What exactly is organic farming? Is organic farming more environmentally sustainable than conventional farming? Is organically produced food healthier for you than conventionally farmed food? Can organic farming feed the world? These are all questions that need to be answered and that I will attempt to get to the bottom of in this blog post.
Firstly I want to state that I am no expert on the subject. I am merely sharing my logically derived opinions on a subject that probably needs a whole book to do it justice. Secondly I am a passionate farmer who cares deeply about the environment and I intend to leave my farm in as good or better condition than when I started farming 10 years ago.
What is Organic farming?
Here is the definition I found in Wikipedia: “Organic farming is an integrated farming system that strives for sustainability, the enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity, whilst with rare exceptions, prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones.”
Organically farmed produce receives a premium price but at this stage the market for organically farmed produce is small though rapidly growing. While I am fascinated by many of the farming methods used by organic farmers, many of the methods are merely sensible farming practices. I have no urge at all to become an organic farmer. Some people like to brand themselves a certain type of farmer like organic or biological, however the overwhelming majority of farmers (myself included) are purely focused profitable production. No fancy name or farming method is going to pay the bills. This is where many of the consumers and environmentalists get it wrong. Farming for sustainable profit, means that you have to be a good caretaker of your land. One of the cornerstones of organic farming is the building up of soil fertility. Any conventional farmer who does not put any effort into improving soil fertility will go likely go bust or will not be very profitable in the long term. Yes you can “rape” the environment in the short term which some people do, but they won’t be in business for long, I can assure you.
Synthetic chemicals and soil fertility
Do you know why Roundup is so bad? Because its produced by an innovative company called Monsanto. I am purely concerned about the technology sold by Monsanto, and its value to commercial agriculture The ethics of Monsanto is a debate for another time. I often use Roundup or other generic glyphosate products. I also use all the cheapest and supposedly harshest chemical fertilizers. I use pesticides to protect my crop when they are under attack. I use all of these in moderation. I spray my crops as little as possible, not as much as possible. I uses the more expensive chemical sprays that are more selective in their mode of control. I don’t like the use of broad spectrum pesticides that kill all the insects in the field. I want to try encourage the natural enemies of the crop pests to play their part in my quest to grow the perfect crop. I have just ordered insect traps which monitor and assist in the control of pest populations without having to spray tour whole field. This is scientific farming, not organic farming.
I use as little fertilizer as possible, and only the specific nutrients that I need depending soil analysis and crop requirement. I have long used minimum tillage or no-till methods to grow my crops and pastures. All of these practices above are common sense farming practices. By using these common sense practices which include all these “horrid” chemicals, I have built up my soil fertility over the years. This was started by my father who also used good common sense farming methods. Despite what proponents of Organic and biological farming say, you can build up soil fertility with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It is the growing of a high yielding crop, in conjunction with minimum tillage which has the biggest positive effect on soil fertility and organic matter.
Earthworms are regarded as an indicator of a healthy soil. I welcome anyone to come and visit my farm to see for yourself how toxic Roundup really is. Come and count the earthworms who are living in the “Roundup rich” soil. While you are at it bring a basket to collect some mushrooms that grow in my intensively farmed dairy pastures. My pastures receive on average one dose of synthetic chemical fertilizer per month, 1 spray of synthetic herbicide per year, and when a crop is planted in a particular paddock, a good half a dozen additional chemical sprays. It sounds terrible, but come and look at the mushrooms and earthworms. I’m sorry to say, but Organic farmers don’t have a monopoly on environmentally friendly farming. Soil fertility is enhanced by the correct application of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. Yes organic farming can do the same, but to say that all synthetic chemicals are bad for soil health is downright misleading. I am fascinated at how organic farmers can make do without many chemical applications. I use many of the same methods and I would like to use more of them, but I will not do it for anything other than finding a more profitable way of producing my crops.
Antibiotics and hormones
Hormones and antibiotics are not really of concern in crop farming, but as a dairy farmer I can shed some light on this. I actually wrote a whole blog post on this subject. To sum it up briefly:
Take a cow who is clearly sick. As a concerned farmer, you cant ask her what ailment she has. No, you have to treat her with a broad spectrum antibiotic to save her life. She could be dead the next day if you don’t. If you have injected her with an antibiotic the milk is withheld from the bulk tank. The tests that are used by milk companies are incredibly sensitive. If one cow in my herd of 400 cows has been incorrectly treated, all the milk in the bulk tank will be thrown away. There is therefore no risk that milk from any reputable company has any traceable amount of antibiotic in it.
