The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 1 – Soil Health

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Last time I covered what it means to be “organic” and now I want to know what the label is worth. The BiG Stink asks: Is organic better for the environment? That’s a loaded question with numerous angles and it would take an army of scientists to get to the bottom of it. Since I am not a) an army or b) a scientist, I will cover four specific topics (soil health, energy use, chemical runoff, and land use efficiency) in four different posts comparing organic and conventional methods.  While the conventional versus organic debate will hardly be settled, I hope I can drop some knowledge and get people thinking.

To begin, get to know thy farming method. Conventional farming a.k.a. industrial agriculture a.k.a modern farming is defined by a loose group of characteristics. Conventional farms are typically large scale and cultivate a single strain of a high-yield crop continuously for many seasons. They also are characterized by high energy inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers.

WLfarm

BSC’s John, Faith and Emma visit organic partner farm Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester

Organic farming also has a wide definition. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming “preserves natural resources and biodiversity, only uses approved materials, and does not use genetically modified ingredients.” In order to “preserve natural resources and biodiversity” farmers employ techniques such as crop rotation and low-tillage to promote soil health, use of compost and green manure as fertilizer, and mulching to control weeds. For a more in depth breakdown of what it means for produce to be certified organic check out my previous post, “But what does organic even mean?”

Now that each farming method has a definition, let’s get to the good stuff. When it comes to soil health, how do organic and conventional methods compare? For soil to be deemed “healthy” it must function as a living ecosystem that sustains humans, animals and plants. And what’s the number one need of plants, animals, and humans? Water. The soil of organic crops exhibits better water-holding capacity, better water infiltration rates, and better resilience to moisture fluctuations. What does all that mean? Water, water everywhere. Under organic management, the soil system stores 15-20% more water than conventional methods. Stored water becomes crucial during dry spells or intense rainfall, making crops more resilient to extreme weather.

There’s not just more water down there. Soil handled using organic methods contains more soil organic matter (SOM) than soils subjected to conventional till methods. SOM allows soil particles to bind together which prevents erosion and loss of topsoil. SOM also provides substrates to attach heavy metals and pesticides. The microbes and minerals found in soil detoxify, immobilize, and degrade harmful chemicals and reduce runoff. Finally SOM produces nutrients for microbes that boost plant productivity by freeing up nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium for plant uptake.

What about soil subjected to conventional till methods, continuous monocropping and constant synthetic chemical inputs of industrial agriculture? Can you say dust bowl? Lacking careful management, soils can be stripped of their topsoil, become drought-prone, and, well, turn to dust, no longer able to sustain life.

The comparison of soil health of organic and conventional farming is no contest. Organic methods are superior at maintaining overall soil health in the long-term. Organic farming methods such as low/no-till, composting, use of green manure, and crop rotation produce healthy soils that function as physical support to prevent erosion, as a plant nutrient source, as a water source, and as a chemical repository to prevent runoff. While the conventional versus organic farming debate may never be settled, when it comes to soil health, organic farming has it in the bag.

With soil health behind us, next up the BiG Stink crunches numbers to compare the energy inputs of modern agriculture and organic farming. Stay tuned for the 411 on fossil fuel use during agriculture and we’ll discover where all that energy is spent on a farm.

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