Organic Farming: 5 Major Benefits (Plus, Can It Really Feed the World?)
September 25, 2017
Original article and page source found here.
Did you know it’s possible to produce healthy crops without the use of preservatives, radiation, genetic modification, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides? People practicing organic farming know it’s true. And so does a growing portion of the U.S. population. So what’s the benefit of organic? First and foremost, organic farmers keep nasty and unhealthy things commonly found in conventional farming out of farm fields and the crops we eat.
A 2014 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of Americans seek out organic foods, while 15 percent actually actively avoid them. (1) But let’s take a step back. What is organic? And why are people buying it in unprecedented numbers? The organic definition is: relating to or derived from living matter. Organic food comes from organic farming. In the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies whether or not a farm or a product is truly organic.
According to USDA, “Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” (2)
You may already be eating organic food, but do you know the answer to the following question: What are the benefits of organic farming? I’m about to tell you that and so much more. Organic farming facts are so intriguing; in fact, if you want to know how to start organic farming today, it’s really not as hard as you might think!
What Is Organic Farming? Current Standards
By definition, what is organic agriculture? After a few years of work, IFOAM — the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements — came up with the following definition for organic agriculture: (3)
“Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”
In general, organic farming is comprised of several key aspects, including the use of natural fertilizers like compost and manure. Crop rotation, companion planting and natural pest control are other hallmarks of organic farming. Unlike conventional farming, organic farming grows organic food without relying on harmful synthetic, chemical substances.
There are strict standards and inspections when it comes to the production and processing of organic food. The term “100 percent orgacnic” is used for certified organically farmed produce. USDA certified organic vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats and any other one-ingredient foods are typically labeled “100 percent organic.” Food products that have multiple ingredients can also be labeled as “100 percent organic” or they can be “certified USDA organic,” as long as they use a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients. In order for a product to say that it is “made with organic ingredients” then it needs to have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. (4) Since the products of organic farming are known as a single ingredient, they are either completely organic or not, there’s no in between.
Is there anything done to prevent farmers and companies from falsely labeling food as organic? Anyone caught selling or even just labeling a product “organic” when it doesn’t meet USDA standards can be charged a fine of up to $11,000 for each violation. (5) The USDA also clearly states, “No matter where it was grown, if a product has the USDA Organic label on it, it wasn’t produced with GMOs.” (6)
As you might expect, organic farmers use organic soil. In general, soil is a complex mixture of minerals, organic matter, water and air. By nature, soil is natural and made up of organic matter. So what’s the difference between organic soil and non-organic soil? Organic vs. nonorganic soil differs in the way the soil is maintained. Nonorganic or conventional farmers us synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other unnatural additions to their soil in order to fight off pests and disease, and to maximize the growth of crops. Meanwhile, organic soil is only maintained with the use of of natural materials to foster growth and deal with unwanted guests. (7)
Organic Fertilizer for Weed Management
When comparing organic farming vs. conventional farming, one of the clearest differences is how each method of farming deals with pests and unwanted weeds. One of the best methods to discourage weed growth is crop rotation. Farmers that continue to grow the same exact crop over and over in the same place actually give weeds an advantage. When crops are rotated, then it’s much harder for weeds to thrive. (8)
Other organic weed management techniques include weeding by hand, using mechanical weeders, green manures, planting crops closely and leaving as little space as possible and letting animals eat the weeds as they like.
If you’re eating organic foods, it doesn’t mean pesticides were never used during their growing period, but it does mean that they are free from conventional or synthetic pesticides. If pesticides are used on organic foods, they are typically made from natural ingredients. However, even some natural substances (such as arsenic and tobacco dust) are not allowed because they’re known to have negative impacts on health. (9, 10)
No Genetic Modification
One of the most important organic farming facts involves GMOs. Certified organic farmers can never grow or sell genetically modified foods. In the exact words of the USDA:
“The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.” (11)
Organically Fed Livestock
Like other organic products, organic livestock can only eat 100 percent certified organic feed. The only thing they are allowed other than organic feed are some vitamins and minerals so they can fulfill their daily nutritional requirements. Similar to organic produce, organic livestock must also be produced without the use of sewage sludge, genetic modification or ionizing radiation. (12)
If you’re looking for organic farming examples, the USDA also maintains a list of certified organic farms and businesses in the United Sates at theOrganic Integrity Database.
