What is organic farming? Why is a proper understanding important?

  1. How does the "Food and Agriculture Organization" of the United Nations define organic farming?
  2. In simple terms, what are the dos and don’ts of organic farming?
  3. Why is there such a worldwide trend that more and more people choose organic produce?
  4. In what way is organic farming different from the pre-industrial way of farming?
  5. What is the difference between organic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers?
  6. Is wildlife also important to agriculture?
  7. What are the principles and methods of pest control in organic agriculture?
  8. Is there a need to protect organic farms against adverse external pollination or intrusion of pollutants? Are there specific strategies?
  9. How about organic ranges?  Are they operated in special ways?
  10. Does eating organic crops really help prevent and control illness?
  11. In what way does conventional agriculture destroy the land and why is it that organic agriculture can rehabilitate the land?
  12. Carbon emission and global warming are major issues of concern in the world today. How can organic farming reduce carbon emission?
  13. How is the yield of organic agriculture compared to conventional agriculture?
  14. How is the pace of development of organic farming in China compared to the global picture?
  15. Can full implementation of organic agriculture meet global food needs?
  16. References

1. How does the "Food and Agriculture Organization" of the United Nations define organic farming?

In 1999, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization defined "organic" agriculture as "a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account local conditions. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfil any specific function within the system."

2. In simple terms, what are the dos and don’ts of organic farming?

In general, organic crop production does not use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and herbicides, nor ionizing radiation and transgenic technology. It does not use heavy mechanical tillage. Organic agriculture uses biological methods of soil management such as crop rotation and maintenance of biological varieties, etc.

Organic agriculture emphasizes "the harmony with the Natural Order," and "the Unity of Heaven, Earth, soil and man"

3. Why is there such a worldwide trend that more and more people choose organic produce?

There are faithful organic food followers throughout the world for many reasons. It originates from people’s recognition of mankind as part of nature and hence the belief to pursue a more natural style of living. These people believe that wholesome farming, human nutrition and health share a common medium and that is healthy soil. People in today’s world are surrounded by problematic food-like substances, processed food and industrialized products of fruits and vegetables. The logic of organic agriculture is "healthy soil produces healthy food."

4. In what way is organic farming different from the pre-industrial way of farming?

Organic agriculture also uses ancient farming techniques like use of organic fertilizers, composting, weeding and crop rotation, etc. with much more hygienic considerations, of course. However, scientific advancement and development of modern societies in the last hundred years give rise to significant differences.

For example:

  1. Most organic farmers do not use deep plow.
  2. Organic agriculture uses physical, biological and microbiological methods to control pests and weeds.
  3. To some extent, organic agriculture allows weeds and wildflowers to attract beneficial insects and improves the landscape. Scientific methods are used to analyze soil. Biological methods and microorganisms are used to improve soil quality and enhance biodiversity therein.
  4. Organic farmers derive crop rotation sequences from scientific statistics to monitor and suppress weeds, and eliminate the persistent pests on crops gradually.
  5. Organic certification requires farmers to demonstrate measures in numerous dimensions of their farm management plan including fertility and water quality of their soil, biological means for product control with due attention to food nutrition, etc. and strict monitoring of the whole process from production to storage to final distribution.

5. What is the difference between organic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers? 

Organic fertilizers are used for the effect of: 

  1. improving the capacity of soil to retain water and nutrients; 
  2. improving soil structure through the formation of favorable aggregates; 
  3. increasing soil microbial activities through the provision of organic carbon; 
  4. increasing the digestive enzymes secreted by animals or generated by microorganisms with the result of promoting more enzyme activities in soil; 
  5. making the insoluble phosphorus and trace elements more plant available. Phosphorus is generally lacking in most inorganic fertilizers.

6. Is wildlife also important to agriculture?

Wildlife ecosystems provide indispensable services to agriculture: species of microorganisms, earthworms, worms, woodlice, millipedes… etc., help loam formation; birds, spiders and dragonflies can eat pests; flies and beetles decompose animal manure; bees, butterflies and other pollinators facilitate crop pollination.

7. What are the principles and methods of pest control in organic agriculture?

The basic principle is that:

Year after year mono cropping of conventional agriculture goes against the law of Nature. Evolution and existence of life on Earth is never the action of a single species, but the result of the interaction among organisms within a sustainable ecosystem. In conventional agriculture, food pathogens and insects flourish because they are attracted to form clusters at destined spots. Crop rotation and mixed cropping help reduce pests and diseases but certainly cannot eliminate them completely.

Different pest control methods are required for different crops in different seasons for different pests.

