The Dirt Issue 24 – The Case for Conventional Farming… and Organic… and Sustainable…

Posted on March 13, 2018
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Conventional, organic, sustainable—these are just three of the many terms used to characterize twenty- first century agriculture. Each has its champions, but what is becoming increasingly evident is a trend toward adopting practices from each growing system as best suits a particular farm, or even, an individual crop.

Let’s make one thing clear.

There is a lot of passion in advocating one growing system over another and sometimes that passion leads to negative sentiments against followers of an alternative method. But, what is true across the board is that no farmer wants to be unsustainable. It is not in the farmer’s interest to squander resources or deplete the productivity of the farm. But being sustainable is a complex issue because true sustainability covers three issues: economic productivity, environmental integrity and social responsibility. It just isn’t sustainable if any of these aspects is sacrificed in favor of the other.

Why choose one over the other?

The development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago allowed human populations to establish themselves and live settled lives with at least some possibility of food security. In the broadest sense, it’s what has allowed populations to grow until we now have some 7.6 billion persons on planet Earth. It is generally believed that worldwide food production is sufficient to feed that population, even though hunger exists due to inefficient food distribution and political upheaval. It is the development of conventional agriculture that has allowed so much food to be produced for so many.

The capacity to maximize yield most clearly defines conventional farming. The methods used to do that are what distinguish conventional from organic farming. Conventional allows the use of synthetic fertilizers and crop protection inputs; organic does not. That is not to say that organic farming does not use fertilizers or crop protection inputs, but that those it does use must be derived from nature and be identified as organic.

It is the effect of these inputs, intended and otherwise, that generates debate.

Getting back to the three tenants of sustainability, economic productivity is the reason conventional farming evolved as it did. To this day, conventional farming produces higher yields and therefore more output per acre of farmland than organic. Conventional farming tends to lend itself better to commodity crops, those which are grown on contract. Being a successful commodity farmer requires a reliable output to meet production targets. Conventional farming has the advantage when delivering on these contracts.

But, here’s the rub. All agriculture is a tradeoff and the unfortunate tradeoff of synthetic inputs was often found to be environmental degradation. Notice the word, was. The initial efforts in producing such synthetic inputs, dating from 1909 with the synthesizing of ammonium nitrate as fertilizer, were so successful in enhancing yield that it seemed to have unlimited potential. It took several years for that early outcome to be shown to be not only temporary, but damaging over time. Since then the evolving understanding of the complexities of soil fertility have fostered the development of inputs which are far less likely to cause harm.

Why not avoid the problem and go strictly organic?

Organic farming depends on organic inputs like compost and manure to feed crops. Manure, however, is a secondary product of the crop originally grown as feed for livestock. The manure produced from that feed crop cannot fully replace the nutrients used up in growing the feed. This imbalance means the nutritional needs of a crop must be met by practices other than inputs alone.

Best practices emerge from both camps.

Through trial and error, good science, and perseverance, organic farmers have adopted many effective methods to achieve their goals. Among these are crop rotation, cover cropping, intercropping (growing two or more crops simultaneously, for example, lettuces planted between rows of Brussels sprouts), the use of green manure and mulch, and the application of manure and compost. These practices, over time, result in higher soil integrity as measured by such key indicators as soil organic matter or SOM. This is important because soils rich in SOM are able to hold more water than depleted soils, supporting plant growth and protecting crops from the effects of drought.

The success of these methods has led to their adoption by conventional farmers. It is old news to characterize most conventional farmers as only using monoculture; crop rotations are now the norm. Likewise, conventional farmers are leaving crop residue in the field, using it as a mulch and soil protector. In fact, conventional farming is more likely to use either conservation or no-till practices than organic. This minimal disturbance of the soil does more than any other method to increase SOM and contribute to soil health.

Add technology to the mix and all benefit.

Whether the practices originated in conventional farming or organic, the real point is do they work? By adapting and adopting methods from many approaches, modern agriculture has the potential to have it all, especially when technology plays a role. Having sensors delivering to-the-minute data on nutritional and water needs, means that a crop will get just what it requires and no more, minimizing waste and lowering costs.

It’s an exciting time to be a farmer; so many tools to work with, so many opportunities to learn.