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

bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practices

“Watsonville is a largely Latino community, where many farm workers live – and several students […] have gone there with the intention of teaching Latino youth how to grow food, apparently with nary a trace of irony shown.”

Julie Guthman, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Department of Community Studies (it is noted that Santa Cruz is often considered “ground zero” of the US alternative food movement) runs a program that provides students with an opportunity to work in a variety of food scarce locations in an alternative food program. Based on the work of the students and her personal research, she is able to inform readers that there is a great discrepancy between the goals and intentions of the student participants and those of the communities that they are attempting to serve. Below is a more in-depth summary of her findings:

Alternative food institutions have tended to cater to relatively well-off consumers, in part because organic food has been positioned as a niche product – even obtaining the moniker of “yuppie chow”. Furthermore, farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) tend to locate or distribute to areas of relative wealth. These places are also generally white spaces in terms of both the demographic that frequent them and the cultural codings that are performed at such markets. The same can be said of schools that attempt to incorporate farm-to-table programs unless they are heavily subsidized by private foundations or the public sectors.

Food deserts are then defined as urban (or rural) environments where few if any venues provide an array of healthful fruits, vegetables, meats and grain products. However, there are some issues with this definition. The quote:

 “To a lesser degree they situate the food desert phenomenon with the neoliberal restructuring of urban space more broadly which through disinvestment and endemic unemployment have relegated the inhabitants of some cities to intense poverty,”

summarizes the issue with this explanation of the current issues with food production in poor, minority communities. She goes on to explain that Blacks who are the target of these efforts appear to reject them (the efforts) because they believe they replicate the very phenomenon being addressed – the effects of white desire to enroll black people in a particular set of food practices.

However, despite historical precedents, the same feelings were not expressed in Latino or more recently Asian communities. It is theorized that this is due to many members of this demographic being undocumented, so they have limited access to government programs.

It is then explained that the origin of the word organic (which is often touted as a championing quality of urban agriculture) is controversial in nature because of its historical roots in use by Nazis influenced by the works of Rudolph Steiner and the nationalist foundations of the British Soil Association. Community gardens are also often associated with the term localism which in itself is considered to be xenophobic in nature and contradicts the black community’s desire to be a part of American modernity and technology. Additionally, many of the catchphrases such as “Dirt First” associated with gardening contradict efforts by many Black Nationalist groups to dissociate the Black community with idioms of dirt and filth. There is also the issue of getting one’s hands dirty and the presumption that everyone is interested in tending the land. This historically contradicts many of the non-white norms in the USA because land was given away to whites at the same time that reconstruction failed in the south, Native lands were seized and Natives killed and the Chinese and Japanese were excluded from land ownership. When coupled with the persistent injustice of white land being tended by non-white workers, the agrarian ideal does not resonate with many non-white groups. Furthermore, for some newly arrived immigrants the concept of community gardens can be considered eugenic in nature because they appear to mirror efforts to reform foodways by the United States. Finally, the mere definition of food desert often elicits the image of many of the impoverished neighborhoods as being beyond repair which has been suggested as containing colonial codings.

The issue of the term teaching kids how to eat has also garnered resentment because it is perceived as trying to instill a particular (white) ideology about eating. It was also found that many kids do not like to garden – they did not like getting their hands, clothes and shoes dirty.  The following quotes were taken from student’s notes from a community study students about their experiences working in Black communities. They summarize many of the feelings about the alternative food efforts:

The person laughed and said she did not know how to cook any of the things we planted.”

Often times girls show up with Jack in the Box for breakfast, eating it while working.  The youths were asked to say what they thought organic means, many used the terms disgusting, gross or dirty.

  • On why a neighborhood resident chooses not to purchase food that has been locally produced:

Because they don’t sell no food! All they got is birdseed…Who the hell are they to tell me how to eat? It’s not food. I need to be able to feed my family.

  • One of the students drew the conclusion that

Insistence on alternatives may well reinforce a sense of exclusion and stigmatization – as if residents of food deserts are not even deserving of what others taken for granted: a Safeway.

To deal with these issues, some alternative markets are adopting different monikers, such as Mandela’s farmers’ market and Growing Power, emphasizing black cuisine and culture to interest the local community, and imploring community members to rectify the historical issue of landholding inequalities and highlighting issues like the toxic nature of many conventional foods. However, it is noted that it often takes selling foods at below market prices or people literally becoming sickened by industrial food for the target market to adopt these food options.

The author concludes that there is a disjunction between what alternative food activists do and what food desert residents seem to want. In order to deal with this, she suggests shifting the focus of activism away from food qualities (local, organic, etc.) and onto injustices that underlie disparities, for example, addressing issues such as urban renewal, living wages, the expansion of entitlement programs and environmental preservation.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.