Organic Farming is a development of traditional methods. The essential principle is to co-operate with nature rather than to dominate it. All farming interferes with natural processes in some way but organic farming seeks to maintain a balance between exploiting the land for crops and building fertility. This requires:
- Building up and maintaining soil fertility by recycling organic materials including crop residues and livestock wastes. Green crops are planted to return nitrogen to the soil;
- Minimizing the use of non-renewable resources. Organic farmers use no soluble mineral salt fertilisers and very few chemicals. Weed, disease and pests are controlled by crop rotation, the use of natural predators, biological diversity and the use of limited mechanical and chemical intervention; and
- Creating appropriate conditions for livestock, which allow for their behavioural needs.
The costs of organic farming (and therefore organic products) are currently distorted in Aotearoa-New Zealand, because the costs of cleaning up water and soil pollution created by conventional farming are often subsidised by local authorities or the government - saving some of the cost eventually passed on to rate payers.
Soil under organic management can absorb about 453kg of carbon per acre foot of soil each year. This is equivalent to more than 1580kg of carbon dioxide per acre sequestered into the soil. Organic farming is ecologically, socially and economically sustainable and can contribute to providing solutions to climate change.
Conventional Farming is a relative newcomer on the scene, dating back to the development of fertilisers and pesticides in the early 1950s. Trends include:
1. A reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides
This produced some spectacular initial results in increased yields, which became known as the Green Revolution. It is only recently that the costs are becoming clear. They include environmental problems in the high use of non-renewable resources, increased carbon emissions, contamination of soil and water and in the disposal of pesticides and fertilisers.
The use of chemicals has also resulted in health problems for workers and consumers. Known health risks from pesticides include cancer, birth defects, asthma, allergies, genetic damage, liver and kidney damage, chronic fatigue, depression, nervous system disorders, eye damage and skin irritations.
In addition, overuse of chemicals has caused a decrease in the fertility of the soil and erosion of marginal land, brought into intensive agricultural production. It has become clear that the initial increased yields cannot be indefinitely sustained when the goodness of the soil is being constantly depleted.
2. Larger units and development of agribusiness
This has resulted in cheaper food being made available in developed countries and cash economies. But this has been at the expense of people’s livelihoods and the environment.
Land is increasingly owned by large companies and corporations and this has caused the displacement of small farmers. Farm workers are forced to the cities as work in the rural areas dries up.
In developing countries subsistence farmers (mainly women) are forced off the land. For many the inevitable result is starvation.
Agribusiness also results in monocropping and the loss of species. With the increasing control and patenting of seeds and species, there is a decrease in the diversity of species and an increase in quantities of a limited number of hybrids. These hybrids are often owned by multinational corporations who produce chemicals and their cultivation requires pesticides and fertilisers – sold by the same companies. This has led to the development of genetically engineered crops – controlled by the same companies. The lack of diversity in a modern diet is believed by many to contribute to allergies and other health problems in humans.
3. Environmental and pollution costs met by the state
These methods were developed and costed with consistent pressure on governments to accept any costs of accidental spillage or run off into ground water. As a result pollution and other environmental degradation were not costed into production.
Environmental damage is considered an ‘externality’ which means it is not costed into our economic systems.
Agriculture will not be brought into the emissions trading scheme until 2013 and no provision has been made to acknowledge the ‘carbon sink’ created by organic farming.
The effect of this is that profits from environmental damage are privatised, but losses are paid for by all of us. Those committed to organic food essentially pay twice – through the real cost of their organic food and through their taxes for the environmental costs of conventional farming.
This principle is also being applied to any damage to land or people through the development of genetic crops; since no insurance companies are prepared to underwrite damage to health or the environment from such crops, any damage caused will become the responsibility of governments.
It is also becoming clear that conventional methods of farming are adding to the problems of climate change. Agriculture accounts for approximately 20% of carbon emissions world wide – and 49% in New Zealand. While methane emissions are a problem for both organic and industrial farming, nitrous oxide emissions are higher in conventional farming than organic farming.
We believe that farming should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The regular addition of organic materials to the soil is the only way to maintain and increase the level of carbon that can be absorbed by the soil and this is the basis of organic farming. In order for farming to help mitigate the potential for devastating environmental effects, we need to move to modern organic methods.