What is organic farming?
For most people organic farming means “growing without the use of chemicals”. For practicing organic farmers, it means much more than a list of ‘chemicals which they cannot use. For them it is farming with nature as the ‘model’ and includes many positive practices which replace chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Organic farming is also sometimes referred to as ‘natural’, ‘biological’, ‘ecological’ and various other names. Biodynamics is a special form of organic farming and Permaculture is a design concept which is used by many organic farmers to order and plan their properties.
Whatever the name we give to a form of alternative growing systems, they will share some common goals and objectives and be based upon similar underlying concepts.
Reduced consumption of nonrenewable resources.
To be sustainable we should minimise or avoid the use of nonrenewable materials, especially fossil fuels for fertiliser and chemical manufacture and for transport. These fuels are not renewable in a time frame relevant to a human lifespan and using them inevitably causes pollution and contributes to climate change.
Soil and clean water are renewable resources in a healthy world but the necessary conditions for them to be renewing are sometimes not present in our modern farming landscapes. Organic farming recognises these resources as being of prime importance and treats them with proper respect and care.
Effective use of natural techniques
Simply removing the chemical inputs is not enough. Without inputs and management of some type the natural resource base will eventually run down. Successful organic farming therefore depends on understanding and using proven methods such as crop rotation, use of animal manures and crop residues, use of legumes and cultural, biological and (natural) chemical pest control.
Instead of using a chemical for pest control, organic farmers may use information about the biology or life cycle of the pest to alter conditions on the farm and make them less favourable for the pest. Use of knowledge about the environment to devise management actions, rather than physical inputs, is a key feature of natural farming.
The farmer is therefore an integral part of the farm. The farmer must understand the principles at work in nature and the specific manifestation of those principles on their particular place on earth. While the principles will be common to natural farming anywhere, the importance of intimate understanding of how these principles apply to the local situation requires careful observation, cautious experiment and appropriate experience, skill and labour.
An ecosystem approach
Good knowledge of crop agronomy, soil science, pest biology etc. are important for our progress and improvement of the earth as our home. When this knowledge only exists in the laboratory or in isolated 'lumps' specific to each field of research, its potential is never realised. For knowledge to be really useful it must be shared, and it must be made relevant to the whole world in which it operates.
Nothing exists in isolation. Striving for a better understanding of how all the bits fit together is a critical feature of natural farming. If we relied only on simple time-limited observations of herbicide use, we would be pleased with the results in almost every case. We apply the herbicide and the weeds die; therefore, the desired effect was obtained. Closer examination may reveal poor crop growth, changes to soil biology, accumulation of residues in birds and animals and contamination of water. Only an ecosystem approach can ensure that we are aware of the complex interactions between the various component parts of the farming system.
Biodiversity and habitat
One of the aims of organic farming is to work with nature, we must therefore make room for nature. We do this because the myriad creatures and life forms have beauty and because they give value to us, in our enjoyment and in the many products known or yet undiscovered, which they yield. Even more important are the intricate dependencies which exist in the web of life which starts with the flea which bites the flea but ends with greatest achievements of human civilization.
Agriculture has caused much habitat destruction and species loss. A responsible, sustainable agriculture must take active steps to make room for nature again. Organic farmers will use habitat to reintroduce beneficial effects back to the farm, such as soil stabilisation, climate improvement, and shelter for predatory insects or birds.
Start with the soil
Maintenance and increase of the long-term fertility of soil is a fundamental principle of natural farming. We utterly depend upon a thin, fragile mantle of soil to produce our food, but we have been reckless with it. 55% of arid range lands and 45% of agricultural land in Australia requires treatment for degradation. While conventional farmers everywhere are now realising that they must stop the destruction and nurture the soils they have left, large areas remain damaged and are uneconomic to repair.
Organic farmers, with their intimate knowledge of soil and the teaming life within it, can restore soils faster than nature. Techniques which they use include deep ripping, non-inversion tillage, growth of cover crops, mulching, composting, introductions of earthworms and dung beetles and careful study of the best time for any of these operations.
