Organic vs conventional agriculture
Now that we’re into the New Year and have started planning our quinoa plantings this Spring, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on a subject that I’ve learnt a lot about over the past 12 months.
In 2015 I took my first steps into working within organic agriculture, by teaming up with several organic farmers across the UK who had decided to take the plunge into growing quinoa for the first time on their farms. For me this was pretty exciting as organic farming has always been something that I’ve heard a lot about but never had any practical involvement in. Moving into the organic sector was a key move for my business as I’ve found high levels of consumer demand for organically grown quinoa, unsurprising really as healthy foods of this type often go hand in hand with consumers who like to eat organic. I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent working with these growers, and from what I have learnt organic farming is very much about compromise – not worrying about a few weeds in a field or a few pests nibbling at a crop, nope… it’s about accepting that you don’t need to control every single factor within a field to be successful.
There are several things different to conventional farming, such as organics reliance on mechanical weed control (as in the below photo) and the use of nitrogen fixing crops to build soil fertility, although in contrast this leads me to ask… what exactly do we mean by ‘conventional farming’ nowadays anyway?
Well I’m sure some would describe it as drenching pesticides and fertilisers onto the soil without measure, however I believe the truth is quite different. Yes it is often high input, but no self respecting farmer would apply anything to their land without a reasoned and measured approach. Let’s face it, farm inputs are very expensive, who would want to use them without knowing that their use is efficient and not wasteful? The majority of farms are still held by families who have farmed the land for generations, and there is a lot of passion applied to protecting the local environment so that future generations can continue to farm this land.
Many growers now use precision mapping (as in the image below) to tell them where to add a little extra (or a little less) fertiliser within a field, to ensure that productivity is maximised but so that we are not wasting fertiliser by over feeding any parts of the field that don’t need it. The conventional growers that I come across in my day to day work are environmentally focused, with many managing over winter cover crops to increase soil organic matter and minimise leakage of nitrogen into water courses. In turn this helps create a healthy soil with a lower environmental impact. In short, I don’t believe that the much demonised version of ‘conventional farming’ which carelessly pollutes the land really exists anymore; it’s just not a sustainable business model.
This got me thinking… is either system of farming actually better than the other? I often hear organic farming being touted as unproductive and increasingly irrelevant in a world that demands more food to feed the growing population. Likewise, conventional farming is often described as being an industrialised process that does not have the planets best interests at heart. I feel that this organic vs conventional debate is largely irrelevant, as the key to feeding our planet will be the presence of enthusiastic and knowledgeable farmers – whatever their choice of farming system. By allowing them to farm in a manner that suits their personal views and interests, rather than forcing a system upon them which they may not agree with, we will be best able to maximise their full potential.
Which ever way you like your quinoa… at least you can now buy it with fully traceablilty from British farmers like myself, all with low food miles – I think that’s worth a lot!