Farming Systems

Industrial vs. Organic.

There is a common misconception that organics is a new fad or something reserved for left-wing hippies, greenies or the well-to-do.
What people forget is that organic farming is actually the traditional way of farming. Industrial or conventional farming became the new norm for industrialised countries after the ‘green-revolution‘ of the 1950s and 60s. This period saw the development of new seed varieties, and mass use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation to produce higher yields.
The big difference between organic and industrialised farming is that industrialised farming relies on chemical inputs and a highly mechanised approach, whereas organics is about farming holistically, recognising that we are part of a broader ecosystem. Although, it is important to note that some large-sale organic farms still use industrialised approaches such as mono-crops and some industrialised farms also adhere to organic principles, using limited amounts of chemical inputs.
For ease, we have used the traditional definitions of ‘industrialised’ and ‘organic’ farming when explaining the differences, however, an alternative approach to industrial farming which is gaining support is ‘agro-ecological farming‘ This is a way of growing food that builds, rather than destroys ecosystems. Instead of spraying chemicals to get rid of pests, it is about growing plants that attract beneficial insects. Instead of applying fossil-fuel-based fertilisers to the soil, which destroys the soil’s capacity to regenerate, a technique is to lace the fields with legumes, which naturally help to fix nitrogen in the soil [1]. This approach shows promise for the future of food.

SOIL

Industrialised farming uses chemical/artificial fertilisers made from fossil fuel derivatives that are used to add nutrients to the soil.

Organic farming nurtures the soil using organic fertilisers such as compost and controls invasive species through a mixture of companion planting, crop rotation, use of cover crops, natural pest control, hand weeding and animal grazing.

SEEDS

Industrialised farming may include the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds. GM seeds have had their genetic makeup changed in a lab to create foods that have certain desirable characteristics such as vegetables that take longer to go brown or are pest resistant. The use of GM seeds is a contentious issue because we are toying with nature. The health and environmental impacts of GM are difficult to predict and without appropriate monitoring systems in place, there may be issues we are not yet aware of.

Organic farming does not allow GM seeds and requires seeds to be organically grown. Organic farmers will often save seeds from previous crops and use rare and heirloom seed varieties, preserving the biodiversity of our food.

The potential environmental issues of using GM crops
Insect resistant crops are formulated to produce a toxin that kills pest insects. These crops may kill other non-target organisms, which may have a destabilising impact on the local ecosystem. We are already witnessing this with the decline of bee populations, which are responsible for pollinating a third of the food we eat.
The use of GM crops threatens the biodiversity of food varieties grown. [2]
Herbicide tolerant crops are produced so that when sprayed all other weeds are killed other than the crop. This promotes the use of chemicals in farming which leads to soil and water pollution. [3]
Another contentious issue associated with GM seeds is the ability for large agribusinesses, driven by profit, to own patents over nature and have increasing control over our food supply. The more that GM seeds are used, the more our health and the environment is in the hands of large corporations.
Farmers using GM seeds are not permitted to save their seed and if they are caught doing this they may be sued by the agribusiness that makes the seed. This approach ensures regular annual income for the agribusiness, as farmers must purchase new seed each season. The production and distribution of new seed is much more energy and resource intensive than saving seeds already on the farmers’ land. [4]

ANIMALS

Free range pig enjoying the outdoors | Life for over 500 million chickens raised in factory farms in Australia each year

Industrialised animal farming allows the use of antibiotics and hormones, residues of which end up being consumed by humans. Industrialised farming also allows factory farming and practices that compromise animal welfare (see Eating Animals section).

Organic animal farming uses organic feed for the animals and does not allow the use of antibiotics or hormones. Organic certification also includes strict animal welfare regulations.

ARE THERE HEALTH BENEFITS ASSOCIATED WITH EATING ORGANIC?

Many studies have been published that conclude that there are no additional health benefits gained from eating organic food compared with conventionally grown food. The issue is that nutritional science is limited to testing the nutritional value of food based on the sum of the known nutrients and is limited by the knowledge we have today. For example, when scientists first discovered that food was made up of the three macronutrients ‘ fats, proteins and carbohydrates ‘ they thought that was all. Then came the discovery of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, and again it was thought we understood everything about food. [5]

New tests that are measuring more complex chemical compounds are starting to reflect that organic foods have superior health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels and have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing effects. [6]

Additionally, what these nutritional tests do not include are the health risks of repeatedly ingesting chemicals from herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other stimulants used in industrial vegetable and animal farming. A build-up of these toxic chemicals in the human body can lead to various diseases including cancers, as well as having neurological, mental and reproductive effects. [7] Eating organic foods is a way to reduce your exposure to these toxic chemicals.

WHY SHOULD I PAY MORE FOR ORGANICS?

