Promising alternatives to external inputs in organic farms, according to farmer surveys

Although organic farmers abstain from the use of harsh inorganic chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, plants and livestock may be treated with approved external inputs. Although substances that are approved for use in organic must have minimal negative consequences for their use, it is important to regularly review and assess their potential impacts on environmental and human health. When a substance is known to have detrimental impacts, but is also a critical tool for production and not alternatives exist, then it may be listed as an allowable substance.

A recent European article outlines the usage of several organic-compliant inputs, surveying farmers to gauge their dependency on these tools, and offers a review of the current state of possible alternatives.

In the U.S., when sufficient alternatives do not exist and the substance is heavily used, it is important to ramp up research to find or develop alternative solutions so that the less-than-ideal substance can be removed from the list without leaving farmers in a lurch.

Currently, 8.1% of European agriculture is organic but E.U. initiatives are pushing for growth to 25% by 2030. Guidelines upon external input application in organic farms are often unclear and occasionally fall short of environmental goals. The E.U. prohibits the application of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, but allows for the use of naturally-derived products which serve plant and livestock growth and health. On cropland, copper, mineral oils, and manure are commonly applied. Livestock are often administered antibiotics and anthelmintics (anti-parasitic drugs). While beneficial to the intended organisms to which they are applied, these inputs can damage the soil, pollinators, and can accelerate disease resistance to medical treatments.

These authors examined copper, mineral oils, anthelmintics, antibiotics, and manure usage. Data was gathered from European RELACS (Replacement of Contentious Inputs in Organic Farming Systems) reports. These reports gathered surveys and expert interviews on all inputs except for manure, gathering data from an array of European nations. For manure usage data, the report employed several case studies and a panel of experts.

Copper and mineral oils are applied for plant protection, both primarily functioning as low-toxicity pesticides. Copper can accumulate in soil and disrupt soil microbes. Though copper is uniquely universal, farmers have found that healthier alternatives like larch extract, tagatose, and calcium carbonate each work on a narrower array of plants.

Reduction of copper use seems promising, as the crops on which copper is most commonly applied (grapes and olives) have been responsive to these alternatives. Mineral oils are harmful to aquatic life and pollinators and can damage ecosystem dynamics. Crop oil extracts are cheaper and similarly effective, so it is likely that mineral oil usage can be seamlessly curbed. For both copper and mineral oils, reduction in input can also be fostered via preventative anti-pest solutions like rain shelters.

Manure application is widespread on organic farms, causing a surplus of nitrogen across all 71 interviewed farms. Potassium and phosphorus levels were inconsistent, which may be due to an overemphasis on nitrogen levels and/or low-quality manures. It is difficult and expensive to find high-quality organic manures, with 16% of farmers resorting to non-organic manures.

Organic manure availability will increase as organic farming expands, but effective crop rotations also provide valuable soil nutrients and its use can reduce the need for mulch. Still, in order to effectively expand organic agriculture, a higher rate of production of organic manure is required.

Most countries include antibiotics and anthelmintics as a part of livestock health plans, though in the U.S., antibiotic use in organic livestock production is strictly prohibited. For this study in the E.U. On average, organic farmers administer less than one treatment per animal yearly of antibiotics and anthelmintics respectively. These quantities remain well within organic regulations, however could be lowered with alternative disease treatments like phytochemicals, probiotics, and organic acids. According to survey data, only 16% of UK farmers employ these techniques currently, but the majority are willing to try them.

As European agriculture grows, it would be best to set up a sustainable foundation. While organic farming generally employs more sustainable techniques than conventional farming, there are still external inputs that can damage the ecosystem. This study provides promising survey data that indicates that copper, mineral oils, and veterinary drugs are able to be replaced by organic compounds and alternative treatments that do less harm to the ecosystem. Still, research is required to conclude that these alternative techniques are effective, in terms of yield and environmental outcomes.


Photo by MUS LIHAT;