Are you an avid green shopper who diligently buys organic? Well, you might or might not be happy to know that soon, there may be an alternative for you to consider, and it's called Conservation Agriculture (CA). According to the Economist, CA may emerge as a new green agriculture label that rivals organic.
So here's the typical consumer response: What's the deal about CA, and how is it better and different from organic?
Well, let's check out the definitions (Key points highlighted in bold). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):
Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system. - FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1999
As for CA, FAO defines it as:
...a concept for resource-saving agricultural crop production that strives to achieve acceptable profits together with high and sustained production levels while concurrently conserving the environment. CA is based on enhancing natural biological processes above and below the ground. Interventions such as mechanical soil tillage are reduced to an absolute minimum, and the use of external inputs such as agrochemicals and nutrients of mineral or organic origin are applied at an optimum level and in a way and quantity that does not interfere with, or disrupt, the biological processes. CA is characterized by three principles which are linked to each other, namely: 1) Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance. 2) Permanent organic soil cover. 3) Diversified crop rotations in the case of annual crops or plant associations in case of perennial crops. - FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1999
As the Economist has put it succinctly, the key difference between the two boils down to what practices are permitted, particularly for the purpose of pest control:
Organic agriculture - No chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers, mechanical (in this case, ploughing or tillage) is acceptable and purportedly widely practiced.
CA - Chemicals are acceptable, and in the strictest implementation of CA soil should be left totally undisturbed.
So, how does this make CA "better" than organic?
According to a UNESCAP publication (pdf), organic foods are undeniably good for the environment and also for human health due to the absence of pesticide residues. However, it was pointed out that even with use of chemicals, no residues or only low and "safe" doses are detected in most crops, thus causing no harm to humans or the environment especially if proper regulations are in place to ensure judicious use.
The problem with organic farming, it is argued, is that it "does not offer any solution to the main environment problems such as erosion, desertification, pollution of surface waters and low content of soil organic matter, among others, unless it also incorporates the soil protection conservationist techniques. Furthermore, the non-use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides normally signifies a decrease in production and quality."
In other words, proponents of CA maintain that soil erosion, which is caused by excessive tillage, is one of the most pressing global environmental problems caused by modern agriculture. If consumers truly care, they should be much more concerned about soil-friendly agricultural methods rather than pesticide use.
To be fair to organic agriculture, tilling is not the only method of pest control advocated under international guidelines for organic label certification. A check on international guidelines for organic certification standards - such as those from the Codex Alimentarius Commission (pdf) (created by WHO and FAO), and IFAOM - reveal that soil conservation is a key tenet of organic agriculture principles.
For example, IFOAM states that "soil building practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage are central to organic practices. These encourage soil fauna and flora, improving soil formation and structure and creating more stable systems." (Italics added by author for emphasis) In that sense, CA and organic agriculture may actually not be very different at all in essence. In fact, the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada questions the rationality of pitting CA against organic.
Having said all that, would we be more empowered in our choices if we have another green label on our supermarket shelves?
To date, as large corporations rush into the organic business, there is already a fair amount of confusion about organic products to muddle up the debate. Besides, there is also the complicated issue of food miles to challenge the time-starved yet indecisive consumer. If sustainability is the ultimate goal, perhaps it would be more sensible to harmonize the differences between CA and organic under a single label so that people would have more time to for other environmentally sustainable activities, such as separating their garbage properly and composting their food waste.