The Myths about Organic Farming – Organic Agriculture Business

Young Organic Farmers 2020: Organic Seeds Production Training

10 August 2020, Chiang Mai, Thailand

KEY POINTS

  • Organic agriculture is not chemical-free.
  • Organic agriculture focuses on working with the ecological processes on your farm.
  • Organic agriculture allows the application of certain synthetic chemicals and bans some natural materials.
  • The limited level of chemical residues in produce is still debated and it requires technical knowledge which many countries lack.
  • Organic conversion does not mean yield will fall in all cases.
  • Conventional crops with the use of chemicals produce a smell that invites insects to attack.
  • Organic crops smell differently and organic farm has good insects that help control pests.
  • The success to organic farming is not certification but consumer trust, reasonable price, and good quality. 
  • The fundamental concept of organic farming is soil fertility.
  • Good soil ecology makes plants strong and pest-resistant. 
  • Adding micro-organisms into the soil without giving them organic materials does not improve your soil.
  • There is no one formula-fit-all which means you have to learn by experience.
  • Failure is our best teacher because it helps you learn and improve.

Vitoon Panyakul, one of the pioneers of organic movement in Thailand, and the founder of Green Net Cooperative and Earth Net Foundation, spoke with the Young Organic Farmers 2020 via Zoom to lay the foundation of organic agriculture for young people.

It is evident that organic agriculture has clear health and environmental benefits as several research have proven, but it is also generally misunderstood on its most basic practices.

Myth #1 – Organic Farming is chemical-free (no residues)

Organic farming is not chemical-free. It is rather the practice that works on how to conserve soil, water system, and biodiversity on one’s farm. It is an environmentally friendly agriculture, but it does not mean that it is rid of chemicals. There are two simple explanations for this.

First, crop residues and organic materials, to some extent, have to be imported from conventional farms to supply sufficient nutrients to the crops grown in organic farms.

Those materials from conventional farms are chemically contaminated which can be transferred into your soil, and possibly into your crops. This is more or less unavoidable. However, organic farmers are not allowed to use pesticides and insecticides which will certainly increase the chemical residues in their crops.

Second, environmental contamination is unavoidable.

The examples for this are the contamination from your neighbor’s conventional farm, and contaminated water used in your farm. 

So, in another word, the surroundings of your farm are already contaminated. We accept that organic farmers are also subjected to environmental contamination in the same way as conventional farmers.

However, organic farmers are expected to set up a buffer zone to physically reduce the contamination from the neighboring farms. Nevertheless, in all cases, it is impossible to reduce all those contaminations. 

Myth #2 – Organic Farming does not allow synthetic chemicals

Organic agriculture does allow farmers to use synthetic chemicals but they need not harm or interrupt the farm ecology. Again, this indicates that organic farming focuses on working with the environment.

Some organic farmers use synthetic chemicals, for instance ‘baking soda’ (Sodium Bicarbonate), or another compound called ‘Potassium Permanganate’ for fungi treatment. 

On the other hand, certain natural materials are not allowed in some organic standards because they destroy farm ecology. For instance, tobacco juice is not allowed for pest control in many organic standards because it kills all the good and bad insects. Therefore, the pest predator and ecological balance will be disrupted. In fact, quite a number of herbs are not accepted in organic farming including wood vinegar because it kills both insects and it can damage human health. 

Myth #3 – Organic food does not have pesticide residues

Now, we accept that organic food may have pesticide residues but how low it should be is the subject of debate. 

Different countries have different laws that contain different standards for accepted residue level. This level is called Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) which is normally set for conventional farmers. MRL requires technical knowledge to set up because it is linked to the consumption pattern in each country. For instance, people in Europe and USA would set a residue level in apples to be much lower than that of the South East Asian countries, mainly because people in those two countries eat more apples than we do. On the contrary, if we set the residue level for chili, it is quite lower than that of Europe because we eat more chili. 

Many countries including those in South East Asia do not have that capacity – not even a laboratory to check the residue level. Thailand does have a laboratory to do so but it still cannot check all the residues, and they still have to send samples to laboratories overseas to find out. 

However, we should not focus on zero residues because it could send a wrong message that organic farming is about chemical-free. If the target market is in the local area, testing for residue level is not necessary.

Myth #4 – Yield may fall when you convert to organic farming

This is not quite true because the picture can be more complicated than that. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has done a study about this and it ends up with 2 scenarios depending on the types of farm you start with.

If you begin with an extensive farm, a conventional farm with very few external inputs, and convert it to organic farm, with technological support and knowledge, your yield may actually improve in the first year or more or less the same yield. Most farms in Asia are extensive.

If you start from intensive conventional production which has to do vegetable, rice field that grows 4 times a year, your yield may drop in the first 2-3 years. It may then pick up at the same level or even higher depending on the situation, or in some cases your yield may not reach the same level. 

