Agritalk: Organic Farming – Can it be Sustainable and Feed the World?

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Agritalk: Organic Farming – Can it be Sustainable and Feed the World?

Farming has been known since prehistoric times. At that time humans farmed to maintain the availability of food for themselves. By farming, people began to change their lifestyle, from lived nomadic and hunted down to living by settling down and starting farming. The agricultural system used by humans when it was still very simple, limited domestication of plants and animals, and began to cultivate wheat. This traditional farming was carried out by humans for thousands of years before the discovery of synthetic fertilizers.

The agricultural sector continues to experience development marked by the discovery of simple farming tools. Furthermore, with the development of science, in the 18th century, the first synthetic fertilizer was discovered. Then during World War 1, fertilizer based ammonia were developed which were then mass-produced and sold at low prices. Synthetic pesticides were discovered around the 1940s which triggered the use of large amounts of chemicals globally.

The utilization of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in conventional agriculture has caused a lot of environmental damage, such as the use of excess water, loss of soil fertility, to climate change. From the environmental problems that arise then it makes people aware that a new system environmentally friendly is needed. Public awareness has increased in the 21st century, which produced a new term in the agricultural sector, namely organic farming.

Organic farming is an agricultural system wherein conducting farming activities, synthetic chemicals are not used but the use of organic materials. Organic farming is based on principles that focus on health, ecology, and protection of both consumers and the environment. Organic farming utilizes natural processes in the environment, so methods in this system include crop rotation, use of green fertilizer (compost), biological pest control, and mechanical tillage. Examples of the implementation of organic farming are the utilization of legumes as nitrogen binders, the application of mulch to controlling pests and diseases, and the use of natural materials as fertilizers, pesticides, and soil conditioning.

 In organic farming, soil fertility is managed with cover crops, green and animal manures, compost, and crop rotation. A study from Mondelaers (2009) has shown that soil organic matter was improved in the field managed by the organic system than the conventional system. Furthermore, studies have found that microbial biomass and soil concentration of P, K, Ca, and Mg are greater in organic fields. Crop rotation and organic soil amendment may increase microbial biomass, diversity, and microbial activity. This can support the larger populations of macroorganisms. Improving soil quality can lead to soil conservation and reduce the cost of economy and energy from mineral fertilizer.

Organic farming and conventional farming have different inputs. But, some lastest research found that generally the total cost between both of them was similar. The difference is labor cost under organic farming is higher than conventional farming otherwise in conventional systems spend more cost on synthetic input. Labor cost in organic farming is 7% greater than conventional (Crowder and Reganold, 2015). It is because organic farming needs more labor. This extra labor in organic farming has a benefit in providing rural employment and development opportunities.

Organic farming has many impacts on the environment, one is about diversity. Research from Yuan-Hsiou Chang (2020) found the differences between organic farming and conventional farming in terms of ecological environment, especially vertebrate species. This graphic shows the comparison of conventional farms and organic farms vertebrate species. The vertebrates under organic farms found more than under conventional farms. This demonstrates that the biodiversity of organic farming is greater than that of conventional farming.

Fig. 1 Comparasion of conventional farm and organic farm vertebrate species and abundace
Source: International Society of Organic Agriculture Research, 2020

Another data from separated research found that organic farming has more ecosystem services value than conventional farming. The graphic below shows that each ecosystem services; biological control, soil formation, and mineralization, has higher value under organic system than conventional.

Fig. 2 estimated value of ecosistem services provided by organic system management
Source : Sustainability, 2018

Yield is the most important output in agriculture. Furthermore, crop yield also a livelihood for farmers so it can develop their community’s economy. But there are differences between yield under conventional system and organic system which. Ponisio (2015) found that yield under the organic system was 19%  lower than the conventional system. to get the same yield as conventional system, organic farming requires more land. Whereas the availability of land in the world is limited.

Land use efficiency and land availability are always the big question in organic farming. Based on a study from Tuomisto (2012), the organic system needs 84% more land than the conventional system. Requirement of land due to soil building, break disease cycle, and the lower of yields. These are reduce the land-use efficiency in organic farming.

The concept of sustainable development has spread throughout all human activities, including agriculture. Agriculture is an important sector for human life, so they are needs a good concept of sustainability because agriculture is related to social, economic, and environmental issues. The higher number of the human population is currently increasing the need for food and land also increased. While diminishing land, food needs must be able to be improved so as not to occur edema. However, human activities such as in agriculture cause loss of quality of agricultural land even in the environment. This problem can be solved by making use of available resources wisely. The concept of sustainable agriculture is expected to be a solution to this problem.

