Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few years, you would have noticed a substantial shift towards sustainability in farming, and the rise of organic farming and produce.
This shift has been fueled by both sides of the farming industry - consumers and growers.
For farmers, like us, the desire to go organic was in response to environmental challenges we recognised in our daily life and seeing that these challenges were growing each year.
Consumers are also advocating for more sustainable approaches in every aspect of life, and the way their food is grown is no exception.
When you think about how your food gets to your table, most of us rarely think beyond the supermarket shelf. After all, why would you? You’ve got a hundred other things to deal with in your day, and considering how your food is grown is probably pretty low on that list.
But for those that are interested in learning more about their food - where it comes, how it is grown - we’ve compiled this list of key differences between organic farming and conventional methods.
Firstly, let’s clarify what we mean by organic farming and conventional farming.
Organic farming is done through the use of natural inputs, relying on the ecosystem, through careful management, to play an important role in maintaining itself.
Conventional farming relies on the input of synthetic materials and fertilisers. Conventional farms often grow monocultures, meaning they only grow one type of crop, and can sometimes be heavily mechanised.
It’s also important to note here that organic farming is the traditional approach. It wasn’t until the 1940s when we discovered how to create artificial fertilisers that agriculture moved to farming at scale.
This was also around the time that large, automated machines made their way onto farms and brought about the Green Revolution - a period of booming population growth across the globe as food production soared.
However, this Revolution wasn’t a completely happy time for all - poorer farmers who couldn’t afford artificial fertilisers struggled to grow the new crops, many of which had been genetically modified (GM), and in turn, saw yields decrease.
The growth in fertiliser usage also led to many environmental problems, and this brings us to our first major difference between organic and conventional farming.
Organic farming relies on nature to do it’s thing - build an ecosystem that can sustain itself without the need for chemical fertilisers. Conventional farming, on the other hand, frequently uses fertilisers to help grow crops.
With an organic approach, soil health is of the utmost importance. Without healthy soil, crops will eventually fail and the overall local ecosystem will be negatively impacted.
A variety of methods are available to promote overall soil health, such as crop rotation and cross-seeding, cover crops, hand weeding and animal grazing.
Under a conventional farming approach, soil health is boosted through chemical fertilisers, which can have some pretty negative consequences.
It’s commonplace for conventional farms to use GM seeds that have been modified to have certain characteristics, such as resistance to pests or a shorter growing time.
For organic farmers, GM seeds aren’t used and rely instead on saving seeds from previous crops.
When it comes to growing cattle, sheep or other livestock, organic farming means no hormones or steroids are given to the animals to aid in growth. Animal welfare is a significant focus for organic farms, as they play an important role in managing the biodiversity of the ecosystem.
In a conventional farm, animals are often supplied with growth hormones and subjected to less than favourable living conditions.
While organic farmers may not welcome insects with open arms, they do have a different approach to dealing with them to conventional farms.
Pesticides are commonplace on conventional farms, but this can have a harmful effect on the food grown there.
Organic farmers rely on predatory species, such as birds and other insects, to control local populations.
While not true of all conventional farms, monocultures, the act of planting a single type of species year after year, is an approach used by some conventional farmers and can have a negative effect on local biodiversity. Since only one crop is planted in the field, soil health can be impacted, and there is even a risk of animal loss such as pollinators - some conventional farms need to bring in beehives each year to promote pollination.
For organic farms, it’s pretty commonplace for multi-crop planting and heavy crop rotation to help ensure soil health and improve biodiversity.
A Final Thought on Organic vs Conventional
The debate of organic versus conventional has been going for some time now and most of us think it’s either one or the other - either go organic or conventional, to the exclusion of the other.
While this may be fine for some people, the reality is that the differences between organic and conventional are becoming more and more blurred.
Some large scale organic farms make use of ‘conventional’ methods such as mono-crops, and some conventional farms are moving away from chemical fertilisers. Every farm has a different approach based on what works for them, and the same approach should be taken by consumers. Do your research, understand the pros and cons of each approach, and choose what works best for you in each instance.