By Hunter Richards
Demand is on the rise for organic produce. A survey by the Organic Trade Association found that sales revenue from organic food in the U.S. had exploded to $25 billion by 2009 – 25 times that of 1990.
High demand requires high efficiency. But organic farmers can’t use the technologies common to conventional agriculture – such as pesticides and genetic engineering – to increase yields. As such, there’s a misconception that they stubbornly shun technology, preferring age-old tradition over modern methods.
However, that’s not the case.
Organic Solutions: Software and Beyond
Jeff Birkby, outreach director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, recognizes the broad potential of technology. He said,
To me, technology is neutral; it’s neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s applied that makes the difference.
Jeff has a point – there must be a way for technology to help organic farmers. I began researching this article with software in mind because, unlike pest removal chemicals and other conventional farming technologies, data management tools don’t affect the crops directly. Clearly, organic farmers are free to use them. And the systems are certainly there – Farmigo for business data management is one example. The Georgia Institute of Technology is even developing a new user interface for soil moisture data software.
But as I researched, I became fascinated at how organic farmers can apply specialized technology in their fields rather than just in the office. Unlike their conventional counterparts, organic farming technologies cooperate with ecosystems to benefit crops. Blurring the line between natural processes and human intervention, the concept made me question the very definition of technology.
Can Technology and Nature Cooperate?
Ted Quaday, communications director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, clarified the issue when I spoke to him. Ted said,
We’re taking new knowledge, new information, and transferring that into real practical solutions in the farm field . . . is that new, innovative technology? I would argue that it is.
According to the definition that I found on Merriam-Webster’s website, Ted is right:
tech·nol·o·gy (noun, \tek-‘nä-l?-ji\) – the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area.
Who said technology had to involve spinning blades and steel? Organic farmers use new research in their approaches to the field, and that qualifies their methods as technology.
The Trade-offs of Technology
Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers save time and labor in conventional farming practice. But the resulting efficiency comes at a cost. The production, transport, and use of many of these substances threaten water quality and leave a sinister carbon footprint. Some can produce runoff that causes algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, draining oxygen from the surrounding area and killing nearby fish.
Through more natural farming methods, organic farms avoid damaging the environment. These examples reveal how technology can help, even while adapting to natural processes.
Example 1: Fertilization and Yield
To increase yields, conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers. But mechanical tools can be suitable alternatives. The roller crimper, a device dragged by a tractor through alfalfa and hay fields during harvest, breaks down the cell walls of plant stems to accelerate decomposition. This man-made tool increases soil fertility by speeding up the natural decomposition process – without artificial chemicals.
Another simple innovation that can increase yield quantity in organic farms is the hoop house, which is very much like a greenhouse – only easier, faster, and cheaper to build. Consisting of raised beds in a walled-off piece of land, it extends the growing season by protecting crops from bad weather and keeping them warm. More crops can then be produced for the local market, avoiding the need to import them from another location (which cuts down on potential carbon emissions). This research-oriented improvement helps farmers increase yields and benefit financially in a clean way.
Example 2: Pest and Weed Control
Pesticides and herbicides are notorious in conventional farming, and apples are especially vulnerable. Conventional farmers use potent substances in apple orchards to get rid of codling moths, tent caterpillars, and other destructive pests. Organic farmers won’t use these chemicals because of their side effects, but they’ve found alternatives. Surround, a type of biodegradable clay, can be sprayed on apples to confuse insects. Once the apples are affected, pests no longer recognize them as food. The clay washes off and dissolves in rain, so it has none of the harmful effects of the more conventional methods.
Thanks to a better understanding of insect mating habits and chemistry, farmers can also strategically destroy pest populations without even touching crops or soil. They can set up sticky traps coated with female pheromones, attracting male flies of species that typically harm the crops. They come in to mate, become trapped, and eventually die. The chemistry and methods of deploying these traps required new research and designs, so it’s clearly a form of technology. It’s just not the giant robot with chainsaw hands that we all tend to imagine.
A Delicate Balance
Pure technology or not, organic farmers can merge nature and human creation to improve efficiency and protect produce. Adhering to strict standards has forced organic farming into creative action. Nature and technology, two apparently polar opposites, have seldom shared such a symbiotic relationship.
Hunter Richards is a blogger and market analyst for Software Advice. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2010, with majors in economics and film studies. He has additional background in public policy and government. This article originally appeared on the blog Software Advice, under the title Organic Farmers: Can They Be Tech Savvy? – on February 21, 2011.
Members of the EarthSky community - including scientists, as well as science and nature writers from across the globe - weigh in on what's important to them. Photo by Robert Spurlock.