As farmers, we rely on the organisms that live in the soil to break down organic waste and provide a fertile environment in which plants can grow. It’s an important relationship between multiple species that is often overlooked and undervalued.
In fact, agricultural ecosystems - the combination and relationship between soil, the organisms that inhabit it, and those that live on it - is the basis for much of how we live.
The development of agriculture and the ability to grow crops in one location changed our evolutionary path. We gave up the nomadic lifestyle in favour of one of stability and growth, choosing to settle in locations and work the land.
So when we discuss organic farming, and how it benefits the land, we are also talking about how sustainable practices are ensuring the survival and prosperity of humans and the environment we rely so heavily on.
Here are the 6 top ways in which organic farming benefits the land:
1. Builds healthy soil
As organic farmers, we work on the soil first. We aim to build a rich, diverse, healthy soil ecosystem so that the soil is better able to retain and cycle water and nutrients.
Organic farming has been shown to help prevent soil erosion. A major study comparing adjoining organic and chemically treated wheat fields showed that the organic field featured eight more inches of topsoil than the chemically treated field and also had only one-third the erosion loss.
2. Fights climate change
It is estimated that there is 3 times more carbon held in the soil than in the atmosphere. It is imperative we stop the degradation of soil that will result in more of this carbon being released to the air.
In the US, the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial is America’s longest-running, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture. The trial has proven that organic farming can actually reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change. They found that “if only 10,000 medium-sized farms in the U.S. converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles.”
3. Removes harmful chemicals from the food chain
Diversity - above and below the soil - contributes to stable ecosystems, but is easily disrupted by the use of herbicides and pesticides.
One of the insidious effects of the use of some pesticides and herbicides is the effect of residues in the environment. While DDT is a well-known example, others like glyphosate are being currently debated. Food from organic farms has minimal residues as organic farmers rely on nature to keep pest numbers low. That is another reason why diversity is important. Monocultures invite trouble.
Did you know that nearly two-thirds of food crops rely on insects to pollinate them?
By planting a range of trees and shrubs to complement the mix of pasture species we provide a range of habitats that encourage pollinating insects and those that prey on pest species.
The use of agri-chemicals has been blamed for the decline in bee numbers which are essential in most of our food production systems.
4. Promotes water conservation and health
There is a significant amount of research to suggests that organic farming makes more efficient use of water.
In Australia, in the Murray-Darling basin, research shows that organic farms make better use of their water allotment and that they perform best in terms of water productivity.
In the US, American Rivers makes note of the negative effects of run-off from herbicides and agri-chemicals that are found in conventional farming practices. Removing pesticides can help improve water health for the rest of the environment.
5. Builds stronger ecosystems
An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. They provide us with essential services that make our surroundings habitable and our lives comfortable. They recycle and protect water, soil and nutrient resources. We get food, fibre and medicines from the natural environment.
Healthy ecosystems with greater biodiversity are more resilient and recover faster from adverse events. Essentially, we rely on healthy ecosystems to survive.
All of the above factors - soil health, biodiversity, removal of chemicals, water conservation and health - positively contribute to a healthy agricultural ecosystem.
6. Contributes to long term societal health
The degradation of soil and subsequent collapse of food production has been cited as one of the contributing reasons for the decline of civilisations such as the Greeks, Romans and Mayans.
Because most of our land area is now agricultural land and has pastoral ecosystems, it is important that we strengthen these ecosystems so that in addition to improving water quality and protecting soils, we also use them to combat climate change, provide nutritious food and enable them to continue to do so for coming generations.
Maybe it is time for a new rallying call: “Save the planet - buy organic!”