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All over the world farmers are returning to the traditional organic farming methods that their ancestors used. It’s surprising to remember that it was only 100 ago years that the farming industry began to abandon organic methods in favor of using man-made chemicals for fertilization and pest control.
The use of synthetic chemicals and heavy machinery in large-scale farming operations totally revolutionized the industry. Huge monoculture farms were able to produce massive quantities of food at a much lower cost which meant that farmers who didn’t change their methods were quickly priced out of the market.
Enormous multinational companies soon came to dominate the farming industry and were able to provide low-cost food to billions of people around the world. Not only did food become much more available but it was also cheaper to buy. This meant that even the poorest families in the United States could now afford to buy meat and other products that were formerly out of their financial reach!
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The consequences of this led to great improvements in health and the quality of people’s lives. However, in recent times there has been a major shift back towards organic farming methods with customers being willing to pay a premium for organic food.
Italy Has Been Leading The Way In Organic Farming.
One of the countries that has been at the forefront of modern organic farming is Italy. Italy is one of the main organic food producers in the European Union and has over 60,000 individual companies currently working in the sector! Italy also has the most organically cultivated land in Europe with around 1,800,000 hectares in use, representing almost 15% of the total farmland in the country.
Organic food in Italy is big business too, with sales in 2021 reaching 7.5 Billion Euros! This is an increase of more than 120% in the last 10 years. Today, Italy has organically grown pastures, olive groves, vineyards and cereals. In fact, the amount of organically cultivated land in Italy has doubled over the last decade.
However, it seems that the Italian consumer is happy to pay a higher price for organic food because despite the expansion of organic farming the supply still cannot meet the demand for it. This is part of the reason why prices remain high but it’s also because organic farming is less efficient than non-organic methods.
The ‘Organic Made In Italy’ Label.
In recognition of the growing organic food sector in Italy, in early 2022, the government of Italy introduced a new law that created an official ‘Organic Made in Italy’ label. Companies that are able to use this label will be able to charge a premium for the produce because the label guarantees that the food has been grown organically.
The hope is that this label, much like the ‘Made in Italy’ label for clothing, will help to maintain good standards in the industry and prevent farmers from fraudulently calling their produce organic when it isn’t.
Francesco Battistoni (Undersecretary at the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry) said “Thanks to the new law, we will be able to further implement organic production in agri-food and all connected production chains”.
Italy’s trust seems to be to create an organic food industry, that will be able to charge a premium for things like Olive oil. But I do not think the focus is on changing the entire Italian farming to organic farming.
What Is Organic Farming?
Organic farming is a traditional way to grow fruits, vegetables and livestock. The European Union classifies organic farming using three basic principles.
- Firstly, no man-made or synthetic chemicals can be used in the farming process. That means no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or insecticides can be used.
- Secondly, farmers should grow crops that are native to their area. This should mean that the plants have a natural resistance to the local pests and be able to thrive in the climatic conditions; thereby reducing the need for synthetic pesticides.
- Lastly, traditional methods of farming should be used. For instance, crop rotation is employed to prevent soils from being overly depleted by a single crop over time. Natural landscapes are created using plant barriers such as trees and hedges in a way that helps the farming process. In the case of a hedge, this provides a habitat for the natural predators of the local pests! Natural fertilizers, such as manure, are used instead of artificial alternatives.
The Benefits Of Organic Farming.
The following are some of the benefits of organic farming. NOTE: Organic farming is very small scale at the moment compared to non organic farming. What would happen to the “benefits” of organic farming if it is asked to feed the world?
Research has shown that organically grown food has higher levels of nutritional content and is, therefore, healthier to eat. In farming system trials conducted by the Rodale Institute in 2018, it was found that organic food contained higher levels of vital minerals including zinc, potassium and phosphorus.
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Organically grown food is also free of toxic pesticides and other chemicals, the residue of which often remains on non-organically grown alternatives. These chemicals can be very harmful to human health if consumed.
Crops Are More Resistant To Drought.
In the Rodale Institute farming system trials, it was also found that organically grown crops produced a harvest of 40% more than non-organic food in drought conditions. This was a surprising find but is important as climate change around the world is already causing havoc in many sectors of agriculture.