Soil is the foundation of natural farming principles and development of the soil is important to the health and nutrition of every other living thing on an organic farm. Plants and animals are fed via the soil whenever possible to encourage biological cycles and the populations of soil micro-organisms which provide so many vital services, without charge.
Why farm naturally
Agriculture, in contrast to other industries, has the potential to be self-sustaining. Soil and water, if managed well, can be perpetually self-renewing into the far future. High production agriculture is supported by subsidised energy in fertilisers, machinery, irrigation, chemicals and transportation. 'Production' in this context is high only if applied to harvested output only.
Productivity of small-scale diversified producers can be greater than conventional agriculture. 'Productivity' in this context means the ratio of return from input, with the total cost of the system included in the calculation.
Small adjustments to the system are being made continually by all farmers. Conservation farming, tree planting, integrated pest control, catchment management and other developments are all positive contributions to a sustainable agriculture. But to really extent the sustainability of the system, organic farmers advocate the importance of the complex inter-relationships in nature. They begin with the concept of a whole system and design their systems consciously, using the greatest possible diversity and complementary features of the parts.
Will it work?
Farming is not easy and organic farming is not easier than other farming and may be more demanding during the conversion period. Many farmers have made organic farming pay and have improved their lifestyle at the same time. Some have improved their returns from farming. In some areas or industries, converting to organic farming is harder, and some areas lend themselves readily.
Ten Reasons to Eat Organic Foods
- Protect Future Generations
US research suggests that children receive four times the exposure of many common pesticides in food of an adult. This is because of their smaller body weight and their need for high energy foods. The food choice you make now will impact on your children’s health in the future.
- Prevent Soil Erosion
Agricultural soil is eroding many times faster than it is built up naturally. A one kilo loaf of bread is produced at the cost of seven kilos of soil lost. Soil is the foundation of the food chain in organic farming, but in conventional farming the soil is treated more as a medium for holding plants roots. Conventional farmers tend to rely on chemical fertilisers, ignoring the soil ecosystem.
- Protect Water Quality
Water covers three-quarters of the planet and makes up two-thirds of our body. Pesticides contaminate water and kill fish and other organisms.
- Save Energy
Australian farms are no longer the family based small business of the past. Modern farms are highly dependent on fossil fuels. More energy is now used to produce synthetic fertilisers for use on US farms than is used to cultivate and harvest all the crops in the United States. Organic farming is still mainly based upon labor-intensive practices such as weeding by hand and using green manures, crop covers and other simple techniques. Organic produce also tends to travel a shorter distance from the farm to your plate, thus reducing the amount of energy used.
- Keep Chemicals Off Your Plate
Many pesticides approved for use were registered before there was extensive research which links these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency considers 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides and 30 percent of all insecticides to be carcinogenic.
- Protect Farm Workers Health
A natural Cancer Institute study found that farmers exposed to herbicides had a six times greater risk than non-farmers, of contracting cancer. Farm worker health is a serious problem in developing nations, where pesticide use can be poorly regulated (where does your coffee come from?). An estimated one million people are poisoned annually by pesticides.
- Help Small Farmers
Although more and more large-scale farms are making the conversion to organic practices, most organic farms are small independently owned and operated family farms of less than 100 hectares. Small farms are under pressure and organic farming could become one of the few survival tactics left for family farms.
- Support a True Economy
Although organic foods might seem more expensive than conventional foods, conventional food prices do not reflect hidden cost borne by taxpayers, including hidden costs such as pesticide regulation and testing, hazardous waste disposal and clean up, damage to the environment (which is priceless) and costs to the medical system.
9) Promote Biodiversity
Monoculture is the practice of planting large areas of land with the same crop year after year. While this approach has tripled farm production between 1950 and 1970, the lack of natural diversity of plant life has left the soil lacking in natural minerals and nutrients. To replace the nutrients farmers use chemical fertilisers in large amounts, which only compounds the problem. Pesticides kill wildlife and soil organisms. Organic farmers know that they must reintroduce natural areas and encourage life in the soil.
- Better Taste and More Flavour
Organic farming starts with an abundance of nutrients in the soil which produces healthy plants. Healthy plants which are well supplied with minerals can make all the flavour producing substances they need. Many chefs use organic foods because they are well cared for during their production and they taste better!