May 1996
Press information


The environmental problems facing the agricultural industry cannot be solved by pesticide free zones in periphery areas or by improved spraying equipment. If environmental degradation is to be avoided pollution must be stopped. In the industrial world the transition to organic farming can solve the problem of surpluses and most of agriculture's environmental problems. In the developing countries new research indicates the organic farming methods can help peasant farmers produce considerably more food. Organic agriculture has matured sufficiently to be taken seriously by world leaders as an agricultural type capable of solving agriculture's environmental problems without the risk of compromising food supply.

The organic idea comprises two key concepts: living soil and biodiversity. When it is understood how soil should be treated to become a "living" entity the need of easily absorbable artificial fertilizers disappears and when it is grasped how to achieve biodiversity in farming the need of hazardous chemicals in agricultural production also disappears.

The basis of organic agriculture: Living soil

Describing soil as "living" is probably foreign to most people. However, top soil swarms with living organisms from the common earthworm to bacteria and microscopic fungi. Top soil is an ecosystem much like a forest. It is the earth's ecosystem that literally speaking forms the basis of organic agriculture. If the ecosystem is left intact with broad biodiversity it has the possibility of carrying out the mission designed for it by nature, namely, to supply plant life with necessary nourishment.

Pollution simplifies the ecosystems of rivers and streams: organism variety is diminished and the water's self-purifying ability is reduced. Soil's ecosystem is polluted in like fashion, for instance, by artificial fertilizing and the use of pesticides and, as in the case of streams and rivers, its ecosystem is simplified. Organisms disappear, thus reducing the soil's ability to nourish plant life without artificial help.

The most obvious difference between conventional and organic agriculture is that the former uses artificial fertilizers and its organic counterpart uses various types of organic nutrients derived from animal or vegetable matter, for example, farmyard manure and compost. The organic method therefore appreciates top soil as a living ecosystem: organic fertilizer nourishes the earth's organisms in a manner that artificial fertilizer, by its very nature, can never accomplish.

Healthy plants

If the central role played by living soil in organic farming is appreciated accusations that organic farmers spread artificial fertilizers or spray their land with pesticides at dead of night can only be acknowledged as ridiculous. If this were the case they would destroy their living soil and be on the way back to conventional production, where increasing amounts of artificial fertilizers and pesticides are needed. Living soil and biodiversity are essential to the health of plants. It is well documented, for instance, that plants cultivated on compost fertilized soil are less exposed to fungal infections than plants cultivated on artificially fertilized land.

Diversity also plays a role in helping to maintain plants in a healthy condition. To mention just one example. A wise organic farmer tolerates a few weeds in his corn field. He is aware that weeds attract useful insects. Hover flies, for instance, whose larvae feed on the aphids found on cereals. Diversifying crop type and variety in the same field are further examples of methods to secure biodiversity in organic fields.

If due regard is taken of the soil's ecosystem and biodiversity it is possible to cultivate healthy plants - or to put it another way, plants that do not require "protection " from the chemical industry.

Famine or environmental catastrophy?

There is no doubt that conventional agriculture gives greater yields than its organic counterpart. However, higher yields come at a price in the form of environmental problems. Owing to over production conventional agriculture is forced at times to take land out of production. Conversion to organic agriculture then would solve two problems simultaneously: less intensive farming methods giving lesser yields and minimal pollution. Experience has shown that organic agricultural yields by and large correspond to 1960 levels. In other words a yield level that in no way threatens food supplies in industrial countries.

In the developing world, however, problems are quite different. In many regions agricultural production is insufficient to feed the local population. There are many reasons for this: dumping of agricultural surpluses from industrial countries leads to unprofitable local production and the production of cash crops, such as bananas and coffee, deprives local food production of arable land, just to name two of the most important examples.

In the villages where food for the local population is produced methods are often so primitive that yields are quite low. It is irrelevant here whether or not yields can be increased with the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides because local farmers cannot afford either. If on the other hand organic methods are introduced production intensifies. An increase in yields of 200-300 per cent has often been experienced.

Two examples of how agricultural production can be intensified with the sole use of local resources: the population can be trained how to recycle their household waste to compost and use it as fertilizer. This makes use of local resources that would otherwise go to waste and the same time help to achieve greater yields. If a farmer cultivates coffee for export by organic methods he can cultivate various types of vegetables between his coffee bushes. This increases biodiversity while at the same time producing food. This method is impossible if coffee is grown with the use of chemicals as spraying makes vegetables unfit for human consumption.

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