New farming methods are needed
Numerous farming methods exist, either strictly regulated or less so. This article has the ambition of shedding some light on the buzz words commonly thrown in the conversation nowadays from organic agriculture to permaculture by way of hydroponics and smart farming techniques. What are these methods and how are they related to climate change mitigation and adaptation?
This is the second article of a 3-chapter investigation: part one, understanding the key challenges of modern agriculture (published on November 24th, 2021), part two (this article), discerning the new methods of agriculture available to farmers, and part 3 (coming soon), analyzing the different diets available to environmentally- and socially-conscious consumers.
Organic farming has become mainstream.. But what is it exactly?
Organic production is an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, the application of high animal welfare standards and a production method in line with the preference of certain consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes (7). The European Union defines the organic farming rules (starting with Regulation (EC) No 834/2007) at the basis of the legislation.
A new organic regulation [(EU) 2018/848] came into effect on January 1st, 2022, and introduced, among others, the following changes:
The list of products which can get the organic certification was enlarged with live and unprocessed agricultural products, processed food, and feed but also extending to specific yeasts, maté, vine leaves, palm hearts, hop shoots, silkworm cocoon, natural gums and resins, essential oils, cork stoppers, raw cotton, raw wool, raw hides, plant-based traditional herbal preparations.
Short distribution channels and local production is explicitly encouraged .
Group certification, which is when small farmers organize themselves together and get certified as a single entity, is now allowed worldwide and not only in developing countries.
Changes in regards to organic product import systems and the annual physical inspection obligation have also been introduced.
The organic legal frameworks are evolving together with the growing demand for these products. The EU accounts for 37% of the global organic food and drink market and experiences strong year-on-year growth (e.g. increase of 8% from 2018 to 2019) (6; 17). The COVID-19 pandemic and the increased awareness on climate change issues has changed consumer behavior and created an upturn in organic products worldwide.
Organic food prices are usually higher (can be up to 150% more expensive than conventional products (1)) than conventional productions due to limited supply, higher production costs (greater labor input per unit, greater production diversity), post-harvest handling constrained to managing small volumes and inefficient marketing and distribution chains which limit economies of scale opportunities (9). A meta-analysis published in 2014 found that organic yields are 19% lower than conventional yields and this gap can be further reduced (to only 9%) when multi-cropping and crop rotation are integrated (20). These findings and expected demand increases should lead prices to go down in the future.
The organic logo gives a common reference throughout the EU to help consumers identify products which have been validated as respecting the organic principles of production. To make sure consumers are not misled by the use of the organic logo, the law states that it can only be used in the labeling of in-conversion products or processed products of which at least 95 % of their ingredients by weight is of organic agricultural origin.
Vertical farming is the production of fruits and vegetables, stacked indoors, in metropolitan buildings, usually providing large quantities of plants for consumption (10). All-year-round production, the limited use of space, and short transportation networks are key advantages of the practice. Water cycles can also easily be controlled for high efficiency and low levels of fertilizers and pesticides are required. The amount of energy needed to artificially light up the buildings and to manage temperature are the main criticisms of this farming method. Indeed, technology plays a key role with advanced LED lights and hydroponics (see below).
Hydroponics is a farming technique which consists in gardening without soil. Instead, plants grow directly in a solution of water and nutrients, hence the etymology of the word hydroponics: from hydro- "water" and -ponics, from the Greek ponein "to labor, toil," from ponos "labor"; labor in water.
Hydroponics is not new. While some date the first appearance of hydroponics to the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 290 BC (which actual existence is still questioned), Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont is known for a first hydroponics experiment in 1648. Several experiments took place over the following centuries until William F. Gericke coined the term “hydroponics”, in his book The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening (1940). The practice only recently gained a new breath of popularity in the 21st century (2).
Hydroponics comes with a range of advantages and a few disadvantages (4).
The solution of water and nutrients can be controlled by the farmer, for instance making sure the right level of oxygen is provided to the plants.
When using soil, the right amount of water to pour can be hard to determine leading to wasted water quantities. With hydroponics, most of the water can even be recycled after use which is more efficient.
The space needed for hydroponics is more flexible as it is often portable and can be stacked. Pests are more easily distanced and soil-related illnesses are avoided.
On the other hand, hydroponics requires highly precise gardening techniques which, if not handled well, can lead to costly losses of entire plants. Additionally, managing humidity levels can be complex and cause fungi and mildew presence if improperly managed.
Note that EU rules do not allow for plants grown hydroponically to be marketed as organic.
Technology in agriculture always existed but the limits are being pushed further thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). Smart farming is an emerging concept which describes the combination of advanced IoT technology and agriculture for the obtention of higher yields, better quality food, and a more environmentally- and socially- (less labor intensive) friendly agriculture (18; 14).
New technologies used in agriculture strive to support farmers with:
Better measurements: using sensors and satellite imagery to map humidity, water, light, and temperature levels for specific fields.
More efficient working processes: with advanced robotics such as drones for growing, harvesting, and processing food.
Improved real time monitoring: better measurements are available but most importantly, they are available now thanks to new smartphone apps targeted towards farmers.
Automatic parameter adjustments: with self-regulating greenhouses which create microclimates for optimal growth.
The term “precision farming” was coined to describe the ability to manage agriculture to the square meter of land or to the animal, rather than to the herd, thanks to technological advances and data analytics. Nanotechnologies and artificial intelligence are the tools which will play more prominent roles and enable “precision farming” in the future (19).
