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A machine harvesting crops. One side of the field is already harvested and is a dark brown colour, the other side is still yet to be harvested.
A person kneeling down and planting plants in the soil.
A machine harvesting crops. One side of the field is already harvested and is a dark brown colour, the other side is still yet to be harvested.
A person kneeling down and planting plants in the soil.
25 August 2023
25 August 2023

Industrial vs. Organic Farming - What's the Difference?

There is a common misconception that growing food with an organic approach is new. However, industrial farming only became popular in developed countries in the 1960s during the Green Revolution. During this period there was a shift towards practices that promote higher yields to feed a growing population. It saw increased machine use in farming processes and reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Let’s unpack how industrial and organic approaches to farming are defined, what they set out to achieve and the practices commonly involved.

Industrial Farming

Industrial farming, also called conventional farming, refers to the intensive production of crops and animals to produce food. Its primary goals are efficiency and productivity. That is, to produce as much food as possible while keeping production costs low. Prioritising these two things inevitably comes at the cost of ecological, community and animal welfare.

The advantage of this approach is that it has helped farmers produce enough affordable food to meet the needs of the growing global population (even in dense areas), while demanding less labour compared to an organic method. However, as soil and ecosystem health continues to deteriorate on industrial farms, they become more vulnerable to increasing climate shocks like drought, bushfires and floods.

Industrial Farming Practices

Emphasis on Efficiency and Cost Reduction

  • Industrial farming prioritises efficiency and cost reduction to maximise profits. This can involve practices such as minimising labour costs, optimising feed utilisation, and maximising output per unit of input.
  • Plants are chosen for their uniformity, yield and disease resistance rather than flavour and nutrition.

Use of Machinery and Technology

  • Industrial farms employ various machinery and technologies to streamline production processes, including automated feeding systems, climate control, and waste management systems.

Large-Scale Production

  • Industrial farms are designed for high-volume production, aiming to maximise output and profitability. This often involves raising thousands or even tens of thousands of animals simultaneously.

Soil Management

  • Nutrients are added to the soil through the application of chemical fertilisers made using fossil fuels.
  • Soil is tilled or cultivated with often heavy machinery, breaking its structure.

Weed Control, Pest and Disease Management

  • Weeds, diseases and pests are managed through the application of chemical herbicides and pesticides made using fossil fuels.

Animal Management

  • Animals are often confined in densely populated indoor or outdoor environments. They are housed in large numbers within small spaces, limiting their access to fresh air and sunlight, and space to move freely and express their natural behaviours.
  • Animals are selectively bred for specific traits, such as fast growth, high egg or milk production, and disease resistance. This breeding aims to optimise productivity and profitability.
  • Hormones, antibiotics, and other growth-promoting substances may be administered to animals to accelerate growth rates and improve feed efficiency.
  • Animals are typically fed a concentrated diet consisting of grain-based feeds, which may include genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and synthetic additives. Feed formulations are designed to maximise growth and minimise costs.

Waste Management

  • Industrial farms generate significant amounts of waste, which must be managed. Animal waste, such as manure and urine, is often stored in large pits or lagoons and may be applied to fields as fertiliser.
Environmental Impacts of Industrial Farming

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. 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.

Soil and Land Degradation

While soil erosion can occur naturally, it is significantly increased and accelerated (up to 1,000 times) by human activities like intense farming, cutting down forests, overgrazing, and deforestation. The rate at which soil erodes is much higher than the rate at which it forms. This means that soil is limited and once it's lost or damaged, it can't be fully restored within a person's lifetime. A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report found that 33% of the earth's soils are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050. Soil erosion can lead up to a 50% loss in crop yields. Since almost all of the food we consume relies on the soil, taking action toward sustainable soil management is crucial to maintaining a stable and secure source of food for the future.

Climate Change

Synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are derivatives of fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas. The use of fossil fuels is by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions. In Australia, agriculture is the fourth largest contributor to global warming by sector, contributing 16.4% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. 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

Industrial farming relies on fossil fuels for powering machinery and equipment, irrigation systems, fertiliser production, pesticides and herbicides, transportation, heating and cooling, as well as processing and packaging. Fossil fuels are 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. The world's poor and food insecure populations are the hardest hit by rises in oil and subsequent synthetic fertiliser.

Loss of Biodiversity

Industrialised agriculture favours growing large mono-crops of single food varieties, dramatically reducing the biodiversity of the food we eat. While there are 20,000+ edible plants, just 30 crops supply 95% of the calories that people obtain from food. Only 4 crops — maize, rice, wheat and potatoes — supply over 60%. 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.

Organic Farming

While the overall aim of organic farming is to regenerate the health of soils, ecosystems, and people, approaches to organic farming can vary from harm minimisation (adhering to baseline organic practices) to regenerative or beyond organic (regenerating life in all aspects of the farming system).

