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

the circular economy explained

Much of the economy in the industrialized world is dependent on cheap and easily-available resources as well as fossil energy. Such a dependency is largely grounded in the belief that continuous economic growth is not only possible but also necessary. Accordingly, consumption is intended to perpetually expand. The products generated by such a system lack the durability of products from previous decades as they are not designed to last, rather they are designed to promote consumerism. In turn, massive amounts of waste are generated as a part of a ‘throwaway’ society that is always searching for the next new thing, regardless of need or whether the same old thing is still perfectly good. The waste that is generated by the norms associated with a linear economic system is then poorly managed – ending up in landfills, the ocean, or burned. However, new economic strategies are being developed in order to more intelligently use existing resources.

One strategy is the implementation of a circular economy, which is an industrial system that is designed to remove waste from the system and to promote regenerative or restorative practices that encourage the use of superior design, materials, products, systems and business models in order to encourage a shift towards the use of renewable energies and the elimination of chemicals that negatively impact the environment. The practices employed are designed to optimize a system rooted in a cycle of disassembly and reuse that go beyond both disposal and recycling in order to avoid wasting the energy and labor typically lost in a linear economic system.

Within a circular economy, the components are differentiated between consumable and durable components of any given product. There is an attempt to integrate non-toxic or even beneficial biological replacements for the non-durable components so that they can safely be directly reintegrated into the environment or via a cascade of uses. The durable components in a circular economy are designed to be reusable or upgradeable – dependent on the type of technology associated with the product. By taking such steps, economic systems become more resilient and less resource-dependent.

Similarly, in a circular economy, the concept of users replaces that of consumers. In turn, new types of contracts that are more long-term in nature and based on reputation can emerge. Such contracts can be tailored to the needs of both consumers and businesses. It is also possible for manufacturers or retailers to remain the owners of the rented or leased products. In turn, the owners would be responsible for maintenance costs which would encourage the development of longer-lasting products of better quality. This form of benefit has the potential to be particularly important because prices are predicted to rise as competition for resources intensifies. The energy required to manufacture new products is augmented and valuable resources can be reserved. Common examples of items in a circular economy include car sharing services and cellphone contracts that encourage trade-ins.

sources:
https://reports.weforum.org/toward-the-circular-economy-accelerating-the-scale-up-across-global-supply-chains/from-linear-to-circular-accelerating-a-proven-concept/
https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy

question: what are small farms, how do they contribute to society, and what challenges are they faced with?

Producing a vast amount of the world’s food, small farms are valuable assets that contribute to long-term economic sustainability and food security. What actually constitutes a small farm is hard to specify as there are extreme variations in societal structure, ergo many definitions exist. In the United States, a small farm is defined as any farm earning a minimum of $1,000 and a maximum of $250,000. In Canada, a small farm is considered a farm that doesn’t sell commodities in a market with set prices. The FAO has a much more complicated definition: “small farms are complex interrelationships between animals, crops and farming families, involving small land holdings and minimum resources of labour and capital, from which small farmers may or may not be able to derive a regular and adequate supply of food or an acceptable income and standard of living”, while the European Union has no concrete definition.

Despite a lack of a universal definition, small farms contribute a great deal to society – even beyond food production. It could even be argued that small farmers are some of the most underappreciated members of society even though they add genuine and unselfish value to the world. For example, small farms support rural employment as well as maintain and accommodate social connections in rural areas. This is especially important in an age of widespread urbanization as it contributes to the goal of more balanced development. Likewise, it provides diversity in societal structural. Such diversity is particularly essential to maintaining diversity in ownership in an era when the consolidation of power is a major issue facing society. In this respect, they provide also a basis for community empowerment. In doing so, small farms are a symbol of regional identity.

The benefits provided by these farms are threatened by a variety of factors, with the aforementioned issue of the consolidation of ownership and power being at the forefront of concern. This issue is catalyzed by unfavorable government policies (see Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin) that have been developed in favor of large agricultural conglomerates with the financial resources to influence government officials. A lack of societal sympathy and support for small farms due to false perceptions, for example, the belief that small farms are unproductive, further contributes to the problems faced by small farmers.

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This is a picture of Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana that produces 30 varieties of vegetables to feed 200 families on one acre of land. Photo Credit: Clay Bottom Farm

sources:

EU Agricultural Economic Brief

http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/t0757e/T0757E02.htm

http://articles.extension.org/pages/13823/usda-small-farm-definitions#.UsV_8ifCYx4

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X15002703

www.foodfirst.org

http://smallfarmcanada.ca/2014/10-years-8-questions/

the advantages and disadvantages associated with intercropping

Despite the fact that intercropping has ancient roots, it is only more recently that institutional attention has been paid to this growing method. The majority of formal research to date focuses on large-scale, rural production. Findings show that intercropping has both advantages and disadvantages, which are described in the table below.

+++

– – – 

  • yield advantage
  • space maximization
  • pest deterrent and weed suppression → decreased pesticide and herbicide use
  • the potential for natural nitrogen use (less runoff)
  • reduced erosion via increased ground cover increased biomass production
  • informal crop insurance (reduced risk of complete crop failure)
  • competition for space, nutrients and sunlight → potential decreases in output
  • integrated management efforts essential
  • higher sowing and harvesting costs (non-machine) → higher labor costs
  • extensive planning required


However, the majority of issues related to intercropping can be overcome with proactive management, albeit harvesting without a machine is a great burden to producers, making the integration of intercropping on a large-scale difficult. Nonetheless, new research in this area is being conducted, and innovative, modular equipment is being developed in order to better facilitate the use of intercropping techniques.

sources:

Lithourgidis, A.; Dordas, C.; Damalas, C. A.;  Vlachostergios, D.N. (2011, April) Annual intercrops: An alternative pathway for sustainable agriculture. Australian Journal of Crop Science, 5(4) Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224934832_Annual_intercrops_An_alternative_pathway_for_sustainable_agriculture
Mousavi, S. R.; Eskandari, H. (2011, January). A General Overview on Intercropping and Its Advantages in Sustainable Agriculture. Applied Environmental Biological Sciences. 1(11). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220000362_A_General_Overview_on_Intercropping_and_Its_Advantages_in_Sustainable_Agriculture
Sullivan, P. (1998, November). Intercropping Principles and Production Practices. Agronomy Systems Guide.  Retrieved from http://www.iatp.org/files/Intercropping_Principles_and_Production_Practi.htm
Wiley, R.W. and Rao, R.M. (1980, April) A Competitive Ratio for Quantifying Competition Between Intercrops. Experimental Agriculture, 16(02). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231898671_A_Competitive_Ratio_for_Quantifying_Competition_Between_Intercrops

Zeman, F. (2012) Metropolitan sustainability: understanding and improving the urban environment. Oxford, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Delhi: Woodhead Publishing Limited