Regarding the use of the hormone RBST. This hormone is banned by most of the bigger milk companies in this country. This is purely to appease the consumer, as there is no way of testing if milk comes from RBST injected cows.The hormone is naturally present in milk and by injecting the cow with RBST you merely change the energy balance of the cow into converting more of her energy from her feed into milk production and less into body fat. The milk she produces at the end of the day is exactly the same stuff. I don’t use the product as it doesn’t suit my system and cow type, but I have no problem if any farmer wants to use it.
At the end of all these complaints about hormones and antibiotics in our milk you often have a mother who takes her child to the doctor to get antibiotics for an unknown ailment, and this very same mother is taking her own hormone treatment to regulate her menstrual cycle and for birth control. Double standards maybe?
Here is a link to my previous post on dairy farming in particular : “Confessions of an Inorganic Dairy Farmer”
Is organic produce nutritionally superior?
Maybe in many cases it is nutritionally superior, but why? Organic farming has taken a very different approach to marketing its produce. What an organic farmer produces spends a helluva lot less time between the farmer and the consumer. Very often its a direct line of farmer to dinner table. The Organic farmer is generally a much smaller producer who sells small amounts of various produce and so he hasn’t got to sell a thousand tons of apples all at once. This makes a massive difference in the freshness of a product. Remember that if a conventional farmer harvests his fruit when they are physiologically ripe on the tree or vine, then the shelf life on that fruit is very limited. Fruit and veg that is conventionally grown usually spends several days if not weeks or months in the food storage and transport chain. All this while the fruit or vegetable are respiring and using nutrients to keep the cells alive. This product is becoming less nutrient dense and less tasty every day.
Fruit and vegetables may also be incorrectly stored. An example of this is the storage of green vegetables alongside fruits. As fruit ripens it produces a ripening hormone called ethylene. Generally most vegetables are sensitive to ethylene and so their flavor and keeping qualities are negatively affected. Do yourself a favour and Google “ethylene sensitivity”. Unfortunately most supermarkets do not follow the simple rules, and you regularly see ethylene producing fruits sitting right next to the vegetables. Bitter tasting carrots is a very common example of ethylene sensitivity.
On the dairy farming side, the difference in the nutritional value of organically farmed milk vs conventionally farmed milk comes from the pasture based diet of organically farmed cows and the genetics of the cows that are used in organic farming, rather than the fact that they are organically farmed cows . See my previous link for more on that.
Can organic farming feed the world?
Yes if you change its definition, but not in its current form. In its current form, organic farming relies on nutrients from composted waste products. Currently a few percent of the worlds food is organically grown. There is a large amount of waste material that can be composted and used as fertilizer. Where there is an abundance of nutrient rich waste material, then compost can be an extremely good and cheap source of nutrients. The problem will come one day when organic farming becomes more popular, that there will be a huge shortage of organic matter to make into compost. At that point organic farming has several options. They can farm 10 hectares conventionally to produce enough organic matter to fertilize their 1 hectare organic farm, they can cut down forests and compost the trees, or they do the sensible thing and adopt the use of synthetic fertilizers or at least some of them with basic guidelines on their sensible use. After all a synthetic fertilizer is merely a form of concentrated plant nutrients in a soluble and readily available form.
One day organic farming will hit a ceiling where it becomes too expensive to produce under the current guidelines. This will curb consumption of organic produce and so keep things in ballance. It will probably remain a niche market for more sophisticated consumers and the majority of conventional producers will continue producing the bulk of what we consume. If I could make more money by farming organically then I would certainly consider it, but I would never convert to organic farming for reasons other than to improve profitability.
A few years ago I got very excited about biological ameliorates such as compost tea, worm wee and a fee other “miraculous” additives. I was excitedly telling my uncle Martin Fey, who’s a soil scientist himself, about these wonderful things. His reply floored me. He listened to what I had to say and asked me one question: Do you think that you could teach the earthworms in your soil to wee in the soil for you? Right there all silly ideas of trying to spray worm wee on my pastures was put to bed. I don’t say that these additives don’t have any place at all in agriculture, but their benefit is negligible if you already have a healthy soil.