What is Organic farming?

There are many different uses of the word organic in reference to agriculture, and often confusion in its uses, so it’s helpful to clarify some of the meanings.

– An Organic farmer

This should mean a Certified Organic Farmer – without certification you are a biological farmer – see biological farming

Organic certification is a verified food standards system with set rules which dictate allowable inputs. This requires removal of agrichemicals that are hazardous to human and other animal life, plant life and to soil life, from the farming system. Most inputs are naturally sourced or a simple derivative of something naturally occurring in the wider environment.

Rules are set in place by various organisations but are generally similar globally. In New Zealand as a predominantly exporting nation certified organic farmers have to meet various overseas organic standards. These are monitored by certifying bodies and overseen by the MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries).

Being organic doesn’t necessarily mean you are a better farmer – it just means you are following a set of rules to provide what consumers consider and science has shown to be better produce. This verification allows organic produce to collect a price premium from consumers willing to pay for this assurance.

– Organic vs Inorganic

This is often how various minerals and fertilisers are described, and can cause confusion. There are two different things going on. We can have organic fertilisers which mean a certified input for organic farming approved by verification or auditing bodies.

We can also have organic and inorganic compounds that are often talked about by soil scientists. The most widely accepted definition of an organic compound as far as chemistry is concerned is a molecule that is based on Carbon. But there are many exceptions. Lime (CaCO3) is allowable as an input to certified farms – but is not an organic compound.

In fact carbonates, carbides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxides etc are all not organic compounds. But Urea (CH4N2O) is an organic compound, but not allowable as an input to certified organic farms. Confused? This is because the Urea used on farms has been made by an artificial petrochemical process which is not allowable for organic certification.

– Organic Matter

This describes basically the carbon content in the soil, which has generally accumulated through plant and animal activity. It is also used as a more general science term to describe anything that is or may have been alive.

A biological farmer?

– What does this mean?

That’s a good question – as “biological farming” is a very open and broad idea that struggles for any meaningful definition. From a regulatory and legislative point it has no meaning in New Zealand.

Overseas biological is often the term used instead of organic for verified organic farming systems – especially in Europe – and is recognised as such by IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements).

Someone describing themselves as a biological farmer can range from some who may drench there sheep with seaweed once a year to someone who is running a complete holistically managed regenerative farming system. A survey done several years ago had over 30% of farmers describing themselves as “biological” in some way.

– Aren’t all farmers biological?

Well, unfortunately I would say no. This is how we should look at farming, and what it used to be – as using biological processes and the ecosystems involved to provide for the world and ourselves sustainably into the future. This is what farming is meant to be.

I would say that many “farming operations” on the land now are manufacturers – not farmers. These manufacturing operations put a set amount of inputs in and expect a set amount out. Often they are transfixed by total production over profitability. No effort is put into working with nature or the natural systems in the environment. Animals are often just part of the production line.

– What should Biological mean?

Well it should mean all farmers. We should be working with our natural systems, in a sustainable and these days foremost in a regenerative way. This should all be done with consideration to the human and social aspect of farming and the bottom line.

– Regenerative? What do you mean?

We all hear about sustainable farming, right? Being sustainable means being able to maintain what you are doing and staying where you are at. Unfortunately through poor industrial and agricultural practice we have damaged the environment and we shouldn’t want to stay where we are currently at. So we need to regenerate the environment.

Through Regenerative agricultural practices we can reverse the damage done to the environment and improve our personal outcomes too. This includes such things as large as reversing global warming and cleaning our waterways to seemingly small things as bringing back the bird and insect life to our properties, and creating time with our families.