The Australian government’s National Standard provides the framework for organic principles and practices for organic certification bodies. It's important to note that specific organic farming practices can vary depending on regional climate, soil conditions, and certification standards. However, these baseline practices provide a general overview of organic farming principles.

Organic Farming Practices

Soil Management

  • Organic farmers focus on building and maintaining healthy soil through practices such as composting, crop rotation, and cover cropping.
  • Compost, animal manure, and organic materials are used to improve soil fertility and structure.
  • Synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are avoided.

Weed Control

  • Organic farmers employ various methods to control weeds without using synthetic herbicides.
  • Mechanical cultivation, hand weeding, mulching, and cover cropping are commonly used techniques.
  • Regular monitoring and timely intervention help prevent weed competition with crops.

Pest and Disease Management

  • Organic farming emphasises preventive practices to manage pests and diseases.
  • Techniques such as crop diversification, natural predators, biological controls, and trap crops are used.
  • Non-chemical methods, such as insect traps, pheromone lures, and physical barriers, are employed to minimise pest damage.

Animal Welfare

  • In organic livestock farming, animals are provided with access to the outdoors, space to move, and opportunities for natural behaviours.
  • Animal health is promoted through balanced diets, exercise, and reduced stress.
  • Antibiotics and growth hormones are prohibited, and natural remedies are preferred for treating animal ailments.

Water Management

  • Efficient water use and conservation are important in organic farming.
  • Practices like drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, and soil moisture monitoring are implemented.
  • Contamination of water bodies by chemicals is avoided, protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

Biodiversity Conservation

  • Organic farms prioritise the preservation and enhancement of biodiversity.
  • Hedgerows, field borders, and native plants are encouraged to provide habitats for beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife.
  • Natural ecosystems are integrated into farm landscapes to promote ecological balance.

Post-Harvest Handling and Processing

  • Organic standards extend beyond the farm to include post-harvest handling and processing.
  • Certified organic products are segregated from non-organic products during storage, transportation, and processing.
  • Organic certification ensures that the integrity of organic products is maintained throughout the supply chain.

For a comprehensive breakdown of regenerative practices that go beyond organic or sustainable, you can download a copy of the framework for Certified Regenerative Organic from the American based Regenerative Organic Alliance here.

Is eating organic better for your health?

Measuring the precise impact of organic foods on human health is complicated as there are many factors other than nutrition that influence health.

There is little evidence for significant differences in crop macronutrient levels between organically and conventionally produced food. However, studies have found that healthy soils produce food with higher minerals, micronutrients and phytochemical content shown to exhibit health-protective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Additionally, there are health risks of repeatedly ingesting chemicals from herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other stimulants used in industrial 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. Eating organic foods is a way to reduce your exposure to these toxic chemicals.

Why pay more for organics?

The price of food does not always reflect its true cost. The true cost of food includes not only direct expenses such as labour, land, water, and inputs, but also the costs associated with the environmental and social impacts. We may not be paying for these hidden costs at the checkout, but we do so with taxes, poor food quality and social inequalities. 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.

By making conscious choices about what we eat and wear, we can help to create a food and fibre system that is healthier, sustainable and equitable for all. There is no one perfect way to do this because everyone has different values, needs and access to resources. Our suggestion? Do your best to stay informed and think about what feels right for you.

When shopping for organic food, you can find the best value for money by sourcing in-season foods as direct to the source (the farmer) as possible — from farmers’ markets, CSA subscriptions, fruit and vegetable box programs and food hubs. For more tips on how to shop organic on a budget, see here.

How do I know it’s 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 approved certification bodies accredited and audited by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS).

Look out for their logos when purchasing organic food that is 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 your farmers’ market producer if you are unsure.

Can you feed the world using organic agriculture?

Advancements since the Green Revolution have boosted crop yields, increased food availability and affordability. These advances have prevented millions from experiencing hunger. Food systems have also provided a wider variety of products to meet consumer demands and created new job opportunities. However, food systems globally, including in Australia, now face significant challenges. These challenges include climate change, the need to reduce environmental impact, growing demand, disruptions in food supply chains and workforces, higher input costs, and public health issues related to nutrition.

Our growing population needs farming methods that conserve and regenerate resources while producing healthy food, not resource-intensive methods that degrade the environment. A 21 year study comparing organic and conventional farming 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.

However, we will not feed the world organically with the current food system that 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.

The CSIRO’s 2023 report Reshaping Australia’s Food Systems found that Australia’s centralised and industrial food and farming system has led to high levels of waste and poor human and environmental health outcomes:

  • Australians wasted nearly 7.7 tonnes of food
  • 33% of Australians experienced food insecurity (3.3 million households)
  • $2.4 billion cost of food-borne illness

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