What is organic farming?
What do we really mean by “organic”? Farming that protects the environment and biodiversity? Virtuous agriculture for those who practise it and those who consume it? Sustainable agriculture that restores ecosystems and preserves them for future generations? Here’s everything you need to know about organic farming!
Characteristics of organic farming
The European Union first set out a framework for organic farming back in 1991. According to the latest regulations, in force since 1 January 2022, organic farming has a number of general objectives, including:
- contributing to protection of the environment and the climate;
- maintaining the long-term fertility of soils;
- contributing to a high level of biodiversity;
- substantially contributing to a non-toxic environment;
- contributing to high animal welfare standards;
- encouraging short distribution channels and local production;
- encouraging the preservation of rare and native breeds in danger of extinction.
These regulations are all based on structuring principles, such as respect for natural cycles, maintaining and improving the state of the soil, water and air, the health of plants and animals, as well as the balance between them, preserving natural landscape features, alongside responsible use of energy and natural resources.
The French Ministry of Agriculture describe organic farming on their website as “a production method that is unique in the use of cultivation and breeding practices that respect the natural balance, excludes the use of synthetic chemicals and GMOs and limits the use of additives”. The reason it’s difficult to come up with a snappy and uniform definition is perhaps because “organic” actually involves a set of highly restrictive specifications, which set out a list of criteria for every crop type that must be applied in order to be able to claim to be organic. Farmers are regularly inspected by the approved bodies to ensure compliance, for example, in France by INAO (the Ministry of Agriculture’s Institute of Origin and Quality) before they can use their “AB” logo (for Agriculture Biologique).
When it comes to animal welfare, a number of practices have to be checked before farms can receive their organic status:
- animals must be able to access an outdoor run;
- the size of buildings and the density of animals are limited;
- every animal must have access to a well-ventilated space with plenty of light and a minimum surface area, there must be straw inside buildings, animals must be allowed to move freely;
- animals must be fed an organic diet;
- prevention should be the primary focus of animal health, with livestock farming methods and conditions that promote animal well-being and stimulate their natural defences;
- any suffering must be reduced to a minimum throughout an animal’s life, including the moment of slaughter;
- employees in charge of animals must have the necessary basic knowledge and skills in terms of animal health and well-being.
Organic farming regulations prohibit the use of synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides. To avoid damage to crops caused by pests, diseases and weeds, organic farming prioritises:
- seed varieties specifically selected for organic farming due to their diseases-resistant properties;
- specific cultivation techniques, such as crop rotation;
- mechanical techniques that combat weeds, including tillage, thermal weeding, mulching and solarisation;
- biological alternatives to combat pests.
Plant protection products can only be used if there is a proven threat to a crop. These products – all of which should be natural in origin – must be authorised under the European regulations on organic farming and have market approval.
In 2021, 10.3% of France’s agricultural land was being organically farmed, representing 58,413 farms, 2.78 million hectares and 18% of agricultural jobs. By contrast, just 2.9% of agricultural holdings in the United Kingdom were organic, representing a total area of 507,000 hectares.
Sources: the French Agency for the Development and Promotion of Organic Farming; the United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
What are the differences between organic farming and sustainable agriculture?
If you were to draw a line with intensive farming at one end and organic farming at the other, sustainable agriculture would probably fall somewhere in the middle.
The Farre Association is on the frontline of promoting this type of agriculture and first defined it back in 1993: “sustainable agriculture, while maintaining satisfactory productivity levels, strives to apply agricultural practices that are consistent with environmental protection. It applies scientific advances in agronomy to find the best possible balance between the needs of farmers and their environmental impacts”. Here in France, where our Foundation is based, sustainable agriculture has been part of the country’s agricultural laws since 2002, with a national framework of 103 requirements – covering everything from respect for the environment, managing health risks, health and safety in the workplace and animal welfare – before HVE status (which stands for high environmental value) or AR status (which stands for sustainable agriculture) can be awarded. Sustainable agriculture doesn’t prohibit the use of chemicals or GMOs altogether, but encourages farmers to avoid them as much as possible. Certified status covers the farming itself, not the final products, and is obtained on the basis of the methods used, not the results.
According to its advocates, sustainable agriculture will help us achieve the volumes required by an ever-growing global population, while gradually moving away from the excesses of intensive farming. It allows farmers to transform their farms more smoothly, unlike a sudden shift to entirely organic farming. Its detractors argue that there’s a lack of transparency for consumers, and that the criteria aren’t restrictive enough and don’t lead to a significant improvement in a farm’s environmental footprint.
The impact of organic farming on biodiversity
With the help of more virtuous practices, organic farming helps protect species and preserve – or even restore – terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, in particular by:
- not using synthetic pesticides or biocides that destroy biodiversity in fields and surrounding areas;
- bringing meadows, hedgerows, grassy strips and more diverse and longer crop rotations back to farms, which offer shelter and more varied and continuous food resources;
- relying on predators and natural methods to maintain the health and balance of ecosystems;
- protecting diverse flora and fauna that improve crop yields and soil quality, including bees to pollinate crops and fruit trees, earthworms to fertilise the soil, ladybirds, toads and hedgehogs to protect crops, for example.
Beyond biodiversity alone, organic farming also has a significant impact on the health of those who consume products, those who grow them, and those who live near the farms.
It also contributes to the challenges of reducing greenhouse gases, in particular by:
- using organic fertilisers, which avoids the CO2 emissions required to industrially manufacture synthetic chemical fertilisers;
- cultivating leguminous plants, which encourage organic nitrogen fixation in the soil and therefore reduce nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions;
- introducing longer crop rotations, which limit the amount of ploughing required and improve carbon sequestration;
- farming with free-range livestock on permanent pastures, which fixes carbon in the soil and offsets the animals’ methane emissions;
- protecting hedgerows and trees and maintaining grassy strips, which all help store carbon and keep ecosystems healthy.
Limits of organic farming
There are four key aspects that can limit organic farming:
- yield and sprawl, given chemical fertilisers and pesticides aren’t used, yields are generally lower than in conventional farming. To obtain similar yields, organic farmers have to cultivate larger areas, encroaching a little more on nature as they spread out;
- cost, because achieving certified organic status is a long, recurrent and expensive process, many small farmers simply can’t afford to do it without passing on the costs to end customers. Transforming existing facilities can also represent a significant investment for operators who already live off very modest incomes;
- vulnerability, due to the fact that only natural solutions can be used, organic crops are generally more vulnerable to disease. The intensification of climate disasters (fires, floods and droughts) is also leaving these farms more exposed to risk;
- competition, because even though the industry is becoming more democratic, organic produce is still somewhat more expensive compared with conventional produce. Many organic farmers also face fierce competition from importers, who don’t always have to play by the same rules.
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