Advantages of Organic Agriculture
By Re'Gie Smith, Sustainable Agriculture Systems class, 2010
According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), organic agriculture is defined as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity . Conventional agriculture is any farming method that does not promote alternative farming methods. It uses synthetic chemicals for pest control and management with an emphasis on maximizing productivity and profitability . With organic farming, species such as birds, insects and plants increase in richness, but non-predatory insects and pests do not respond positively to organic farming . In fact, bird diversity can be as much as 50% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms. This high difference is a result from the lack of pesticides, the increased area of non-cropped habitats, and spring sowing on organic farms ; fertilization techniques have no effect on diversity . A food web system analysis found that organic farms had more plant, herbivore, and parasitoid species because of management and landscape boundaries  because boundary type on organic farms has an influence on species richness as well. Boundaries that are wider open increase nature-value species and narrow boundaries increase more agro-tolerant species .
Soil biological activity also differs between organic and conventional farms. Organic soil has more organic matter, more soil phosphorous and less nitrate leaching to water . Organic farming results in a higher soil pH; conventional farming produces higher levels of ammonium content, which is not good for plants . Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) play a major role in soil fertility. When AMF was analyzed in a 22 yr long study, organic farms had a higher AMF content as well as more AMF species. AMF species are maintained in organic farms and depressed in conventional ones, which show a loss of ecosystem function in conventional farms .
Organic agriculture has a goal of lessening its environmental impact, pollution, and increasing energy conservation in its practices. Organic farming has grown dramatically over the years, and it’s a positive force for environmentalism. Life cycle assessments have found that organic agriculture has positive environmental impacts by reducing emissions of methane and N2O, which are greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming [3, 15]. Organic farms studied in Turkey used 40.7% less energy than conventional. The energy output-input efficiency ratio is higher than in conventional farming. And direct and renewable energy consumption is higher in organic farming .
There have also been studies done to show whether the growth in the organic industry will contribute to environmental and social goals of the community. The organic market is made up of wealthy people, and people who are in a position to effect change. The more consumers to get on the bandwagon, the more likely the government will get even more involved in producing food in a more environmentally friendly way . Organic farming should be used as a role model for farming in general, and have an indirect influence on conventional farming. Researching and developing organic farming further could allow it to grow far beyond its present uses .
Implementation of conventional ideas with organic practices could allow organic farming to flourish. Conventional fertilizers act slowly against weeds showing that weed management should be tackled in an extended time domain and should be deeply integrated with other cropping system practices. Organic farming should implement adjustment of a cover cropping system to reduce weed emergence and pest species as well as fine-tuning direct weed methods . In a study analyzing strategies of organic farmers, 50% of farmers used mechanical tillage, weeding by hand, crop rotation, cover crops, mulches, and planting date adjustments for the use of weed control .
A study of organic farmers in Ohio found that 39% or organic farmers reportedly had gross incomes of $15,000 or less; 15.2% had incomes ranging from $16-$30,000; another 15% had incomes ranging from $31-$100,000; 13% had incomes ranging from $101-$200,000 and 7% had over $200,000. 37% of respondents felt their farm has done better since becoming organically certified . A farmer’s age, education, and farm size explained differentials in efficiency estimates of organic and conventional farms . Governmental agencies do have an effect on the success and profits of organic farms. A study in the European Union showed that support payments contribute 4-6% of gross output in W. European countries and 4-19% in the East. The policy dependency of farms has increased and any changes in area support must be done gradually since support payments are playing a major role in organic farm profitability .
With the help of the government, the profits from organic farms are sometimes large enough to encourage farmers to transition to organic practices, but the farmer must first understand the production costs. A major part of their budgets comes from costs related to cover cropping, rotations, lower crop yields, higher input costs for seeds, higher labor requirements, and compost production (if farmers rely on soil fertility and other practices to minimize pest problems) [11, 19]. Equations are formulated to take factors, premiums, and constraints (such as the number of different crops on a farm, fodder costs, labor costs, investment costs, the area of the farm, nutrient flow, energy and protein balance, and animal groups on the farm) into consideration in order to calculate farm revenue .
When transitioning to an organic farm, the farmer must consult with organic certifying organizations and USDA National Organic Program Rules must be followed to produce USDA Certified Organic products. Federal law standardizes the methods and materials acceptable for organic production in the US, but many details are at the discretion of the local organic certifying agency. A 3 yr transition period away from chemical fertilizers and pesticides as well as careful record keeping is required . During this 3yr. period to certified organic, farm fields are going through many changes as synthetic fertilizers are being removed. This time period can be the difference between success and failure for the farm . Cultural practices must be tweaked in organic farming to produce the most profitable yields to prevent the farm from failing . Inversion tillage is the primary method used by organic farmers for weed control . Combining this with other techniques, like crop rotations, organic conversion can make the land more fertile .
Since most industries are based on profitability, consumers play the largest role in determining whether organic or conventional farming methods will be used. A study was done to determine how professed support of organic production methods translates into actual purchasing decisions. Consumers’ professed values are correlated with their food choices, yet three-quarters of those who claim to enthusiastically support organic agriculture do not regularly purchase organic food . Pesticide use and residual levels played an important role in a consumers’ choice since it was found that eating organic fruits, vegetables, and juice can reduce pesticide exposure levels to below the EPA’s current guidelines . Consumer preference is very dependent on health related traits. Price isn’t as important, and consumers consider organic foods equivalent to name brand products . Most organic consumers are women, those who are older, have higher incomes, are more liberal, and have more knowledge of the food production process .
Besides its ability to lower pesticide exposure levels, organic food also has other health benefits. Some defense-related secondary metabolites found in food are deficient in conventional food products . Organic vegetables and fruits contain more of these secondary metabolites such as naringinin, as well as Mn and Zn. Although conventionally grown foods have a higher fruit weight, volume, peel thickness , organic foods may benefit human health more than their conventional counterparts .
Conventional agriculture has proven to be very successful in the past in regards to producing a lot of produce in a quick and inexpensive way, but at what costs to the environment, the biotic community, and human health? Organic agriculture is on the rise, but must overcome barriers to increase its popularity. The consumers are the main source to promote organic agriculture by buying more organically. Therefore, quality assurance programs should be implemented to ensure the high demands of the consumers are fulfilled . Society and government should act whenever possible to lower these barriers in order to allow organic farming to flourish . It is necessary for conventional practices to be converted because the world needs a more sustainable method for food production.
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