Organic farming is a movement born in the 30s, in industrialized countries, in contrast with the evolution of agriculture to a productivist mode, considered as excessive and contrary to the concept of Nature, foster mother.
The origin of the movement is very philosophical, with ideologists like Steiner, Fukuoka, Howard or Müller.
The movement has evolved over the years to a rejection of synthetic chemistry and a will of producing better quality food.
One may doubt of the value of the names chosen (biologique in French, organic in English or ecológica in Spanish), because they are pleonasms, to the extent that agriculture is by definition and whatever the mode of farming, an activity based on the cultivation and use of living animals or plants beings, in a rural environment. These names were simply chosen as opposed to the word chemical.
In its current acceptance, organic farming has lost much of its philosophical connotations, but stays a movement based on a denial of the use of chemicals in agriculture and food.
Among the recent thinkers of organic farming, some have largely drifted to a reactionary or unscientific conception (Teddy Goldsmith, for example) with the use of themes such as the return to the land, the decay of society, or the end of civilization, as a justification for the will to abandon all modern techniques, whatever they are.
Today, a farmer who wants to be organic farming, and market it as such (using one of the labels of organic farming) must comply with the specifications and get certified. Certifications have an annual value, and are renewed after a specific audit.
Every action performed on the farm is recorded. Non-conformities must be corrected within a short time, except some of them, considered unacceptable, which may lose accreditation.
The distinctive labeling pays a fee, like for the use of most brands, whether agricultural or not, organic or not. This is for example, also the case of integrated farming, which I will soon speak about.
It should be known that an unlabeled food is considered, default, produced by conventional farming. This labeling wants to make the difference.
Whoever does not want to pay the brand will have to settle prices for conventional foods. Labeled organic products are sold more expensive, and the price difference is more than the cost of the label.
The concept of organic farming is difficult to conciliate with large size farms. In fact, it incorporates an important social and rural structuration concept.
In industrialized countries, where the movement has received the best welcome, many organic farmers are neo-rural and ecologists, installed on small farms, having made a return to the land.
However, large farms represent the most part of the world's certified production. Organic farming, whose consumption of products is highly concentrated in industrialized countries, has progressively become a very interesting potential market, to which are oriented large agricultural companies looking for economically growing markets and comfortable profit margins .
It may also be indicated that consumers of organic products are primarily urban, middle and upper, rather affluent classes. It is still, in terms of production and consumption, an intellectual movement.
Technically speaking, organic farming is little different from conventional farming. Cultivation methods are quite similar, and productive objectives are generally productivist. It’s to say that the organic farmer seeks to maximize production in compliance with the obligations laid down in the specifications.
We must be lucid, regardless of the mode of production, a farmer will always get a much better income if he produces a lot than if he produces little. Once fixed the quality he wants to offer to its customers, he logically seek to produce as much as possible in accordance with his purpose. And the price paid to the farmer has nothing to do with the price paid by the consumer. We'll talk about it in another post. The farmer is condemned to produce much, even in organic farming, to be able to live properly from his business.
We can represent the principles used in some main lines. All techniques used are designed to promote the following:
- Reduce soil erosion and risks of loss of fertility.
- Maintenance of soil is based on mechanical means.
- Water use control
- Promote biodiversity in the farm
- Promote soil microbial life by burying the remains of previous crops, feed the soil to feed the plant
- Fertilisation based on materials of natural origin, such as manure, compost, bone powder or fertilizer from mining without industrial processing
- Reduce the impact of pests and diseases on crops
- Plant Protection based on non-chemical methods and using natural products.
It should be noted that these techniques are not exclusive to organic farming, as we shall see later.
There is a European regulation (Regulations No 834/2007, 889/2008 and 540/2011), which sets a common European framework, but each member state is then free to apply its own way. This regulation aims to establish a common minimum, but it is still possible to tighten the rules at national level, not alleviate. Each non-European country has its own legal interpretation of organic farming, which can sometimes lead to significant differences in the actual application of the concept by the farmer and the final quality of organic food.
One of the most sensitive issues is the control of pest problems. On this point, which is ultimately the most critical for public opinion, I want to make several remarks.
First important point: there are many pesticides allowed in organic agriculture, because crops are prone to pest damage in all growing methods.
