Organic farming – pros and cons

Organic food is a big growth area for consumer demand. Once thought to be the preserve of the wealthy or eco-eccentrics, organic food is going mainstream with many people from across the spectrum wishing to purchase organic food.

Organic farming avoids the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides but relies on more traditional methods of fertilisation and pest control, such as crop rotation, barrier nets and natural pest control.

Despite the demand for organic food growing strongly, In the US only 0.7% of farms are organic (2012 census). It means that for organic food, the US (and UK) are reliant on food imports.

Source: Agrivi.com

This increase in demand greater than supply is helping organic food to be more profitable.

Advantages of organic farming

Minimises the external cost of farming. The use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers can have side effects to the local environment. For example, there are concerns about a decline in the bee population, due to the increased use of toxic pesticides.

“America’s agricultural landscape is now 48 times more toxic to honeybees, and likely other insects, than it was 25 years ago, almost entirely due to widespread use of so-called neonicotinoid pesticides”

(6 Aug, 2019, Nat. Geographic)

Bees are vital to the well-being of the planet’s ecosystem. Organic farming helps bees and insects by not using pesticides and providing more pollen from land which isn’t kept as monoculture. The neotoxins currently used can stay in the environment for 1,000 days and are proving very damaging to insect population.

Efficient use of resources. A principle of organic farming is to recycle resources. Rather than importing chemical fertilisers from abroad, organic farming seek to improve the soil through crop rotation, the use of animal manure, compost and natural byproducts.

Soil and the environment is a public good. There is concern that conventional farming methods are steadily eroding the quality of soil. The soil is never rotated or given a chance to re-incorporate organic matter. As a result, farmers become more reliant on fertilisers and ever-heavier mechanical rotation to provide nutrition. A lack of organic matter also makes the soil more prone to drought. Conventional farming ignores the long-term impact on soil quality and is storing problems for future generations. Organic farming provides a long-term solution to soil management. It is estimated a third of the world’s global soil is now degraded.

The JRC noted that decreasing productivity can be observed on 20% of the world’s cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland.

“Industrial agriculture is good at feeding populations but it is not sustainable. It’s like an extractive industry, said Louise Baker, external relations head of the UN body.

Guardian Sep 2017

Healthier food. Organic food grown in richer more organic soils has higher levels of micronutrients.

Higher levels of total protein and higher levels of 8 out of 13 essential minerals analyzed—including magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium—than conventional oats

A study claimed the yield was up to 40% more in times of drought

Rodaleinstitute, 2018

Also, there is a link between some chemicals and increased cancer risk for humans. Long-term exposure to chemicals, such as ‘Roundup weedkiller’ show a link to increased cancer risk. Organic veg reduces the long-term risk of repeated exposure to these chemicals. (WHO – glyphosate probably cancerous to humans)

Healthier animals. In conventional farming, animals are often kept in close proximity and fed antibiotics as a matter of course. This mass-use of antibiotics is contributing to increased resistance. In organic farming, antibiotics are only allowed if animals are sick.

Potential profits. Currently, the demand for organic food is growing faster than supply. Countries like the UK and US have to import organic food from abroad. (often developing economies) Some organic methods are more costly (labour-intensive weeding) but also some costs are saved (cost of chemicals)

“Overall, organic farms tend to have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture generally creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and is more energy efficient. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes, as well as genetic diversity.”

Professor Reganold

Cons of organic farming

Time involved. Converting to organic farming takes three years and requires expensive scrutiny and regulation to prove the farm is meeting organic standards. The drawback is that during this period, the farmer cannot sell goods as organic, so they have the higher costs, but not the higher prices.

More labour intensive. Aspects of organic farming are more labour-intensive, weeding by hand. Less dense methods of animal farming. As a result farmers have greater costs.

Potential loss of crops. Could lose crops to pest/disease that cannot be dealt with by organic methods.

Organic pesticides. Organic still involves some ‘organic’ pesticides. In the US, organic farmers are allowed to spray ‘organic’ pesticides – including copper and sulfur. On organic farms, the quantity of pesticide is not monitored.

According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, The two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971.

American Scientific (2011)

These organic pesticides are not trouble-free and can damage both the environment and health.

Supermarkets profit more than farmers. The price mark-up on organic farming is mostly gained by the supermarket. Profit margins for supermarkets on organic fruit and veg is 96% higher than conventional products. Whilst organic food is more expensive, the price difference does not lead to higher revenue for farmers. A French study found: “Only half of the price difference between organic and non-organic food finds its way back to farmers.” (Euractiv, Sep 2017.)

Decline in crop yields. Crop yields can be up to 20% less than none organic farms. There is a concern that if all farmland was converted to organic it would reduce food supply and increase prices.

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