A question that has come across many people in agriculture is whether organic agriculture is more sustainable or better than our conventional agricultural practices. There are many factors to keep in mind when questioning which is more sustainable.
What is Organic Agriculture?
First let’s start with mentioning that organic foods are not healthier than foods that are not organic. The idea that organics somehow have added nutrients or health benefits is false and misguided.
Organic agriculture is a practice in agriculture that works towards being more sustainable for the environment, it was never meant to add more health benefits to the consumer. It is a fast growing sector in the agriculture industry, where it attempts to improve and maintain fertility, soil, and biodiversity, and reduce the erosion in the soil. Something to keep in mind is that organic agriculture has more restrictions when it comes to inputs.
Some practices that are common in organic agriculture include cover crops, green manures, and crop rotation. Pesticides that you would normally use in conventional agriculture may not be allowed in organics, some methods they use include biological control, crop rotations, and other techniques. However, organic agriculture relies heavily on tillage to deal with weeds. This practice is not sustainable, as it leads to soil erosion and the loss of residues and nutrients that the next crop could have utilized. Organic agriculture is known for bringing less yields than conventional agriculture as well.
To market your products as organic, you must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to the USDA, there are five steps to becoming certified organic. First you must create an organic system plan, then you must implement this plan and have it reviewed by a certifying agent. Following this, you must receive inspection, this inspection will review your farm or facility to ensure you meet every requirement. Following inspection, a certifying agent must review the inspection report where your current operations after implementation will be compared to your initial organic plan. Finally, you will receive a decision from the certifying agent, if operations meet the requirements, the certifying agent will issue an organic certificate.
Not practicing organic agriculture does not mean that these practices cannot apply to your farm or facility. Cover crops, green manures, and crop rotations can be utilized in conventional agriculture. Essentially, you could follow every requirement for organics and not be certified. You must keep in mind that if you are not certified, you cannot use the USDA Certified stamp on your products. There are few exceptions when it comes to advertising that should be looked into as well.
Something to note, which is probably the largest difference between organic agriculture and conventional agriculture is that conventional agriculture uses synthetic chemicals and fertilizers to increase yields and profits. These synthetic chemicals and fertilizers are not used or allowed in organic practices. Conventional agriculture is very broad, you can definitely decide what to add and not add to your crops. Conventional agriculture does not mean there is not sustainability or concern for the environment and soil. Practices like no-till, conservation tillage, cover crops, mulching, crop rotation, drip irrigation, and other irrigation that use water efficiently. Agroecology definitely plays a role in sustainable practices, which can be applied to conventional agriculture.
There is so much to consider when talking about sustainability, especially in agriculture where it is necessary to feed the growing population but does leave an impact on the environment. As our goals should be to preserve the environment for as long as we can, we also must think about feeding the world. Food insecurity is a large issue and we must keep working towards making food more readily available while doing the least amount of damage to the environment.
What do you think? Is organic agriculture more sustainable than conventional agriculture? Can we survive on organic agriculture alone?
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McEvoy, P. B., Watts, S., Rwilymz, Hahahathisguy, Anne, Mel, . . . Yew, P. (2017, February 21). Organic 101: Five Steps to Organic Certification. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/10/10/organic-101-five-steps-organic-certification
National Institute of Food and Agriculture. (2020.). Retrieved from https://nifa.usda.gov/topic/organic-agriculture
What is Organic Farming? (2020, November 20). Retrieved from https://www.sare.org/publications/transitioning-to-organic-production/what-is-organic-farming/
What is Sustainable Agriculture? (2020). Retrieved from https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-sustainable-agriculture