Anna Gallart is an environmental consultant at Groundsure. In this blog, Anna discusses the origins of organic farming, what it is and why it exists. If you have any questions about this blog, you can contact the commercial consultancy team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although organic food is often more expensive than non-organic food, the UK has experienced an increased demand for organic product for five consecutive years. In 2016 organic sales increased by 7.1% while non-organic sales decreased by 0.9%.1,2 Consumers are increasingly looking for a broader range of organic products. For some people, ensuring that they are eating organic food is considered part of a lifestyle choice as well as an environmental consideration. Organic farming in its essence is the traditional farming method. Traditional farming is very old indeed, practiced for thousands of years and dating back so far as the Neolithic era.3 In fact it was the only agricultural method up until the 1920s.3
What changed? Why did farmers move away from the successful traditional methods used for thousands of years? The move away from more traditional farming methods was a reaction to the pressure of population growth which UK experienced in 18th century.3 In order to supply more food to the growing population, agricultural techniques started to develop. In the 1920s with the industrial revolution, the introduction of inorganic compounds in agriculture made from arsenic, sulphur and fluorides were used as an effective manner of pest control. During the Second World War farming methods changed dramatically, research into biological weapons of warfare had a knock on effect in discovering chemicals that were suitable for use as pesticides and herbicides.4 For instance, DDT, which was first synthesised in 1874, was used by the US Army to combat against a typhus epidemic during the Second World War. However, once it was realised that DDT was also able to work as an insecticide a first class of insecticides was created.5 At this time applying DDT to crops for pest control was considered a relatively cheap way to increase food productivity. Meanwhile advances in biochemistry, engineering and the introduction of efficient agricultural machinery all helped this transformation These advances in agriculture allowed farmers to be less dependent on manual labour and able to work at a much faster pace, thus increasing food productivity and the ability to cultivate land previously considered unsuitable.4 What is now known as conventional farming – the use of heavy agricultural machinery, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers was greatly promoted to farmers as a way of improving crop yield, animal production and thus profits.
By contrast, at the same time, the first environmental and health consequences of using agrochemicals were observed. The realisation was beginning to dawn that agrochemicals may not be as harmless and good as first believed. Between the 1920s and 1930s, some forms of arsenic which were used for pest control in fruit orchards had killed some farm workers due to the prolonged exposure to this toxic element.5 In the 1950s attention was focused in agricultural areas where DDT had been used. In many of those areas the wildlife, particularly some populations of birds, was severely affected. Further research showed that these birds had extremely high concentrations of DDT in their bodies which had severe effects on reproduction. Since then, people realised that DDT leads to serious problems in the environment and human health. DDT persists in the environment and moves through the food chain, accumulating in fatty tissues – causing adverse effects on wildlife. As a result DDT was prohibited in 1970s.5
What are the main consequences of conventional farming?
Conventional farming practices have numerous impacts on the environment and human health, and most of these are associated with and caused by the use of agrochemicals. For example, excessive use of fertilizers can lead to nitrate contamination in groundwater, which in high concentration can be toxic to animals and humans. Other consequences of conventional farming are soil erosion and degradation, decline of crop varieties, risk to human health due to exposure to chemicals, chemical residues on food, as well as ecological damage and land contamination.6
So, how we can avoid all these adverse effects caused by conventional farming? Is a return to traditional farming methods the answer? Perhaps, sustainable farming is the answer, such as organic farming, which promotes the use of natural methods and avoids agrochemicals in order to protect the environment, public health and animal welfare.
What is organic farming?