Regenerative farming philosophy
Regenerative agriculture - or agroecology - is the combination of a diverse range of land management and agricultural techniques and practices which share common values of caring for the land, its health, and vitality (8). Regenerative farming is not new but sees an renewed interest as it is opposed to the now often decried industrial agriculture, often degrading farmers’ social, economic, and agricultural capital. A paradigm shift from the “mechanical”, “industrial”, and “extractive” to the “ecological” is needed as we are confronted with the challenges of farmland degradation and climate change.
Regenerative farming asks for an understanding of the soil, its characteristics, the hydrological systems, the climate, and what creates a viable ecosystem. The question switches from “how can more be produced by hectare?” to “how can food be produced, while also improving the soil, sequestering carbon, providing wildlife habitat?”. Finally, these techniques strive to create an environment which can adapt itself to changing circumstances (economic, climate, labor, pests etc.).
How does this translate into practice? The focus of regenerative agriculture is on the soil. Healthy topsoil (i.e. the top layer of the soil) retains water, recycles nutrients, and stores carbon (3). Some of the key techniques that are being used in regenerative agriculture to increase soil health are no tillage, cover crops (i.e. planted to cover the soil rather than for harvest), increasing biodiversity, rotation cropping, attracting natural predators of pests and integrating livestock. No tillage, or no-till farming, is a simple “back-to-the-roots” method which consists in leaving the soil undisturbed rather than turning over the topsoil mechanically before planting, leaving the soil bare (16). By leaving the soil as is, biodiversity can strive, water is better retained, carbon is better sequestered, and nutrient density increases.
The outcome of regenerative agriculture is to close the carbon cycle thereby cleansing the atmosphere, building solid health and fertility, increasing water retention and clean runoffs, increasing biodiversity which will in turn develop crop resilience and nutrient density in food. The whole also aims to foment social capital in the close and extended community. Agroecology helps farmers to become increasingly self-sustaining, reducing their dependence on external inputs, and increasing yields (8).
Permaculture, originally “permanent agriculture”, is an ecological design system; it is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems (15). The main principles of permaculture are:
Establishment of plant systems for human use on the least amount of land we can use for our existence
An uncompromising opposition to further disturbance of any remaining natural forests
Vigorous rehabilitation of degraded and damaged natural systems
Establishment of plant and animal refuges for rare or threatened species
Permaculture and regenerative agriculture share common bases such as organic farming but go further by proposing holistic approaches and whole new philosophies for agriculture.
Are these techniques economically viable?
While this is a vast subject which should be studied hand in hand with farmers worldwide, accounts of financial successes in farms having implemented organic and regenerative farming are numerous. The documentary “Kiss the Ground” available on Netflix gives such accounts. Combining some of the above techniques, for example smart farming and regenerative farming, as well as implementing complementary methods (multi-cropping, animal farming, and crop rotation) are solutions to find economical balance and reduce the yield gap between organic and conventional farming (20).
Looking for an easy introduction to the above topics?
Dive deeper into the subjects covered in this article thanks to the valuable and friendly resources listed below:
The Netflix documentary “Kiss The Ground”, produced by Josh and Rebecca Tickell, and narrated by Woody Harrelson.
A useful overview of organic production from the EU Agricultural Market Briefs.
Askew, K. (2021) “Let’s make affordability part of the organic conversation: Affordability and accessibility in organic food”. Available at: URL link
Edwards, J. (2016) “History of Hydroponics, Part I: The Beginnings of Water Culture”. Available at: URL link
Eit Food (2021) “The Regenerative Agriculture Revolution”. Available at: URL link
Epic Gardening (2019) “History of Hydroponics: When Was Hydroponics Invented?”. Available at: URL link
EU (2021) “Organics at a glance”. Available at: URL link
EU Agricultural Market Briefs (2019) “Organic farming in the EU - A fast growing sector”. Available at: URL link
EUR-Lex (2007) “Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 of 28 June 2007 on organic production and labeling of organic products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91”. Available at: URL link
FAO (2019) “Shifting from farming to tending the earth: A discussion paper”. Available at: URL link
FAO (2021) “Why is organic food more expensive than conventional food”. Available at: URL link
Haus van Eden (2021). “Vertical farming - the future concept of agriculture”. Available at: URL link
IFOAM (2021) “Organic regulations”. Available at: URL link
Karavolias, N., Horner, W., Abugu, M. N., and Evanega, S. N. (2021) “Application of Gene Editing for Climate Change in Agriculture”. Available at: URL link
Lassoued, R., Macall, D. M., Smyth, S. J., Phillips, P.W.B., HesseIn, H. (2019) “Risk and safety considerations of genome edited crops: Expert opinion”. Available at: URL link
Meola, A. (2021) “Smart Farming in 2020: How IoT sensors are creating a more efficient precision agriculture industry”. Available at: URL link
Permaculture Research Institute (2021) “What is Permaculture?”. Available at: URL link
Regeneration International (2021) “What is No-Till Farming”. Available at: URL link
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL (2021) “Organic Agriculture in Europe: Current Statistics”. Available at: URL link
Sciforce (2020) “Smart Farming: The Future of Agriculture”. Available at: URL link
Zhang, P., Guo, Z., Ullah, S., Melagraki, G., Afantitis, A., Lynch, I. (2021) “Nanotechnology and artificial intelligence to enable sustainable and precision agriculture”. Available at: URL link
Ponisio LC, M’Gonigle LK, Mace KC, Palomino J, de Valpine P, Kremen C. 2015 Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20141396. Available at: URL link