In the past decade, organic agriculture has grown from a niche market to a market force, demonstrating that it is an option for profitable enterprises. Organic agriculture is a socially and environmentally friendly approach to the food chain by agriculture. Apart from taking care of the health concerns of living organisms, it also addresses environmental issues.
Why should I be aware of this?
Organic farming aims at reducing the costs of production and helps farmers in getting reasonable returns. Organic farming is today’s answer not only for sustained productivity, but also for safe and nutritious food. Demand for organic food is increasing rapidly. Products that are certified and sold as ‘organic’ can fetch a premium price compared with conventional products. Below are some of the reasons to go organic:
- Better taste: Organic food tastes better.
- Eco friendly: Maximise the use of natural resources without straining the resources of the globe.
- Healthier: Organic foods have far less residues of pesticides, growth promoters and antibiotics. Organic food contains more vitamins and nutrients.
- Animal friendly: Organic farming places great emphasis on animal welfare and is more animal friendly, where animals are not treated with synthetic growth hormones or drugs.
- GMO free: Genetically modified organisms are not allowed in organic agriculture.
- Traditions meeting science: Organic systems rely on a modern and scientific understanding of ecology and soil science, while also integrating traditional agricultural knowledge.
Organic agriculture and environment
- The production of artificial chemicals and fertilisers is energy intensive. It takes as much energy to produce a tonne of fertilisers as it does to produce a tone of steel. The use of compost, recycled waste and non-genetically engineered biological fertilisers is central to organic farming.
- The killing of soil life is also the burning out of soil carbon. Organic farms by definition depend on soil carbon to remain viable. If they do not conserve organic matter and slowly build the organic carbon of the soil they will not produce crops beyond the conversion period.
- The industrialisation of farming is energy intensive. This is the style of agriculture that is both inhumane, wasteful of resources, and unhealthy for animals and consumers
- Organic food is often over-packaged and transported excessive distances by centralised supermarket distribution systems. This is a down side which can be reduced by wise consumer decisions at point of sale. Organic standards stipulate a preference for recylclable or renewable packaging.
All about organic agriculture
Organic agriculture is the oldest form of agriculture on earth. Farming without the use of petroleum-based chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) was the sole option for farmers until post-World War II. The war brought with it technologies that were useful for agricultural production. For example, ammonium nitrate used during World War II evolved into ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Organophosphate nerve gas production led to the development of powerful insecticides. These technical advances resulted in significant economic benefits, as well as environmental and social detriments.
Best of both traditional and modern techniques
Organic farms utilise the best of both traditional and modern techniques. It is a combination of techniques to build up soil fertility for sustainable production, mainly using local and natural resources with least use of external inputs. Production and protection of crops mainly depend on indigenous wisdom combined with latest scientific technique. In organic farming, rather than using synthetic pesticides to kill pests, farmers prevent pests by planting a bio-diverse range of crops, by rotations, and by using natural, biological and environment-friendly sprays. This means no artificial pesticides, no herbicides, no hormones and no growth promoters or food irradiation. Organics also prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic standards clearly define the allowed and prohibited production and processing methods.
- Natural fertilizers: There are various ways of making natural fertilizers based on available resources. Dry leaves, kitchen waste, animal dung, human excrete, poultry waste, straw, grass, etc., can all be converted into excellent manure by composting. Using earthworms has proven to be a very good source of natural fertilizer for plants, as well as for speeding up the process of composting.
- Pest control: There are several natural ways of keeping away pests. Neem tree oil, eucalyptus oil and earthworm oil are some of the natural substances that can be sprayed for pest control. Other methods used are crop rotation and companion planting. It is also important to understand the food chain to keep pests in control. Some animals help control pests.
- Rainwater harvesting: Though not mandatory as per the standards, but rainwater harvesting and conserving resources is a good practice. Rain water harvesting helps in retaining the soil moisture and also helps in conserving resources by way of limiting use of pumped water from the ground. It also helps in recharging the depleting water table. Use of alternative power, such as solar and wind, also goes a long way in conserving global resources.
Amalgamation of old and new
Organic agriculture is not just about going back to the traditional ways of farming but an amalgamation of old and new to optimise the health and productivity of inter-dependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.
It uses crop rotations, organic fertilisers and seeds new crop varieties, technologies and efficient machinery. It avoids pesticides and chemical additives. The farmers rely on biological, cultural and physical methods to limit pest expansion and increase populations of beneficial insects on their farm.
Apart from blending modern science with traditional knowledge, organic agriculture is also a means of converting low-input and subsistence farms into more productive systems. In addition to taking advantage of locally available resources and reducing the food miles and the carbon footprint of the produce, it also results in the efficient use of natural resources and promotes biodiversity. Through the recycling of renewable resources, organic agriculture makes it possible for farmers and fishermen to flourish in the absence of external agricultural inputs.
The organic market also generates employment in rural areas. However, policies and principles are needed to increase the accessibility of organic agriculture so that the full benefit of sustainable agriculture, rural development and food security can be realized.
The three principles of organic agriculture are
- Health – The success of organic agriculture is not at the cost of the health of soil, plant, animal and humans. It treats each of these four parts as one and indivisible, whole.
- Ecology – Organic agriculture works in tandem with ecological systems and cycles.
- Responsible and sustainable – Organic Agriculture is managed in a responsible manner that aims at protecting the health and well being of current and future generations and the environment.
Minimum requirements for a farm or product to be certified as ‘organic’ are precisely defined by organic standards. There are organic standards on the national as well as international level. For certification, the standards of the target market or importing country are relevant. Certain private labels have additional requirements on top of national standards. Each country has its own standards in line with international standards. Here are some of the international organic standards:
- European Regulation EEC 2092/91: An amended version of this complex regulation is available on Europa.
- IFOAM Basic Standards: Set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, or IFOAM, these are not standards for certification but for standard setting on the national or international level. They are regularly reviewed and updated by IFOAM members from all over the world.
- US-NOP standards: The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.
- Organic food sector has been consistently growing at 10% annually for more than a decade.
- In 2005, Organic food and drink accounted for US$30 billion in annual sales, representing a market share of 1 to 4% in industrialized countries.
- China has organic retail sales of some US$150 million annually and domestic markets in several developing countries are booming.
- Globally, more than 50 million hectares of lands are certified organic, including 31 million hectares of crop and pasture and 19 million hectares of forests. Many EU countries and Brazil expect to have 20% of agricultural lands under organic management by 2010.
- Organic agriculture practices improve agro-ecosystem management and performance and, where markets are available, certified organic products offer valuable export earning opportunities.
- Organic agriculture can reverse rural exodus to cities by providing higher returns to labour, to farming families and employment opportunities for underutilized local workers.
References and Useful Websites
- Uniting the Organic World
- United States Department of Agriculture
- National Sustainable Agriculture
- Organic Farming Research Foundation
- European Commission
- USDA National Agricultural Library
- Indian Organic Certification Agency
- Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development