Organic Farming Definition: What Is Organic Farming
There is an ever growing market for organic produce and other food products as consumers become more and more aware of conventional farming practice and demand better quality foods. While many people see organic farming as a return to older agricultural practices, that’s not an accurate statement. Modern organic farming does involve many time honored principles and methods, but these are also bolstered and enhanced by contemporary scientific knowledge.
Conventional farming relies on the addition of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The problem with such a system is that it is completely reliant on using more and more chemicals and synthetic materials to sustain itself. A good return can be produced for a season or two but like any quick fix, conventional farming doesn’t address any underlying issues. An organic farming operation, in contrast, aims to create a system that naturally perpetuates itself, saving costs on energy, pesticides and more.
Organic farming is a holistic philosophy and system that looks to maximize food production by using and enhancing the natural properties of the ecosystem, including the soil, plants, animals and people. An organic farm operation is a sustainable one that protects and preserves the surrounding environment. By balancing the relationships between hosts, pests and predators, organic farmers can maintain productive levels of return. For example, careful crop rotation can also prevent pest infestations, along with selecting varieties native to the area which are already pest and weather resistant.
More than a set of techniques, standards or procedures, organic farming is defined by an overall philosophy of working sustainably with the environment and local ecosystem. Organic farming helps to preserve and protect the soil, plants, animals and people involved with agriculture as it produces healthy foods. It involves both social and environmental stewardship and responsibility.
There are many principles that define the practices of organic farming, including:
- Animal welfare – both the health and social needs of the animals are considered.
- Soil health and regeneration – organic farming practices such as planting nutrient-rich cover crops, green manure, crop rotation and composting serve to help to promote healthy soil and soil fertility by keeping it nourished and preventing erosion.
- Water conservation – organic farmers use methods that help to conserve this precious resource and keep it free of contamination.
- Biodiversity – recognition of the importance of biodiversity and implementing practices to support it such as planting a variety of crops and protecting local wildlife habitats.
- Conserving energy and reducing the use of petroleum and other chemicals, including the use of renewable resources and energy wherever possible.
- Careful processing of foods to protect their integrity.
These principles have spin-off benefits. For example, in the case of soil, crops grown in healthy soils are better able to resist pests and fungi and therefore actually don’t require as much pesticide or fertilizer use.
There are many regulatory bodies in North America which issue one type of organic certification or another, which can result in confusion on the part of consumers. Both Canada and the United States have established national guidelines and standards through a government authority. While regulation and certification of organic farming and organic food production varies by jurisdiction across the globe most include a list of prohibited practices and substances:
- Synthetic pesticides and herbicides;
- Synthetic fertilizers;
- GMOs or genetically modified seeds, plants or other organisms;
- Animal feed based on animal by-products, hormones or GMOs;
- Chemical preservatives;
- Synthetic additives such as food coloring or flavor enhancements;
- Animal cloning;
- Ionizing radiation – which may be used to preserve foods, in pest management or to delay sprouting.
Many people wonder why organic foods are most often more costly than comparable conventional foods. Organic farming methods and food processing are more labor intensive than conventional factory-based processes. Animal husbandry in particular requires many more person-hours to accomplish as an organic farmer than it does in a factory farm setting.
Organic Farming Pros And Cons
Like any other agricultural practice, there are pros and cons when it comes to organic farming. Often, the pros & cons go hand in hand. For example, organic corn and soybean cultivation has been shown to use one-third less energy than conventional production, which results in a savings in energy costs. However, organic farming methods are typically more labor-intensive than those used by conventional or factory farming operations. It makes sense; automation, synthetic chemicals and other processes were developed in whole or in part for the purpose of reducing farm labor costs. That is the reason for the most commonly cited drawback to organic farming and organic food – the cost which is higher than that of conventionally produced foods. In practice, this has been less of a deterrent for consumers when it comes to vegetables and produce than for other foods.
The many benefits of organic farming stem from its commitment overall to the promotion and protection of health and fertility in the environment – including the animals, people, plants, water and soil.
As we learn more and more about the manmade chemicals and pollutants in the environment and their role in human health, reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals becomes increasingly important. That process begins with our food supply. That, essentially, is one of the underlying premises of organic farming and organic food production as no synthetic pesticides, hormones, additives or fertilizers are used in organic farming or the production of organic foods.
Soil health is promoted through a variety of means such as cover plants (planting crops such as nitrogen-rich alfalfa which put nutrients back into the soil,) crop rotation (allowing the soil to recover from one type of cultivation as it is still able to provide for another,) and the use of green manure. Healthy, fertile soil means,
- Reduced use of fertilizer;
- Promotion of healthier crops/
Pest management becomes pest prevention; the best pest is the one you never have to deal with. By careful planting and balancing the ratios of predators to hosts, organic farming operations reduce their overall reliance on pesticides.
Organic farming produces much less pollution and environmental degradation than conventional operations. In conventional farming, the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are also found in the run-off that takes them from the farm and into the surrounding ecosystem, including watersheds and groundwater sources.
There are caveats that come with some of the benefits as well, however. While they don’t use synthetic pesticides, organic farming operations can use organic pesticides such as sulfur and copper. Organic pesticides are largely unprocessed and involve substances that occur naturally; however that doesn’t always ensure safety. Rotenene, for example, was once extensively used as an organic pesticide but has since been found to be highly toxic and was discontinued from use as such in 2005 in the US.
Studies have confirmed what common sense would insist – that such farming practices contribute far less to the degradation of the surrounding environment. When it comes to issues like soil erosion, water contamination and affect to bird and animal populations, organic farming has about a third of the impact of convention agriculture.
From a health perspective, some studies show that organic produce can contain more valuable antioxidants than the conventionally grown variety.
From a farming perspective, there are many challenges to the organic farming model. No matter what the regulatory body, certification as an organic farm involves a period ranging from one year in California to a three year national standard to longer in some states during which the land must be chemical-free before the first organic crop can be raised. During that period, only certain crops can be grown and there is a limited market for these, adding to the financial strain on new organic farming operations.
Farmers can also expect relatively low yields during the first three to five years. This largely represents a learning curve and yields can improve to nearly the same as that of conventional operations after that. Once established, however, organic farmers can expect to run a viable business and earn more than their conventional farming counterparts. Organic grains and produce typically sell at much higher prices than conventional crops.
Because of its self-reliant nature, organic farming tends to support smaller farming operations, which may be of great advantage in developing nations and regions in helping to establish viable and sustainable agriculture.
Organic Farming Facts
Many organic farming facts are surprising and most represent a moving target that is fluctuating all the time. Some of these facts illustrate the inherent principles of organic farming itself, with its focus on preservation of the environment and the health of soil, crops and animals.
- One fact that underscores the necessity for synthetic-free alternatives: According to the EPA, overall use of pesticides – including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and others, worldwide is nearly 5.2 million pounds – of which the US represents just under a quarter of that market at 1.13 million pounds (2007 figures).
- Organic farms and organic agriculture production takes up approximately 24 million hectares of land all over the world with most operations concentrated in in Europe, Australia and North America (2004 figures from a report by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.)
- The global market for organic foods was estimated at $23 billion in 2002, doubling over the ensuing decade or so.
- The US organic retail market in 2014 was approximately $35 billion.
- Organics account for 4% of total US food sales, although they make up a much higher percentage in some categories of produce.
- The USDA Organic Seal was first issued in October 2002, one of the many standards used worldwide to regulate organic food production. In 2015, more than 25,000 entities, including individual farmers and ranchers along with businesses, hold OSDA organic certification.
Successful, experienced organic farmers can expect yields of 80% or more as compared to conventional agricultural operations – boosted by an influx of synthetic nutrients – and in some cases even higher than with conventional methods. In developing nations, yields are often higher than those using traditional farming practices.
Grants For Organic Farming
Grants and resources for organic farming are offered by many countries including EU member states, the USA, Canada and Tunisia. Financial support can take many forms, including, In the European Union (EU) agricultural subsidies are available for projects that generate environmental benefits such as promoting biodiversity locally or reducing runoff.
Economic and financial support for farmers converting conventional farms to organic farming operations is important since the process most often involves an initial period of three to five years of low yields and reduced returns. There may also be additional costs involved in the certification process.
The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) offers two Organic Certification Cost Share Programs (OCCSP) that provides financial assistance to organic food producers and farmers after they have received an initial certification from a USDA accredited agent. The Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) program is administered at the state level and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) at the national level.
The Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program helps to defray certification costs for crop and livestock producers in 16 states designated by Congress which include Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Offered through the USDA National Organic Program (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop) the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative or OREI is designed to fund research projects that address specific issues related to organic agriculture, including those related to biological as well as economic and marketing concerns.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers grants that may relate to organic farming, including grants for conservation projects, transitions to organic farming operations and a streamlined process for microloans for niche agricultural operations.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can be a source of funding for conservation projects on privately owned land – such as farmland. This agency can also supply assistance for projects that involve reducing soil erosion, protecting and cleaning up soil, water and air, protection of wildlife habitats and more. Help may come in the form of technical or financial assistance.
Organic Farming Practices
As overseen by the National Organic Program, the USDA certified organic seal is awarded based on a specific set of criteria – in essence these represent the same set of principles that guide all organic farming practices.
However, there is no fixed set of practices or methods used by organic farmers worldwide since by its very nature, each organic farm represents its own ecosystem and requires its own management plan. Conventional farming is based on high yields and monoculture – i.e. the cultivation of only one crop – a system that inherently relies on artificial boosts in production.
With a view to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, organic farming practices work to help protect land and water. All practices are informed by the necessity for considering the links and balances between the various elements involved in agriculture and the surrounding landscape.