It should be added that the breeding and releases of beneficial insects (ladybugs, hoverflies, predatory wasps, predatory bugs, predatory mites, etc.), represent effective control techniques, although often difficult to master.
Pesticidal substances allowed in organic farming are classified into seven categories (according to Annex II of EU Regulation No. 889/2008) :
- The animal or plant origin active ingredients (vegetable oils, natural pyrethrins , rotenone, gelatins , etc.)
- The microorganisms used in biological control against pests and diseases (bacteria, viruses, fungi, nematodes)
- Substances produced by microorganisms (case of spinosad, a toxin produced by a soil bacterium)
- Synthetic substances to be used in traps and/or dispensers (such as pheromones, insecticides or pellets made from synthetic pyrethroids)
- Preparations to be surface-spread between cultivated plants (such as bait for slugs and snails)
- Other substances from traditional use in organic farming (such as copper, sulfur, paraffin and mineral oils, usually from mining or petrochemical)
- Other substances such as calcium hydroxide and potassium bicarbonate.
As you can see, some substances are derived from synthetic chemistry, petrochemical or mining, three activities widely criticized by environmental groups and organic farming for the pollution risks they represent.
Second important point: the substances used in organic farming are not harmless. What is natural is not necessarily good for your health, or the environment. We can cite :
- The natural pyrethrum, polyvalent plant extract insecticide, is toxic for the auxiliary insects and very toxic to aquatic wildlife fauna.
- Nicotine is a natural insecticide extracted from tobacco, widely known for its danger to human health and environment, not authorized in Europe, but widely used in many non-European countries.
- Rotenone and neem oil, other natural insecticides, also known for their danger to health and environment.
- Copper, widespread use fungicide, toxic metal, heavily polluting the soil and water, and non-degradable, from mining production or recycling, and sometimes carrying small amounts of other dangerous heavy metals such as mercury or lead.
Third important point: the persistence of products is generally much lower than synthetic products (except copper). The main consequence of this point is that, to achieve the same level of protection of his crops, an organic farmer is obliged to treat between 2 and 3 times more, depending on the problems to be solved, than a conventional farmer. There are therefore more important environmental risks of residues in food, usually not measured.
Fourth important point, the legislation. I have already given you an insight in previous posts. There is a legislative problem concerning potential pesticide residues on organic food. Indeed, except in some specific cases, the composition of the products is not well known because plant extracts are often very complex.
For example, neem oil contains a main ingredient, azadirachtin, whose effects and residues are well known. But it also contains more than 100 others less well-known active ingredients, which are never analyzed, and whose effects on health and the environment are unknown.
The manufacturer also has the possibility not to declare the complete composition, because the legislation does not make it mandatory, so all their components can not be analyzed or quantified.
Specifically, nobody currently may guarantee that organic food contains, or no, hazardous residues for health and in what quantity. However, as I have said in the previous point, the risk of organic pesticide residues is important, due to the large number of treatments needed.
Organic food, just as conventional foods undergo pesticide residues controls, by sampling at both customs and health services, as supermarkets. But seeks only synthetic pesticides, never natural pesticides. This allows the detection of fraud in respect of bio protocols, but not abuses of organic pesticides or potentially risky natural residues.
One of the technical problems that organic farming meets in managing pest problems, is that auxiliary releases, potentially effective technique, have very random results. Indeed, in many cases, if they don’t find sufficient food in the areas of releases, auxiliary disappear. They just go looking for food, out of crops to protect.
Their short-term effectiveness is good, because the farmer will realize the releases in case of presence of problems, but in the medium and long term, it is very random. And the cost is high.
However, there are conditions under which these techniques work very well, but they are incompatible with the philosophy of organic farming (although they are allowed). I mean greenhouses. Actually, thanks to greenhouses, it creates an artificially confined environment, which allows, because of the physical barrier effect, both a limitation of pests and a control of auxiliary populations. It should however be noted that the absence of rain, wind, the high humidity and the lack of biodiversity cause an aggravation of other problems.
There are organic growers in greenhouses in many countries. However the question of the use and management of plastic is only partially resolved.
On the other hand, it presents a philosophical problem in creating an artificial environment, with forced crops, and with all the energy and phytosanitary constraints that it represents, as well as the obligation to use the petrochemical industry for the supply of large quantities of plastic.
