What is Organic Farming?

Definition, history, benefits and why it’s better both for you and the environment

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By Alex

In this post we will try to explain what organic farming is, how it developed, what its principles are and why it is important, both for consumers and for the environment.

Organic farming aims to produce fruits and vegetables with full respect for seasonality and with special care in the cultivation of the land. A special and distinctive feature of products grown according to ‘organic’ standards is the elimination of chemicals for plant treatment. The use of herbicides and non-natural fertilizers should also be avoided.

But let’s first take a good look at the definition.

Organic farming: what does it mean?

The term organic farming (or biological farming), refers to an agricultural system that employs exclusively fertilizers of organic origin (e.g. compost manure or green manure). It is also based on methods that help regenerating soil health, such as crop rotation and companion planting.

In Europe, the European Standard 2092/91 dictates the guidelines for a production of organic fruits and vegetables. Organic farming is defined as a set of techniques that respect the “normal” seasonality in the periods of fruit growth and where the following practices are strictly prohibited:

  • the use of chemical and/or synthetic substances to treat plants
  • the use of herbicides
  • the use of fertilizers of industrial origin

The production chain in organic farming is fully controlled, protected and guaranteed from cultivation to sale.

A brief history of organic farming

The concepts of organic farming date back to the early 1900s and were devised by Sir Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner (who later theorized biodynamic agriculture), and other scientists, farmers and philosophers. They empirically realized that the combined use of animal manures, cover crops, crop rotation, and biologically based pest controls resulted in a better farming system.

The term organic farming was later coined in 1940 by Walter James in his book “Look to the Land”, in which he described a natural and ecological approach to farming. A few years later, as a reaction to agriculture’s growing reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a movement to promote organic farming took form in several developed countries.

Pros and cons of organic farming for the ecosystem

We will start by mentioning some results of various studies by the Rodale Institute, an institution that was the first to carry out comparative practical studies since 1981 between organic and conventional agriculture (with the use of pesticides and fertilizers).

Before anyone says that the results are not valid because they are produced by an institute historically in favor of organic farming, it should be said that the Rodale Institute is a very serious institution in its field and has been working with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service for years.

Studies have shown that cultivating land according to the criteria of crop rotation and according to the rules of organic farming yields not only quantitatively equivalent, but also better for health, given the absence of pesticide and chemical residues.

The main findings of these studies show that:

  • soils conducted according to the rules of bioagriculture, with crop rotation, offered a numerically equivalent harvest, as well as being free of pesticide and chemical residues and better for health, for both soybean and corn;
  • in dry seasons, organically cultivated fields have offered greater yields than conventional ones;
  • soils conducted according to the principles of bioagriculture showed greater resistance to weeds and left (but this was widely expected) a healthier and more fertile soil than that of conventional agriculture.

What about the cons? On the other hand, organic farming struggles to be cost effective. Production costs are generally higher because it is way more labour intensive. Marketing and distribution is not efficient because organic food is produced in smaller amounts.

The impact of organic farming: more experimental studies

A group of scientists from the Nature Conservation Research Unit (Oxford University) conducted an interesting project on the real environmental impact of organic farming and conventional farming, arriving at seemingly contrary conclusions.

According to the results of the study published in the Journal of Environmental Management, if we calculate the environmental impact per unit area under cultivation then the harmful effects are indeed lower, but if we consider the unit of product the effects are even greater!

The results were obtained by comparing some seventy European studies with each other and considering as indicators for comparison: soil organic matter content, emissions of nitrous oxide, ammonia and greenhouse gases, nitrogen and phosphorus losses, soil and energy consumption, potential for eutrophication and acidification of the environment, and protection of biodiversity.

organic farming
Organic farming: a model with so many advantages

Why the impacts of organic farming are lower

Let’s look at some of these indicators with regard to biodiversity values.

  • Generally, where organic farming is practiced we have 30 percent higher biodiversity.
  • On the other hand, there are studies that report a negative effect on species variability: the issue is partially controversial.

Compared with dioxide, ammonia and nitrogen oxide emissions, the eutrophication potential (i.e., the potential for nutritional enrichment) and acidification potential (i.e., the presence of acidifying substances) is higher in organic farming per unit of product. It is lower only if we consider the unit area under cultivation, and this may be because the yield of land where no pesticides are used is significantly lower, by at least 25 percent.

This implies, as a side effect, a greater consumption of land to obtain large quantities of products, a value that is then balanced by a reduction in pollution and energy consumption related to the non-transportation of fertilizers.

Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, no particular differences can be found in this method.

Probably, the best solution would be to integrate the qualities of the different farming systems, trying to optimize them as best as possible with the ultimate goal of reducing environmental impact.

What about land consumption?

So while it is true that more space is required for organic cultivation, it is also true that this depends on the high demand for food production, a factor that can hardly be kept under control.

What then could be an intervention strategy? It would be necessary to focus on the study of hybrids which do not contain chemical substances, harmful both for man and for the environment, but which are the result of crossbreeding of plants also improving the control of soil nutrients, parasites and weeds.

Organic farming techniques: biological control

Among the organic farming techniques that eliminate the use of artificial substances in crops a special emphasis goes to biological control. What is it?

  • It is a technique that relies on the existing antagonism among living organisms to defeat those harmful to agricultural crops.
  • The basic principle, therefore, is to maintain and protect the natural balance along with the direct exploitation of pests predators.

The breeding of beneficial insects, becomes, from the perspective of biological control, the ideal strategy to conjugate the best quality in agricultural production with environmental sustainability: this is done by propitiating the multiplication of so-called “useful insects”. By eliminating the main causes of their destruction, which in most cases are pesticides and chemical additives commonly used in agriculture.

In fact, the biological fight against pests of our plants goes through some useful animals to attract in order to achieve more bountiful blooms and crops and effectively defend plants. This can be done even in a small plot or vegetable garden.

Butterflies, ladybugs and bees are, in fact, critical for pollination and destruction of crop-damaging insects.

But how to succeed in attracting them spontaneously and naturally?

First, it is useful to know that these insects are attracted mainly by three factors:

  • perfume,
  • pollen
  • and colors.

Butterflies, for example, love white flowers, such as lily of the valley and echinacea, while bees prefer blue and yellow flowers rich in pollen, such as daisies and sage.

Planting some of these plants can encourage (welcome) visits from pollinating insects.

Care must be taken, however, to ensure that they engage in this important work, avoiding ‘distractions’ with all-too-liked plants, such as dandelion, sunflower and linden, which would become their favorite destination.

The “allied” plants

Then there are plants that ‘specialize’ in attracting a wide range of syrphids, insects that specialize in pollinating and destroying aphids. Cornflower, beloved in particular by ladybugs, which also seem to like cauliflower and broccoli.

If well placed and cultivated, these plants, in perfect synergistic action, will be able to help us avoid the use of environmentally and health-damaging chemical pesticides.

However, this strategy cannot ensure total crop protection, given the limited number of insect species that can be controlled. Nevertheless, it is an important principle underlying organic farming.

This is why other natural techniques such as pheromones are also beginning to be used.

These are substances emitted by special glands, which can be a trap for the many species that feed on the plants.

More on this topic

Here are some other interesting insights on the topic of organic farming: