Organic Vs Conventional Farming - What's the difference?

There has been a focus in the past twenty years plus on the food we eat and how it is grown. Many people are asking questions about the inputs that are applied to their foods, and the impact that it could be having on the earth as well as their bodies.

This has led to the common question, "organic vs conventional farming - what's the difference?"

To answer this question, first we need to go through a little history, without history we won't be able to understand the difference and why the world relies so HEAVILY on the conventional agriculture approach.

Then onto the comparison of the two forms of agriculture, to help you make an educated decision about which one is the best for the Earth and our bodies. *Note: It is important to understand that this review is a general view of the two forms of agriculture, there are many shades of grey here, with some conventional farms shunning artificial inputs and some organic farms being more monoculture than others.

History of agriculture

Agriculture has been one of the biggest innovations in human history, with the first domestication of food crops occurring over 10,000 years ago. This domestication of food allowed for communities to base themselves in one area, growing, tending and harvesting foods to sustain larger populations. Simple, manual agriculture dominated for the first 8,000 years - focusing on the sowing and harvesting of grain crops, husbandry of animals and planting orchards of nut and fruit trees. The next 2,000 years brought massive technology changes that moved from mostly manual labour (both human and animal labour) to the manufacture of farming implements that allowed larger areas to be farmed with less labour. Coupled with the sharing of food crops around the world, this again boosted the ability of humans to farm and feed larger populations with agriculture. What started as the simple understanding of plant biology (that is the planting of a seed to grow a replicate), grew into the most important and largest industry in the world, as well as the fuel for massive population growth. Foods were grown with what was naturally available, and if modern standards were applied to ancient agriculture, it would most definitely be ORGANIC!

The 1900s brought massive change that not only modified how humans produced food, but also how MUCH food humans could produce.

Mechanisation, The First Artificial Fertiliser & The Green Revolution

In the space of less than 150 years, humans discovered how to artificially create fertiliser, as well as build machines that could do the work of many humans. This was revolutionary, as it allowed for significant yield increases from farming, with significant decreases in labour. Interestingly, one could easily correlate this change with the acceleration of human population, suddenly humans were able to produce more with less, allowing massive growth in population (from 1.5 Billion in 1900, to more than 7 Billion today).

The 1940s brought what has been called "The Green Revolution", which is the loose description given to the discovery of:

  • More artificial fertilisers (and their distribution);
  • Creation of chemical herbicides and pesticides; and
  • Genetic modification of plants and animals.

This shifted food production into mass production that continues today. Driven by the artificial boosting of soil nutrients and application of poisons that reduced the impact of pests. Genetic modification of plants has led to plants producing more yield than they would naturally produce and insertion of other animal and plant genomes to modify the properties of the plant. Again, the boom of food production in this time could be linked with the increase in human population.

(Re)emergence of Organic Agriculture

The Green Revolution brought more food to the world, and with it brought huge volumes of artificial inputs to agriculture. In Australia alone, there is approximately 1.7 Million tonnes of artificial fertilisers applied to farming every year (which has increased from 0.7 Million tonnes in 1983). Pesticide use in Australia has also grown rapidly, with over 15,000 tonnes of herbicides, 5,000 tonnes of insecticides and 3,000 tonnes of fungicides sprayed every year (and growing rapidly).

This awareness (and the toxicity of many of these inputs) has led to the (re)emergence of organic agriculture, which combines modern agriculture methods with natural inputs and pest management. 1987 saw the emergence of Biological Farmers of Australia, a group of farmers who advocated and championed the natural farming approach that worked WITH nature rather than against. They championed and adopted farming techniques that now form organic certification, a process that is incredibly stringent and bound by Consumer Law (i.e. it can only be called certified organic if it IS certified organic).

To show the difference in approach to the two styles of farming, see below for the key differences in these two food production methods, and use this to identify which method suits you best.

The Difference between Organic and Conventional Farming

The difference between conventional farming and organic farming is quite simple. One (conventional) uses artificially created inputs, whilst the other (organic) uses natural inputs to create the same end goal of food production. The table comparison below looks at inputs to each agriculture system, but does not compare the quality of nutrition that comes from the two systems. Many of the inputs to conventional agriculture are toxic (they need to be to kill pests!) and have been linked to many health issues that are prevalent in our community.

Coupled with this table, the Rodale Institute in the USA has undertaken a 30 year study into the yields and quality of produce from organic and conventional agriculture, this is summarised below.

Agricultural Management Systems Conventional Agriculture Approach Organic Agriculture Approach
Insect & Plant Pest Management Insect pest management in conventional agriculture overwhelmingly has a preference to use insecticides to manage bugs that eat or damage food crops. Many of these insecticides are organophosphates (parathion methyl, chloroyriphos, dimethoate, profenfos, and diazinon), acetyl choline esterase inhibitors (metham sodium is the most used), GABA-gated chloride channel antagonists (endosulfan), pyrethroids and pyrethrins.

Plant pest management in conventional agriculture has been a big focus in recent years, with Europe and some parts of the world restricting use of some chemical plant pest management systems. The most commonly used plant pest management in conventional agriculture (coupled with some mechanical plant removal) include:

- Glyphosate;
- Atrazine;
- Simazine.

