Demand for organic produce has reached an all-time high in the UK. The market is now estimated to be worth a total £2.33 billion – its highest ever valuation. Conventional farming is still in the majority, but the area of land being converted to organic production is growing as producers see the environmental and economic opportunities.
What are the other benefits that make it worthwhile? And how exactly does it work? Our guest correspondent Jez Fredenburgh investigates:
Also known as ‘ecological’ and ‘biological’ agriculture, organic farming puts environmental, animal welfare, food quality, human health, and socio-economic aims at its heart. But besides not working with chemical fertilisers and pesticides, what are organic farmers actually doing and why?
Diverse Mixed Systems
Continuously growing the same crops, or just arable crops, on one area of land can cause weeds, pests and diseases to build up, and soil nutrients to be depleted. Organic farms therefore work with a diverse array of crops and animals which are rotated round the farm to help break cycles of pests and disease, and build soil fertility.
Ideally, a balance of crops is grown between those that build up soil nutrients and fertility (such as clover which fixes nitrogen), and crops which extract these nutrients at harvest. Grassland, which livestock graze on, is often an important part of an organic farm. It fertilises itself by fixing nitrogen, while the dung of the animals adds nutrients back into the soil.
According to Soil Association Scotland, farmers growing crops in lowland areas get better yields if their soils have been fed by livestock. Grazing livestock also help manage pasture habitats by keeping weeds at bay.
Diverse, organic farms benefit biodiversity too – they have been found to have more plant and floral diversity, more earthworms, insects, butterflies, and some types of birds.
Many of these insects, such as bees and hoverflies, help pollinate crops and are therefore critical to our food system. They also save farmers money – it is estimated that the cost to Scottish agriculture of doing what pollinators do would be around £43m.
Healthy Soils and Pest Management
Organically-farmed soils have been found to have 21% higher levels of soil organic matter on average, than non-organic soils, according to The Soil Association.
Soil is a farmer’s greatest asset, particularly for organic farmers who cannot add synthetic fertilisers. Instead, they use natural methods to maintain soil structure, biological activity, and fertility. Organic manures, either from livestock or as compost, are regularly applied to soils, recycling nutrients from animal feed and bedding, and from vegetable tops and weeds.