Organic farming began around 1900 and really began to expand in the 1970s, in response to the environmental impact of intensive farming. There is more to this practice than just avoiding synthetic chemicals. It encompasses a whole range of farming techniques that promote soil health and biodiversity. It has become a societal project aimed at ensuring the wellbeing of livestock and future generations of people, as well as promoting fair relations.
A new approach
Biodynamic farming, created in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, served as one of the cornerstones of organic farming. The philosophy of biodynamics sees the earth as a unit, evolving under the influence of the forces of the universe. It thus aims to produce food using a variety of ecological methods that respect the earth, plants and animals. Three associations have contributed to the development of organic farming since the 1940s. The Soil Association in the United Kingdom promotes small independent farmers and pays particular attention to the role of humus in maintaining fertile soils. Organo-biological farming in Switzerland aims to help farmers be economically independent and encourages closer links between farmers and consumers. In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka developed non-action farming, which follows the natural calendar and considers weeding and ploughing unnecessary. His work went on to influence permaculture.
Contrasting views of organic farming
Since the 1970s, when it became apparent that intensive farming was leading to soil degradation and water pollution, consumers and governments have become increasingly interested in organic farming. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded in 1972 to coordinate associations that support organic farming worldwide and to promote the sharing of knowledge.
Organic farming was previously associated with a style of farming that did not use synthetic chemical inputs. IFOAM officially defined it for the first time in 1982 and listed seven standards: to work as much as possible within a closed system (reuse of local resources); to maintain long-term fertility of soils; to avoid all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural techniques; to produce foodstuffs of high nutritional quality and sufficient quantity; to reduce the use of fossil energy in agricultural practice; to ensure the welfare of livestock; and to enable agricultural producers to earn a decent living. On this basis, the Codex Alimentarius Commission established by the WHO and FAO defined organic farming in 1999 as a holistic production management system that promotes the health of the agroecosystem. The Commission decided that this system should also favour locally adapted, biological and mechanical agronomic methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials. At the same time, its annexes listed a number of recommended practices (such as the use of nitrogen-fixing pulses to increase soil fertility) practices permitted under certain conditions (such as the use of organic waste from agro processing as fertilisers) and prohibited practices (use of synthetic inputs and GMOs, for example). For purists, this definition limits organic farming to an agricultural technique that meets a set of specifications, whereas they believe it should be seen as the basis of a societal project that offers an alternative to the current socio-economic system. In this sense, organic farming also aims to develop short distribution chains, food autonomy, a reduction in food losses, valorisation of local crops and protection for small producers. Consumers still do not fully comprehend these various definitions and applications. Nonetheless, organic farming of local livestock and seasonal produce gives overall better environmental results than intensive farming. It remains hard to tell whether organic farming could maintain this track record if practised on a larger scale to feed the world compared with intensive farming. Moreover, while organic farming yields tend to be 20% to 25% lower than conventional farming per plot of land, replicating these results on an international scale remains a problem.
Overall, organic products are not proven to have superior nutritional value to conventionally farmed products. Contrary to what consumers often think, organic farming can make use of chemicals. It only bans the use of synthetic chemicals and chemicals already prohibited in conventional farming. Some of the products used are known to be toxic (or ecotoxic), sometimes more so than their synthetic equivalent. Just like in conventional farming, there are strict controls on their use, as is the case with pyrethrin, azadirachtin, or the copper in the famous Bordeaux mixture.
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