Organic Farming: Environmental and Human Health Benefits
In 2019, a UN report laid out a bitter truth: The current food system is fueling the destruction of Earth’s forests — and humanity must overhaul how we grow and ship food to stop climate breakdown.
But countries are struggling to keep farming sustainable while meeting the mounting demand for production — which must increase by between 25% and 70% by 2050 to feed growing populations.
Although there are strong debates about whether organic farming is sustainable to meet the increasing demand for food and whether it is efficient to combat climate change because it requires more land than conventional farming to meet the demand, it’s benefits on biodiversity and human health are undeniable.
While the organic versus conventional farming debate rages on, there is one clear way to lower the environmental impact of your food, and it won’t hurt your wallet: Reducing the amount of meat in your diet.
What is organic farming?
Organic centered agricultural production system fosters the cycling of resources to conserve biodiversity and promote ecological balance. The use of green manure, cover crops, animal manure and soil rotation to interrupt the habitation of pests and diseases, improve soil fertility, and maximize the soil’s biological activity are the primary aspects of organic farming.
In other words, organic farming does not allow the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides or GMOs.
Benefits of Organic Farming
The use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers can have detrimental effects on ecosystems. There are concerns about a decline in the bee population worldwide, due to the increased use of toxic pesticides.
“America’s agricultural landscape is now 48 times more toxic to honeybees, and likely other insects, than it was 25 years ago, almost entirely due to widespread use of so-called neonicotinoid pesticides”
– National Geographic, 6 August 2019
Bees are vital to the well-being of the planet’s ecosystem and for food supply. Without bees many fruits, nuts and vegetables would no longer be available. Organic farming not only prevents the use of chemical, long lasting pesticides but it also encourages the diversity of crops and therefore pollen available for bees.
The neotoxins currently used can stay in the environment for 1,000 days and are proving very damaging to insect population.
Studies have shown that organic farming increased species richness by about 30% and had a greater effect on biodiversity, as the percentage of the landscape consisting of arable fields increased. It was found that organic fields had up to five times higher plant species richness compared to conventional fields. For example, plant and butterfly species richness was up to 20% higher on organic farms and butterfly abundance was about 60% higher. In organic and biodynamic farming plots, the number of earthworms was on average two times higher compared to integrated, conventional and control plots.
Biodiversity as one of the most important ecosystem services of organic farming is firmly connected to bio-control and pollination services, which are enhanced when using no or less chemicals. The abundance of cereal aphids was five times lower in organic fields, while predator abundances were 20 times higher in organic fields, indicating a significantly higher potential for biological pest control in organic fields. Organic fields had 20 times higher pollinator species richness compared to conventional fields.
2. Soil quality
Conventional farming methods are steadily eroding the quality of soil. The soil is never rotated or given a chance to re-incorporate organic matter. As a result, farmers become more reliant on fertilizers and ever-heavier mechanical rotation to provide nutrition. A lack of organic matter also makes the soil more prone to drought and erosion.
Conventional farming ignores the long-term impact on soil quality and is storing problems for future generations. It is estimated a third of the world’s global soil is now degraded.
The Joint Research Center noted that decreasing productivity can be observed on 20% of the world’s cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland.
According to Conservation International, protecting or restoring carbon in soil can provide 3 billion tons of cost-effective climate mitigation per year and is a win-win for farmers and the planet. Sustainable farming practices that protect and restore carbon in the soil can enhance agricultural production and help reduce soil erosion.
3. Organic farming supports water conservation & health
Dwindling water supplies and poor water health are very real threats.
When our water supply is at risk, people and the planet end up suffering.
A major water pollution threat to rivers worldwide is runoff from non-organic farms, such as harmful pesticides, toxic fertilizers, and animal waste. Organic farming helps keep our water supplies clean by stopping that polluted runoff.
Algal blooms (HABs) result in adverse effects on the health of people and marine animals and organisms. Algal blooms also negatively affect recreation, tourism and thus, local and regional economies. While there is more than one cause of algal blooms, a primary human-based cause of algae blooms is runoff from the petroleum-based fertilizers often used in conventional farming.
Organic farming also helps conserve water. Organic farmers, in general, tend to spend time amending soil correctly and using mulch – both of which help conserve water.
4. Healthier food
Suggestive evidence indicates that organic food consumption may reduce the risk of allergic disease and of overweight and obesity, but residual confounding is likely, as consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles overall. Animal experiments suggest that growth and development is affected by the feed type when comparing identically composed feed from organic or conventional production. In organic agriculture, the use of pesticides is restricted, and residues in conventional fruits and vegetables constitute the main source of human exposures.
Epidemiological studies have reported adverse effects of certain pesticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure, but these data have so far not been applied in the formal risk assessments of individual pesticides.
The nutrient composition differs only minimally between organic and conventional crops, with modestly higher contents of phenolic compounds in organic fruit and vegetables. There is likely also lower cadmium content in organic cereal crops. Organic dairy products, and perhaps also meats, have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products, although this difference is likely of marginal nutritional significance.
Of greater concern is the prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production as a key driver of antibiotic resistance in society; antibiotic use is less intensive in organic production.
Thus, organic food production has several documented and potential benefits for human health, and wider application of these production methods also in conventional agriculture, e.g., in integrated pest management, would therefore most likely benefit human health.
Overall, organic farms tend to have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture generally creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and is more energy efficient. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes, as well as genetic diversity.
The use organic products, whether for food consumption, toiletries, cleaning and skincare, reduces the exposure to pesticides potentially harmful for our nervous and immune systems. It also reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance.
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