Organic Farming in a Nutshell

Notice I didn’t use the word “corn” in the header, primarily because the data I have is for organic agriculture generally. Organic farming is the hardest of all to summarize since organic practices vary so widely. In fact there’s very little agreement these days as to what “organic” actually means. Originally organic was a holistic idea. Which is to say, it envisioned a nation of small, highly localized agricultural systems in which crops and waste products were continually recycled and reused. Organic grain would be used to feed organically-raised cows and chickens, which would go on to produce organic milk and eggs, with their organic waste going to fertilize crops, to use a very simplistic example.

In fact very, very little organic food is produced this way, mostly because organic, for good or for ill, has become big business. And big business requires volumes of ingredients that smaller systems simply can’t supply consistently. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Nowadays the popular conception of “organic” simply means food raised without artificial “inputs”, which is to say synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Of course it wasn’t all that long ago that all farming was organic. About 80 or so years ago, before the advent of nitrogen fertilizers and gas-powered tractors, when farmers relied heavily on field rotation to replenish the nutrients that particular crops (like corn) took from the ground. By and large today’s organic farmers seek to emulate those pre-industrial practices, though they do use modern gas-powered equipment, and take advantage of the technical learning that’s been accumulated since the bygone days.

So how does the practice of organic farming compare to conventional or GMO? In general organic farming uses quite a bit less fuel, up to 50% less according to some estimates, mostly because organic farmers don’t spend time in the fields applying chemicals. But because organic farmers don’t use chemicals, they’re forced to till more, both to aerate the soil and undercut weeds, which they can’t kill in any other way. This is a practice, as I mentioned before, that on the one hand releases quite a bit of earth-bound CO2 into the atmosphere and also leads to soil erosion. Organic farming has been criticized on both counts, though the overall “carbon footprint” of organic farming is less than either conventional or GMO and causes less erosion.

The main problem with organic farming is output. Organic yields are on average 25% less than conventional, and up to 50% less that GMO, for reasons that should be obvious. GMO crops can be planted far closer together. Also, without pesticides, organic farmers lose quite a bit more of their crops to plant predators. Frequently they’re forced to plant “bait” crops on adjoining land in an effort to lure the bugs away. Organic farmers also frequently require fallow “buffer zones” around their crops to prevent intermingling with conventional varieties. Both practices are wasteful from the standpoint of efficiency, though in fairness it should be pointed out that growing small quantities of multiple crops on the same land is part of the organic philosophy. GMO farmers themselves employ insect “refuges” in their fields — a percentage of conventional crops that bugs can feed on to prevent them from becoming immune to the GMO varieties. Though of course the difference there is that those refuges are still producing significant quantities of usable crops.

But then the point of organic farming is not efficiency by industrial standards. From the vantage point of an organic farmer, the main efficiency of an organic farm lies in the fact that it requires less from the earth, especially its non-renewable resources.

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