intercropping in organic agricultural systems

organic farming

Genuine organic agriculture is rooted in four  main principles:

  1. ecology: both ecological systems and cycles should be supported
  2.  health: the well-being of both flora and fauna should be sustained
  3. fairness: providing common and just environment and life opportunities
  4. care: the management of natural resources that is both precautionary and responsible for the benefit of current and future generations, as well as the environment

These four principles are directly applicable to intercropping for many reasons. For instance, intercropping supports healthy ecological systems as it is based inherently on the incorporation of multiple species or varieties into a single system with various motivations for specific pairings or groupings. In this sense, biodiversity is encouraged in two ways. The first being that it prevents one particular variety of pest from aggregating by limiting their food source and ultimately reducing the risk of excessive loss due to one specific pest. The second is that more pollinators and predatory species are present as a result of a more diverse system that provides a habitat for pollinators and predatory species. This is accomplished by the relatively simple act of diversifying the crops grown. Similar benefits can be seen in reductions in total weed biomass. Further, intercropping supports the goal of closed-system production, i.e. nutrient cycling within a system, via the use of nitrogen-fixing legumes as component crops that benefit from their symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia.

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nitrogen-fixing nodules from Rhizobia bacteria

The use of these crops also organically increases the soil nitrogen content, which encourages mycorrhizal fungus development, which can also improve phosphorus, copper, zinc, and molybdenum uptake. However, it is worth mentioning that these objectives may be best realized by polyculture farms that incorporate livestock manure as legume fatigue may occur if the soil becomes overly infested with pathogens caused by the over-cultivation of legumes.

When accounting for the above-mentioned factors, it may be supposed that intercropping is best suited for organic production systems because it serves to circumvent the need for synthetic, mineral and chemical inputs, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, that are commonplaces in conventional agriculture and restricted from use in organic agriculture. In a sense, this means that although intercropping is more closely related to historical approaches to agriculture, it is being adapted to modern circumstances that include a rising demand for organic food, increasing environmental stresses, and a growing societal awareness of food and food production processes. Concurrently, conventional agriculture is becoming increasingly cost-inefficient, both economically and environmentally speaking. This has the potential to support an agricultural transition towards organic production methods, especially if evidence substantiating assertions about the efficacy of intercropping continue to emerge. Moreover, the growing body of proof that demonstrates total system improvements in output produced by intercropped systems may help to counter the argument that organic production cannot be as productive as conventional agriculture, especially when comparing it to sole cropping systems. In turn, intercropping may enable organic production to become more competitive with conventional production and ultimately provide an opportunity for further organic market expansion through the establishment of a fairer economic playing field. Ultimately, these factors allow for the creation of more resilient food systems that provide modern day benefits that serve as the groundwork for a more sustainable future. Consequently, this element of foresight has the potential to benefit a wide variety of both human and non-human stakeholders.

sources:

photo credit:

  • geneticliteracyproject.org
  • commons.wikipedia.org

the historical development of organic farming

Organic agriculture, i.e. a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides and a holistic, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity, has a long and interesting history. Its history has four main phases.

Phase I began in 1840 when J. V. Liebig published Agricultural Chemistry which provided evidence that crop yields are affected by mineral plant nutrients. This led to the development of Phosphorus (P) fertilizer. Then in 1910, the Haber-Bosch procedure was developed and subsequently allowed for the industrialized production of Nitrogen (N). With the use of these discoveries, synthetic fertilizers were being used on a large-scale basis by 1918.

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The Haber-Bosch Process, Image Credit: https://physics.org

Also during this time began the mechanization of agricultural production and the introduction of plant protection chemicals. It was also during this period that increased efforts in plant breeding began. These developments resulted in widespread specialization which has paved the way for monoculture. The social constructs of society also began shifting during this time period as the process of urbanization began. As people migrated to urban spaces, their interest in farming dwindled and the consolidation of farming ensued.

