Organic vs Mineral feeds
“If everyone switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the earth's current population - maybe half.”
The quote above was meant to fire something up inside of you, many reading this article will be pro-organic, so that quote may have riled you up and it may have made those undecided about organics raise their eyebrows in interest, eager to read on and find out where this leads? I’ll set my stall out early and say I’m not for or against organic farming, I am most concerned with the impact we’re having on the planet (pro-organic) but also the potential consequences for farmers and the poorer in society that cannot afford to eat or produce organic food (con organic). That’s a little of the outdoor organics we’ll look into, but we’ll also look at organic vs synthetic in the indoor grow rooms and the benefits/ disadvantages of using either method.
To go into every aspect of the benefits or disadvantages of organic growing would require a whole book, instead, this article will raise a few points to consider the whole issue holistically rather than take a one-sided stance.
Organic outdoors - Growing organically outdoors is undoubtedly beneficial for the environment. We’re not using chemical pesticides and we are using fertilisers derived from animal waste or plant-based sources; an excellent way of recycling with food grade end product. That is essentially the definition of growing organically but there are plenty of other benefits such as:
1) The reduction of soil compaction and surface crusting. When soil compacts and surface crusting occurs, the air exchange between the air and the soil is dramatically reduced, roots need oxygen, the soil microbiota needs oxygen and without it, there will limited growth of crops. Further to this, compaction leads to surface run-off and poor infiltration of water to the lower soil horizons. Growing organically will encourage aaeration and infiltration creating a healthy soil full of life.
- 2) Increases the water holding capacity, allowing sufficient nutrient transport
to the roots.
- 3) Reduces soil erosion - Increased soil erosion means lands become sandy
, salinated and ultimately unfarmable.
- 4) Increases the cation exchange capacity (CEC), which increases the fertility of
the soil and also helps buffer against rapid changes in pH.
5) Growing organically actually feeds the organisms that live in the soil, which then form a symbiotic relationship with the plants increasing nutrient uptake.
However, there are always disadvantages to any particular method of growing and these are some of the organic ones;
1) If the soil has too much organic matter (in excess of 5%), it becomes increasingly complex to manage due to the lower temperatures and high moisture content; this would require special tilling procedures and extra work. Seeding the ground has to be left until later in the season (soil too cold) and growth can also be slower.
2) The source of the organic nutrients is very important, elements can be added that accumulate over time and this would adversely affect the nutritional status of the soil and ultimately the crops being grown. A good example is chicken manure, it is high in potassium and over time will alter the cation ratio of the soil, potentially leading to a magnesium or calcium deficiency.
Nutrition and taste - The favourite go-to argument for organic growers is that it tastes better than conventional crops and it’s more nutritious than conventional crops. However, there has yet to be published any evidence to validate this hypothesis. When we taste organic fruit or veg, we simply believe that it must taste better because that’s what we’ve been led to believe, but on countless blind taste trials, it has not been proven. Similarly, with the nutrition of organic vs traditionally grown crops, they are equal in nutritional density, spare for a few studies that show higher vitamin C levels in leafy green salads. In addition to this, scientific taste tests have shown that when half of the food is labelled organic and the other half labelled regular, but both products are identical, the organic products consistently get higher ratings for taste, nutritional content and a willingness to pay more, showing we are influenced by the organic label.
On the positive side though, organic produce is not allowed to have pesticides or herbicides which although stated as safe in the dosages applied to crops, there are still concerns with accumulation over time and the rise of pesticide/herbicide resistant insects/weeds. Organic economy - In LEDC’s (Less economically developed countries), organic farming can have positives and negatives. Very simply, organic farming is labour intensive compared to commercial agriculture using synthetic fertiliser. This presents an opportunity for these farmers to create jobs and employment in areas that desperately need it. However, some farmers cannot afford to create these jobs and therefore have to work harder which can be unsustainable and in the worst scenarios, put them out of work. Because of the growing ‘organic food is healthier’ trend in western society, traditional agriculture prices are falling and making it harder for farmers to profit, which makes it harder to look after their families if they cannot maintain growing crops organically. Furthermore, without the use of pesticides, there’s a very real danger of losing entire crops to pest and disease, an economical nightmare.
To go a little deeper, we could look at something called atom economy, does the amount of organics that we have to use on crops work out economically on an atomic scale. Synthetically produced fertilisers are atomically economical and therefore better for sustainability in certain cases.
Another concept that we can apply is the E-factor, the ratio in a mass of product produced to the waste produced. Synthetically produced fertiliser wins again, with a low waste to product ratio against organic which has a high waste to product ratio.
Growing organically indoors: If you’re an advocate for organics and you grow to utilise indoor gardening, then the likely opinion for doing so is better taste, better quality produce and no chance of PGR’s which in some instances are undesirable. I would argue that the reason indoor grown organic produce apparently tastes better, is because of the compensation for mistakes organics/soil affords you. A buffer against big swings in pH allows continual nutrient uptake compared to most mineral based nutrients, the use of beneficial microorganisms is essential in an organic garden and this alone will improve quality, along with the fact that growing organically it is much harder to over fertilise which can give a chemical taste to your product.
Is it really the organic fertiliser that makes it taste better with higher quality or is it just because we believe growing organically is better (cognitive bias)? Is it that usually people growing organically tend to spend more time and give more effort to growing plants than the typical mineral grower or is it because, like we mentioned above, it’s harder to over fertilise with organics which makes the plant potentially healthier at harvest? These are questions that need answering scientifically, up to now there is no evidence of better taste and minimal evidence of better quality (nutrition status). If plants could talk, would they be able to tell you the difference between a mineral based ion and an organically derived ion? At this moment in time, there are no scientists in the world that could differentiate between either the organically produced ion or the synthetic ion. Something to bear in mind when making an argument for or against organics. Lastly, anyone growing organically reading this, I am not against growing organically, the main reason for doing so, in my opinion, would be to make sure that the final product is as clean as possible. If it has been organically certified then it will not have plant growth regulators (PGR’s). A lot of PGR’s are perfectly safe and enhance plant health, some are bad (Paclobutrazol and Daminozide), therefore I would not be 100% confident that mineral-based fertilisers are free from these PGR’s. One of my current research projects is investigating mineral hydroponic fertilisers to see what PGR’s they contain.
My opinion on the quote at the top of the page is that although it makes us realise that to go completely organic is not feasible in our current agricultural and political climate, it’s also a very pessimistic view to take. We don’t have a food crisis, we have a food distribution crisis and if you’ve read my previous articles on food policy, you might remember that we waste literally thousands of tonnes of food which is perfectly edible. So if we solve the food distribution crisis, can we look at making organic agriculture the normality and the traditional synthetic fertiliser agriculture a historical memory? Do we have the space to grow organically (which requires more land) in an increasingly urban environment? Will the people who profit from the traditional agricultural industry allow this to happen easily?
There are always two sides to every coin and we need to look deeper into all issues before we take a strong stance for or against organic produce. Hopefully, this article has stimulated some thoughts on the organic vs synthetic debate and entices you to research further on the subject.
Thank you for reading,
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Stephen Brookes - NPK Technology