Organic Farms Are Fairer.
Organic food operations tend to be much smaller than their non-organic competitors. This allows farmers to build closer relationships with their customers and create more equitable outcomes for both producer and consumer. But as mentioned below, organic food is also more expensive. So farmers in developing countries who become organic farmers will not be able to afford to buy what they are farming. There is nothing fair about that!
More Environmentally Friendly.
There’s no doubt that organic farming methods are much more environmentally friendly than non-organic alternatives. When farmers use pesticides and other poisonous chemicals on their farms this is often washed into the water table and can damage the populations of native insects, birds and fish.
Chemicals such as Glyphosate, commonly used in herbicides, can have devastating impacts on local bee populations. When the wild bees are killed by the Glyphosate this can lead to major problems for the entire natural ecosystem which relies on bees for pollination.
Organic Farming Creates Jobs In Rural Communities.
One of the major advantages of organic farming is that it can be profitable on a small scale. This means that small businesses in rural areas can flourish even if they only cultivate a few hectares of land!
This creates much needed jobs in rural parts of Italy in communities that would otherwise be experiencing severe economic hardship. Throughout rural Italy, it’s common for the younger generations to be forced to move to nearby cities to find work but organic farming is starting to give the next generation the option of creating successful businesses in the countryside.
Follow the money they say. Organic food has been great for Italy’s export market. The market for organic food in Europe alone is estimated to be 40 billion Euros. The biggest market for organic food from Italy are France (22%), Germany (17%), Scandinavia (7%) and the United States (6%).
The Problems With Organic Farming.
Despite the many benefits of organic farming, there are still some serious problems that the industry faces. These problems present a very real limitation to the widespread, global adoption of organic farming. NOTE: I encourage you to read this article from Vox about how Sri Lanka’s push towards organic farming destroyed it’s economy and changed it from a country that was self sufficient in basic food items to a net importer.
Organic Food Is Expensive.
Unfortunately, due to the methods that are used in organic farming, the produce will always be more expensive than non-organically grown food. This means that for people on a very tight budget it’s simply out of the question to buy organic food at the store.
This means that the market for organic food will always be limited and so the practice, while gaining in popularity, is likely to remain a fringe luxury for much of the world’s population.
It Takes Time To Go Organic.
To turn land from non-organic cultivation to organic cultivation takes at least 3 years! This means that for a lot of farmers the cost of converting their farm into an organic operation is too high to consider. During these 3 years or more, the farmer would not be able to sell the produce at a higher price while still having to cover the higher costs of organic techniques.
Organic farming is far more labor intensive than modern, non-organic farming. This is a hurdle that cannot be overcome and keeps the cost of organic food high. Inevitably, this puts most farmers off using organic methods on their farms. Italy is a country that is losing people in rural areas. Most young people are moving to the cities or leaving the country altogether.
As a result of not using synthetic pesticides, organic farmers are always running the risk of losing their crops to pests. This can destroy a business if, for example, one year due to climate change a new pest emerges and decimates their crops! These kinds of risks are a very high burden for farmers to bear and consequently most opt for non-organic methods instead.
Organic Is Not Always Organic!
There are many cases of farmers passing off their produce as organic to get a higher price when in reality it’s not. This type of problem is hard to solve without regular checks on farms by authorities, something which would only push up the price of organic food even more. In other cases, farmers do use pesticides that they claim are organic but are, in actual fact, not.
Is Organic Food All It’s Made Out To Be?
Organically grown food has been getting great press in the last few years but there are many problems with the practice that simply can’t be overcome. For instance, organically grown food could never realistically feed the world’s population! This means that regardless of the merits of organic food it’s simply not possible to produce enough food this way to feed all the mouths on the planet.
Of course, there is a place for organic food. Gourmet restaurants and other high-end stores can afford to sell organic produce to a small customer base but on a larger scale, it wouldn’t be feasible.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t occasionally buy some organic honey or buy a few organic vegetables at the local farmers market but it does mean that you shouldn’t expect organic produce to become ubiquitous any time soon!