The first organic movement was born around the 1920s as a response to agriculture’s growing reliance on modern technology, synthetic and agrochemicals. The “creators” of the organic movement were principally motivated by a desire to avoid the permanent problems of conventional agriculture.7,8 Many different schools of thought make up the organic farming movement. For example biodynamic agriculture (first recorded in 1924) is based on concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, emphasising spiritual and mystical perspectives. Some methods involve observing the star and moon phases to determine when to plant seeds or packing dung into cow horn and burying it underground in autumn to stimulate root growth. Another branch of the organic farming movement is the permaculture movement, which emerged in 1978. Developed in Australia and literally meaning permanent agriculture, permaculture concentrates on using or mimicking the way that natural ecosystems work. David Holmgren once explained Permaculture quite neatly by saying, “Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and Permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.” 12
Organic farming is a good alternative to conventional farming and uses natural sources of nutrients, such as compost and crop residues, and natural methods instead of using agrochemicals or transgenic organism. The objectives are to sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal and human, decrease pollution, optimise biological productivity, recycle materials, rely on renewable resources, be respectful with ecological systems, and protect the environment.9
Converting to organic farming generally means loss of productivity and a “transition period” is required in order to become fully organic. This period can take at least two years but differs depending on the farmer’s situation.10 Organic farming is strictly controlled by an accreditation body which ensures organic practices are undertaken adequately through annual and random inspections, and certification has to be renewed every year.10,11 It sounds pretty challenging to became an organic farmer – however, funding is available to help farmers to manage organic land and convert their production to organic.11 In general, food produced organically tends to be more expensive, as the yield is lower than conventional farming and more time is required in producing. Farmers have to be skilled and familiar with organic practices, which involves a lot of initial study as well as being willing to learn new practices. 13
So then, why would a farmer change from conventional farming practices to organic? Apart from the moral satisfaction there is an increasing demand for organic food. Some recent studies support that the food produced is more valuable as it is considered better for human health.14 A study which was published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2001, which compared nutrient content of organic and conventional crops. This study concluded that the organic crops which were studied, contained more vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorous and less nitrates than conventional crops.14 Another study conducted in 2010, suggested that organic farming produces food with high quality standards and contains more anti-oxidant micronutrients and is free of pesticides residues.15 Additionally, organic farming also helps to build healthy soil, such as reducing the soil erosion because the soil is fully cultivated and the absence of agrochemicals support the ecosystem. It supports environmental conservation, reduces pollution and protect water and soil, encourages healthy biodiversity and farmers do not need to be exposed to agrochemicals and spend money to buy expensive agrochemicals.13
The Groundsure Agricultural search provides a clear understanding of any environmental risks, and resulting liabilities, including former farm land use, which may affect the purchase of agricultural land.
- Financial times (2017). UK organic food sales grow. Available at : https://www.ft.com/content/ed0edb8e-d9ab-11e5-a72f-1e7744c66818. Accessed (24/02/2017)
- Soil Association Certification, (2017).The 2017 Organic Market Report. Available at https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/food-drink/trade-news/2017/uk-organic-market-tops-2-billion/ Accessed (11/03/2017)
- History, BBC, (2017). Agricultural Revolution in England 1500-1850. Available at : http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/agricultural_revolution_01.shtml. (Accessed 11/03/2017)
- Science Encyclopaedia (2016). Agrochemicals – Environmental Effects Of The Use Of Agrochemicals. Available at: http://science.jrank.org/pages/134/Agrochemicals-Environmental-effects-use-agrochemicals.html (Accessed 24/02/2017)
- National Pesticide Centre, (1999). DDT. Available at : http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/ddtgen.pdf. Accessed (11/03/2017)
- S & P. A (2010). Agricultural practice and the effects of agricultural land use on water quality. Available at : https://www.fba.org.uk/journals/index.php/FF/article/viewFile/332/235. Accessed (18/02/2017)
- BBC News (2014). Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/rural_environments/farming_rural_areas_rev4.shtml. Accessed (25/02/2017)
- Sustainable and resilient social structure for change: the organic movement (2011). Available at: http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/11sa/Monk.html (Accessed 10/07/2017)
- A brief overview of the history and philosophy of organic agriculture (2010). Available at: http://kerrcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/organic-philosophy-report.pdf (Accessed 10/07/2017)Soil Association (2017). What are organic Standards? Available at: https://www.soilassociation.org/what-we-do/organic-standards/ Accessed (17/02/2017)
- About Organics (2017). A guide to organic food accreditation. Available at: http://www.aboutorganics.co.uk/a-guide-to-organic-food-accreditation.html. Accessed (24/02/2017)
- DEFRA (2016). Organic farming: how to get certification and apply for funding. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/organic-farming-how-to-get-certification-and-apply-for-funding.
- Ecologist Setting the Environmental Agenda since 1970, (2013).Permaculture and biodynamics: sustainable systems of living and growing. Available at: http://www.theecologist.org/. Accessed (11/03/2017)
- The balance (2017). Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming. Available at: https://www.thebalance.com/environmental-benefits-of-organic-farming-2538317 Accessed (11/03/2017)
- The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables and Grains. Worthington, V. (2001). Available at: http://ucanr.edu/datastoreFiles/608-794.pdf Accessed (20/07/2017)
- Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Nutritional quality and safety of organic food. A review (2010). Available at: https://www.agronomy-journal.org/index.php?doi=10.1051%2Fagro%2F2009019&option=com_article&access=doi&edpsname=&lang=en. Accessed (20/07/2017)