The Differences Between Organic And Conventional Farming
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When you go food shopping, you probably notice that some produce such as fruits and vegetables have an “organically grown” label. What does that mean? What are the differences between organic and conventional farming?
Organic farming is part of an initiative the U.S. put in place for farms to seek alternatives to chemical-based conventional farming practices such as using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This initiative aims to reduce the harmful effects of chemical-based tools on human health and the environment.
The agricultural sector is one of the most important to human civilization. Yet, current conventional farming practices have numerous problems that need to be addressed to reduce their negative impact on the planet.
Advantages Of Conventional Farming
What distinguishes conventional farming from organic farming are the tools they use. Traditional and organic agriculture use similar methods, but conventional farming, in this case, uses chemicals in tools such as fertilizers and pesticides for faster results.
Chemical fertilizers are artificially-made and offer more control over nutrients than natural fertilizers. Natural fertilizers are made from animal waste, usually feces. However, controlling the nitrogen and nutrients in the fertilizer is more challenging.
Chemical fertilizer can be engineered to a specific nitrogen and nutrient ratio specific to individual types of crops. Furthermore, chemical fertilizers can include nutrients beneficial to human health, such as zinc. The plants absorb these nutrients and then consumed by humans.
Chemical pesticides have the same benefits. Pesticides can target a specific species of pests, removing them from the farm while other species of insects remain unaffected.
Impact On The Environment And Human Health
While chemical pesticides and fertilizers have many advantages, they also have disadvantages that could have dire long-term consequences. Chemical fertilizers have been responsible for significantly increasing nitrogen released into the atmosphere and freshwater supply. While nitrogen is vital for plants, too much of it in water can become poisonous to humans and animals.
Plants absorb chemical fertilizers quickly, so farms must constantly spread more fertilizer. However, this causes an excessive amount of nitrogen that crops are not able to absorb. This nitrogen evaporates, damaging the atmosphere, or seeps into the Earth, polluting the groundwater underneath.
Groundwater is one of the few water sources safe for human consumption. The excess nitrogen seeping into the Earth can poison this supply, becoming a health hazard for communities that rely on groundwater.
Chemical pesticides face similar issues. A liquid aerosol or powder is the standard method for distributing pesticides across fields. Similarly to fertilizers, this also means an excess of pesticides is not used by plants.
Unused pesticides are either absorbed into the ground and pollute the groundwater supply or become part of the runoff after a rain shower and are swept into other water sources such as rivers and lakes.
Additionally, pesticides can form a residue on crops such as fruits and vegetables. This residue is toxic to humans and animals — potentially becoming a health hazard. Pesticide poisoning can have a wide range of adverse effects on sensory organs and the nervous system, particularly in young children.
Advantages And Disadvantages Of Organic Farming
Organic farming methods use natural substitutes for artificial chemicals. These include using animal feces and other wastes for fertilizer and organic alternatives to pesticides. Using organic agriculture methods has been widely successful in the U.S. — the total sale of organic products reached $57.5 billion in 2021.
Using natural means reduces farms’ carbon footprint by cutting down the amount of nitrogen and toxic chemicals released into the air and water. In addition, using organic materials reduces soil erosion and increases biodiversity on farms, leading to healthier crop yields.
Organic pesticides also have numerous benefits. Instead of using chemical compounds, organic pesticides use natural substances like lime sulfur and hydrogen peroxide. These substances are less environmentally harmful and are not a health hazard if ingested.
In addition, organic farms use techniques such as mulching, composting and crop rotation to reduce the chances of harmful insects or fungi infecting crops.
However, these organic methods also have some limitations. Natural fertilizers have a lower amount of nitrogen, leading to crops growing much slower. This results in fewer crop yields when compared to farms using conventional farming techniques. Organic farms require more land to compensate, which can have its own issues.
While natural alternatives to pesticides are less harmful to the health of humans and animals, they are also not as powerful as chemical pesticides. This means there is a greater chance of losing crops to diseases and invasive species such as insects.
Positive Effects Of Organic Farming On The Environment
Organic farming has other potential benefits to the environment. Aside from curbing the number of harmful chemicals polluting the water supply, organic farming also reduces the number of greenhouse gasses coming from farms. Studies show that organic farms use 45% less energy than conventional farms. Less energy means fewer fuels being burned — which slows the production of greenhouse gasses.
In addition, using organic pesticides has reduced the amount of nitrous oxide that gets introduced into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is considered one of the most damaging greenhouse gasses and one of the main ingredients in chemical pesticides.
Organic farms are also required to build a healthy soil base for crops to make up for the lack of nutrients to feed crops when compared to chemical fertilizers. Healthier soil can retain more water, which leads to plants becoming stronger and more resilient to sudden changes in climate and unexpected diseases.
The Differences Between Organic And Conventional Farming
Although organic farming has a few drawbacks, it also has numerous benefits crucial for the environment’s safety and human health. Sustainable agriculture practices have a huge impact worldwide — producing cleaner and healthier crops that are safe for everyone to eat. As agriculture technology improves, farmers can devise more efficient ways to include organic farming practices in their routines.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.