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Organic Farming Benefits

organic farming benefits

By Helen M. Disler

Organic farming has become one of the most favoured options for the production of safe, highly nutritious food and long-term sustainability. The market for the produce from organic farms is growing, especially as consumers have become more aware of food-safety issues, environmental preservation and wildlife protection.

Organic farming is practiced in over 100 countries worldwide, and, as of 2012, there were over 26 million hectares managed under organic farming techniques. Of this total, Australia had the biggest share (43.3%) with its 11.3 million hectares; Argentina was a distant second with 2.8 million hectares.

From its inception, the position of organic farming has been against large-scale, chemical-farming agriculture. The debate between organic farming and chemical farming is far from settled. Some of the points involved are described below.

Natural controls of insect pests and diseases

An organic-farming system does not use synthetic chemicals, including inorganic fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. To keep pests at acceptable levels, natural pesticides may be used. Chemical-farming advocates say natural pesticides are crude and are actually improved upon by synthetic pesticides, and that the distinction between the two is arbitrary. Organic-farming advocates point out that pest control in organic farms is achieved by encouraging the presence of predators and natural enemies of pests, following crop rotation, using cover crops, and growing healthier plants; natural pesticides (such as soybean oil, rotenone and pyrethrum) are only used as the last resort.

Research from the early 1990s has shown that organic farms have lower populations of insect pests than conventional farms or that there is little difference between them. A comprehensive analysis by Letourneau and Goldstein (2001) who studied organic and conventional tomato farms in California showed that there was no difference in the abundance of plant-eating animals (herbivores) but the organic farms had higher abundance and a wider variety of natural enemies to pests that affected the crops, which led to better pest control.

Soil ecology

Proponents have always asserted that the organic system maintains high levels of biological activity and fresh organic matter in humus, thus promoting soil health. Numerous studies investigating various aspects of soil ecology, including the physical, chemical and biological properties of soil, and its ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, in organic and conventional farming systems have confirmed the claims of organic farming advocates.

Some of the most significant studies involved the organic and conventional farming trials in Switzerland (called DOK trials), which covered a 21-year period. One study by Siegrist et al. (1998) found that organic plots had significantly greater earthworm biomass, soil aggregate stability, and population diversity than conventional plots. Another study by M?der et al. (2000) showed colonization of beneficial fungi was 30-60% higher among plants growing in organic farming systems, which implied that organic systems had a greater capacity to achieve plant-fungi symbiosis.

Nutrient loss

Many studies have shown that nitrates leach out at slower rates in organic farms than conventional farms. For example, Eltun et al. (1995) found that nitrate runoff in conventional cash crop systems in Norway was at least two times higher than in organic cash crop systems. Among farms producing forage crops, loss of nitrates in organic systems was 36% less than that in conventional systems.

Soil productivity

The basic criticism against organic farms is that yields are lower than conventional farms. The Swiss DOK trials found that the organic systems had 20% lower yields than the conventional systems, but it was also noted that fertilizer consumption in organic systems was 50% lower. Organic farming advocates point to the economic costs of conventional farming systems such as the cost of environmental clean-up and the depletion of non-renewable energy resources; in contrast, organic systems avoid these hidden costs.

Another factor that contributes to lower yields in organic farms is the presence of weeds. Several researchers have found higher weed densities and weed biomass in organic farms compared with conventional farms. On the other hand, researchers have also reported the presence of rare and endangered weed species on mature, decades-old organic farms, which may indicate a contribution to encouraging plant biodiversity. It may not favour short-term economics but it does support long-term ecological concerns.