Another special point is the fertilization. Are prefered fertilizers of natural origin, from manure, compost, or by-products of the food industry, such as bone powders. There are many sources of natural fertilizers.
But it contains a constant, which is that they are insoluble fertilizers, not assimilated by plants without a mineralization process, which transforms components to assimilable. This feature combines two opposite consequences:
- The advantage of allowing an enrichment of soil in organic matter, so longer run in humus, important factor in long-term fertility, and maintaining agronomic characteristics over time.
- The disadvantage of not being able to control when the mineralization is done. It specially depends on the temperature and humidity of the soil, and its microbial activity. It is common to observe nutritional imbalances due to the phase difference between the needs of the plant and the availability of nutrients from the soil. Moreover, elements released in abundance during the summer (soils are warmer and longer active), and not used by plants, can be washed away by the autumn rains and trained to groundwater.
Cultivation techniques used in organic farming are designed to maintain biodiversity in the farm, and cultural balance. By this way, the risk of development of certain parasites whose cycles are accelerated by the nutritional imbalances and by the absence of auxiliary fauna and beneficial insects, is limited.
This is the case, for example, of aphids, mites or leafhoppers, often controlled by beneficial insects (ladybugs, spiders, lacewings, hoverflies, phytoseiid mites, etc..), Lepidoptera and Diptera, staple diet of many birds or bats, big or small rodents such as voles or rabbits, controlled by raptors, snakes, foxes and other carnivorous animals.
To achieve this objective, the farmer will, inter alia:
- Reserve certain areas of the farm to create areas of biodiversity,
- Develop a controlled weed when he can,
- Let some trees or shrubs grow to provide shelter,
- Install nesting boxes for birds and bats, perches for raptors, etc.
Organic farming is it effective?
Today, we can say no, if we compare its productive results with those of conventional farming. A study by INRA (french agronomical research office) shows that the reduction of production is variable depending on the crop and agro-climatic conditions. The reduction is between 0 and 80%, usually at levels of 25-50%. Without going into detail, it is now clear that organic farming significantly reduces the productive potential of crops.
Regarding livestock, these differences are not measurable because animal growth is not influenced by the origin of food. The breeding method has more influence than the type of food (animals free or not).
Products from organic farming, are they better?
No serious and impartial study could, to date, demonstrate anything, nor on the effects on health or the effects on taste. The good reputation of a method and the bad reputation of the other are only urban legends, and are carefully fed by the personal interests of a few.
One can only note that the commercial tolerances are very different, and allow organic farmers to grow the tastiest varieties. Conventional farmers have to face them to the dictatorship of standardization and retailers, which does not allow them to do so. It forces them, for economic reasons, to grow varieties that have a perfect presentation and a conservation increased, often at the expense of taste.
Is it easy to switch from conventional farming to organic farming?
In theory, yes. The farmer will simply adapt cultivation techniques to respect the specifications. Must still specify that, although there is little practical difference between conventional farming and organic farming, the farmer will adopt a monitoring system to intervene (spray) early during the development of phytosanitary problems, because he only has limited curative efficacy products.
But in reality, it depends on two main factors.
First there has administrative criteria. In fact, a farm may receive organic certification, only after a phase of conversion that will last several years. This time is variable across countries and crops, but generally ranges from 2 to 5 years.
This period is intended to allow the farmer to become operational on specifications, especially to enable the farm to find a natural balance, assumed lost or disrupted. On the other hand, it must also allow the soil and the environment to finish degrade the potential residues of pesticides and chemical fertilizers previously used.
During this period, the farmer must follow the specifications, but has no economic benefit because it has no right to use specific brands.
Then, there is the crop.
Some crops are easy to drive in organic farming. They are generally hardy crops, undemanding , and very sensitive to pest problems . It may well include vines, olives, citrus fruits, some cereals, for example.
But instead, some crops are very difficult or impossible now, as is the case of peach or potato, whose some diseases are almost impossible to control without using chemicals. The effects of the disease reduce production to a level so low that no trading system allows the farmer to get out.
