Organic Farming vs Conventional Farming
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
Farming practices differ greatly all over the world. Where first world countries use big machines that do most of the work for them, third world countries often have to do all the cultivation practices by hand. But next to differences in how the work is done there is also a big difference in how the crop is produced, organically or conventionally.
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The biggest difference between organic and conventional farming is in the use of pesticides. Organic farming practices are strictly regulated and only certified organic pesticides are allowed on the field. Conventional farming does not have these strict regulations however there are big differences between different countries when it comes to which pesticides are allowed and which are not.
In the US for example many more different pesticides are allowed to be used on a field while more than 25% of those pesticides used are banned in the EU. This means that a lot of harmful pesticides that are not allowed in the EU are still being used in the US. This obviously not only has a severe impact on the soil and the environment, but it also has an impact on the people consuming this produce. Examples of pesticides banned or being phased out in other parts of the world are 2,4-DB, bensulide, chloropicrin, dichlobenil, dicrotophos, EPTC, norflurazon, oxytetracycline, paraquat, phorate, streptomycin, terbufos, and tribufos.
And if you think that the US is using less of the pesticides because they know they are harmful, you are unfortunately wrong. Some of these pesticides have significantly increased over the past 10 years affecting our environment more and more.
So where you live is a big determining factor whether or not you want to use organic produce or not. I am ok with purchasing non-organic produce as I live in the Netherlands and I have worked in several greenhouses that produce both organic and non-organic crops (mostly tomato and sweet pepper). And even though there is some difference in cultivation, the use of pesticides in both cases does not differ a lot. But whether or not you choose organic or not, always wash your produce before consumption as pesticides and fertilizers might still be present on the crop.
Also water use is regulated, at least for organic farming. An organic farmer has to pay attention to the water output of its farm. The farmer has to make sure that the water applied to the field does not harm the environment and this is strictly monitored.
While for conventional farming excessive water use is a big problem. High amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous are applied to the field which severely affects nearby aquatic life. This is because algae love these, which initially sounds good but when these algae take over the entire water source, the fishes present here will in the end suffocate due to lack of oxygen. This is also called an aquatic dead zone.
Crop rotation is one of the requirements of organic farming. This means that each cultivation cycle (usually a year) a new crop has to be grown on that field. Because each crop has different requirements and because harmful pesticides are prohibited on organic fields, the overall soil quality is better. There is bigger biodiversity in these fields are higher and there is less soil erosion.
Soil erosion is a big problem in conventional farming fields. Because the same crop is grown each year, the field receives the same chemicals over and over again and a high amount of water is used, the soil is slowly degrading. The high water use flushes out the nutrients and minerals that are naturally present in the soil causing both salination and erosion of the soil. This means in the end the soil will be completely depleted from nutrients and minerals and no longer usable for cultivation.
It is often assumed that the yield from organic farming is lower compared to conventional farming. And when an organic farm starts out on a freshly converted field, this is indeed the case. However, research has shown that after several years of organic farming in the same field, there is no longer a yield gap between organic and conventional farming. This is because over time the soil changes and nutrients present in the soil are used much more efficiently.
One of the biggest disadvantages of organic farming is the high costs. There is no use of aggressive pesticides so, the crops are far more vulnerable to pests and other diseases. This makes farming more labor-intensive as a lot is done by hand. This obviously increases the costs.
Organic food also has a shorter shelf life as the produce is not treated with waxes or other preservatives to extend the shelf life. This makes the crop more vulnerable to crop loss and to compensate the farmer for this loss, the price increases.
The certification process to be accredited as organic is a lengthy and costly one. For organic farms, that means that they need to hire an organic certifying agent to verify that the farming methods meet the current organic standards. There are initial costs which are about $1,500 depending on the crop and the size of the farm but there are also annual certification fees that must be paid which depends on the total organic production value of the farm. This can also be thousands per year.
The use of genetically modified crops is prohibited in organic farming therefore, organic farming solely relies on traditional breeding. This means that if the crop producer wants to add a certain trait to a current crop variety, he needs to cross this variety with the crop that has this trait. When this crop is crossed, these seeds are sown again and the ones that are most like the original crop but also have this new trait are selected and crossed again. This process repeats itself several times and the goal is to have the original crop with the extra trait from the other crop. This is very time-intensive (sometimes more than 10 years) but does not involve any biotechnology.
In traditional farming biotechnology and the creation of GMOs are allowed. In this case, the goal is similar, adding a new trait to the current crop but the process is much faster. With genetic engineering, the trait from the other variety is isolated and put in the original variety to create a genetically modified plant (the GMO). This is a very fast process but is not used worldwide yet for food production due to differences in legislation. It is allowed in the US but not in the EU.