We have all heard about the benefits of organic produce for our health, and although the topic is still contentious, it’s widely accepted that less interference in our food by non-organic fertilisers and pesticides is a good thing. The argument for organic farming goes well beyond health benefits, however, and proponents of the practice report a number of important social, economic and environmental factors.
Developing nations are among those who struggle most with adopting environmentally sustainable practices such as organic farming, due to the overwhelming difficulty in feeding, clothing and housing their (largely poor) growing populations. China’s boom has seen a rise in the middle classes, which has led to the country becoming one of the world’s largest consumers. This rapid rise in the welfare of many of its citizens has been coupled with a voracious appetite for coal and oil; which, in turn, has seen the country virtually choking on the fruits of its labours.
Worryingly, India’s air pollution is reported to cause up to 1.2 million deaths per year, according to Greenpeace. In fact, not a single one of the 168 cities assessed in a recent Greenpeace report meet the pollution standards set by the World Health Organisation. While a reduction in the use of fossil fuels is essential to the health of the planet, managing carbon emissions and pollution requires a multi-pronged approach.
Protecting and repairing soils is crucial to reducing emissions, and has a direct benefit to not only the crops produced and the consumers who ingest them, but to the environment at large. Increasing nutrient density, and reducing chemical pesticide usage gives soils the ability to absorb carbon and keep it from the atmosphere. The significance of this process’ impact on global emissions cannot be overstated.
“CO2 cannot be reduced to safe levels in time to avoid serious long-term impacts unless the other side of atmospheric CO2 balance is included.” biogeochemist Thomas Goreau.
Traditional agricultural practices have contributed to the world’s cultivated soils losing between 50 – 70% of their original carbon stores. Without rapid and concerted efforts to correct this trend, we stand very little chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.
While soils are said to contain more carbon than the atmosphere and all plant life combined, their ability to absorb carbon has been overestimated in recent decades. Concerning new studies have concluded that soils will sequester far less carbon than was previously assumed.
“This work indicates that soils have a weaker capacity to soak up carbon than we have been assuming over the past few decades. It means we have to be even more proactive in finding ways to cut emissions of fossil fuels to limit the magnitude and impacts of climate warming.” UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Earth system science, James Randerson.
The social and economic benefits of organic farming are closely linked to the environmental advantages; however, they can be applied at a much more grass-roots level, so to speak. While the cost of organic farming, with current technologies, can often be more expensive than existing chemical-heavy practices, this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Methods such as crop-cover planting and crop rotation can significantly reduce the need for chemical pesticides and fertilisers, as they both protect soils and prevent (or at least reduce) disease. These benefits result in a reduced need for applied chemical treatments, which in turn can save farmers significant sums in the cultivation of their crops.
Furthermore, by increasing soil health through boosting nutrients and reducing erosion, evaporation and runoff of expensive fertilisers, farmers can enjoy increased yields and higher profit margins. Needless to say, these benefits require an initial investment in organic practice technologies, and a certain amount of trial-and-error in choosing cover crops and break crops which suit their soils and conditions. However, the benefits, for the forward-thinking farmer, can be substantial.
The gradual degradation of soils poses real economic risk to countries who rely heavily on farming; and for this reason, it is imperative that organic practices are adopted and incorporated on a wide scale, to have any measurable benefit. Beyond protecting soil health and ensuring the future of farming, farmers and their domestic economies have the potential to reap the not insignificant rewards of a rapidly growing global organic produce market. As appetites for organic produce increase around the world, the demand for this calibre of produce rises in kind. The premium price which organic produce currently attracts is something which even developing economies can harness, if only they are willing to invest in the uptake of organic farming practices.
India’s population face a food security crisis, as around one third of the nation’s soil is already in a degraded state, and a further 25% is facing imminent desertification. Overuse of chemical fertilisers and non-conscientious farming practices which aim to produce more crops, more quickly, are largely responsible for the current situation. However, the story is not all doom and gloom. There are a growing number of farmers and communities who are embracing organic agriculture as a long-term solution to degrading soils as well as a nearer-term opportunity for higher turnover.
A farming group in India’s Greater Noida region are already reaping the benefits, with a long-term vision to improve the sustainability of their agriculture through organic farming.
“We want to train farmers to adopt such practices and go back to the basics. This will help in decreasing the looming burden of buying high-priced chemicals and at the same time restore the vitality of the soil.” Ramnish Tangri, of the Greater Noida farming project.
While the group currently grows enough to support itself, their hopes are set high on creating profitable yields and expanding their crop varieties. As well as ensuring the arability of their soil, the farming cooperative are using less water, and reducing their dependence on expensive chemicals.
With an estimated revenue of $919.2 million in the 2016/17 period, and experiencing an incredible 17.4% growth rate, organic farming is one of Australia’s most successful industries. With the largest amount of organic farming land in the world (at over 22 million hectares) Australia is clearly punching above its weight when it comes to the adoption of organic farming principles. As global demand for organic food increases, Australian farmers are keenly aware of the potential benefits to both the bottom line, and the future of farming.
While the uptake of organic practices is understandably slower in developing nations, there is no doubt about its importance to the sustainability of farming and its ability to feed a growing global population. As technologies advance, and methods become more foolproof, it is hoped that more sustainable farms, in the form of organic enterprises, will sprout around the world.