However, everything is a matter of time. It is likely that in the near future, which is impossible today will be resolved by one means or another. This is for example the case of apple, whose one of the main obstacles to the development of organic production was a disease, scab. Research undertaken at the genetic level (it is not GMO, but hybridization), led to the creation of scab-resistant commercial varieties , opening the view of apple production in organic farming. INRA, in France, was one of the leading global players in this research.
Organic farming is currently going through a phase of stagnation, mainly due to dumbing down selling prices of organic food. The economic crisis has reduced the consumption of more expensive products, leading to a decline in sales of products from organic farming. Farmers have seen their incomes sharply fall, despite all their efforts. Already certified organic farmers generally continue, not having to go through the convertion phase, but new conversions are increasingly rare.
I will not repeat here the advantages and disadvantages of organic farming. I will devote a specific post, because it seems to me interesting to compare the different farming systems.
However, I want to emphasize two points which seem to me fundamental, relative to current developments in agricultural production.
Firstly I want to make a criticism, not to organic farming, but to those responsible for communicating on agricultural products, and on other products to, that often have nothing to do with agriculture.
We present organic farming as a perfectly healthy and good world, without any explanation or real data. There are good things, no doubt, but there are also many negative points that are almost always ignored.
This media hype, widely reported in the political world, contributes, on the one hand to give a false positive idea of organic farming, and secondly (and consequently) to an extremely negative image, usually unjustified, of conventional farming.
As an illustration, here is the image, which I received on Facebook, which aims informative on codes that appear on the fruit. It is well, it is useful, it is ignored by almost everyone. But why define conventional agriculture as "contains pesticides "? This is a blatant aggression ! That may be true, or not. This is legal, since legal norms exist on the subjetc, and until proven otherwise, it is safe for health.
This is an image among many others, because, as I explained recently, the consumer is a target of communication, and the startle reflex is overused.
The aim is clearly to sell more organic products. The transmitted image is necessarily negative, as is the case here, and ultimately, unwittingly contributing to an overall decline in consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Because, if a stagnant consumption of organic products is observed, there is also an overall decrease in consumption, all farming methods combined. This finally results in an increase of frozen, canned and prepackaged products, as well as meals.
Ultimately, this is globally negative and detrimental to the health of the consumer.
Then, and to end on a positive note, we must recognize a great merit to organic farming and to its dynamism: it forced the entire agricultural sector and related industries and government, to think differently.
I think the biggest change is probably at the level of the chemical industry (both deliberately by changing standards which it faces), which has radically changed the way to search for new molecules, priority incorporating side effects, looking for different manufacturing processes (as is the case of spinosad, substance allowed in organic farming, which is a fermented product of two toxins secreted by bacteria living in the soil).
On the other hand, most of the major international agrochemical companies have invested heavily in recent years in this direction by creating or acquiring specialized structures for research in organic farming. This demonstrates their interest in this market, which obviously has a future.
Thus farmers see appear each year one or more new substances ever more efficient, from this research, that can replace the oldest and most dangerous molecules.
Finally, we must add that this movement has also had an important influence on the consciousness of many farmers, about repercussions of their productive activity on the environment, both on the positive aspects, on the negative aspects and the importance of not doing anything without control. You can have a productivist objective without destroying all the way.
Organic farming has a special place in global agriculture. It is fairly trivial in amount, but is a powerful engine of evolution and development of agricultural techniques.
Contrary to what may let you think this post I am not opposed. Indeed, I consider that the movement generated by the development of organic agriculture and its greater acceptance in society of rich countries, have led to enormous technical and technological advances.
But I am adamantly opposed to the manipulation of public opinion which is made around it. We are deliberately lying to the public, both on the supposed benefits of organic agriculture, as on the evils of conventional agriculture. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, scientifically proven, and none represents a significant advantage over the other, nor to health, or the environment, what some people say.
Organic farming does not need to attack conventional farming to develop. It carries enough positive aspects to its own development, without having to exaggerate the negative aspects of its competition.
It should not take consumers for fools. If they receive an adequate and impartial information, they can freely chose, and everyone will find his account.
And finally the administration also has a serious responsibility in a situation that promotes through a positive a priori on organic food, but without the necessary checks, and through a negative a priori on conventional foods, but without proper communication on reality.
It thus casts doubt on the real health risk of fresh food, extremely detrimental to all food professions, and to the consumer.