Fig. 3 Sustainable agriculture is at the intersection of the environmental, social, and economic concerns in agriculture
Source : Institut national de la recherche agronomique, 2014

Sustainable agriculture is an agricultural movement based on ecological principles, the study of the relationship between organisms and the environment. In sustainable agriculture, the management of agricultural resources is aimed at helping to change human needs while maintaining or improving the quality of the environment and conserving natural resources. Sustainable agriculture relies on returning nutrients to the soil by minimizing non-renewable natural resources such as natural gas (which is currently used as raw material for fertilizer) and minerals (phosphate).

According to FAO (1996), the definition of food security is a condition where each individual has physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times to meet their food needs so that they have an active and healthy life. Food security is crucial considering that most agroecosystems are in situations that are often unpredictable; such as climate, pests, and so on. In 2030, it is estimated that the total world population will reach 8.5 billion; 34% more than now (Umesha, 2018). It means global food needs will also increase. So we need a more productive agricultural system by minimizing environmental damage. To meet food needs, sustainable agriculture practices and food system management are needed. Increasing yields from available land and restoring degraded land with sustainable farming systems can reduce the pressure to clear forests for agricultural land. It is also necessary to manage water wisely and combined with the development of drought-resistant varieties to answer the problem of productivity in dry land.

In addition to the problem of the global population, the world today also faces the problem of climate change. Agriculture and climate have a close causal relationship; agriculture depends on the climate and the other hand climate is influenced by agricultural activities. Agricultural activities contribute to climate change in greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture produces greenhouse gases in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. These greenhouse gas emissions are produced from fertilizing and livestock activities. The concept of sustainable agriculture by minimizing chemical fertilizer inputs is a solution to reduce the impact of climate change from the agricultural sector.

Fig. 4 Interrelationship between climate change and agriculture
Source : University of Mysore, 2018

Healthy soil supports healthy plants and livestock. a decrease in soil quality caused by inorganic fertilization is a problem in agriculture today. decreased soil quality causes a decrease in the surrounding biodiversity. whereas this biodiversity has the potential to increase plant growth. Improving soil quality can be done by maintaining or improving soil organic matter. soil organic matter has an important role for the soil; save water, improve aeration, improve soil structure, become a substrate for microorganisms, and so on. in sustainable agriculture, the aim is to reduce and replace external inputs in the form of non-renewable energy into renewable energy. concerning soil quality, sustainable agriculture utilizes chemical inputs to a minimum by considering the yield to be obtained.

The question is, “can organic farming being sustainable and feed the world?” Organic farming is one type of sustainable agriculture. Organic farming is considered much better for the environment because there is no chemicals are used in crop cultivation. It has a good potential. But, switching from conventional to organic farming generally leads to a sharp drop yields because it needs time to recover and increase the soil quality. And to feed the world’s population, we need a high yield. Consequently, for now, organic farming cannot feed a whole world alone, but need to combine with other sustainable production methods.

References :

Ahlem Z, Hammas MA (2017) Organic Farming: A Path of Sustainable Development. Int J Econ Manag Sci 6: 456.

Fess TL, Benedito VA. Organic versus Conventional Cropping Sustainability: A Comparative System Analysis. Sustainability. 2018; 10(1):272.

Lu, H., Chang, Y. & Wu, B. The Compare Organic Farm and Conventional Farm to Improve Sustainable Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment. Org. Agr. (2020).

Ponisio, L.C.; M’Gonigle, L.K.; Mace, K.C.; Palomino, J.; de Valpine, P.; Kremen, C. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 2015, 282, 20141396.

Tuomisto, H.L.; Hodge, I.D.; Riordan, P.; Macdonald, D.W. Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? A meta-analysis of European research. J. Environ. Manag. 2012, 112, 309–320.

Umesha, Sharanaiah; Manukumar, H.M.G.; Chandrasekhar, Bhadvelu. Biotechnology for Sustainable Agriculture, Chapter 3: Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security. 2018, 67-92 Sonja, Brotd; Johan, Six; Gail, Feenstra; Chuck, Ingels; David, Campbell. Sustainable Agriculture. 2011. Retrivied from https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/sustainable-agriculture-23562787/

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