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It is generally accepted that Organic agriculture or farming has traditionally been considered the oldest production system [Lampkin, 1992]. What is more contentious is the modern interpretation of what Organic agriculture is. There are currently a multiplicity of terms that have been employed in literature to describe Organic agriculture and which may present initial confusion. Lampkin [1992] has established sixteen different names used throughout the world. They include for instance:

  • Low-input farming [Haines, 1982],
  • Biological agriculture [Reeve, 1990],
  • Agriculture biologiuue the French equivalent [Kiley-Worthington, 1993] and
  • 'Howard-Balfour' agriculture [Boeringa, 1980].
It is apparent from the works of Reeve [1991] that although the terms 'organic' and 'biological' are synonymous, the European mainland favours the term biological [Lampkin, 1992], yet most English speaking countries favour the term Organic agriculture [Reeve, 1990]. In Australia the term "sustainable" has been associated with this production system. through the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia [N.A.S.A.A.] which has closely aligned itself with Organic agriculture and has become synonymous with chemical free agriculture. Thus the profusion of terminology has given a false and misleading impression of confusion in the essential meaning.

The modern organic philosophy and it's associated management practices are still evolving out of a rich heritage, which include the written contributions of Rodale, Newman Turner, Skyes, Walters and many others. If the commonly excepted conception is true that Sir Albert Howard is the "Father of Organic Agriculture" [Agricultural Testament, 1947] as we understand it today. Then the "Grandfather" was Robert Elliot [Agricultural Changes, 1898], who could also be described as the 'forgotten author'.

Elliots [1898] notes four simple principles:

  1. The success of our agriculture depends on the cheapening of production.
  2. The cheapest food for stock is grass.
  3. The cheapest manure for the soil is turf composed largely of deep-rooting plants.
  4. The cheapest, deepest, and best tillers, drainers and warmers of the soil are roots.
He also highlights the need for self-sufficiency, biodiversity and how plants feed from humus. Artificial fertilisers were used to build humus in the soil and not just to add nutrients. Elliot notes that "the principles of my system being as old as agriculture, though the method of carrying them out may be new, and, so far as I know, is new" [Elliot, 1904]. In Stapleton's foreword to Elliot retitled book The Clifton Park System of Farming [1945] he notes that Elliot's work has largely been over looked [and still is], due to the limited volume of books printed and the distraction of two world wars.

Lady Eve Balfour also made major contribution and not only emphasises a ecological concept, but that the life cycle should be studied as a whole, i.e. "the nutrition cycle is not merely a transfer of nutrient material from one form of life to another, but also a circuit of energy" (Balfour, 1975, p.1). The role of soil humus and the need to develop adequate organic matter levels was a central theme to the production of healthy food and out of this understanding the movement has become associated with composting and green manuring. However, the manner of producing plant/root matter appears to be the dividing lines between the so called "chemical" and "organic" movements with some organic farmers refusing to use them.

The emergence of Organic farming to its present day resurgence, has partly come about through changing social attitudes as well as environmental considerations. In 1965 the South Australian "Group" of the British "Soil Association" was formed. In 1975 it separated from its English counterparts and became a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM). In May of 1973 the Organic Growers Association of N.S.W. was formed. It was labeled as part of the "alternative society" movement and the only interest that orthodox farmers took in the Association was to ridicule Organic farmers [Australian Country, 1974].

A study by the USDA has identified that modern organic systems does have a number of basic 'organic' ethics for example:

  • Nature is capital;
    Energy intensive modes of conventional agriculture place man on a collision course with nature. Present trends and practices signal difficult times ahead. More concern over finite nutrient resources is needed. Organic farming focuses on recycling nutrients.
  • Soil is the source of life;
    Soil quality and balance [that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements and other nutrients] are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.
  • Feed the soil, not the plant.;
    Healthy plants, animals and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.
  • Diversify production systems;
    Over specialisation [monoculture] is biologically and environmental unstable.
  • Independence;
    Organic farming contributes to personal and community independence by reducing dependence on energy-intensive agricultural production and distribution systems.
  • Anti-materialism;
    Finite resources and Nature's limitations must be recognised.
In addition, IFORM has identified the following principles:
  • Production of food of high nutrient quality.
  • To give livestock living conditions which allow them to perform all the basic aspects of their innate behaviour.
  • To allow agricultural producers to obtain an adequate return to supply their basic needs and to get satisfaction from their work.
  • To consider the wider social and ecological impacts of the farming system. [Bock, 1995, p.2]
Hence, organic farmers seek to establish ecologically harmonious, resource efficient and nutritionally sound agricultural methods [Reeve, 1990]. Having considered some of the traditional philosophies, ethics and goals of Organic agriculture it is this author's opinion that over the last few decades the philosophy of the organic movement has become more rationalist as it moves to the implementation of Quality Assurance Programs and marketing strategies.

As different emphasis are occurring it should be noted that two significant changes have been adopted from that of traditional 'Howard-Balfour' [Boeringa, 1980], Organic agriculture.

Two specific areas relate to:

  • The association of 'organic' with being "chemical free" as its main feature and not the original emphasis on healthy soil - healthy food - healthy people.
  • The widely accepted and authorised use of [mineral] fertilisers.
The use and potential reliance on mineral fertilisers was not one of the foundations on which the organic movement was founded. There would appear to have been a move away from maintaining a 'closed' system and the acceptance of commercially prepared 'mineral' fertilisers to artificially support the agroecosystem. In affect there is an excepted practice of product substitution whereby superphosphate is not allowed to be used but Rock Phosphate can. This situation is very complex and can be divisive.

Some farmers have also taken an extreme stance and not applied any "chemicals", which in one respect may be ethically correct, however if the nutrition and health of food is adversely affected [i.e. nutrient deficiencies, which weaken plants and increase the susceptibility to pest and disease attack] is the food still healthy?. If poor quality products are produced with no "chemicals" usage this could be associated with "farming by neglect", which weakens the developed credibility of established organic farmers. Both these factors have been a move away from the traditional core issue of producing healthy soil/plants/animals/humans through the use [organic matter] humus and the regeneration of the soil.

These and other factors have broadened its definition and allowed the term to be used more widely, which has on one hand led to Organic agriculture having a greater acceptance with farmers now considering it as a viable production system [Lampkin, 1992]. On the other hand the term organic can be seen as "grey" and confusing due to the general use of the word in our every day language. There is still confusion as to what the term "organic" really means. Specific management practices

To give a pragmatic view showing the practical application of Organic agricultural methods a number of unique management characteristics have been identified. In the following list are some examples of specific management practices.

  • Mineral fertilisers
  • Green manure crops
  • Composting/recycling
  • Companion planting
  • Multi-tine subsoiling
  • Limited chemical usage
In summary Organic agriculture has moved from having a image of 'muck and magic' [Kiley-Worthington, 1993] to researching and integrating new technologies for the future. It is evolving and heralding a change in agriculture across the world [Lampkin, 1992]. Roberts [1995] goes as far as to suggest that in Australia "sustainable" agriculture is likely to draw on the principles of Organic farming in its less extreme form, however Beus et al. [1990] adds a note of caution and infers that traditional 'organic' research programs will simply be relabelled sustainable agriculture.

The information contained in this publication has been formulated in good faith, the contents do not take into account all the factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice. Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained herein as a substitute for specific professional advice.
S.O.S. Rev 9.2 All rights reserved. Contact: www.healthyag.com © Gwyn Jones 2001

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