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Extreme Erosion during the Dust Bowl, Image Credit: http://s.hswstatic.com

With industrialization and the overwhelming use of synthetic inputs, the quality of land rapidly decreased with many environmental problems resulting, e.g the Dust Bowl (1931-1939) that was caused by drought, overgrazing, and intensive tillage. These problems and a rejection of the industrialization of agriculture spurred Phase II of the organic agricultural movement. This phase, which began in the 20th century, is characterized by counter-movements. Some of the most influential figures from this phase include:

    • Rudolf Steiner: non-material processes in agriculture (Austria)

    • Eve Balfour: the interconnectedness of soil, plant, animal, and human health (UK)

    • Albert Howard: soil fertility and composting (UK)

    • Mueller: advocate for the independence of farmers and nutrient cycling (Switzerland)

  • Rusch: microbial determination of soil fertility (Germany)

Phase III began as the concept of organic was internationalized and merged with the environmental movement. The initial defining moment for this was the release of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962 that highlighted the negative environmental impacts of widespread chemical use in agriculture. Then in 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (iFOAM) was founded in order to promote the organic movement. In the same year, the Club of Rome published Limited of Growth that highlighted the flaws and dangers of neoclassical approaches to economic growth, i.e. always needed to grow in order to demonstrate success. Shortly after the oil crisis arose. Then in 1981, the first university program in organic agriculture was implemented.

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Image Credit: http://environmentandsociety.org

We are currently in Phase IV, which includes the professionalization, market expansion, and legal regulation of organics. In Europe, the first legislation was introduced in 1991 and in 1990 in the United States. In 2005, an international agreement on the principles of organic agriculture as instated. Progress during this phase has been challenging as organic production methods continue to be looked down upon by mainstream agriculture and it is often criticized as being incapable of producing enough food for the growing world. However, studies continue to emerge disproving this criticism and demonstrating the sustainability of organic production.

Moving beyond Phase IV will be difficult, but is arguably necessary based on the current environmental challenges caused by monoculture and chemical-based production. Success in this respect will involve both bottom-up and top-down approaches as well as a decrease in the stringency of regulation in order to be inclusive of a variety of farming approaches. These are the goals of Organic 3.0 in order to provide the greatest number of the earth’s citizens – both human and non-human – with the best benefits possible.

the 15 principles of organic farming

Organic agriculture is the counter movement to conventional agriculture that supports a more natural relationship between production and the environment in which production takes place. In order to support this relationship and reduce the negative impact of horticulture and agriculture, 15 main principles rooted in common sense have been established. Any plant practitioner can choose to adhere to these standards regardless of certification. They are as follows:

  1. Avoid all synthetically-produced chemicals, including supposedly organic “icides” like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides [they might be made with organic ingredients but they don’t really support soil health]
  2. Cultivate crop varieties with natural resistances and tolerances in suitable crop rotations
  3. Use beneficials for pest control
  4. Control weeds via mechanical [rather than chemical] methods
  5. Avoid the use of easily soluble mineral fertilizers
  6. Utilize nitrogen from manure and manure compost
  7. Practice green manuring with nitrogen-fixing plants [Leguminosae]
  8. Use slow-acting, natural fertilizers
  9. Preserve soil fertility via humus management
  10. Rotate crops with diverse varieties and long crop rotations 
  11. Abstain from the application of synthetically-produced chemical growth regulators
  12. Limit stocking density to improve animal welfare and reduce damaging effects to the soil, water, and air
  13. Restrict the use of purchased feed and focus on creating an on-farm or in-community production circle
  14. Use antibiotics on an as-needed basis
  15. Support biodiversity by embracing polyculture and intercropping 

Header Image Credit: Agrilicous.org

question: what does organic really mean?

The word organic is popping up everywhere. Organic milk, strawberries, and tomatoes. Organic cotton and organic pet food. These items are undoubtedly more expensive than their conventional counterparts and they are often stigmatized as being yuppie products or just another marketing scheme. Organic products have also been recognized as being healthier and more environmentally-friendly. But what is not often discussed is what organic means and what is different about organic agricultural techniques. So, what does organic really mean?

According to the USDA, organic operations are those that protect natural resources, conserve biodiversity, and use only approved substances. 

The EU states that organic agriculture is method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM), provides a more comprehensive definition: A production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. It combines traditions, innovations, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. 

IFOAM’s definition differs from the others in that it is not only about the practices, rather it denotes the process as a holistic in that it focuses not only on the inputs and outputs but also the complex interworkings between different components of the system. Likewise, it demonstrates that farming practices should fit the environmental system rather than attempting to manipulate ecosystems for agriculture. In doing so, it is expected that organic agriculture is an integrated, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity.

