Organic farming means different things to different people. There are, however, some underlying principles that build the foundations of organic farming practices, and of the rules and regulations of organic certification. These include the Precautionary Principle; working with nature; animal welfare; the health of the soil; and long term sustainability.
An understanding and appreciation for these underlying foundations is crucial for a successful transition into organic farming.
The Precautionary Principle (PP) was formally enshrined as a principle in the Rio Declaration of 1992, agreed upon at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and more recently gained notoriety thanks to the work of Nassim Taleb, and others, in their writings and public discourse on the topics of GMOs, and climate change.
While limited progress has been made on many of the 27 principles agreed upon in Rio – organic farmers have continued to embrace and uphold the Precautionary Principle.
Taleb et al defines the PP as follows: “…that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (such as general health or the environment), and in the absence of scientific near-certainty about the safety of the action, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing the action. It is meant to deal with effects of absence of evidence and the incompleteness of scientific knowledge in some risky domains.”
In simpler terms: if we don’t fully understand the potential effects, including second and third order effects of a new technology, and we don’t really need it, it may be better to not use it at all.
Examples through history where a dose of precautionary principle may have prevented significant harm are especially apparent in the field of industrial chemistry – lead in petrol and CFCs in refrigerators come to mind.
The set of rules for organic farming that has evolved through global consensus over the last hundred years or so has been developed with consistent application of the Precautionary Principle. As Taleb points out, where a new technology has the potential for far reaching or systemic effects on humanity, the burden of proof no longer lies on organic farmers to prove it would be dangerous, but on the proponent of the action (e.g. the chemical company). If there exists incomplete scientific knowledge about a new technology which may impact the very building blocks of our food supply system – it probably makes sense to avoid the technology.
Working with Nature
The principle of working with rather than against nature is foundational for organic farmers. For millions of years, nature has provided all of our needs. Nature provides crops and livestock that support human’s habitation of almost all areas of the planet Earth. We have learnt time and again that fighting nature is folly. We build on mangroves and tsunamis become more damaging; we dam rivers and floods intensify. The smart move is always to firstly observe, seek to understand, and then design systems that work with nature, not against it.
Organic farms are designed to work with nature as far as is possible, while still producing sufficient yields for our purposes.
Just because we eat animals, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect them or wish to provide them a good life. Domestic animals such as sheep and cattle have co-evolved with humans over thousands of years. We have selectively bred them, but in a way it could be considered that they have bred us. We are codependent upon animals, in a very real sense.
In addition to straight production – such as producing meat, milk and eggs – livestock play an integral role on organic farms for nutrient cycling, fertiliser production, and breaking down oxidized plant material. Chickens scratch, pigs root, cows graze – all of these activities are useful on organic farms, and as such are encouraged. Fortunately these animals appear to enjoy these natural activities too. Self confessed lunatic farmer and author of The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, Joel Salatin frequently (playfully) poses the questions to audiences, “What are you doing to allow a chicken to fully express its ‘chickenness’? Or a cow its essence of ‘cowness’?”
Organic farmers uphold the highest degree of animal welfare by allowing animals to fully express their ‘animalness’, by allowing them to carry out their natural behaviours such as free ranging, roosting, grazing, natural herd structures, and ultimately the most humane departure available. Upholding animal welfare, as best we know how, is one of the foundations of organic farming.
Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy Animals = Healthy Humans
Humans are very adaptable, we are able to survive on food sources from most trophic levels. In a historical context, humans are the ultimate apex predator, existing at the top of the food chain. We can of course choose to eat from lower trophic levels – for example, by choosing a vegan diet. But the ability to choose to eat from any of the available trophic levels makes us Apex Predators.
The health of an organism on any trophic level is largely determined by the health of organisms on lower trophic levels. Existing high on the trophic plane means that our health is directly related to the health of the organisms we consume, and the organisms they consume, and so on. This is the basis for the well known mantra among organic farmers, “healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy animals, make healthy humans”.
The development and nurturing of a healthy soil is foundational for organic farmers.
Long Term Sustainability (Regeneration)
While the word “sustainable” has been somewhat devalued in recent times, as demonstrated by the common usage of the description of one thing being “more sustainable” than another. Obviously, there is no such thing as “more sustainable” – something is either sustainable, or it isn’t. To account for this common misusage, the term “regenerative” is being used more and more to describe organic farming methods.
Organic farming was designed to be sustainable, and, when implemented well, becomes truly regenerative – the soil, the farm ecosystem, neighbouring biodiversity areas, human health, and local communities are all regenerated by organic farming.
In many ways, these foundations are intertwined, they overlap, and are self reinforcing. The positive feedback loop that is created on farms by building on these foundations is clearly apparent, and provides hope for the future.
Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. 1992.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Rupert Read, Raphael Douady, Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam. The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms), 2015.
Salatin, Joel. The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs. 2016.