The following are some common physical methods:

  1. Netted greenhouse keeps out pests such as aphids and cabbage white butterfly;
  2. Bagging can protect invasion of germs to and prevent bees from laying eggs in fruits and melons.
  3. Trimming branches in shady parts of the plant helps opening light path, enhancing air circulation and reducing the cultivation of pests in shady closure. Burning infected branches also reduces the pests of fruit trees.
  4. Soaking seeds with salt water can kill most germs in oats;
  5. Leveling the land can remove stagnant water so that weeds and pests cannot flourish; drainage has to be timely;
  6. Irrigating early in the morning instead of evening leaves less water on plant surfaces with the result that bacteria and pests have fewer place to breed.
  7. Wide mouth containers with trapping solution (dubbed by mixing sugar, vinegar, detergent and water) hung in orchards trap and kill flies, molester, moths and other pests; sticky trapping plates work with similar principle.
  8. Pots of sweet vinegar put under a trap-lamp can trap and kill phototaxis pests;
  9. Insect-glue coating on branches prevents the proliferation of pests and get some eradicated; lime water painted on scrapped trunks can kill most of the overwintering eggs;
  10. Alternating droughts and floods (timely drying and irrigating) can control pests. For example, submerging roots in water for 2 to 3 days in spring and autumn when chive larvae hedges can significantly reduce their harm. On the other hand, striping topsoil to expose the "chive core" for 5 to 7 days under the sun during the growth of chives can kill some maggots. In some cases, compressing soil in appropriate places can crush summer cocoon and pupae to death.

Biological methods involve lots of biological knowledge. Here is a common example. Releasing ladybugs can effectively control mealy bugs as ladybugs are the main predators of mealy bugs. Spiders, frogs and lizards, etc. are all expert insect hunters and hence should be protected.

8. Is there a need to protect organic farms against adverse external pollination or intrusion of pollutants? Are there specific strategies?

It is important to protect organic farms against adverse external pollination and intrusion of pollutants. The following are some common protective measures.

  1. Netted greenhouse prevents outsiders such as bees and butterflies from entering. 
  2. Allow wildflowers patches among crop fields and retain some natural vegetation such as forests. 
  3. Raise honey bees: Technological support of pollination using drones has been introduced into mainland China in recent years, making the production of fruit and vegetable more similar to that in natural green environment. The population of pollinators and pest killers also greatly increases as a result. 
  4. Some farmers brush flower after flower to pollinate fruit trees with pollen tanks in their hands. 
  5. Seeds from own fields are saved to ensure the use of pesticide-free "safe" seeds only. 
  6. Ten meters wide buffer zones are built around some large-scale organic farms where bitter gourd, bitter china berry, Sapindus and other plants are grown to protect the farm from possible contamination from outside. 
  7. Organic farms provide pesticide-free shelters for beneficial insects, attract and retain them to recolonize the areas so that healthy and ecological gene pools can be established. On the contrary, conventional agriculture poses threats not only to the survival of these species but also themselves.

9. How about organic ranges?  Are they operated in special ways?

  1. Animals are free to roam outdoor, preferably in grassland, as far as possible in organic ranges. The number of animals is closely monitored such that limits to the environmental load would not be exceeded even though they are allowed to graze and stampede freely while at the same time the total excretion is sufficient to render extra fertilizer unnecessary. 
  2. Organic products are used as supplementary feeds in pig farms or other livestock. 
  3. Natural conception in general but artificial insemination is allowed.
  4. Strict control over traces of antibiotic residues in milk products.

10. Does eating organic crops really help prevent and control illness?

One limitation of modern medicine is that it is a paradigm of treating illness rather than promotion of health and building up of strong immune systems in human. Positive correlation between the current surge in food-related critical illnesses and disorders and the speed of development of conventional agriculture are found in many large-scale statistical surveys.  Crop research statistics of UK and the USA government in 1940 and 1991 showed that the levels of trace minerals in non-organic fruits and vegetables fell by 28% to 76%. Organic agriculture may have the potential to help patients who only seek treatment from doctors rather than adopting preventive measures. One example, among many, is that many organic fruits contain higher levels of plant-based micro nutrients (phytomicronutrients) which have the potential to reduce the risk of cancer and stimulate immune and anti-viral functions. With more and more such scientific reports made public, people may one day realize that farmers are as important to their health as their doctors.

11. In what way does conventional agriculture destroy the land and why is it that organic agriculture can rehabilitate the land? 

Huge food enterprises unscrupulously maximize their profits through boosting yields mainly by means of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Unfortunately, chemical fertilizers act mainly with a limited number of key elements. Combined with the application of herbicides and pesticides, they greatly reduce the vitality of soil ecosystems where microbes strive, upon which organic systems rely and aim to nurture. Furthermore, chemicals from conventional agriculture pollute fresh water and create unbalanced salt moraines in soil. Organic farming, on the contrary, brings positive changes to soil through various means. Planting nitrogen-fixing crops can enhance soil fertility. Compost with organic matter like microorganisms and humus can enrich the soil. Organisms such as earthworms and microbes as well as other organic mulch make soil healthy and spongy. Water retention capacity of soil is enhanced and habitats or food for beneficial insects are preserved. Organic farmers use plant and animal residues and food waste to raise earthworms. They focus their efforts on building healthy soil and bring vitality to their produce.

12. Carbon emission and global warming are major issues of concern in the world today. How can organic farming reduce carbon emission?

Concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been maintained steadily at about 275ppm (parts per million) since human civilization began tens of thousands years ago until the 18th century when man began to burn coal, gas and oil to produce energy and for manufacturing goods. Since then, global population has been on the rise. Forests have been destroyed to increase arable land and mono cropping has been increasingly practiced to meet the ever increasing food demand and material needs. Biomass on Earth was gradually destroyed. The carbon content of the atmosphere is now continuously rising at an alarming rate. In fact, when man makes use of the underground fossil fuel to produce energy for human consumption, carbon sequestrated in the ground through billions of years is released back into the atmosphere. The resulting greenhouse effect leads to global warming. Atmospheric carbon content is now about 400 ppm with an annual increase rate of 2 ppm.

In nature, plants absorb atmospheric carbon through photosynthesis. Animals eat plants and other animals as food. All living things, plant or animal, emit carbon dioxide via respiration, excretion and postmortem decomposition. But part of the carbon is stored in soil as organic matter (forming coal and oil after buried in the soil over billions of years for some). Therefore, soil plays an important role in the carbon cycle. It is estimated that about 150 billion tons of organic carbon are stored within 1 meter beneath the surface of topsoil in the whole world (in the form of humus, etc.), more than that stored in vegetation and the atmosphere combined. This is the largest carbon pool on the planet. The concentration of organic carbon is a major test of soil fertility. While conventional agriculture increases carbon emission, organic agriculture taps on the relationship between crops and the carbon cycle to sequestrate carbon permanently in healthy soil and thus reduces carbon emission.

13. How is the yield of organic agriculture compared to conventional agriculture?

Fertilizers, pesticides and the development of genetically modified technology allow farmers to increase the yield per hectare to 130%, but this mode of production is not sustainable. Apparently, the production efficiency of organic agriculture is lower than conventional agriculture for the time being. However, conventional agriculture damages soil, causes soil erosion, consumes more energy, pollutes fresh water and emits greenhouse gas. Crops thus produced have lower nutritional value and chemical residues may increase incidence rates of certain diseases. In 2009, American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) cited several animal studies that showed that GM foods "poses serious toxicological risk: in allergy and immune function, reproductive, metabolic, physiological and genetic health… etc. " So far, the hidden cost of conventional agriculture cannot be calculated. Furthermore, experimental fields where yields of organic farming out beat that of conventional farming are emerging.

14. How is the pace of development of organic farming in China compared to the global picture?

Since early 1990s, the organic market has been growing at the rate of 20% -30% per year in developed countries. It was expected to beat US$100 billion in 2011. The driving force comes from rising consumer’s demand. In recent years, organic agricultural mode of production has been promoted in more than 100 countries. The total area of organic farms and the number of growers keep increasing year by year. There are now over 22 million hectares of ​​organic farming land in the world. 

Until very recently, organic food accounted for only 0.02 percent of total food sales in China. Compared to 2% in developed countries, it was a 100 times difference. The major varieties were organic tea, soybeans and rice. Organic markets of high daily consumption food like fruits and vegetables and animal products could not yet keep pace with domestic or overseas demand. Promulgation of the "Certification and Accreditation Ordinance" and marketization of the accreditation process in 2003 gave the situation a twist and accelerated the development of the organic market. At the end of 2010, there were 26 organic certification bodies throughout the nation. More than 4,000 enterprises and farm land of ​​2.6 million hectares were granted organic certifications. With the improvement of the quality of life, people pay more attention to health and are eager to get high-quality natural pollution-free food. This is exactly what organic agriculture can offer. It is estimated that during the "Twelve Five" period, China will maintain the rate of development of organic agriculture at an annum increment of 10%.

15. Can full implementation of organic agriculture meet global food needs?

Immediate full implementation of organic agriculture will result in a sharp production dip and hence cannot meet the demand of the current world population of 7 billion people.  However, looking at the problem from another angle, one can say that food production will never be able to keep up with world population growth irrespective of whatever kind of agriculture. Population control is a political and educational issue rather than an agricultural issue.

Acute unevenness is the current global food situation. On the one hand, people in many of the poorest regions are in the state of chronic hunger. Unceasing warfare in these regions makes it impossible for peasants to work on farmland. On the other hand, there are lots of obese people in some developed countries (like the United States) and developing countries (such as China and India), totaling about one-third of the world's population. Obesity is positively correlated with excessive consumption of conventional agricultural products and processed foods. In fact, the reliance of conventional agriculture on fossil fuel makes it unsustainable, as fossil fuel will eventually run out some day. Moreover, world widely, 75 billion tons of soil tillage is lost through water or wind erosion every year, 320 million hectares of land are affected by the aggregation of salt from irrigation and about 40% of arable land is in varying degrees of degradation. Organic agriculture offers remedies for these situations. But enhancement in food production cannot be facilitated through preventive measures for land degradation only. People need to be aware how their consuming behavior affects the decisions of food providers and related businesses in crop production, storage, packaging, transportation and distribution. It also hinges on the unending exploration by scientific workers and the moral will of governments. For the time being, it is estimated that organic agriculture occupies about 3% of the total cultivated area in the world. A higher percentage is expected to be seen in the future. As to how much is the right proportion, human beings will find a balance. If the world population stays as it is, more people, not only those at the top of the consumers pyramid should be able to benefit from organic agriculture.