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  Section: Horticulture » 10,000 Years of Horticulture
 
 
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Conventional Versus Organic Produce

 
     
 
Content
10000 Years of Horticulture
  Origins of Horticulture
  Horticultural Methodology
  Conventional Versus Organic Produce
  Organic Produce
  Sustainable Horticulture

Conventional produce is grown using methods based on technology from the industrial revolution and the development of agricultural chemistry. Nineteenth-century scientists such as Jean Baptiste Boussingault and Justus von Liebig demonstrated that plants obtain nutrients from minerals dissolved in water. This is the basis of hydroponics (Figure 1.2), a system where plants are grown without soil in a solution of minerals. Previously it was believed that plants “ate” humus (also called compost or organic matter). Compost is the residue from decomposed organic matter derived from plants and animals. It is now widely believed that both minerals and compost contribute to the growth of healthy plants.

farmers plant
Figure 1.2 In this photograph, farmers plant
lettuce in a hydroponic channel system in a
commercial greenhouse. Commercial hydroponic
crop production is more expensive than traditional
soil-based crop production,which is why it is
less common.
Conventional methods use chemical fertilizers in place of humus plus large quantities of pesticides to control insects, microbial diseases, and weeds. Heavy tillage (plowing of the soil) with oil-fueled machinery to reduce human labor and large fields planted with a single type of crop year after year, a practice referred to as monocropping, were also introduced. The main benefit to monocropping is that plants all grow at the same rate, have the same water and nutrient needs, and can be harvested at the same time. This helps to reach the goal of the conventional approach, which is to maximize both yield and profit.

Vegetables and fresh-cut flowers were traditionally grown in fields close to their markets; the growers had a wide variety of produce. Farm fields became less diverse with the advent of good road networks and refrigeration technologies that allowed for produce to be shipped to distant parts of the country. The increase in competition from regions with mild climates and long growing seasons caused other growers to specialize in crops that they could grow more economically in their area.

Although the use of conventional methods may initially result in higher yields than the old-fashioned methods, there are problems with regard to long-term use since it decreases soil fertility and causes water pollution. The drawbacks to this method were not immediately apparent, but we now know that over time the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides harms the microbes in the soil, which ultimately reduces yield by causing infertility. The microbes in the soil are directly related to the availability of nutrients for plant growth. Soil infertility leads to weak plants that are more susceptible to microbial pathogens or insect infestation and thus require the application of more pesticides.

Many pesticides contain chemicals that are toxic to wildlife and humans and that persist in the environment for years. Insecticides influence the evolution of the target insect, which becomes resistant to the chemical. This necessitates the continual introduction of new chemicals into the environment (Figure 1.3). Entry of these chemicals into the groundwater endangers our fresh drinking water supplies. Some insecticides can cause damage to the nervous system in humans.

In McAllen, Texas, a plane sprays
Figure 1.3 In McAllen, Texas, a plane sprays
insecticide on a field of carrots. Although they
have been credited for an increase in the
agricultural production of the twentieth century,
insecticides can be toxic to both humans and the
environment.
Excessive amounts of fertilizer also enter into the groundwater and the surface water. Soluble chemical fertilizers have historically been added to the soil in amounts greater than the plants could immediately consume. Heavy rain or irrigation of the crops drains soluble fertilizer from the soil into the ground-water in a process called leaching. Many wells have been closed over the years because of excessive nitrates that were added to the soil as nitrogen fertilizer.

Excess nutrients such as nitrate or phosphate may also run off into the surface water because of soil erosion from heavy irrigation or rainfall events. This causes problems with excessive algal growth, which reduces habitat for fish. A region in the Gulf of Mexico is called the Dead Zone because it becomes overgrown with algae every summer as a result of nutrients that enter the Gulf from the Mississippi River. As the algae decompose, oxygen in the water is used up and the fish die. The Dead Zone is about the size of the state of Rhode Island.

An additional problem is the use of heavy equipment, which causes compaction of the soil and results in the loss of good soil structure necessary for plant growth. To avoid this problem and also to lessen the possibility of erosion, some growers decline to till the soil. Usually, they instead add large amounts of herbicides to kill weeds that would otherwise be dug up by tillage. Some herbicides have been reported to affect the reproductive system in animals.


Proposed Geographic Origins of Edible Domesticated Plants
Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean – apple, cherry, date, fig, grape, olive, pear, plum, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, caraway, leek, carrot, hazelnut, melon, garlic, lettuce, pea, onions, beet, chard, pistachio, almond, dill, parsley, poppy, lentil, carob, and flax

Mountains of Central and Western China – apricot, peach, cucumber, adzuki bean, water chestnut, wasabi horseradish, ginger, cinnamon, and bamboo

Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands – grapefruit, orange, lemon, lime, tangerine, banana, mango, clove, nutmeg, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom, sugarcane, coconut, mung bean, taro, and eggplant

Central America – pepper, green bean, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, sunflower, vanilla, corn, scarlet runner bean, lima bean, pineapple, guava, and jicama

South America – avocado, tomato, potato, chocolate, peanut, cashew, beans, squash, yam, and papaya

The relatively recent domestication of the sunflower, blueberry, strawberry, cranberry, and bramble fruits (raspberry and blackberry) were bred from wild plants of the eastern United States.


Source: Jack R. Harlan, Crops & Man (Madison, Wisc.: American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, 1975).


 
     
 
 
     




     
 
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