01 The difference between conventional and organic farming
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.
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 fertiliser and irrigation to produce higher yields.
The big difference between organic and conventional farming is that conventional
farming relies on chemical inputs and a highly mechanised approach, whereas organics
is about farming the natural way. Although, it is important to note that some large-sale
organic farms still use conventional approaches such as mono-crops and some conventional
farms also adhere to organic principles, using limited amounts of chemical inputs.
For ease, we have used the traditional definitions of 'conventional' 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 soil1. This approach shows promise
for the future of food.
Conventional farming uses chemical fertilisers
made from fossil fuel derivatives that are used to add nutrients to the soil.
Organic farming controls invasive species through
a mixture of companion planting, crop rotation, use of cover crops, natural pest
control, hand weeding and animal grazing.
Conventional 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.
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.
- 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
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
Conventional animal farming allows the use of antibiotics
and hormones, residues of which end up being consumed by humans. Conventional farming
also allows factory farming and practices that compromise animal welfare (see Meet your Meat 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