Feeding the world in a sustainable way.
Strategies for doing it with organic agriculture
Since the emergence of our species, procuring food has been one of the main interactions between humans and the natural environment. It is perhaps the most important force shaping the development of new technology, human behaviours and cultural attributes. From hunting and gathering to e-agriculture, the relationship between humans and their food systems is constantly evolving.
However, as the yield and intensity of our food systems increase, there is a quickly growing need for more land to be cleared and more chemical fertilisers and artificial pesticides to be produced. The negative impacts of industrial agriculture on the living world are higher than ever, with effects ranging from massive greenhouse gas releases which are messing up the global climate to more localised forms of pollution, such as toxic algal blooms due to fertiliser runoff or local insect population collapse due to insecticide contamination.
The organic agriculture and indoor organic farming are shown by the scientific community as one of the best ways to not only address the problem, but involve to the citizens on this human era kind of problem.
Environmental impacts of agriculture
We went from the relations of commensalism or mutualism practised by indigenous forms of foraging, horticulture or pastoralism, where the wellbeing of our surroundings was seen as beneficial and necessary, to a form of competition with nature. Agricultural monocultures focus on a few crops, and everything else becomes a pest that needs to be killed. Forests, rather than sources of berries, nuts, fungi and wild game, become fields waiting to be cleared. Swamps, rather than staying reservoirs of biodiversity and carbon sinks, are drained and turned into fields.
Grasslands, tundra, rainforests, coasts – every piece of land that can be used for agriculture is ravaged to support the expansion of kingdoms, pay taxes, feed armies and enrich merchants. The same situation is true in the modern day, except big corporations and real estate developers are the new merchants and kings.
The environmental and social costs are hidden away from customers. The low price of food is paid through degraded soils, clearcut forests and species driven to extinction. The year-round availability of your favorite fruits and vegetables also brings climate change, increased chance of extreme weather and thus future damage to crops. Globally, industrial agriculture is one of the most damaging human actions towards the environment. Growing plants at our current intensity results in enormous water fertiliser use, while meeting meat demands necessitates unsustainable amounts of feed. Several urgent measures should be taken, and we’ll see organic agriculture could be a game-changer for this.
Greenhouse gases and the climate
The main GHGs resulting directly from agriculture are methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), while land use change mostly contributes CO2. Because these gases absorb energy differently and stay in the atmosphere for different times, a way to measure them was designed: the Global Warming Potential (GWP). Using this measuring method, methane is 27 to 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide a whopping 273 times, meaning that even relatively small quantities of them can have the same climatic impact as burning oil or coal.
According to a 2019 study by the IPCC, 22% of human emissions came from the Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Uses Sector (AFOLU), with food production being considered the main driver. This means that almost a quarter of all human emissions are somehow tied to food production. Meat production is considered the most environmentally damaging part of agriculture, with 60% of agricultural GHG emissions being a result of it. For a stable climate, GHG’s must be at the very least brought down to the point where they are equal with the capacity of natural and artificial systems to reabsorb them – the fabled “net zero”.
Surface runoff is another factor that needs to be considered. It is a result of water accumulating faster than the soil can absorb it. Improperly maintained lands have poor absorption capacities, which results in spills and even flooding. In the period following harvests when soil is exposed, this is a great issue. Crop rotation is necessary for soils, but some farmers choose to not use cover crops, leaving the soils exposed, which increases the effects of surface runoff. Pastures degraded by overgrazing encounter similar issues: the soil lacks cover and is compacted due to animals threading over it.
Thus, during heavy rain, water builds up and flows to available reservoirs, such as rivers and lakes. It carries with it various pollutants, such as fertilisers, animal manure and pesticides. This makes the water rich in nutrients and results in algal blooms, exhausting oxygen supplies and damaging the local ecosystems. Concerns about such problems are particularly acute in the case of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). When there are high concentrations of insecticides, local insects can suffer mass die-offs, resulting in cascading effects along the food chain. Other chemical-sensitive animals, such as amphibians, can have their hormonal cycles disrupted.
The natural biogeochemical cycles cannot adapt to the increased amounts of chemicals released by humans into the environment. The nitrate and phosphate cycles have been thrown out of harmony due to artificial nitrate fixation and phosphate mining, with potentially disastrous consequences. Humans make processes that should take decades to happen unfold within days. The threats to global climate and biodiversity cannot be underestimated and must be looked at in detail.
Alternative – Organic agriculture
How can we fight both emissions and pollution at the same time without placing the blame fully on consumers or the responsibility fully on governments? One approach is organic farming. If done properly and on a large enough scale, it could allow us to benefit from food security, economic wellbeing and healthy food – all while being less damaging to the environment.
Organic farming is, simply put, an agricultural system that uses fertilisers of organic origin instead of chemical fertilisers. These include various green byproducts and composted biomass such as animal manure, green manure, and bone meal. To make up for lower availability and increase yield, it also places emphasis on techniques such as crop rotation and companion planting. Certified organic agriculture accounts for 70 million hectares (170 million acres) globally, compared to the total of around 5 billion hectares used for agriculture representing approximately 1.6% of total world farmland.
Biological pest control, mixed cropping and the fostering of insect predators are encouraged as holistic, natural alternatives to chemical pesticides. Organic standards are designed to allow the use of naturally occurring substances while prohibiting or strictly limiting synthetic substances. Naturally occurring pesticides such as pyrethrin are permitted, while synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are (most of the time) prohibited. Organic farming advocates claim advantages in sustainability, openness, self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence, health, food security, and food safety.
Challenges for organic agriculture and farming
How can you regulate such a restrictive form of agriculture? Through organisations run by those practising it. Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an international umbrella organisation for organic farming organisations. Organic agriculture is defined by them as “an integrated farming system that strives for sustainability, the enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity while, with rare exceptions, prohibiting synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones”.
Organic farming is beneficial for biodiversity at the local level and includes the health of soil in its practices. However, because organic farming has lower yields compared to conventional farming, this can put pressure on markets and incentivize landowners in other parts of the world to clear wild territories and grow crops on them to fulfil demand. This can drive destructive practices in biodiversity hotspots, such as the Amazon or Indonesian rainforests. Therefore, local changes in agricultural practices are not enough – widespread, global shifts in economic and political systems are required for the wellbeing of nature.
AutarPonics indoor organic farming – the best of all worlds
In the middle of this complex intersection of conflicting social and environmental pressures lies a potential new form of agriculture. Learning from organic principles and their challenges, urban and small-scale indoor farming, modern research, and the failures of conventional agriculture, AutarPonics aims to allow citizens of both big cities and small towns to shift the power balance, to become active producers with an understanding of food production and a say in it, rather than passive consumers who can only “vote with their money”.
By mixing autonomy, indoor DIY grow kits and aeroponics, AutarPonics minimises environmental impacts of food production while bringing individuals closer to food sovereignty. You know that your meal has not contributed to any deadly algal blooms and that it is not covered in pesticides.
Indoor organic, DIY kits and aeroponics ensure a low-tech but backed by science approach to food production. From individuals growing just a few basil plants to green residential building roofs able to grow healthy vegetables that need significantly less water, electricity and nutrients. It has the potential to give rise to a new culture of economically, politically and environmentally conscious citizens who see access to food growing facilities as normal and necessary. If scaled, affordable and large-scale farming kits can fight the atomization of modern society by acting as a spot where communities form and develop. AutarPonics are not widespread by any means, but their potential – economic, environmental and social – is enormous.