What is Organic Farming?
Humans have been farming for more than 10,000 years. Up until recently, organic practices were the only practices that farmers could use to grow crops and raise livestock.
Pesticides and fertilizers were invented in the 19th century to help improve yields and production, and while they do accomplish this task, they also have inadvertent negative effects.
Organic farming is once again in the spotlight and continues to grow in popularity.
Organic Farming Definition
Organic farming is an agricultural practice that incorporates organic fertilizers, such as:
- Bone meal
- Green manure
Companion planting and crop rotation are also incorporated into organic farming methods.
Organic farming standards are regulated across the world. The aim of this agricultural system is to promote sustainability while promoting healthy soil and biological diversity.
While the organic movement may seem like a new development, these practices were used for thousands of years before big-ag came into the picture. Before synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, farmers relied on organic methods to grow crops.
The aim is to live and work in harmony with nature – not destroy it.
Key Benefits of Organic Farming
There are many benefits to organic farming:
Protecting Soil Health
Organic farming practices incorporate biological fertilizers that help protect and even improve soil health, including:
- Animal manures
- Cover crops
This organic matter adds beneficial nutrients to the soil, which also offers benefits, such as:
- Improved water retention.
- Nurturing microbes that help keep nitrogen in the soil.
Biological fertilizers release nutrients gradually over time, which gives crops and microorganisms more time to digest and absorb nitrogen before it’s leeched further down in the soil.
Data from a 12-year study found that organic farms experienced half the nitrate leeching losses of conventional farms.
Techniques such as crop rotation also help protect soil health by improving fertility and increasing the nutrients available for plants.
Elimination of Harmful Pesticides
Pesticides have been getting a lot of negative attention in recent years, and for good reason.
- They’re believed to be a contributor to bee deaths across the world. Honey bees are essential to our planet. They pollinate food crops and other plants. Without them, humans and most other species on this planet would die.
- They may contribute to disease and contaminate food.
- They contaminate soil and vegetation.
- They can be toxic to fish, birds and beneficial insects that are exposed.
- They can contaminate surface water.
Studies of river basins in the U.S. during the mid-1990s found that over 90% of fish and water samples contained at least one pesticide.
Helps the Environment
Organic farmers incorporate a variety of practices and methods that benefit the environment, including:
- No- or low-till methods
- Water management
- Maintaining habitats for beneficial insects and critters
- Natural pest control
- Crop rotation
Organic farming practices help protect beneficial insects and pollinators and typically do not inadvertently harm wildlife.
For many years, the nutrient difference between conventional and organic foods was debated. However, new research is showing that organic crops do offer significantly higher levels of certain nutrients compared to conventional crops, including:
- Vitamin C
- Antioxidants, such as flavonoids, anthocyanins and carotenoids (with the exception of oats, wheat and wine)
Organic foods also have lower levels of pesticide residue and nitrates.
Higher levels of antioxidants help fight against free radicals that can cause cellular damage.
One meta-analysis also found that organic meat and dairy had 50% more omega-3 fatty acids compared to their conventional counterparts.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in heart health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death across the world.
Why are organic crops more nutrient rich? It’s believed that stress is what boosts the nutrient content. Organic plants are exposed to more stress, like insect attacks. To combat this stress, they produce more beneficial compounds to survive. In many cases, these compounds taste bitter or unpleasant to insects, making the crop less desirable to them (and healthier for us).
Conventionally grown crops are sprayed with pesticides that kill pests, and they’re fed a consistently supply of nitrogen-rich, synthetic fertilizers. In other words, plants aren’t producing as much beneficial compounds because they don’t have to.
A tomato study from 2008 found that organic tomatoes had double the concentration of quercetin compared to conventionally grown tomatoes. The conventional tomatoes were grown adjacent to the organic tomatoes.
What Techniques are Used in Organic Farming?
Organic farmers use a variety of techniques as part of their farming practices:
Natural Weed Management
Rather than eliminating weeds, organic farming practices suppress them by encouraging crop competition and choking out weeds without the use of synthetic herbicides.