History of Organic Farming
Conventional farming has turned into very big business. “Giant agribusiness corporations” are driving out many smaller farms, making it extremely difficult for small farmers to survive. These corporate farms are less in touch with the land, are more reliant on chemicals and are even genetically modifying crops. While it may be said that it’s all in the interest in keeping up with population growth, you have to wonder what is being lost as farming becomes less and less what it once was.
The Rodale Institute’s 30-Year Farming Systems Trial provides data showing that organic crop production actually matches chemical agriculture yields. In fact, in years of drought (which is becoming more common), organic actually outperforms chemical ag, all while building up the soil instead of depleting it. (Think of healthy, microbial-rich organic soil as a sponge that is better equipped to store water.) Other findings?
Organic farming is more efficient and uses 45 percent less energy than chemical farming
Organic farming produces 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions
Organic farming is more profitable than chemical-based farming
Organic farming methods aren’t exactly something new, but organic farming as an “alternative agricultural system” is something that began in the early 20th century as a response to all of these major changes to the world of farming I just mentioned. (13)
For thousands of years, “traditional farming” took place around the world and the farming methods used were organic. You could say that organic farming is really going back to the roots of farming, literally. (14)
The United State’s 1990 Farm Bill put into place The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). This is a significant landmark in organic farming in the U.S., since OFPA enacted national standards by which foods could carry organic labeling. The act also created the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), which clarified how organically grown foods needed to be grown, handled and processed. (15)
Fast forward to present day and organic farming is now taking place all over the world. It’s estimated that at least 160 countries are currently practicing organic agriculture. The market for organic products is strongest in North America and Europe, while Australia is said to have the largest amount of land dedicated to organic farming. India actually has the highest number of organic producers. (16)
What is organic farming in India? Organic farming is becoming more and more important in India as the country realizes the devastating effects of conventional farming. Most concerning is the recent designation of the Punjab’s Malwa region as the “cancer belt” of India. An alarming number of people have been stricken with cancer; it’s associated with cotton farmers’ overuse of conventional pesticides. It’s not to say that organic farming is a new concept in India, but its value is certainly increasing in recent times. More people in India are now turning to organic farming as a sustainable agribusiness that uses fertilizers created from local, natural ingredients, along with natural pesticides that are sprayed according to the moon’s movements. Overall, people in India are learning that organic gardening doesn’t only mean no more toxic chemicals, it also means a way to provide delicious food for themselves and their loves ones, as well as a way to make a living. (17)
Key Principles of Organic Farming
The following are some of the most fundamental aspects of organic farming:
Compost, also known as “black gold,” is a vital part of organic farming and a key ingredient in hearty, organic soil. What is compost? Compost can be defined as organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled to be used as an addition and enhancer to soil. At its best and when done right, compost is a way to really boost the nutrient content and quality of soil.
There’s a good reason why the absence of sewage sludge is a major positive aspect of organic farming. Some companies are marketing compost and potting soil amendments as “organic” when it’s really human sewage sludge in compost. Not only does this sludge contain human waste, but it also contains everything else that goes down the drain which is often a whole lot of toxic chemicals from various products. Luckily, this is banned in organic agriculture. (18)
For more info on how to compost in a healthy, sludge-free way, check out: DIY Compost: Simple Steps to Make ‘Black Gold’ at Home
Crop rotation is an important part of organic farming for multiple reasons. When farmers grow the same crops in the same location year after year (this is called monoculture), it negatively affects the health of soil. Crop rotation is much healthier for the land than monoculture. What is crop rotation? Crop rotation involves a farmer growing a different type of crop in the same area of the land each growing season. (19)
Crop rotation is a natural way for organic farmers to reduce pests, weeds and soil diseases. It’s also a way to avoid depleting the soil’s nutrients, which means more fertile soil and better crop production. Crop rotation also aids in the reduction of soil erosion, something more and more important as floods and flood damage is becoming a more prevalent and expensive problem for society. (20)
Companion plant is another aspect of organic farming. Companion planting is when one type of plant is purposely planted near another because they grow well together. Apparently, some plants just make better neighbors. Organic farmers and gardeners make a point to know the best companions before they start planting. For example, planting basil and dill near