The Organic Difference, Part 1

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If you wish to live a truly green life you cannot afford to ignore what you eat. Much of the planet is used to grow food, be it wheat on the American prairies, rice from the fields of China or bananas from a Caribbean island. So many countries give over most of their land to food production that the type of agriculture that is practised is vital for biodiversity and environmental conservation. By opting for 'green' food you could be making a difference to the ecology of many countries - your decision has a global impact.

Conventional farming practices do not have a good record when it comes to protecting the environment and they are costing us all dear as a consequence. But the good news is that it is relatively simple to make a green choice when it comes to food - go organic. Whether you grow your own or buy it in, you will know that organic food has been produced in a way that nurtures rather than exploits the environment. And by buying only certified organic produce you know that there is a legal system ensuring that producers' green credentials are as good as they say they are.

The aim of organic farming is to work with nature to create the healthiest conditions in which to grow food, without the need for artificial inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones. The emphasis in organic farming is about achieving a natural balance with the environment in which a farm exists and to be as self-sustaining as possible.

The following are the key differences between organic and conventional farming:

Soil health

To maximize the chances of producing healthy crops organic farmers pay a great deal of attention to the health of their soil. Techniques for soil improvement include crop and animal rotation, planting soil-enriching plants or green manures and adding manure and home-made compost. By doing this, organic farmers avoid the need for artificial nitrate fertilizers and they make sure the soil can support a rich variety of life. This is important, since it has been estimated that it takes 500 years to form 2.5 cm (1 in) of topsoil; keeping it in good condition and preventing its erosion is therefore vital for the environment.

Conventional farming on the other hand often makes heavy use of artificial fertilizers - around 80 million tonnes are used globally each year - two-thirds of which leach away from the land and end up contaminating our water supplies with excess nitrogen. Water companies are having to introducing more and more treatment programmes costing millions to tackle this contamination.

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