*See (1) below for further links to these chemicals.
Insect and plant pest management in organic agriculture has a preference to natural measures to prevent and manage outbreaks. Organic agriculture focuses on using biological and physical control agents to manage plant pests:

- Biological control agents and the protection of predator habitats;
- Rotational and livestock grazing programs, companion planting, trap cropping;
- Biodynamic measures;
- Soil solarisation – where a proper rotation cannot take place;
- Mechanical controls such as traps, barriers, light and sound;
- Moderate mechanical cultivation;
- Mulching and slashing;- Flame and steam weeding;
- Mineral and biological balance within the soil.
Fertiliser Inputs The majority of conventional agriculture that requires growth of plants (for both grazing and food harvest) use fertilisers. Many of these fertilisers are manufactured through chemical processes, whilst some are by super-refining mined phosphate. The most common chemical fertilisers used in Australia on conventional farms include:
- Urea;
- Sulphate of Ammonia;
- Anhydrous Ammonia;
- Urea Ammonium Nitrate;
- Diammonium Phospate;
- Monoammoniumphosphate;
- Triple Super Phosphate;
- Single Super;
- Muriate of Potash.

Many of these fertilisers focus on the macro nutrients Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium - with no addition of crucial micronutrients. *See (2) for further links to these fertilisers and their manufacturing processes.
Organic certification requirements in Australia allow for the following fertiliser inputs (not comprehensive):
- Beneficial organisms;
- Calcium carbonate;
- Calcium;
- Clay;
- Compost;
- Compost tea;
- Mined dolomite;
- Granite dust;
- Kelp meal;
- Lime sources;
- Magnesium carbonate;
- Composted manures;
- Seaweed;
- Rock dusts;
- Neem meal.

It becomes clear that the only inputs that certified organic agriculture allows is natural (i.e. hasn't been through a refining process) and focuses on both macro and micro nutrients. Rock dusts and seaweeds introduce a range of micronutrients to soil that conventional fertilisers lack.
Soil Ecology Management In conventional agriculture there is less of a focus on soil ecology, and managing the impacts of compaction, erosion and rehabilitation. The use of fungicides is on the increase in agriculture to manage soil fungus that can impact some crops, similar to the use of antibiotics, the impact on soil ecology is not completely understood.

In recent years there has been a move towards a better understanding of soil ecology in the conventional world, resulting in many farms moving towards less harmful approaches.
In organic agriculture, there is an absolute focus on improving and maintaining a soil ecology that retains nutrients and biodiversity. Not only does this include a diversity of fungi, bacteria and larger soil invertebrates, it also includes boosting AND retaining nutrients in the soil.

This approach is very different from the input-driven conventional approach, the organic methods seek to help the soil develop a self-sufficient ecology that ensures crops that absorb a range of macro and micro nutrients whilst also developing a soil ecology that results in less pest outbreaks.
Plant Diversity In many conventional agriculture farms the tendency is to focus on single crop, or mono-cropping approaches. This results in significant areas of the same plant or tree, which impacts not only the soil, but also the surrounding biodiversity of the region. Large monoculture farms generally lack other animal life, including pollinators that are crucial to many flowering crops (many of these farms import bee hives to increase pollination results).

The other component of this monoculture approach is the risk increase for plagues of pests, which descend on the farm when the crop is ripening or about to ripen (many of us have seen mice plagues and locusts devouring whole regions of crops on the news). Coupled with the increase in pest plagues, there is also the impact on soil ecology that monoculture has (another topic that hasn't been extensively research), the impact associated with plants draining key elements (and trace elements) as well denying the soil the diversity of root depth that comes with a biodiverse cropping approach.
As conventional farming was born from the "original", organic agriculture, many of the cropping approaches seen in conventional farming exist in organic agriculture. To cater for the demand, many large organic farms use a monoculture approach to all for efficiencies associated with planting, pest management and harvesting.

On the flipside, there are many smaller scale organic farms that multi-crop and encourage natural biodiversity on their properties.

The Rodale Institute Study

The Rodale Institute reviewed yield, revenue, expenses and profit of conventional versus organic farming techniques, the results are best seen via the graphs below, showing that yields were comparable between the two and profitability was far higher for organic. 

Source: Rodale Institute - http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/

Source: Rodale Institute - http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/

Further comparison was undertaken to compare the soil organic matter between farming methods, and the results speak for themselves, organic techniques outperformed conventional % significantly.

Source: Rodale Institute - http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/

Source: Rodale Institute - http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/

*(1) - For more details on how these pesticides are manufactured and their impacts to the human body, click through to discover more.

  • Organophosphates (parathion methyl (classified as SEVERELY HAZARDOUS to human health, now phased out in Australia), chloroyriphos (under review for use in Australia, TOXIC), dimethoate (disables central nervous system function, partially banned in Australia**), profenfos, and diazinon);
  • Acetyl choline esterase inhibitors (metham sodium is the most used);
  • GABA-gated chloride channel antagonists (endosulfan, which is now banned in Australia);
  • Pyrethroids (toxic to humans and many beneficial insects);
  • pyrethrins
  • Glyphosate (toxic and beginning to be banned worldwide);
  • Atrazine
  • Simazine - banned in the EU and remains in the soil for up to 7 months after application.

** Dimethoate still used on artichoke (globe), asparagus, beans, beetroot, broccoli, cabbage (drumhead varieties only),capsicums, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chilli, peas, potatoes and sweet potatoes, onion, parsnips, radish, rhubarb, sweetcorn, tomatoes for processing, tomatoes (large field grown for fresh consumption, prior to commencement of flowering), turnip and zucchini.

*(2) - For more details on how these fertilisers are manufactured and their impacts to the human body, click through to discover more.