In Australia, household expenditure on food and non-alcoholic beverages is about 17% of our income, with 37% of our income being spent on discretionary items including alcohol, tobacco, clothing, recreation, household furnishings and personal care. [8] For many Australians, being able to purchase organic and free range food is more about the value they place on it in comparison to other lifestyle activities, rather than truly not being able to afford it. It’s also about seeking out places to purchase organic food at a reasonable price (that little hipster shopfront in the middle of the city’s most expensive street may not be it).

Another way to look at why organic food costs more is that our economic system does not factor in the true environmental and health costs of industrial farming; this cost is felt down the line and paid through our taxes. For example, environmental damage such as land degradation, pollution to waterways and over-irrigation becomes a public issue that requires large government investment. In addition, the health implications caused by a build-up of chemicals in our bodies and poor diets places pressure on the public health system.

Spending a bit more on organic food is about placing greater importance on prioritising your own health, the health of the planet and the livelihood of many smaller family farms.

If you shop smart by purchasing your organic food in season and direct from the farmer at a farmers’ market, through an organic box system or Food Hub you will find you are paying little or no more than industrially grown food. It does start to add up when you buy speciality items such as meat and dairy, however, these should be enjoyed sparingly for environmental reasons anyway.

There are also many Australians who struggle to put food on the table, however, it is our belief that if the vast middle classes paid a little bit more for food that was grown locally and ethically with environmental protection in mind, then as a society we would be able to subsidise fresh, affordable food for those who can’t currently access it. In time this would reduce the crippling health burden of a diet that is currently killing us.

WHY DOES INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE DAMAGE THE ENVIRONMENT

Soil and water pollution

Rain and irrigation can lead to agrochemical run-off, which contaminates waterways and causes adverse impacts on aquatic ecosystems as a result of toxic effects. [9]

This includes blue-green algae blooms that are so dangerous they can sometimes be fatal to livestock, wildlife, marine animals and even humans. A build-up of chemicals in the soil can impact plants, which in turn can be transferred to wildlife and humans who eat the plants.

A local example of this is the Great Barrier Reef, where studies have found that runoff from fertilisers used at nearby farms is adding nitrogen and phosphorous into the oceanic ecosystem, causing massive algae growth that leads to depletion in oxygen available for other creatures and decreases the biodiversity in those affected areas. [11]

Soil and land degradation

Soil and land degradation is caused by human mismanagement of soils, mostly due to agricultural activities including the use of agrochemicals in farming.

A report on the global assessment of soil degradation states that ‘the earth’s soils are being washed away, rendered sterile or contaminated with toxic chemicals at a rate that cannot be sustained’. [12] Today almost a quarter of the world’s farmland is affected by serious degradation, up from 15% two decades ago.

A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) study indicates the world may currently be losing about 1% (50,000 sq kms) of its farmland annually, due to a combination of degradation, urban sprawl, mining, recreation, toxic pollution and rising sea levels (see What’s Food got to do with it).

Climate change

Synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are derivatives of fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas. The use of fossil fuels is the reason the earth is experiencing dangerous climate change.

In Australia, agriculture is the second largest contributor to global warming by sector, contributing 16.2% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. [13] This is before you include greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and transport relating to our food system. It is undeniable that the way we grow, process, package and transport food around Australia and the world is a major contributor to climate change and that the impacts of climate change are being felt at every level of our food system.

Resource depletion

The use of oil is essential to modern agricultural practices. Oil is used in the pumping of water for irrigation, the machinery used on the farm and the long road of transport from the farm all the way along the supply chain to our plate. Oil is so interlinked with our food system that the price of food closely correlates with the price of oil.

Oil prices are a key contributing factor to the increase in the price of food. We saw a spike in food prices in the 1970’s, which correlated with the oil crisis at that time and again during the food riots of 2008. [14]

Farmers in developing countries are the hardest hit by rises in oil and subsequent synthetic fertiliser costs because they have just begun the switch to Western, oil intensive systems of food production. This is illustrated by the fact that China has increased its synthetic fertiliser usage by 44% in recent years, India 33%, Pakistan 61% and Brazil 137%. In contrast, Europe has cut its synthetic fertiliser use by half [15] as farmers return to organic and agro-ecological farming methods.

Loss of biodiversity

Industrialised agriculture favours growing large mono-crops of single food varieties, dramatically reducing the biodiversity of the food we eat.

For example:

  • There is an estimated 23,000 edible plants of which we only eat around 400. [16]
  • Between 1804 and 1904 there were 7,098 apple varieties documented as having been in use in the USA. Today, approximately 86% of these varieties have been lost. [17]
  • In Brazil only 12 out of the 32 native pig breeds are left and all are under threat. [18]

Humans are increasingly vulnerable due to the loss of food biodiversity. If a pest or disease invades a monocrop then the risk is that the entire crop will be lost. The greater the diversity of food varieties we eat, the more protected we are to ‘shocks’ in the system.

HOW DO I KNOW IF IT IS TRULY ORGANIC?

