture. Pesticides can negatively impact native plant and animal life, leading to biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. When over-applied, fertilisers can end up in bodies of water and, through a process called eutrophication, end up starving them of life, even resulting in toxic water supplies. While organic farming does not eliminate agrochemical use entirely, it is used much more sparingly, and a focus is placed on minimising environmental impact.

    Organic farming Sintra Portugal organic farm StudySmarterFig. 3 - Organic farm in Sintra, Portugal

    The practice of crop rotation also promotes sustainable use of the land. By giving the soil time to replenish, there's no need for the application of synthetic fertilisers, and thus, none of the negative side effects that come with it. Soil is more delicate than it seems, and organic farming can allow for more sustainable farms and healthy local ecosystems.

    Higher Market Prices

    Because many people prize organic products as a more sustainable alternative to conventional food, it's generally priced higher. For the farmer, this means the generally higher costs of organic farming can be offset by charging their customers more for their products. Whether organic products are indeed superior to conventional ones in terms of health and taste is a more contentious matter, but some people feel it's worth the extra price for one reason or another.

    Cons of Organic Farming

    Organic farms are, by and large, better for the environment than conventional ones, but there are some downsides.

    Lower Yields

    The biggest downside to organic farming is that less food is produced overall compared to conventional farming. In conventional farming operations, getting the highest yields possible is paramount, with few concerns for environmental sustainability. This means synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are extensively used, causing faster and more reliable plant growth. For their part, organic farms shun the use of synthetic agrochemicals, which creates more unpredictability and lower yields in general.

    The main problem stemming from this is that more land is then needed to grow the same amount of crops compared to conventional farms. In areas with rapidly growing populations, this might not be feasible and can exacerbate already fragile ecosystems if more land needs to be converted to farmland.

    Higher Cost

    Certain organic farming practices, like integrated pest management, are much better for the environment but are more labour-intensive. A process like weeding a field by hand requires lots of workers to accomplish. Because yields are more unpredictable, the risk of a year when crops fail and a farm is unprofitable is higher. However, all of this has to take into account the current price of organic crops. Even with the high costs compared to conventional farming, a farmer can come out with more profits due to favourable prices.

    Organic Farming vs Conventional Farming

    Let's summarise the differences between organic farming and conventional farming, looking at the factors of agrochemical use, impact on the environment, costs, and crop yields.

    Organic FarmingConventional Farming
    Agrochemical UsageAllowed, but only from natural sources and used more sparingly.Application of all kinds of agrochemicals is allowed within the realms of local environmental regulations.
    Environmental ImpactMuch less; focuses on farming practices that are sustainable and minimise damage to the environment.Higher impact, stemming mainly from agrochemical usage. Limited by local environmental regulations only.
    CostHigher costs to run, but high prices can lead to greater profitability.Lower operational costs in general.
    Crop yieldsGenerally lower yields.Generally higher yields.

    Organic Farming - Key takeaways

    • Organic farming is an agricultural system where natural pesticides and fertilisers are used instead of agrochemicals, and non-chemical-based production and management are favoured.
    • There are different types of organic farming methods, such as using naturally-derived agrochemicals, crop rotation, cover cropping, and integrated pest management.
    • Organic farming has its advantages; it's sustainable, and farmers can often charge more for organic products to offset the higher price of producing the goods.
    • However, organic farming can often produce lower yields and are much more expensive.
    • There are huge differences between organic and conventional farming, such as agrochemical use, environmental impact, costs and crop yields.

    References

    1. Fig. 1: Do not spray sign (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Organic_Apples_Pateros_WA_cropped.jpg) by Christopher Thomas (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Surachit) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2: England plough with gulls (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Following_the_plough_3_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1019422.jpg) by Jonathan Billinger (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/8569) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3: Sintra farm (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Organic_Agriculture_in_Sintra.jpg) by Luis150902 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Luis150902) is licensed by CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Organic Farming

    What is organic farming? 

    Organic farming is an agricultural method that emphasises the use of naturally occurring agrochemicals and methods of crop management that promote environmental sustainability.

    Are pesticides used in organic farming?  

    Yes, pesticides are still used in organic farming, but they cannot be synthetically produced. Pesticides are also generally used less since other non-chemical pest management methods are used too.

    How do organic farming practices relate to soil health? 

    Soil health is a crucial focus of organic farming. Practices like crop rotation help to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Cover cropping also helps promote soil health and replenish soils of nutrients, as well as stem erosion during off-seasons.

    Is organic farming better for the environment? 

    In general, yes, organic farming is better for the environment. Overusing pesticides and fertilisers can lead to damaging environmental impacts, especially from their synthetic versions. Organic farming focuses on farming while minimising damage to the environment.

    What is one advantage of organic farming over conventional farming? 


    One advantage of organic farming over conventional farming is it's better for the environment.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following are allowed in organic farming?

    True or false: All agrochemical usage is disallowed in organic farming.

    Compost is very useful as a natural ______ for plants.

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