Benefits of organic agriculture

Why should I pay more for organic food? 


What organically farmed soil has that conventional soil doesn't is an abundance of life: Millions of insects, bacteria and other micro-organisms are busy nourishing, recycling, replenishing, aerating and enriching the soil.

In order to protect our lands, food productivity and ecological diversity, organic farmers take a holistic and harmonious approach to their business. In other words, they try to manage their crops, land and livestock as nature intended — with respect. All living beings are given the consideration and care that they deserve. Organic growers work with nature, rather than trying to dominate it.

By following organic practices such as companion planting, crop rotation, cultivating by hand, weeding, composting and mulching, organic growers maintain healthy, fertile soil that will continue to produce successful harvests year after year.

Diversity is a very important ecological component of organic farming. In organic agriculture, crops are continuously rotated to maintain sustainable soil with balanced nutrient levels. This results in reduced pest and disease problems. Monoculture farming (the same crop planted every year in the same soil) on the other hand, drastically strips away precious topsoil and depletes the soil of its health, leaving it less resistant to infestations and diseases.

On organic farms, pest problems that do arise can be controlled by organic or natural remedies (such as biodegradable botanical soaps and sprays) and techniques such as setting pheromone traps (traps that use an insect's natural secretions as a lure), releasing predator insects to eat the crop-ravishing ones and picking unwanted insects off by hand. Planting a secondary crop to attract insects that are beneficial to the primary crop or to divert insects that are attracted to the primary crop is also practised in organic agriculture.

While modern conventional farming uses large quantities of petroleum resources, organic farming tends to use less petrochemical energy and more renewable resources. For example, on one Ontario certified-organic farm, the family uses organically reared draft horses to plow and cultivate their fields and cut and rake their hay. A horse-drawn ridge-till planter allows them to plant corn, soybeans and spelt without tilling, thereby saving the soil from erosion and saving the farmers labour. The horses also help fertilize the farm, producing a rich soil with good root structure for their crops.

Organic agriculture also seeks to minimize agriculture's contribution to the planet's environmental problems such as acid rain, global warming, loss of biodiversity and desertification. Healthy topsoil, for example, contains large quantities of carbonaceous material so it lowers greenhouse CO2 gas levels and holds more water, which reduces both flooding and drought.

More than a work ethic, organic farmers incorporate the all-things-equal philosophy in their lives. But the organic-farming community often must compete with the agribusiness conglomerates that are taking over North America. To help organic operations continue their healthier way of farming, consumers must support them by buying their food and paying them fair prices for their valuable products.

A common complaint from consumers is that organic food is expensive. What many people don't realize is that the real cost of conventional food is much higher than what we pay at the check-out counter. Our tax dollars already go toward government subsidies for university and government chemical-research projects, export subsidies and direct support to large-scale commodity farmers. Canadian taxes also pay for medical care and environmental clean-up costs that may result from the use of toxic chemicals. Add a dramatic loss of topsoil caused by conventional agriculture and that conventional bunch of carrots may be costing our society much more than an organic one.

At the height of harvest season, local organic produce can often be bought for the same price as conventional produce. At other times, that cost can easily be twice the price, depending on the source and time of year.

What consumers must consider when contemplating the price difference is that in organic agriculture:

  • Most farms are small family-run operations that are not highly profit-driven and seldom receive government subsidies or support for organic research projects.
  • Organic food generally takes longer to grow than conventional food as chemical growth hormones and fertilizers can speed up the rate of growth of conventional crops by about 10 percent.
  • Produce is usually picked when it is ripe unlike conventional food, which, to allow for transportation time, is picked unripe and before it is fully developed. Consumers can savour organic food at its peak flavour and nutritional value because it is usually sold soon after it is harvested. Once again, this means the organic farmer has invested more time in the crop than a conventional farmer.
  • The majority of organic distribution is done on a small scale so the transportation costs are often higher. Organic farmers usually grow small amounts of several things, which are harvested at different times, unlike conventional farms that have large quantities of one commodity and a distribution network firmly established.
  • Losses during distribution can be higher than for conventional produce due to the lack of fumigants and wax coatings added for shipping.
  • Organic-certification bodies charge their members for annual inspections and the use of their certification labels, which verify that the food has been truly grown and processed organically.
  • There is a minimum three-year transition period (the time it takes chemically treated soil to gradually wean itself off "drugs") for farmers who want to apply for certification; during this period farmers usually do not receive a full income.

As demand for organic food increases, studies indicate that the price will eventually decrease. If we don't make a commitment to support a more sensible food system, who will?


More on organic agriculture
From the earth, for the earth | What makes organic food "organic"? | Food for thought
Plateful of pesticides | Who says it's "certified" organic?

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