Population growth and climate change challenge our food and farming systems, which has given rise to organic farming practices that aim to limit environmental impacts. However, despite its environmental benefits, organic farming has yet to prove its independent capacity in sustaining food security into the future.
What is Organic Farming? | Agriculture | Biology | FuseSchool
Adapting agricultural practices to avoid compromising food security or the environment
In recent decades, agricultural science has faced the challenge of developing sustainable approaches to maintain sufficient food production for growing populations while coping with changing climatic conditions. A particularly difficult issue is the attempt to avoid further increasing the exploitation and degradation of Earths’ progressively limited resources.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were developed in an attempt to provide sustainable agriculture and food systems and meet these challenges. To date, two predominant narratives have developed to achieve these goals.
The first is to progress agricultural systems in incremental steps to improve efficiency in conventional agriculture while reducing external consequences whereas the other relies on the transformative redesign of farming systems based on agroecological principles.
Organic farming has emerged in recent decades as an alternative solution merging both narratives. It aims to close nutrient cycles within agricultural systems by powering agricultural fields with natural plant residues or manure from livestock that are returned to the fields as well as incorporating perennial and leguminous plants.
This provides a natural feedback cycle of soil fertilization whilst minimizing any external interference or artificial support. First originating during the industrialization of agriculture due to its associated environmental and social repercussions, organic farming has now become a central principle for many contemporary agricultural systems.
In contrast, the opposite practice of inorganic farming consists of production systems that freely employ pre- and post-plant tillage practices, artificial fertilizers, and pesticides.
Over recent decades, countries across Europe have adopted organic farming widely, and consumer demand for organic products has increased globally by over threefold since the turn of the century (Reganold and Wachter 2016).
Nonetheless, the claims that organic farming systems are inherently more profitable and environmentally friendly are sometimes met with skepticism. Moreover, recent studies have also questioned the ability of organic agriculture to provide sustainable food systems into the future, where environmental changes, as well as an increased abundance and diversity of pests and pathogens, are expected to occur among an ever-growing world population.
The issue in contention is therefore whether organic farming can sustain food production, or whether inorganic farming offers better stability that would support food security into the uncertain future.
The benefits of organic farming practices in a rapidly changing world
In recent years, studies advocating for organic farming have considered the criticisms of the practice more frequently to determine the validity of issues typically associated with organic practices.
In 2018, French scientists led by Lucille Muneret tested one of the main criticisms of organic agriculture. That is, whether organic farming is able to maintain sufficient levels of pest control to maintain food production.
The team used two meta-analyses and demonstrated that despite having higher levels of overall pest infestations compared to conventional cropping systems, organic farming did promote overall biological pest control potential but that this effect strongly depends on the pest type.
Specifically, findings across studies showed that there are lower levels of pathogen infestation, similar levels of animal pest infestation, and considerably higher levels of weed infestation in organic than in conventional systems.
These results contrast to the consensus that organic farming has limited abilities to maintain pest and pathogen control, and is the first study to provide evidence that organic farming can actually enhance pest control to avoid the use of synthetic pesticides.
The evidence, therefore, suggests that organic farming may not pose as great of a risk to food security in terms of threats from pests and pathogens.
Other studies have also considered how organic farming can benefit environmental systems in comparison to inorganic practices. This has included a range of biota across trophic levels as well as abiotic elements such as nutrient levels.
In 2017, Martina Lori and other German scientists reviewed existing literature to quantify possible differences in key indicators for soil microbial abundance and activity in organic and conventional cropping systems.
The team found nearly 150 relevant comparisons of both farming systems ranging from 3 to over 100 years in duration.
The review found organic systems had between 32% to 84% higher microbial biomass carbon, microbial biomass nitrogen, total phospholipid fatty acids, and dehydrogenase, urease, and protease activities than conventional systems. Further analysis also showed that crop rotation, the inclusion of legumes in the crop rotation, and organic inputs are important farming practices affecting soil microbial community size and activity.
However, the picture became more complex as stress indicators on microbial communities remained unaffected by farming systems, and the differences in microbial size and activity between organic and conventional farming systems varied with land use (arable, orchards, and grassland), plant life cycle (annual and perennial) and climatic zone.
Nevertheless, despite variations in function, the results showed organic farming enhances microbial abundance and activity in agricultural soils when compared to inorganic farming.
Image Credit: Ursa Studio/Shutterstock.com
Designing a nuanced approach integrating various systems
Despite mounting evidence of the benefits associated with organic farming, criticisms remain due to its low productivity relative to inorganic systems, which is a challenging issue at a time when food production has to increase substantially to feed a growing global population.
This is exacerbated by the fact that current agricultural land is expected not to suffice and further expansion of agricultural land into pristine ecosystems will result from the expansion of organic agriculture.
Ultimately, agricultural policies have been developed to ensure stable food security and currently integrate organic and inorganic practices depending on geographical region, resources available, and the immediate risks to food production.
Looking forward, farming practices will require greater productivity. In response, promising solutions such as aquaponics, intercropping, and the integration of automation, have emerged in an attempt to support the necessary increase in yield, yet they remain to be tested on a global scale.
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- Lori, M., Symnaczik, S., Mäder, P., de Deyn, G., & Gattinger, A. (2017). Organic farming enhances soil microbial abundance and activity—A meta-analysis and meta-regression. PLOS ONE, 12(7), e0180442. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0180442
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