There are currently no laws or regulations in Australia to protect the use of the word ‘organic’ being used on product labels. You can only be certain that you are purchasing truly organic or biodynamic produce and products if it has been certified organic by one of the seven recognised certification bodies that are accredited and audited by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS).

Look out for their logos when purchasing organic food that was produced in Australia (imported food will have different logos but will also include a certification seal).

Note: Some smaller producers follow organic principles but have not sought certification due to the cost involved, so always ask questions of your farmers’ market producer if you are unsure.

*Small Producer Program, part of ACO

CAN YOU FEED THE WORLD USING ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?

A growing number of agribusiness executives, agricultural and ecological scientists, and international agriculture experts believe that a large-scale shift to organic farming or a new form of ‘agro-ecological farming’ would not only increase the world’s food supply, but might be the only way to eradicate hunger. [19]

Additionally, the world’s longest study comparing organic and conventional farming (21 years) concluded that organic farming practices are more efficient, save energy, maintain biodiversity and keep soils healthy for future generations, when compared to conventional farming practices. [20]

However, we will not feed the world organically in the current centralised food system, which is characterised by; large mono-crops with little diversity, transporting food long distances, massive amounts of food waste and majority control by a small number of players.

Fixing the inequalities in the distribution of food and eliminating waste will go a long way towards feeding the world using more environmentally responsible farming techniques.

For example:

  • Around 80% of the world’s production is consumed by the wealthiest 20%. [21]
  • Up to half of the food in the developed world is thrown out; [22] in Australia alone this is valued at $8 billion in lost food. [23]
  • We grow 50% more grain than we need to feed the entire population but much of this is fed to livestock, which in turn has huge environmental repercussions (see ‘The Environmental Impacts of Eating Meat). [24]

References

  • [1] Patel, R, 2009, ‘Stuffed & Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System’ Great Britain, p.306.
  • [2] Union of Concerned Scientists, 2003, ‘Environmental effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops’ 2003, www.ucsusa.org, viewed 7 November 2010.
  • [3] Greenpeace, 2008, ‘Environmental and health impacts of GMOs: the evidence’ http://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/press-centre/policy-papers-briefings/environmental-and-healthimpac?mode=send, viewed 12 November 2010.
  • [4] Food Inc. Movie 2008, documentary, Magnolia Pictures [US]
  • [5] Pollan, M, 2008, In Defence of Food, Penguin Books, Great Britain.
  • [6] Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain September 2009 News Release – 7 Reasons to Buy Organic Apples, Raw Organics.
  • [7] Cohen M, 2007, ‘Environmental toxins and health–the health impact of pesticides’ School of Health Sciences, RMIT University, Victoria.
  • [8] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘ 530.0 – Household Expenditure Survey, Australia: Summary of Results, 2003-04’ http://www.abs.gov.au, viewed on 15 October 2010.
  • [9] Wightwick, A & Allison, G 2007, ‘Review of agrochemical contamination of waterways within agricultural areas of Victoria’ Department of Primary Industries, Victoria.
  • [12] Oldeman, L. R, 1991, ‘World Map of the status of human-induced soil degradation’ International Soil Reference Information Centre (ISRIC) & United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
  • [13]Australian Government, 2016, ‘ National Inventory by Economic Sector 2014’ Department of the Environment, https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/248188d2-376e-4831-af8b-e995fd585fb0/files/national-inventory-economic-sector-2014.pdf, viewed 30 January 2017.
  • [14] Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), 2009, ‘What happened to world food prices and why’ The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2009, http://www.fao.org/publications/en/, viewed 8 November 2010.
  • [15] Cribb, J, 2010, The Coming Famine: The global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it, CSIRO Publishing 2010, p. 122
  • [16] Cribb, J, 2011, Global Food Security: Risks, Challenges, Solutions, presentation to the Sustainable Food Summit 5 April 2011.
  • [17] Pimbert, M, 2008, ‘Towards food sovereignty: reclaiming autonomous food systems’ IIED, London.
  • [18] Pimbert, M, 2008, ‘Towards food sovereignty: reclaiming autonomous food systems’ IIED, London.
  • [19] Halweil, B, 2006, ‘Can organic farming feed us all?’ WorldWatch Institute, Vol. 19, No. 3, May 2006.
  • [20] Pearce, F, 2002, ‘ 0-year study backs organic farming’ New Scientist, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2351-20year-study-backs-organic-farming.html, viewed 8 November 2010.
  • [21] Shah, A, 2008, ‘Global Food Crisis 2008’ Global Issues, http://www.globalissues.org/article/758/global-food-crisis-2008, viewed 9 November 2010.
  • [22] Cribb, J, 2010, The Coming Famine: The global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it, CSIRO Publishing 2010, p. 194
  • [23] Australian Conservation Foundation, 2007, The Green Home Guide, Victoria Edition, 2nd Edition Jan 2007, p. 32.
  • [24] Vegetarian Network Victoria, 2010, Eating up the World: the Environmental Consequences of Human Food Choices, 3rd Reprint September 2010.

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