To meet organic standards, annual crops must be rotated. Typically, farmers use cover crops and pair crops with differing life cycles to naturally suppress weed growth.
Grazing can also help with weed management. Ducks and geese have been used successfully to weed crops, including strawberries, cotton, tobacco and rice.
Some natural chemicals are allowed for use as herbicides, including:
- Concentrated vinegar (also known as acetic acid)
- Essential oils
- Corn gluten meal
A few bioherbicides have been developed, but herbicides and bioherbicides only play a very small role in weed control.
Natural Pest Control
Weeds aren’t the only thing that can cause problems on a farm. Pests (including insects), bacteria and fungus can all cause issues.
Organic farmers may use a variety of techniques to help keep pests under control, including:
- Crop rotation
- Nurturing the growth of beneficial microbes
- Making use of physical barriers
- Planting companion crops
- Introducing beneficial and predatory insects
Some synthetic pesticides are permitted in organic farming, including:
- Horticultural oils
- Insecticidal soaps
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Copper hydroxide
Raising Livestock and Poultry Naturally
Organic farms that raise livestock and poultry make all efforts to provide animals with natural feed and natural living conditions.
In order to be certified organic, livestock must be raised according to USDA regulations throughout their lives. This means that:
- All animal feed must also be certified organic.
- Animals cannot be treated with drugs that promote growth.
- Animals must be pastured.
Do Organic Farmers Use Pesticides?
Organic standards don’t necessarily rule out the use of pesticides altogether. Natural pesticides, such as rotenone and pyrethrin, are allowed, but synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are mostly prohibited. Exceptions include:
- Elemental sulfur
- Copper sulfate
The organic standard also prohibits:
- Plant growth regulators
- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
The organic initiative is aimed at reducing or eliminating pesticides, and while some are permitted, organic farmers generally try to limit or avoid their use.
What Does Certified Organic Mean?
The National Organic Program (NOP) is the organization in charge of setting the standards for and regulating the production, labeling, handling and enforcement of USDA Certified Organic products.
The National Organic Standards Board, which is a Federal Advisory Committee, and the public provide input for this process.
The current standards state that organic food must be produced without using:
- Petroleum based fertilizers
- Conventional pesticides
- Sewage and sludge based fertilizers
- Growth hormones
Any ranch, farm or handling operation that wants to carry the USDA Organic sticker must be certified by either a state agency or a private agency that is accredited by the USDA. Certification ensures that the operation is following the NOP’s standards.
Obtaining certification isn’t necessarily a quick and easy process. The farmer must create and submit an organic system plan, and that plan must be submitted to a certifier every year.
Farms and processing operations that receive the organic certification must undergo annual inspections to ensure that they’re meeting all standards and adhering to the submitted plan.
In order to meet the certified organic standards, processors and farmers must also demonstrate that they are not using GMOs or prohibited substances.
How Does Organic Agriculture Help Improve Resilience to Climate Change?
Organic farming practices help farmers and producers improve their resilience to the effects of climate change. There is also some evidence that organic farming practices may also help reduce the agricultural industry’s contribution to climate change.
Organic agricultural systems have the ability to capture and store more carbon in soil.
Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are also major contributors to greenhouse gases. Eliminating or significantly reducing their use also helps improve climate change resiliency.
When the soil is healthy, crops can better obtain nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen. Healthy soil means healthy crops, which reduces the need for fertilizers that can contaminate water.
How Can Farmers Transition to Organic?
The USDA offers assistance to new organic farmers and those looking to transition to organic practices. Tools and programs are available to support organic initiatives, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. This program offers assistance with planning and executing practices that promote sustainability in organic farming systems.
Farmers and producers that are interested in going organic can connect with the USDA to find out how to make that transition.
Organic farming offers many benefits, both for health and the environment. In order for farmers and operators to display the USDA Organic seal, they must first be certified and meet rigorous standards for growing and handling.