If you are like me, you may be overwhelmed or maybe even a little annoyed with the words you see in the grocery store and on food products. What exactly is “natural” and how does it apply to Natural farming? How is organic farming any different than natural farming? Is organic better or the same as natural? Question after question seems to float around the grocery store aisles as consumers seek to answer what is best for them and the food they purchase.
The goal of this blog is not to argue one form of farming is better than the other but to inform consumers clearly what these types of agriculture are and how they are different. This way, they can make educated decisions when buying food. The secondary goal is to assist you to think critically about each type of farming and not just buy food because it has a label on it, claiming it to be “organic” or “natural.” Lastly, to give consumers the power to drive the food system, like they should, instead of large multinational food companies whose sole goal is making a profit.
As more and more terms appear in food marketing, consumers seem to have more confusion and need to be better equipped to understand the marketing and claims made. Some are ready to give up as they desire a transparent food system that is easy and simple to figure out, but it doesn’t seem like food companies are wanting to play along.
Natural Farming Vs Organic Farming
To start, let’s define both terms, so we have a clear understanding of natural and organic farming principals.
“Natural Farming is a farming practice that imitates the way of nature,” it was created in Japan by Masanobu Fukuoka and Mokichi Okada. It is described as “the natural way of farming” or “do-nothing farming.” Source: Maunakeatea
“Organic farming is a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The principal goal of organic production is to develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.” Source: Omafra
Similarly, I have heard many people speak highly of organic farming/foods because they don’t use pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics or GMO’s and their reason for supporting this form of agriculture is because of the elimination of these items.
I believe the one commonality both these forms of agriculture have is that they are perceived or understood to be more sustainable than commodity farming, which we explored last month. Do consumers feel they are doing their part to care for the environment and their bodies, but are these correct assumptions?
What is Natural Farming?
In principle, practitioners of natural farming maintain that it is not a technique but a view, or a way of seeing ourselves as a part of nature, rather than separate from or above it. Accordingly, the methods themselves vary widely depending on culture and local conditions.
Principles of Natural Farming
Fukuoka boiled natural farming down into a mindset consisting of five principles that include: no weeding, no-tillage, no pesticides or herbicides, no fertilizer, and lastly no pruning of the plant.
What is Organic Farming?
The principles of organic farming are intended to refocus our minds on how farmers take care of the soil and manage the biological life of the earth. Organic agriculture includes not only the management of the soil but also the water, plants and animals used in farming. Yearly third party audits authenticate that farmers are required to prove what they used on their land and host an annual inspection.
Principles of Organic Farming
The four Principles of Organic Farming are:
- It should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals and humans as one and indivisible.
- Should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
- It should build on relationships that ensure fairness about the familiar environment and life processes.
- Should be managed in a prudent and responsible manner to protect the health and well being of current and future generations and the environment.
What is “natural” and how does it apply to Natural farming?
Food packaging and labels with the word “natural” are not the same as Natural farming. I would suggest to the reader that the word natural is all over the place and is used widely and often misused when we see the word “Natural” on food packaging it rarely if ever has a connection to Natural farming. I have worked in the greenhouse industry, and I remember driving a forklift and loading skids of bell peppers onto a truck and looking at the box daily. One of the claims on the packing was “grown Naturally.”
How is a greenhouse-grown pepper produced naturally? The plants are grown in a shredded coconut bag that function as soil. Two water lines are dripping water mixed with various fertilizer combinations that are given to the plant to produce the most significant amount of growth and production a pepper plant has the potential for. CO2 is artificially pumped through airlines in between the rows of peppers to provide it with the environmental conditions necessary to produce the large, ideally looking peppers we see and buy daily at the grocery store.
All these examples are to start and make you ask the same questions I had while working in this environment. How is this natural?
It is a highly productive way to grow peppers, but I am not clear on whether I would agree it is “natural.” So please don’t think for one minute that the numerous packages with the word natural on it mean the food is produced with Natural farming techniques. Natural Farming can be interpreted in many ways, and sometimes people misinterpret the notion of Natural Farming since the word “Natural” is used so casually in many places.
How is Organic Farming any Different than Natural Farming?
The three main differences I see when comparing the different systems of farming are:
First, organic farming starts with building healthy soil, manage biological activity within the ground and grow healthy plants. Whereas natural farming does not look to build soil biology but to leave the land alone and let processes happen naturally. Natural agriculture is a set of things not to do and let nature take over; again, it is a mindset not a set of functioning principles.
Second, natural farming is about not tilling the soil, no weeding and no pruning of the plant. Comparably, organic agriculture doesn’t function on a set of do not do’s, as some of us, understand. For example, in organic farming, tillage is an essential tool for the farmer; controlling weeds is one of the biggest challenges an organic farmer will face. Not weeding would most likely lead to a terrible crop or a very difficult time harvesting.
Thirdly, in the event pruning needs to be carried out on vegetable plants or fruit trees in organic farming this can be done by the farmer, unlike natural farming where it can’t because it is a guiding principle set out by the person who created it that doesn’t happen in nature.
Is Organic Farming Better or the Same as Natural Farming?
In regards to one being better than the other, I am not sure. I can see the advantages of organic farming in natural farming. Weeding would be one of the most apparent benefits because in my experience two things would result;
- The weeds, when allowed to grow uncontrolled, tend to take over and cause the crop you are trying to grow not to produce the grain, fruit or vegetable effectively and the production is severely limited.
- If you have ever had to harvest a field of edible beans or a wheat field, three primary challenges occur if weeding didn’t happen consistently:
- The grain crop can get stained green from the weeds and harvesting them at the same time. This leads to a lower price for the crop or buyers, thinking something is wrong with the grain.
- Severe weed pressure can have negative consequences on your equipment and machinery, as they can break or plug repeatedly.
- If you are attempting to get a crop off promptly because of weather or other variables, you may have nothing to eat or sell as a result.
The last principle of natural farming is no pruning. This point being the other disadvantage compared to organic farming because it is an outdated idea. Pruning something like a tomato or pepper plant allows the plant to focus on growing the fruit part of its cycle rather than vegetative part of the plant’s growth that yields no economic return. This allows the farmer to increase their income and produce more of what the consumer desires, for example, a crunchy bell pepper versus stem and leaves which is not what the consumer is willing to pay for.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that consumers need to have an understanding of what is happening on the farm level with food in today’s marketplace as the farming practices are being sold as an important part of the buying experience in regards to food.
When was the last time you visited a farm?
Talking with a farmer and their stewardship practices should be on everyone’s bucket list, it is also a great opportunity to take children to build their food literacy and makes eating fun for young people. Because then there is an understanding of what is being communicated and if that is something the consumer sees as value and wants to support.
Being able to link the food on your table or at your meal to a farm experience will have lasting results for young people.
If you aren’t able to visit a farm, consider joining us for Regenerate 2019 in London, Ontario to explore how your food is grown and what makes it so special. Food production plays a crucial role in your health and the health of our fragile planet, we, as consumers, can no longer rely on what we believe to be a better product. We need to understand the food we purchase and how it is better for ourselves and the plant.