Organic farming is a whole system (or holistic) way of producing food.
This means that organic farmers think about the effects of their farming practices on the soil, crops and livestock on the farm, the quality of the food they produce, the local community and the wider environment.
Organic farmers manage the land in ways that work with natural systems rather than trying to dominate or change them. For example, organic farmers use predatory invertebrates to help control pests instead of using man-made pesticides.
The word 'organic' is a legal term. In the UK, all organic farmers, growers and processors must register with one of the organic certification bodies which inspect them at least once a year.
The principles and practices of organic farming are developed from six key principles:
1. A closed system
Organic farmers aim, as far as possible, for a closed system. External inputs and waste outputs are at a minimum, so recycling is important and manure from livestock is a resource.
2. Soil fertility and structure
Soil is one of the most important resources. Organic farmers aim to maintain the long-term fertility of the soil. Biologically active soil will decompose organic matter faster, so bacteria, fungi and earthworms are encouraged. When soil organisms decompose organic matter, nutrients essential for plant growth are recycled back into the soil to 'feed' the next crop.
Farmers must also protect soil structure. For air, water and nutrients to reach and be absorbed by plant roots, they need pores in the soil. So it is very important for the soil not to be compacted by livestock on the soil in wet winter weather or large farm machinery on wet ground.
3. Pollution and the use of fossil fuels
Avoidance of polluting both farm and the wider environment is a priority. As well as waste management and good farming practices, usage of fossil fuel in food production is kept to an absolute minimum. Burning fossil fuel to release energy releases gasses that add to global climate change and the extraction of fossil fuels can cause widespread environmental destruction.
Between 4 and 6 tonnes of crude oil is needed to make one tonne of man-made fertiliser. Organic farmers do not use it.
Manure produced by farm livestock can be very polluting, so organic farmers use it as a natural fertiliser on grassland fields but only in spring or summer as it will decompose quickly then and help plants to grow.
It is never spread in winter when the soil organisms are too cold to decompose it and the crops are too cold to grow; then it could be washed off into rivers by winter rains and cause some water plants to grow quicker than others, in turn killing other aquatic plants which decompose and release carbon dioxide into the water depleting oxygen and killing other aquatic plants and animals.
Organic farmers also try to sell produce locally to reduce 'food miles' or the distance that food travels and thereby reducing pollution.
4. Food quality
Organic food, if produced and sold locally, is very fresh when consumed so the quality is high. 'Fresh' produce in supermarkets has often been imported or travelled large distances and so lacks seasonal quality and freshness. Organic meat will not have been routinely fed antibiotic residues and veterinary medicines; and organic crops seek to largely exclude synthetic pesticides.
5. Appropriate technology
GM technology is not allowed in organic farming. Techniques include traditional rotations, as well as the latest machinery and scientific organic breeding techniques where two organisms can naturally breed and produce offspring. Both wheat and rye are a type of cereal and could breed naturally given the right conditions in the wild, their genes would mix and the dominant characteristics produce the characteristics of the new plant.
6. Animal welfare
Organic Standards are very strict. Organic livestock must have access to food and water, with outdoor grazing wherever possible. They must have plenty of space in fields and indoors in winter. If it is a herd animal, then they should be kept together and not isolated. These high welfare standards usually prevent organic livestock from becoming ill and stressed. Organic farmers are prohibited from routine use of veterinary medicines, but if an animal becomes sick then medicines can be used after seeing permission. Animal health and welfare is the priority. Transportation times must also be kept to a minimum and slaughter takes place at registered organic abattoirs.