Organic farming is growing increasingly popular around the world. Its package of practices results in a cascade of benefits on environment, health, economic and social fronts.
Organic farming is an agricultural practice that is more than giving up use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and heavy tillage to produce food. It involves practices which work with natural ecological systems to enhance productivity of a whole farm. It combines traditional wisdom with appropriate scientific advances. Organic farming is based on maintaining biodiversity, and the health of plants, animals, and people to provide sustainable production for the present and future generations, according to IFOAM - Organics.
Avoids Air, Water, and Soil Pollution
Organic farming uses compost, recycling farm waste instead of chemical fertilizers. Compost release nutrients gradually, so there is little or no wastage of nutrients, if proper amounts of manure are applied. So there is no soil or water pollution due to organic farming.
- Organic farming avoids eutrophication which results when the unused portion of fertilizers seep into the soil and are washed away into ponds, streams, and ultimately the ocean.
- Dead zones that result in oceans, ponds, and streams when fertilizers reach them can be prevented, and natural species living in them can remain safe.
- Animal waste are recycled by proper composting, so a major source of nutrient pollution is eliminated.
No Pesticide Poisoning
Organic farming tackles pest and weed problem by growing a diverse variety of crops. Furthermore, natural methods that are part of the Integrated Pest Management ensure no chemical pesticides are needed.
The benefits are:
- The natural ecosystem in the farm and beyond its borders are not harmed through organic farming, as chemical pesticides which kill many other non-target species are absent.
- Herbicides that kill plants outside farms are not used, saving natural flora and the other insects and birds dependent on them.
Pesticide Resistance Is Prevented
Pesticide resistance buildup in insects and weed pests makes the insects ultimately resistant to them. This creates super weeds and super-bugs. As organic farming does not rely on chemicals to control weeds or insect, this problem does not exist in organic farms.
Soil Fertility Is Maintained
Hundreds of species of bacteria, fungi, and other small insects present in the soil decompose crop residues and any organic matter in the soil to create nutrient rich humus which keeps the soil fertile.
Organic farming supports this natural dynamics so that soil fertility is built up making farming sustainable for present and future generations.
Soil Erosion Is Averted
The build up of humus in soils in organic farms improves the soil structure, holding it together yet improving porosity. Mulching and growing of cover crops further aids this process by providing a protective covering for the topsoil.
- When porosity increases, so does water percolation. So there is less chance of runoff of rainwater forming and carrying away topsoil with it through water erosion.
- There is less or no chances of soil erosion through wind, since there is no heavy tillage with big machines, which leaves soil loose and exposed.
Climate Change Mitigation
Intensive agriculture is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission which causes climate change. Organic farming eliminates the various sources of these emissions and helps in climate change mitigation.
- Fertilizers avoided: Use of compost and natural manure reduces contribution of GHG gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, during the manufacture of nitrogenous fertilizers, that is also very energy intensive.
- More soil carbon: Healthy soils have large amounts of humus a form of carbon stored underground as is the case in organic farms. So they act as carbon sinks removing carbon dioxide from the air according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
- Hedges and trees: Organic farming allows and encourages the use of hedges to protect farms against insect pest movement or as windbreaks. These are perennial shrubs and trees that fix carbon dioxide from air. Similarly, trees planted in a farm to attract natural predators of insects also help in carbon capture.
- Less use of fossil fuels: Replacing big tractors and harvesters meant for large farms with smaller machines and manual labor reduces the use of fossil fuels by organic farms and therefore helps reduce climate change.
Organic farms typically grow many crops at the same time and during different seasons through inter-cropping and crop rotation. This increases the crop diversity compared to conventional farms. Moreover, by maintaining and augmenting natural ecological process there are other biodiversity benefits as well.
These permanent vegetation, such as hedges and trees, in a farm provide habitats and homes for a myriad of insects, birds, and small mammals. Soils in organic farms have much more biodiversity than the sterile and unfertile soils in intensive farms.
Beyond farmlands, a lack of nutrient pollution means:
- Supported aquatic systems: Ponds, streams, and oceans, far and near are safe from eutrophication and can support more aquatic species.
- Useful pollinators: Similarly, pesticides that are threatening useful pollinators like honey bees and other wild bees on a global scale are not present, so pollinators can thrive and increase in number.
- Insect biodiversity: The general decline in populations of all kinds of insects can be arrested by organic farms, as they do not use pesticides. Decrease in insects' numbers can endanger many other birds and mammals dependent on them.
Health benefits occur for everyone involved in organic farming, including animals.
Farmer and Farm Workers
Farm workers are no longer exposed to pesticides, an occupational health hazard associated with conventional farming that leads to many diseases some of which can be lethal.
People benefit from eating food without chemicals which have been shown to cause health related problems, including cancer according to Time.
- This is especially true for fresh produce that are free of pesticides and heavy metals. Children are the greatest beneficiaries as they are most susceptible to chemicals.
- Meat from organic farms, also do not have antibiotics in them, or super bugs which have developed resistance to antibiotics.
One of the cornerstones of organic farming is that all people and animals are respected and treated well.
- So animals' on an organic farm, are allowed to roam free and lead a healthy life in natural conditions outdoors.
- Animals are not raised in abnormal crowded populations that result in injury or rapid spread of diseases as in conventional farm.
Economic and Social Benefits
There are economic benefits at various levels due to organic farming for farmers, consumers, community and society.
Farmers improve their income and welfare through:
- Less investment: Organic farmers can avoid investing in heavy machinery, and the yearly recurring costs of expensive seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. When the input decreases, profit margins improve.
- Moderate loss: Since there are many crops in an organic farm, losses are not felt as much if any one crop fails. There are other crops that still provide income to the farmer. A farmer who depends only on one crop can suffer heavily.
- Reduced debt: Many farmers end up in debt as they take loans to purchase the expensive inputs for intensive farming, especially if the crops fail. This has been identified as one of the leading cause of farmer suicides worldwide, even in developed countries like the U.S. and in Europe, and has prompted many communities to switch to organic farming. In such cases, the whole family benefits.
More Employment Opportunities
Organic farms are labor intensive as much of the work is done by people as these farms are not designed for large machines. As a result, there are more employment opportunities in an organic farm compared to conventional farms. The occurrence of rural employment and poverty, a problem everywhere in the world, can be addressed by organic farming.
Growing Demand for Organics
Demand for organic products is increasing, in contrast to products from conventional farms. Moreover, people are prepared to pay more for organic given its health benefits. So organic farming these days is a sound business option.
Certification for organic farms are expensive so many farmers choose to sell their products locally and avoid this cost.
- Farm shops and farmers' markets: These practices offer opportunities for farmers and consumers to connect directly and build trust to trade in organic products. It also solves the problem of long distance transport cost usually associated with organic products.
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): CSAs are a great way for a community to be involved in saving their local environment, help an organic farmer, and in return get fresh local produce at good prices. Fresh produce, dairy products and meat can all be ordered and picked up at the farm or be delivered by boxes. CSAs are extending their reach to nearby urban centres to the mutual benefit of the farms and consumers.
Organic farming can boost the economy of a whole region due to the many benefits it brings and improve social relationships. For example, in the U.S., this can mean an area that engages in organic farming will raise "median household income" by approximately $2,000.
Organic Agriculture Can Feed The World
Despite the fact that organic farming at present accounts for a small segment of the food market (it is only 5% in the U.S.), there is enough evidence that it can completely feed present and future populations. Given its multiple benefits, there is ample reason to encourage this system of food production.