Organic vs industrial farming

What do all these words mean, and what's the difference between these two methods of food production? Well, in general, "farming" is a skilful craft as practised by farmers; if the farm produces a wide range of crops (including animals) it is "diverse"; and if it is farmed without chemicals (including artificial fertilisers) it is "organic". "Monocropping", on the other hand, is the production of only one crop (which can be an animal as well as a plant); and "industrial" means it is carried out on a large scale, with high inputs of industrial products. We, as befits our choice of livelihood, believe passionately in small-scale diverse organic farming.
Why? Because small-scale diverse organic farming works with nature, whereas industrial monocropping works against nature. A monocrop is an unstable system, almost non-existent in nature, needing high inputs to keep it working, mainly the continual application of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, plus fossil fuels and heavy machinery such as tractors and combine-harvesters. It doesn't take advantage of the principles of nature, instead it undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species in bounds. If a disease or pest organism attacks a monocrop, only the chemicals can hold it back, otherwise it will rampage and the whole crop can be lost (think of potato blight, or bird flu, or of how fast a virus can spread in heavily-populated areas). There are no predators present to eat the pest, or non-host species to halt the spread by acting as barriers, just an abundance of its favourite food. Once the pest has evolved to survive the chemicals being used against it, it will bounce back, and it will be stronger and harder to control. In cases of animal monocrops, antibiotics are continually fed to the animals just so they can survive in such unnatural environments as, say, a battery chicken shed. This can lead to disease mutation and the evolution of new stronger strains, giving the possibility of a leap across the species barrier, and the risk of new human pandemics (such as the 2009 swine flu outbreak in Mexico, which may have begun on an industrial pig-farm).
A diverse organic farm, however, relies on natural rather than agro-chemical processes to keep the crops healthy. If a disease does take hold, it won't get very far before it comes up against a non-host species which it cannot infect. One crop, or one bed of one crop, may be lost, but the others should be fine. Crop rotation (see "How and Why - crop rotation") and mixed successive grazing lend a hand here, by not allowing pests to build up to dangerous levels. By not using pesticides, there should be a healthy and diverse population of natural predators (such as ladybirds and parasitic wasps) already living on the farm to deal with outbreaks of insect pests. This diversity - of crops, animals, wildlife, predators - is one of the most essential components of a functional, productive, and stable farming system (see "How and Why - biodiversity"). Diverse organic farming is not "farming by numbers". It is farming by intuition, knowledge, and tradition. It is a more stable, more resilient, more sustainable, more cost effective, more energy efficient method of producing food than its powerful but destructive "successor", industrial monocropping.
how? Our farm is mixed (meaning both animals and plants) and diverse (meaning several types of each). We stick to strict organic principles, and are certified as such. We maintain and enhance diversity wherever applicable - the orchards are planted with seven apple varieties plus some other fruit trees, and are grazed by sheep, horses, and chickens (each of the three helping to control the parasites of the other two); we grow many types and varieties of fruit and vegetables in the kitchen garden on a crop-rotation system; species-rich wildflower meadows are encouraged, themselves attracting wildlife onto the farm; and a mosaic of ecosystems is maintained, including hedgerows and woodland. Because we are a small farm, instead of buying heavy machinery we employ a farm-worker. This reduces fossil-fuel input and increases manual and cerebral input. This also creates one new job on the land, which is one small step towards providing viable rural employment opportunities, stemming migration to the cities, boosting the local economy, and one small step towards proving that farming can be an attractive career option.
Other points. - The industrialisation of agriculture has led to increased uniformity in crops (including animal breeds), thus reducing the gene pool, and increasing the vulnerability of crops to disease. This may be one factor in the current global decline in bee populations, because most commercial bees are now of only two varieties. - Reliance on industrial fertilisers rather than composts and manures leads to a gradual decline in organic matter held within the soil. The carbon within that organic matter oxidises and is lost to the atmosphere, where it enhances the greenhouse effect. Using composts and manures instead of fertilisers puts carbon back into the soil, reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere. - Many monocrops are produced in favourable tropical climates on lands cleared of rainforest or savannah, resulting in social, cultural and environmental degradation (for example palm oil, soya, and beef). - Small-scale farms are more likely to operate at a local level, reducing the distance and therefore energy required to transport produce to the consumer (plus all the other benefits of being local, such as paying local wages and supporting local producers). - This "how and why?" sheet has concentrated on the "ecological sustainability" aspects of the issue, and has hardly begun to mention the socio-cultural, nutritive, health, taste, financial, spiritual, political, or empowerment aspects, with which many more sheets could be filled. Further information. Tudge, Colin (2007); Feeding people is easy; Pari Publishing.
Information sheet created by Hotel Posada del Valle. (
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