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A comparison of conventional and organic agriculture Image Credit: http://blog.ucsusa.org

In order to achieve these goals, organic production practices are shaped by four supporting principles:

  1. Health: sustain the health of soil, plant, animal, human, and planet as a complex and indivisible system
  2. Ecology: support and promotion of ecological systems and cycles
  3. Fairness: provide common and just environment and life opportunities
  4. Care: management in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect for the benefit of current and future generations as well as the environment

In light of these principles and the impact that they are intended to provide, the term organic can therefore also be considered a part of a lifestyle that promotes a more harmonious relationship with the natural systems that support us.

Criticisms of organic, e.g. the cost, exclusionary nature, and focus on labeling and certification, are being addressed by the organic 3.0 movement, which is focusing on the mainstreaming and normalization of organic in order to better disseminate the benefits it provides.

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Image Credit: food.blog.de

Header Image Credit: http://drivedeschamps.fr

all about urbanization

Urbanization can be defined as the process of small, rural settlements growing and expanding to become urban centers. Such an evolution is typically the result of some sort of economic incentive in that the prosperity of a given community attracts the attention of people interested in sharing in or profiting from the success of the established community. As more people attach themselves to the prosperous community, the population swells and matures to eventually create a city. In more modern times, urbanization can also be understood as the increase in the number of people residing in urban locations.

The size of modern cities, some of which are expected to have populations of more than 40 million, was likely unimaginable 200 years ago when only approximately 2-3% of the population lived in cities. The massive increase in urban populations ergo urbanization can be attributed to the development of agriculture as it allowed populations to expand beyond the carrying capacity of a natural environment. Advancements from industrialization and the Green Revolution further catalyzed population growth and migration towards urban spaces. The trends influenced by these developments include:

  • A shift from northern to southern population growth: the majority of population growth now takes place in the southern hemisphere (Africa, Asia & South America) rather than the northern hemisphere (North America & Europe)
  • A shift from formal to informal: there is a change from organized labor and living to lifestyles which require the generation of individual prosperity
  • A shift from city to megacity: cities are expanding to house more than 10 million residents

Currently and since the first cities of Uruk (4500 BCE) and Ur (3800 BCE), urban spaces have been locations that greatly impact the surrounding environment as these spaces are inherently not self-sustaining due to the great number of inhabitants and the many needs, e.g. food, of said inhabitants. Accordingly, the downfall of many great cities can be attributed to overpopulation and environmental damage caused by overexploitation. Such downfalls could arguably be viewed as a justification for proactively addressing many of the issues faced in cities in modern times, e.g. sanitation or food waste, especially in locations where populations continue to grow despite lacking the environmental capital necessary to sustain existing populations.

Modern and rapidly urbanized cities suffer from other issues, including:

  • Increases in urban poverty and inequality that could result in a weakened state, civil unrest, urban-based revolutions, and radical religious fundamentalism
  • A shortage of living wage income-earning opportunities
  • A lack of livable spaces

urbanization_chart

However, despite many negative issues associated with urbanization, the social, cultural and economic opportunities, as well as the convenience of cities, is unparalleled by rural environments. Therefore, it is almost certain that urban populations will continue to grow with it being expected that by 2050, 64.1% of the citizens in developing lands and 85.9% of citizens in developed lands will reside in cities. Such a transformation will provide both challenges and opportunities for the future. How these issues are addressed at present will guide the way by which the urban epicenters of the future will impact not only the human citizens of the world but also the flora and fauna that cohabitate the earth.

Sources:

http://www.ancient.eu/urbanization/
https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/urbanization.htm
http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2004/UrbanizationAnEnvironmentalForcetoBeReckonedWith.aspx

5 things to consider before buying hybrid seeds

Hybrid plants are a crossing between two selected parent plants achieved via controlled pollination  (see how are plants propagated). The seeds produced by this process are called F1 or F1 Hybrids. These hybrids will exhibit very specific qualities. Hybrids have quickly come to dominate the seed market. However, in spite of their increased market presence of hybrids, there are several factors to be considered. They can be summarized as follows:

Loss of Genetic Diversity

The massive shift to the use of hybrids has resulted in a severe reduction in seed varieties. Between 1984 and 1987, 54 of the 230 American and Canadian mail-order seed companies went out of business. With their closure, 943 non-hybrid varieties, or approximately 19% of all varieties, were lost. This trend continues based on the evolving demands of the agriculture industry, i.e. extreme consolidation and the globalization of supply chains. However, genetic diversity must be maintained as it is essential to the survival and adaptability of any given species (see crop wild relatives), something that will be increasingly relevant as a result of changes in climate and pest adaptations.

