Organic and sustainable. These two terms do not necessarily go together.
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The organic system is a really difficult thing to explain. It cannot be described in a single blurb. Perhaps that’s one reason why the term has been so misunderstood and consequently, its benefits have been overstated.
The biggest difference between conventional and organic farming is that organic farmers are heavily restricted in the types of pesticides they are allowed to use. That being said, “organic” does not mean “pesticide free”, but rather “synthetic pesticide free”. The organic system is meant to work with the environment rather than against it by means of preventative insect and disease control methods, but the evidence to support its success isn’t fully there.
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Synthetic isn’t always bad. The manufactured fertilizers used in conventional farming are rigorously studied before they’re approved. Some studies indicate that “natural” pesticides may be more damaging to human health than their synthetic counterparts. The current anti-pesticide and GMO sentiment seems to be largely fear-based, and while the precautionary principle can be environmentally beneficial, unbiased research, rather than a fearful attitude, must follow.
As the world population is expected to rise to nine billion by 2050 and researchers believe that we have entered the sixth mass extinction, it is important that the way we produce food and treat the available soil is put into question. Considering the rate of anthropogenic climate changes, large-scale internationally agreed and evidence-based policies are required to reverse or at least decrease our impact on the environment.
One of the biggest questions scientists are asking to better understand how agriculture can be changed to promote economic, social, and environmental sustainability is the question of land-sharing or land-sparing. Land-sharing agrees with the organic ethos, in that land is shared between crops and native species. The thing is, crop yield for land-sharing tends to be much lower, meaning more land has to be converted to farmland. Most of the time it is rainforests and wetlands that are cut down.
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Land-sparing requires a smaller area of land to attain the same yields and therefore leaves greater areas of natural habitat untouched. Land-sparing intensifies land use by way of new technologies like genetic modification and synthetic pesticides, which are not permitted organic practices.
Much research shows that land-sparing could prove more successful for wildlife protection. A 2011 Cambridge University study of Ghana and northern India showed that land-sparing achieves better results for biodiversity. Similar research is necessary for different countries because the optimal balance between land-sparing and sharing to maintain production and biodiversity differs between landscapes. There is “a lot of local variation in land-use practices across the tropics that could influence whether land-sharing or land-sparing is the best alternative,” says William Lawrence, a tropical forest scientists with James Cook University via Mongabay.
Sparing won’t work without land set aside for protection. The land onto which farming is not expanded needs to be permanently preserved.
Many farmers are giving up their organic status. For most, the costs are just too high to be sustainable. “We believe in the organic ethos, but it was an extra niche aspect for us. There are lots of reasons why people buy our milk,” says Julia Quenaul, a farmer, via The Guardian. Because of its high costs and the bureaucracy associated with certification, organic farming can easily become an exclusive luxury not readily available in poorer areas.
But costs are not the only reason why farmers are opting out. Michael Johnston who farms sheep and cattle in Aberdeen gave up organic farming upon expanding his knowledge of soil biology and climate change. He decided that the organic system was not the best way to care for his soil.
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There exists extensive scientific-evidence favouring both sides. That being said, even the Soil Association acknowledges the gaps in research relative to the merits of organic farming. For one, organic farmers often use the same antibiotics and vaccines as conventional farmers, but theirs are prescribed by a veterinarian. Also, nonorganic straw can be used as bedding for organic ranchers, but nothing stops the animals from eating the straw. As for nutritional content, there is a myriad of contradictory research.
Comprehensive studies suggest that it is not land sparing nor sharing that will alone bring us out of the environmental hole we have dug for ourselves. Different land masses have to be extensively studied to give us an idea of what’s best for that area. For now, because the problem is so complex in nature and there isn’t much conclusive research, Ivette Perfecto who studies farming and writes about it argues that smallholder farms that target food distribution rather than food production issues are the key to food security and environmental sustainability. That’s something to think about.
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