“The 70 years of experimenting with chemical farming is coming to an end. Consumers are showing they want food that’s safe and good for them. Organic farmers are reconnecting for the public the link between food and health.”
That’s Bob Quinn, an organic farming pioneer who made the switch from conventional farming to organic in the late 1980s.
What started as a small experimental plot on his 2,400 acre farm quickly became the basis of his entire farming philosophy, once he saw the results for himself.
His story is not unique.
In Laikipia, Kenya, potato farmer Isack Muraya found similar success with organic farming in 2018. He chose to move away from traditional, chemical pesticides and instead used a concoction of his own making, involving warm water, soap and, almost unbelievably, a cup of milk.
He sprayed his crop once a week with this mixture until they reached maturity and “While other farmers who had applied fungicides and foliar feeds to prevent blight and boost growth were complaining, my crop flourished. Had the rains not ended prematurely, I would have harvested more than the 40 bags per acre I got.”
But can we achieve wide-spread adoption of organic farming practices? Are the barriers too great to overcome, or is it simply a case of being forced into adoption or being left behind?
Is organic farming the future of food?
Organic Farming By the Numbers
Globally, certified organic is becoming the gold standard in farming. It is slowly becoming the most widespread method for cultivating the land, and it is also one of the most productive and cost-effective. Since many organic farmers rely on organic fertiliser (a.k.a. manure) it costs very little to buy. You can even produce your own, if you have livestock such as sheep or cattle.
Along with changes to farming practices, consumer behaviour is also changing. As we become more and more aware of the consequences of our actions, we continue to look for more sustainable ways to live our lives. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 4% of all food sold globally is organic, totaling US$95 billion annually.
There are also growing calls for governments to do more to promote organic and sustainable farming through new initiatives and programs. For instance, in May 2020, The European Commission proposed a new mission for increasing the organic farming scenario in European Union to at least 25% by the year 2030.
As governments move towards organic, so does business. In 2019, Hameinivin Investment decided to invest around US$ 10 million in an organic fertilizer plant located in Tboung Khmum province in China.
As we discover new ways of producing food, entrepreneurs will always seek new business opportunities, and existing businesses will look for ways to gain a competitive advantage.
The Health Costs of Conventional Farming
The Study Pesticides and Health in Vegetable Production in Kenya concluded that ”frequent exposure to pesticides by farmers and farm workers is very common and resulted in short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) illnesses.”
“The chronic illnesses include cancer, asthma, dermatitis, endocrine disruption, reproductive dysfunctions, immunotoxicity, neurobehavioral disorders, and birth defects …furthermore, deaths resulting from direct exposure to pesticides are also common.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 9 million deaths worldwide are related to environmental pollution and that chronic, non-communicable diseases make up 86% of the total burden of disease in the WHO European region.
While this report was limited to Kenya, and the same health concerns are not a global truth, it does bring to the light the need to find smarter ways to produce the food a growing population needs to survive and thrive.
Can Organic Farming Feed the World?
According to the report, food production is headed in the right direction, but at a cost - we are damaging the planet in order to increase our food supply. It should come as no surprise that this is not sustainable. We need to find better, more sustainable ways to get our food.
That’s where organic farming comes in. Compared to traditional methods, organic farming can produce more food in good weather, and outperform conventional methods in times of drought or flood. The land is more resilient when farmed organically, so it isn’t as affected by adverse weather.
When it comes to discussing organic versus conventional, the benefits are easy to see. Proponents of conventional farming often turn to the argument that organic farming produces less yields than traditional methods. And there does seem to be plenty of research to support this claim.
The problem with the research, however, is that it takes a very short term view.
The longest study of organic farming is taking place in Pennsylvania. The Farming Systems Trial, started in 1981, is the longest-running side-by-side trial of organic and conventional in North America. The data shows:
Organic yields are competitive with conventional yields after a 5-year transition period
Organic systems produce yields up to 40% higher in drought
Organic methods leach no toxic chemicals into waterways
Organic uses 45% less energy
Organic releases 40% fewer greenhouse emissions
Organic earns 3-6x higher profits for farmers
So, early results are promising and clearly show potential for leng term benefits of making the switch to organic farming. But to really feed the world, we also need to change the types of food we grow.
Most of the food produced, 70% in fact, are cereal grains used for animal feed or high fructose corn syrup, or ethanol. It’s not a matter of producing more food, it’s a case of producing more of the right food. Nutrient dense, vitamin rich food needs to become a priority if we are to provide a healthy diet to the next generation.
Finally, we also need to change our waste habits. It’s estimated that we throw away one-third of all the food we produce. 33%, simply tossed in the trash. It’s no good increasing the yields of the food we grow, or growing the right food, if we are going to continue to throw it away.
The Bottom Line?
Quite simply, organic farming is here to stay. The huge benefits, and untapped potential makes it the clear choice for feeding a growing population and becoming the future of farming.