Why many farmers are going organic

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By Peter Kamau

Organic farming is now a catch phrase in agricultural circles across the country and the world; yet many farmers do not know what it entails. I will try to explain in the simplest terms possible, what organic farming is all about.

In the past, our forefather practiced a form of agriculture that worked in harmony with nature. They did not cut down trees indiscriminately as we do today and they did not clear the land for timber. Certain trees with beneficial effects such as those that provided fruits, medicine, firewood, shade, cultural functions and soil fertility were left untouched. Other trees with less value were pruned but not uprooted, allowing them to grow again (regenerate). This ensured that trees cut down to clear land for agriculture grew again, restoring soil fertility as farmers moved on to new areas for cultivation. Then, land would remain fallow sometimes for up to 20 years, regaining its fertility. This traditional farming system is known as shifting cultivation.

There were no pests and diseases

The traditional farming system worked perfectly with nature; for example there were no pests because the biodiversity (plants and animals in a habitat) ensured that there was a balance between harmful insects (pests) and their predators (beneficial insects). The balance ensured that the pest population remained low because they were preyed on by the predators, which allowed crops to grow with minimum disturbance. Diseases were also at a minimum because the biodiversity also controlled disease vectors (insects and other microorganisms that cause disease).

Healthy crops could also resist diseases and even pests.

Over the years, this natural order or balance has been gradually disrupted as developing countries adopted commercial agriculture to feed increasing populations. To produce more food in limited land, commercial or industrial agriculture introduced intensive farming methods where the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and even hormones were promoted especially in developing countries especially in Africa and Asia.

Green revolution

This gave birth to the green revolution in countries such as India. But industrial agriculture has come with disastrous consequences to food production and at a great cost to the ecosystem and even human health.

Chemical fertilisers have led to soil degradation to a point where soils can no longer sustain crop production; the soils structure has been destroyed through continuous ploughing.

Chemical fertilizers have led to increased soil acidity and leaching of important minerals to a level where crop yields have gone down considerably. Most of the food produced using chemicals is mainly responsible for the many health complications such as allergies diabetes, hypertension, obesity, kidney and even heart diseases. Over use of chemical pesticides has decimated natural predators leading an increase of many pests, some of which have become resistant to all pesticides in the market. Chemical companies now spend a huge proportion of their budgets to develop new pesticides every year to counter emerging pests. Destruction of forests for timber and fuel wood and human settlements has led to increased soil erosion, which has in turn washed down most the chemical fertilizers and pesticides into rivers and lakes killing marine life while promoting emergence of invasive species of weeds. Forests used to absorb a lot of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by industries, vehicular traffic and many other sources of greenhouse gases. Without forest cover, an increase in greenhouse gases has brought with it climate change which more than anything else now threatens agriculture and the very existence of all life in the planet.

What is organic farming?

Organic farming and sustainable agriculture have come in to reverse this situation.

Organic farming operates with nature to ensure that all forms of life co-exist for mutual benefit and in perfect balance. Therefore, in its simplest definition, organic farming is a form of agriculture that ensures that all farming activities work in harmony with nature to improve human, animal and environmental health. Organic farming focus on four key areas to improve agricultural productivity through natural methods that work in harmony with nature.

1. Restoration of soil fertility

Organic farming use the maxim “feed the soil to feed the plant.” This means that the best way to restore soil fertility is to incorporate organic matter available on- farm such as crop residue, farmyard manure, compost to restore soil fertility as opposed to conventional agriculture, which directly feeds the plants by way of chemical fertilizers. Organic farming processes gradually produce healthy soil, which promote the production of healthy plants that resist pests and diseases. In organic farming, soil is taken as a living entity that supports important biota (plant and animal life), the soil should therefore not be disturbed much through ploughing. Permanent soil cover through mulching and use of compost are central tenets of organic farming and sustainable agriculture.

2. Maintaining natural habits for predators

Organic farming promotes the preservation of natural habitats, which are home to most of the predators that control pests. Natural habitats supply food to birds, animals and insects. Since natural habits have been depleted, organic farming encourages their restoration by careful selection of trees, shrubs and grasses. Organic farmers are encouraged to plant indigenous trees along hedges, boundaries and unused sections of their farms to protect farm from direct wind, provide woodlots for firewood and habitats for predators.

3. Crop rotation and intercropping

Organic farmers must practise crop rotation- the reason for this is that different crops take different nutrients from the soil. By practicing crop rotation, farmers reduce pests and diseases because different crops and diseases target particular crops. When crops, are rotated, disease and pest incidences go down. Leguminous crops such as beans or soybeans crops when planted together with other crops help to fix nitrogen, which is utilized by other crops.

Repel pests

Some crops such as onions when intercropped repel certain pests, thereby reducing infestation. So an organic farmer must provide plant diversity to imitate nature if they are to avoid diseases and pests and even restore soil fertility in their farms.

4. Use natural remedies in place of chemical

Use of chemicals has had adverse effects on our environment and ecosystems and consequently on crop production. Soluble organic fertilisers cause loss of soil organic matter and even structure. Fertilisers also deplete living organic organisms in the soil. Fertilisers such as DAP encourage acidification and loss of trace elements. Organic farmers use organic fertilisers such as organic matter and manures to build soil fertility and restore its structure. Herbicides used to control weeds destroy microscopic plant life that help breakdown plant residue and create pest/predator balance. Fungi for example feed on nematodes. In organic farming, mechanical weed control is encouraged to avoid this problem. If no chemical pesticides are used in pest control, the predator population would increase and eventually restore the pest/predator balance making the use of chemicals unnecessary. Organic is therefore the most sustainable and safe mode of food production that will help restore the natural order of life while improving our health and that of our environment.




Peter Kamau's picture
Peter Kamau an Editor of ‘The Organic Farmer’, a farmers’ magazine published by International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Kamau has wide experience in covering farmer stories; their challenges and successes in food security and wealth creation through farming. The information carried in this article does not necessary reflect the views of BvAT.

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