The word organic is defined by law and the definition is not open to interpretation. In the United States, the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) defines organic agriculture as a system that promotes, enhances, and encourages biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil activity. It maintains or restores ecological harmony.
What Is Organic Agriculture?
Generally, something is thought to be organically produced if it has been certified that no man-made chemicals were used to grow the food. In the case of organic meat, that also means no hormones, antibiotics or other drugs that may have an impact in people who consume them. No genetically modified seeds or plants may be used.
Growing food and animals in an organic way involves thinking about nature as a whole and working with natural forces to produce food. Organic farmers have to think about the condition of their soil, natural cycles, the animals that live in their fields, and how their work impacts the health of the soil and the people who live near it. Organic farming is much more holistic than conventional agriculture methods. It uses more natural methods of pest and weed control and is mindful of the impact different soil amendments and beneficial insects, for instance, have on the whole ecosystem.
Conventional vs. Organic Farming
Environmental protection is a huge benefit of organic agriculture methods. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals used on conventional fields run off into nearby water supplies, harming animals and the people who drink the water or eat fish that live in those waterways. For example, Scientific American reports that a 2007 study of chemical runoff in rivers around Portland, Oregon found that wild salmon there have several types of synthetic chemicals in their systems. Such chemicals are responsible for huge fish kills or the altering of local ecosystems as well.
Farm chemicals cause illness for those who work with them. People who work with these products tend to have more health problems like asthma, and may develop cancers and other serious illnesses over a long period of time.
Common Techniques Used in Organic Farming
There are many special techniques used in organic farming and agriculture. Some add nutrients to the soil to help plants grow, while others encourage beneficial insects that prey on common crop pests. Each technique helps to strengthen the eco-system and works with the earth.
Farmers rotate crops by planting a different crop in a bed or field from season to season. Farmers use crop rotation for a variety of reasons.
- It helps keep common pests and pathogens from building up in one area and affecting the crops.
- The soil does not become depleted.
- It improves soil structure and fertility.
Biological Pest Control
Biological pest control is the process of introducing the predators of common pests in crops. The predators feast on the pests without damaging the crop being grown. Common biological pest controls are:
- Ladybugs eat aphids, mites, and other tiny pests.
- Dragonflies eat mosquitoes.
- Brachonid wasps lay eggs on certain caterpillars.
- Basil deters many pests including the common house fly.
Compost is a nutrient rich alternative to chemical fertilizers. It is organic matter that decomposes and turns into rich soil. Common components of compost are:
- Vegetable scraps
- Lawn clippings
- Coffee grounds
Green manure is a cover crop planted in fields where crops are not being grown for a time. The green manure adds nutrients into the soil as well as improving soil structure.
Disadvantages of Organic Agriculture
There are some disadvantages to organic agriculture.
- Organic food tends to cost more.
- Farming this way is more labor intensive and requires careful crop monitoring and rotation, which may mean that not all available land is being used for a cash crop in any given season.
- Organic farms tend to have smaller yields than conventional farms. The amount of produce per acre is smaller and the fruit or vegetables themselves may be smaller as well. That means that a farmer who converts to organic methods will probably harvest less on the same land than he or she did before.
- Farms have to register to be certified organic, a process that requires having gone without chemicals for three years.
Organic Farming and Agriculture Is Better for the Planet
It's a huge commitment in terms of time and money, but the rewards can be great, both economically and in terms of helping the planet.