To summarize, the yield may show different results depending on situations. It is not true to assume that the yield may fall in all cases.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the concept of conversion time is not just on residue, but on the restoration of the farm ecology. It takes sometimes for the ecology to restore itself and this conversion period is more or less has something to do with that.

Myth #5 – Pest from other conventional farms will attack your organic field

This is a misunderstanding. It has never happened. There are 2 reasons for this.

First, insects use smell to find food. 

It is found out that crops in organic and conventional farm smell differently. The latter with the use of chemical fertilizers produce the smell that invites insects to attack. Because crops from your organic farm smell differently, the insects from the conventional farm close to you do not come to your farm.

Second, good insects help control pest.

There are bad and good insects in your farm. The good ones are called predators and they kill the bad ones for you helping to balance your farm ecology. In conventional farm, however, insecticides are extensively used to kill both insects meanwhile organic farms do not. This explains why organic farms can control pest much better than its conventional counterpart. 

Nevertheless, this is not to assume that organic farm does not have pest. There are 2 recommended pest prevention strategies as followed.

First, farmers should choose pest-resistant crops and choose the season in which they are grown. They should also do crop rotation and plant companion crops. Some companion crops can produce smell that repel the insects away from their crops. For crop rotation, it stops pest multiplication by stopping their food source. 

Second, farmers should build favorable condition for predators. This means biodiversity is key because predators normally rely on other crops to supplement their food. They also eat pollens so flowers should be grown, or some shades should be built for wasps. Wasps can kill pests. 

These two steps only happen by design not by default. Even with all good designs, once in a while the field might have infestation. That’s when physical or biological control could be used.

Myth #6 – Without certification you cannot be organic

You can be an organic farmer without the certification. No matter what or how many certifications you hold, they do not matter if consumers do not trust you. 

It is recommended that if you need to be certified, you need to find your buyers first. This affects on what certification you will need.

However, the certification does not guarantee your sale. It depends on first the price which needs to be reasonable. Second, good quality is key. Moreover, if you have these two together and even without the certification, you will still have consumers.

The strategy to succeed in organic farming is, therefore, not organic certification.  

Myth #7 – We feed the plants NOT the soil

This is true in conventional farming but not in organic farming. The fundamental concept of organic farming is soil fertility. The soil itself has its own ecology comprising of micro-organisms, animals, and plants. All of these, if given organic matters, can grow and improve soil ecology. Soil fertility gives out nutrients and medicine to plants so that they can grow well and be more pest resistant. Without it, soil becomes infested with fungus, and organisms, and insects will attack your plants.

Humus is very important because it helps improve the soil structure as it holds soil particles together. It allows space between the soil so the water and the air can penetrate through.

If given organic matters after some times, the soil texture will become softer with humus-like state. Where are these organic matters from? You can produce them in your farm but it depends on how intensive your production is.

If you cannot find enough organic matters, you should find them in your area. It is more environmentally friendly and more sustainable.

A good organic farmer will start looking around for organic matters in their locality. Then, they will start looking about how they could cooperate different things to give the matter back into the soil. This is not a fixed strategy. The cheaper the material the better and that means lower production cost. Any fixed organic formulas will not work in a long term. 

Myth #8 – Micro-organism is the final answer

Many people add micro-organisms into their soil, but Vitoon does not recommend it. In fact, he believes that all soil has already had enough micro-organisms but we need to keep feeding them with organic matters so they can work to improve our soil ecology. Organic matters are usually found in animal manure especially from cattle.

It is important to note that there are 2 types of organic materials: nitrogen-fixing and carbon-fixing materials. We need to calculate and add them both proportionally. There is no fixed formula meaning you have to do it by experience. No soil is the same.

Myth #9 – Magic inputs (or formula) work with every locality

With technological advancement, people tend to follow YouTube or online instructions on what formula they need to put in their farm. We need to be cautious about this.

Different locations need different materials and inputs. Even the same materials but from different sources could produce different results. For instance, cow manure from dairy cows is higher in nutrients than the one from the cows fed with grass. The management of the cows could be different affecting the quality of the manure.

So, in other words, using the cow manure with the same proportion all the time from different sources will produce different results.

That’s why magic formula of anything will not work. In a way, this makes organic farming a bit more difficult because you need to learn. You cannot copy from others because it is not exactly the same.

Myth #10 – Don’t Fail

I learned not because I succeeded, but because I failed.

Failure is a good teacher. For my 27 years of working on organic farming, I failed many times and that is why I have the knowledge to talk on here.

No one understands from the beginning. You start, you keep on learning. When you succeed you do not learn much, but when you fail, you learn how to do it better next time.

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