- Careful storage and composting of animal waste to protect surrounding groundwater and also the air;
- Planting crops according to the local climate and soil type;
- Growing a variety of crops to promote biodiversity;
- Biological pest control, which uses predators and other natural mechanisms to control unwanted pests;
- Recycling crop waste as green manure, mulch or compost;
- Using animal manure as fertilizer;
- Crop rotation to allow for soil rest and regeneration;
- Choosing crops that resist pests and disease;
- Promoting biodiversity and genetic diversity by planting a variety of crops;
- Careful use and re-use of water;
- Humane treatment of animals that allows them natural socialization and limits animal density indoors;
- In the case of food production, a strict separation of organic and non-organic items;
- Cover crops – these nutrient-rich crops are planted to introduce nutrients back into the soil on a selective basis;
- Health of animals is ensured through preventive measures and not by the use of antibiotics or hormones.
Organic Farming Techniques
Organic farming techniques are often compared to the traditional farming methods of yesteryear. In some respects, that’s true, since the farmers of yesteryear had to use sustainable and self-sufficient systems of producing crops and raising farm animals.
Organic farming isn’t just about going back to old methods, however, or in letting nature take control. It uses new techniques as well as the old to effectively manage the natural ecosystem and optimize the production of food in a balanced environment. Rather than using any one single technique in isolation, organic farming looks to combine methods for the best results.
There are many examples that illustrate this principle, including the concept of pest control vs. pest management. Rather than looking to completely eradicate insects, weeds and other pests, organic farmers look to achieve a balance that allows crop production to thrive while keeping pest and weed levels relatively low. This can be achieved by,
- Mechanical methods such as hand weeding and mechanical tillage;
- Careful selection of crops which are resistant to pests – some crops repel certain types of pests while others may attract an effective predator;
- Rotation of crops that prevent massive infestations by disrupting the pests’ environment;
- Encouraging and in some cases introducing natural predators of pests;
- Encouraging healthy, fertile soil to make crops more resistant to pests and disease;
- Using green manuring to help suppress weeds with ground cover.
The organic matter in soil consists of microbes that work in the process of transferring and handling nutrients between the soil and crops. Conventional farming looks to add nutrients back through artificial means while organic agriculture uses natural methods and processes to enhance the organic components of the soil.
Green manuring and the use of cover crops work on a number of levels. Green manuring can refer to the practice of actively planting specific green manure crops which increase the level of organics in the soil and protect them from leaching away in the rains or irrigation. Green manure crops like alfalfa and rye can actually pull nutrients out of the depths of the soil and effectively provide living mulch. They may be grown alone as part of a land use cycle or simultaneously with a market crop in a technique known as undersowing or overseeding. The green manure crop is lower than the market crop and grows more slowly underneath it. Grown on its own or simply using the remains of harvested plants, green manure is plowed under back into the soil.
Crop diversity is a technique that works for the environment and also towards the sustainability of the farm as a business, allowing farmers to mitigate risks.
In the area of animal husbandry, one of the guiding principles of organic farming is the humane treatment of farm animals, which many include poultry, cattle, pigs and others. Just as organically-farmed produce contains no synthetic pesticides or additives, organically raised animals are fed an organic diet free of additives, hormones and GMO. They are able to do this by changing the way the animals live. They are kept in sanitary conditions that discourage the growth of bacteria and contaminants.
Conventional farms – with crowded conditions where animals are caged 24 hours a day and often live in their own filth – rely on antibiotics to prevent disease. Organic farming practices removes that necessity by allowing animals to move more freely and have access to time outside at pasture along with more spacious living conditions.
Organic Farming Statistics
Consumer interest and the growing market for organic foods have largely spurred the growth of organic farming in the US and internationally. Organic farming statistics prove its growth worldwide and in particular in North America, although a lack of specific data means most of the figures are approximations to a certain extent. Most farming data is lumped together as part of a unified agricultural sector. Even when separate data exists, it typically only takes certified organic production into account and not the many farmers who may use organic processes without that benefit.
The World Of Organic Agriculture – Statistics And Emerging Trends 2011 (http://www.organic-world.net/yearbook-2011.html) was a landmark global study, one of a handful of publications that provide data.
As an agricultural industry, organic food production still only represents about 2% of global food sales.
On a national level, there are nearly 20,000 certified organic operations in the US in 2015, representing a new record. The exact number – 19,474 organic farms and processing facilities, represents a rise of over 5% from 2014 and a 250% increase since the USDA organic seal certification process came into effect in 2002.
In terms of land use, 5.4 million acres of farmland was used for organic farming in 2011, including 3.1 million acres of cropland – an 80% increase from 2005 to 2011 – and 2.3 million acres to pasture or rangeland.
While the numbers are encouraging and there are organic operations in nearly all states, conversion rates are still relatively low and still account for less than 1% of all farmland in the US. Many point to a lack of knowledge and education in the methods and techniques of organic farming as an ongoing stumbling block to more widespread use of organic farming.
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