In this comparison guide, we explain what sustainable, organic, and conventional farming are.
We also outline what might be some of the main differences between them, and also some of the similarities.
Summary – Sustainable vs Organic vs Conventional Farming
The common principle of sustainable farming practices is that they prioritise the environment (prevention from degradation), management of natural resources, social criteria and wild life/animals, alongside production based and economic priorities.
There’s also an emphasis on meeting the long term needs of society in addition to the short term needs.
Conventional farming in comparison may place more of a priority on production, efficiency, and economic based priorities in some cases, and focus more on the short term needs of farmers, consumers and society.
Read more about the potential pros and cons of sustainable farming in this guide.
Organic farming is generally considered a form of sustainable farming.
We’ve previously written about the criteria for organic cotton, and organic farming is used to produce organic cotton.
Another example of organic farming being used in the real world might be observed with the farming of much of the world’s cocoa (which may happen by default due to the farming technology and resources available to these farmers)
The first major feature is that it uses non GMO crop seeds.
The second major feature might be that natural and renewable pest control methods and fertilizer matter are used over non renewable synthetic pesticide and fertilizer chemicals
Some sources indicate that these pesticides are usually less toxic and persistent for humans and the environment, but, other sources question that that is really the case with natural pesticides (depending on the pesticide used)
Generally includes different sized conventional farms – from smaller scale commercial farming, to larger scale industrial type farming (that may have more intensive operations for greater production).
Conventional farming is the generally classified as much of the farming carried out in modern times, in developed countries, since the industrial revolution.
It generally involves the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, in large part to boost yields and productions.
And, it generally uses modern farming equipment, machinery, technology and systems – to boost efficiency, and speed and scale of production.
The results of more efficiency and higher yields is usually better profits and revenues for farmers, and greater production for consumers.
Therefore, the generalisation made about conventional farming might be that it places more of an emphasis on economic objectives over environmental, resource management, and objectives that sustainable farming might prioritize.
It might be set up to meet the consumption needs of society through large scale production better than some current forms of sustainable farming.
It’s worth noting though that some farmers using conventional farming systems may voluntarily use some sustainable farming practices, or abide by some ethical standards for the purposes of animal welfare.
We haven’t provided further information about this type of farming elsewhere in this guide, but it’s worth noting that subsistence farming is practiced by many small plot landholders and farmers around the world, specifically in developing countries.
This guide is a generalisation only.
We generalize about the different types of farming and their features.
Each individual farming operation and their farming practices and systems can differ, and could reasonably combine practices from different types of farming (i.e. they may not perfectly fit into one categorisation).
The descriptions about the different types of farming are also just one set of descriptions – other sources may have different descriptions and definitions.
We’ve also provided a list of the potential pros and cons of sustainable farming in this guide.
To compare sustainable farming to organic farming and also conventional farming:
– Sustainable farming is the overarching type of farming that includes organic farming, and other types of sustainable farming, such as conservation farming, regenerative farming, and more
– Sustainable farming has a greater emphasis on environmental and social indicators, and also the long term sustainable needs of society, compared to making short term economic, efficiency, and production related indicators the priority (like large scale conventional farming might in some instances)
Having said that, some sources indicate that some forms of sustainable farming can lead to increases in yield and profitability whilst decreasing insecticide use. Although, other sources dispute these claims of increased yield and profitability
– Some types of sustainable farming may also place more of an emphasis of holistically working with nature and natural agricultural systems, as opposed to placing more emphasis on synthetic chemicals and too much industrialisation
A holistic approach might aim to get the different farm ecosystems working together – soil, water, biodiversity, green compost and manure, agroforestry, crops, etc.
We’ve explained the core features of organic farming in the summary section to this guide.
Beyond that information, you might like to check out these guides on organic cotton that may provide more information on organic farming and organic cotton products:
Pros & Cons Of Organic Cotton – Contains information about organic cotton farming yields, agricultural chemical use, and other information relevant to organic farming)
Organic Cotton vs Conventional Cotton: Comparison – the linked ‘Organic Cotton Plus’ resource includes a table on how organic cotton differs to conventional cotton when it comes to seed preparation, soil preparation, weed control, and harvesting at the farm level
– For seed preparation, there’s natural and untreated GMO free seeds used for organic farming, compared to seeds treated with fungicides, insecticides, and that possibly use GMOs for conventional cotton farming
– For soil preparation, there’s an emphasis on healthy soil through crop rotation, retaining soil moisture and maintaining organic matter in the soil for organic farming, compared to synthetic fertilizers, mono crop cultures, and intensive irrigation for conventional cotton farming
– For weed control, there’s beneficial insects and trap crops used for organic farming, compared to sprayed pesticides and insecticides used during conventional cotton farming
– For harvesting, there’s natural defoliation methods and strategies used for organic farming, compared to defoliation induced with toxic chemicals used during conventional cotton farming
It’s worth pointing out that with organic cotton in particular, some organic farming practices may put an emphasis on soil conservation that protects soil against soil erosion and topsoil loss, and also maintains soil health and fertility.
Not only can this help maintain topsoil depth, but it may also help reduce the requirements for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and heavy irrigation (in some instances).
There may be several environmental and social benefits to organic farming according to some sources …
Organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals [are met]
[Some of these goals may relate to synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use, GM seed use, conserving water and lessening irrigation requirements, better biodiversity, and providing soil that can be a carbon sink]
[Some data provides evidence that] regenerative organic agricultural practices … can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.
Some people estimate it takes about 30 percent less energy to grow organic soy and corn than it does to grow the conventional kind.
However, others say that organic crops and foods may take more land to grow because the yields (how much produce you get per acre or hectare of land) won’t be as high
Organic overall does seem to be more environmentally friendly in many other areas though
Conventional farming can cover commercial farms and larger scale industrial farms and agricultural operations.
Apart from what is written in the summary of this guide about conventional farming, some of the features of, and relevant notes about modern day conventional farming operations might include:
– Generally uses synthetic pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen based fertilizers
– Generally uses modern farming equipment and machinery, and systems like irrigation sprinkler systems
– It has a large scale of production to meet the needs for a growing population, with meeting the demand for food being a key benefit of modern conventional agriculture, amongst other potential benefits.
Sustainable farming and organic farming may struggle with the scale and ease of implementation in some aspects compared to conventional agriculture.
However, several sources indicate that there might be a limit to production in the future based on things such plateauing or declining yields, most of the available agricultural land already being used worldwide, topsoil declining by the decade, and so on
– Industrial farming and intensive farming practices (the largest farming operations might have some of the most intensive practices, such as intensive tilling, or wide and heavy application of synthetic sprayed pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers) can contribute to a range of issues in society – we’ve previously written guides about the potential negative impact of agriculture on the environment and the sustainable use of resources, humans and the economy, and animals and wildlife.
Some also argue that intensive conventional agriculture might have side effects that can’t be seen until years or decades later i.e. the long term costs to this type of agriculture can be hidden upfront
– Some conventional farmers may individually choose to make some of their farming practices more sustainable, or have certain animal welfare standards in place.
So, not all conventional farming operations are the same – they each require a separate analysis based on their individual variables of operation
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