Higher Prices

Hybrid seeds are typically more expensive due to the financial investment required by the seed companies in order to develop new strains. Investment in this respect relates to finding two suitable partner plants and hand-pollination. The higher cost is passed on to growers. Growers who are producing for the market must then pass on the costs to consumers.

Non-saveable Seeds

Seeds from hybrids cannot be saved as the offspring will be genetically unpredictable. As a result, growers are forced to purchase new seeds each year. This puts undue financial stress on small-scale growers, which further contributes to the consolidation of the agricultural system. Further consolidation means more extreme shifts to mechanization which requires the use of chemicals that typically harm the environment and erode the relationship between food producer and consumer.

Private Property Rights

Unlike open-pollinated seeds, hybrid seeds are patented. This means that the genetic rights to the plants belong to the company producing the seeds rather than being a public good. With seed companies becoming increasingly consolidated, the power and control continue to become concentrated. In 2007, three companies – Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta – controlled 47% of the world’s seed market with Monsanto alone controlling one-quarter of the market. Since that time, Monsanto has merged with Bayer, Dupont merged with Dow, and Syngenta merged with ChemChina. These mergers resulted in the development of an extremely powerful oligarchy that has a stronghold on the world’s seed market. This chokehold means diminished autonomy and a world subjected to subversive tactics designed to broaden the companies’ influence in the world’s economy.

Commercial Focus

The hybrid varieties produced are typically designed for commercial growers. Therefore, the primary focus of plant breeders is tolerance for machine harvesting and processing, with flavor and texture being of minimal importance. Likewise, hybrid varieties are designed to ripen uniformly which is not necessarily of benefit to home or smaller producers who seek to extend the growing season over as long of a period as possible.

Sources:

Ashworth, S. (2002). Seed to seed: Seed saving techniques for the vegetable gardener. Decorah, IA: Seed Savers Exchange.
https://extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0102a.html
https://garden.org/courseweb/course2/week2/page18.htm
http://news.agropages.com/News/NewsDetail—21186.htm

biofuels explained

A biofuel is a form of fuel that is produced from renewable organic materials, such as sugar crops, oil seed crops, and animal fats. They are considered to be potential substitutes for carbon-based fuels, i.e. extremely old, biofuels. There are two varieties: plant-based and animal-based.

The plant-based products are fermented sugars which create the fuels like ethanol.

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Courtesy of: http://www.ethanolrfa.org

The animal-based products are processed by combining an alcohol with an animal fat in order to create biodiesel.

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Courtesy of http://www.enginebuildermag.com

At present, biofuels are a hot topic in modern society. As carbon-based fuels become more expensive and scarce and political tensions rise, biofuels appear to be a viable replacement and potential source of energy independence. In the United Sates, it has been asserted that most vehicles can use gasoline with up to 10 percent ethanol – the most widely produced and used biofuel. However, consumers take issue with the effect of the ethanol on motors as well as increases in gas prices associated with biofuel production. There are also demands to stop government subsidies for the production of crops for fuel production. Globally, there are issues with the destruction of rainforest for the production of raw material for biofuel, e.g. sugarcane or palm

Likewise, there is controversy as to whether the finite resources necessary for producing biofuels should be allocated to fuel rather than food when an estimated billion people are faced with hunger on a yearly basis. However, this issue is in the process of being solved via the use of waste products for biofuel production, rather than the edible portion of the product. Alternative options, such as the use of algae, are also being explored in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of biofuels.

What role ethanol and other biofuels will play in the future of energy production is uncertain, although the Energy Independence Act of 2007 encourages the production of biofuels to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022. If their use continues to expand, potential benefits include increases in domestic energy productions, a reduction in some air pollutants, the opportunity for a new source of income for farmers, and the possibility that production can be developed in a sustainable manner. Biofuels also emit fewer greenhouse gasses when burned. Conversely, biofuels may result in land-use changes, an increased need for agricultural subsidies, greater use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that can compromise water, soil and air quality, and prices for food crops may increase because of shifts in production.

biofuels-chart
Courtesy of: http://www.americanprogress.org

sources:

https://www.epa.gov/environmental-economics/economics-biofuels
https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/renewable-energy/biofuels
https://www.nrel.gov/workingwithus/re-biofuels.html
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/biofuel/