You may have heard that organic farming is far better for the environment than conventional. But what are the specific differences? Below are the farming methods for the two practices, along with their ecological impacts.
- Action: Apply 10 tons of certified organic compost per acre.
- Eco-impact: Organic fertilizers, such as composted chicken manure, augment the quantity of organic humus naturally present in healthy soil. Humus stores nitrogen and carbon rather than releasing them into air and water, where they can cause harm.
- Action: Apply 500 pounds urea and 335 pounds triple superphosphate per acre, both chemical-based fertilizers.
- Eco-impact: Chemical sources of nitrogen, including urea, break down humus, releasing CO2 and creating nitrate runoff that pollutes waterways and causes vast, near-lifeless “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.
- Action: Rototill field to mitigate weeds and prepare seedbed.
- Eco-impact: Tilling is a cost- and time-efficient, herbicide-free way to control weeds. Some argue that tilling causes erosion and decreases soil fertility.
- Action: Till without applying a broad-spectrum herbicide or apply herbicide and then till.
- Eco-impact: Glyphosate, the most widely used broad-spectrum herbicide, can persist in soil more than 150 days and is especially harmful to amphibians such as frogs.
- Action: Both using tractors and by hand, farmers plant organic seeds and transplants grown in a certified organic greenhouse; regionally adapted seeds are preferred.
- Eco-impact: By definition, organic seed cannot be genetically modified or treated with chemicals for disease resistance. Locally adapted seeds and breeds offer greater natural resistance to both disease and climatic stress
- Action: Grower uses conventional seeds and transplants grown in chemically boosted soil.
- Eco-impact: Many conventional seeds are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with ecosystem and health implications. One study found that U.S. farmers have applied 383 million more pounds of herbicides on GMO crops such as soybeans since 1996 than they likely would have applied on non-GMO varieties of these crops. At the same time, farmers have seen a rise in herbicide-resistant, or “super,” weeds.
- Action: Farmer only applies pesticides reactively. For example, if a potato psyllid infestation strikes, farmer will apply pyrethrum every five days.
- Eco-impact: USDA Organic–approved pyrethrum, derived from chrysanthemums, kills insects but quickly degrades in high temperatures and UV light.
- Action: Farmer proactively fights pests, applying imidacloprid every five days, even if no pests have been spotted.
- Eco-impact: The world’s fastest-selling insecticide, imidacloprid, is widely implicated as a major culprit in honeybee death and colony collapse disorder worldwide. A neurotoxin, it renders entire plants toxic, is very persistent in soil (three years) and water (one year), can bioaccumulate with successive applications, and breaks down into substances even more toxic to bees and other insects.
- Action: Tractors till between rows; then farmer switches to a wheeled hoe and hand weeding as plants get big.
- Eco-impact: No toxins used.
- Action: Tractors till more often; most farmers apply glyphosate between rows periodically.
- Eco-impact: More gas burned, more toxins sprayed.
- Action: Budget permitting, farmer plants a legume or grain cover crop.
- Eco-impact: Cover crops boost soil fertility and minimize erosion.
- Action: Conventional farmland typically sits fallow; farmer sometimes plants cover crops to minimize erosion.
- Eco-impact: Chemicals that persist in soil continue to run off fallow ground, polluting waterways and oceans.