Organic Farming: Getting Technical

IN

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.

This maximises soil humus (nutritious, decomposing organic matter which includes soil microorganisms and benefits soil structure), and microbial activity (which breaks down organic matter into nutrients plants can make use of). Earthworms benefit from this increased organic matter, helping to improve soil structure and nutrients, so the land can better cope with stresses like drought, or large volumes of rain. Further improving the soil structure, direct drilling or minimum tillage is used instead of the traditional ploughing in order to minimise disturbance and erosion.

Since organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or GM varieties, they practice natural methods for controlling pests and disease, such as managing habitats to encourage natural predators. To outcompete weeds, farmers might sow a higher density of seeds, alter the time they sow, sow more than one crop at a time, or not grow crops that are susceptible to similar pests and disease in succession.

Alternative Benefits

According to The Soil Association, organic farming currently offers the best, practical model for growing climate-friendly food. Nearly 25% of Scottish farming’s greenhouse gas emissions come from nitrogen fertilisers, and since organic farming does not use fossil-fuel based fertilisers or chemicals, it offers a chance to reduce these emissions.

In addition, agricultural soils store an estimated 9.8 billion tonnes of carbon, and if managed well, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, if they are badly managed they can become a source of emissions.

Soils from organic farms often have more soil organic matter (which puts carbon back into the soil) and potential for long-term carbon storage, than soils from non-organic farms, according to research.

In Scotland, many organic farmers are also involved in restoring peatland, helping to lock greenhouse gases into the land.

With rising public consciousness around sustainability, consumers are increasingly looking for food with ‘green’ benefits. Farmers are recognising this and increasingly looking at how they can be part of the solution to tackling big issues like climate change. Let’s hope organic production, with its potential to address the current ecological and environmental crisis, has an optimistic future ahead.

Read more about the farm featured on our current vintage of Bruichladdich The Organic 2010 here or discover more about our barley obsessions.

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