Organic food has been rising in popularity for quite a while now. Objections against applying chemicals to food have been voiced for almost a century, but it is only relatively recently that these have gained commercial traction. These concerns include the effects of conventional farming on health, the environment, or animal welfare. For these reasons and more, organic food has become preferable to many – but not all. Although many feel prohibited by price, there also exist those, even within the environmental movement, who argue that organic food is not the paragon of sustainability that it may claim to be.
What is organic food?
According to DEFRA (Department for Agricultural and Rural Affairs), organic food is:
“the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation.”
In other words, it’s food that hasn’t had anything ‘artificial’ applied to it, although precise definitions vary from country to country. Instinctively, this sounds like a good thing. However, it is worth considering all the points of view around a complex issue like this; this article hopes to elaborate upon at least some of these.
Organic food is one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors, although still only accounts for a minority of food produced – less than 1% in the US. Artificial fertilisers and biocides first became widely available in the early 1900s, and since then have come to dominate farming, due to their ability to boost crop yields and therefore profits. However, there has been resistance at virtually every step. Rudolf Steiner (famed for his holistic ‘Steiner schools’) may have kicked off the organic movement in 1924 with the publication of his book advocating biodynamic farming and condemning artificial agrochemicals. Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring in the 1960s, which evocatively demonstrated the damaging effects of pesticides such as DDT on British wildlife, helped bring the movement more into the public eye. 1972 saw the establishment of international organic umbrella group IFOAM, and its four principles of organic farming: health, ecology, fairness, and care. The 1990s saw commercial organic farming gain considerable momentum, with the organic food industry growing at a rate of 20% per year throughout the developed world. This trend continues today, albeit at a lower growth of around 12% per year.
A recent Consumer Reports study found that organic food was on average 47% more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. There is no denying that this is a significant price difference. However, the same report found large variation in price differences overall, with some products, including lettuce, carrots, and olive oil, very similar or even cheaper in price. It is worth noting that this concerns the US, but similar trends exist in the UK – even in mainstream supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, products such as organic potatoes or bread can be competitive. To find cheaper organic food, advice includes shopping for local and seasonal produce – also generally better from a sustainability perspective. Local veg boxes can be a great way to tick all these boxes, and support the local economy too.
The jury is out whether eating organic bestows any significant health benefits. The Soil Association claims there is a growing body of evidence in favour of nutritional benefits to organic food; but on the other hand, the Food Standards Agency points out there exist many studies finding no difference in nutrition between organic and non-organic products. It is worth noting that across the scientific sphere, studies finding positive results are more likely to be published, and then more likely to be picked up by the media, than studies finding no or insignificant differences.
People tend to be more concerned about the presence of potentially harmful chemicals associated with their food than slight differences in nutrition, however. Here again, evidence can be seen on both sides. The Pesticides Residue committee finds over 70% of non-organic foodstuffs are chemical residue-free, but advocates of organic food point to a number of studies suggesting detrimental health effects of consuming even small amounts of residues. Residue levels vary widely between foods, with apples, tomatoes and grapes amongst the worst for retaining them, whilst others such as mushrooms, onions and sweetcorn are generally low in pesticides.
It is established fact that conventional agriculture has a staggering impact on the natural world, and this has a knock-on impact on human welfare. Chemical application plays a large part in this: nitrogen fertiliser, mostly extracted from the air via the Haber-Bosch process, can cause eutrophication – that is, the advent of an algae-dominated, oxygen-deficient state – when it runs off in natural waterways. Global supplies of phosphate rock are rapidly running out: Europe’s mines are virtually empty, and within the EU phosphate fertiliser is now mainly imported from countries such as China. Pesticides can damage biodiversity: historically, DDT was found to affect a huge number of organisms from butterflies to birds of prey, and more contemporarily, neonicotinoids have been linked to declines in essential pollinators.
On the other hand, since organic food is lower-yielding, this also means that larger area of land is needed to produce the same amount of food, compared to non-organic food. Land is a crucial resource, and is running out: over a third of ice-free land is already devoted to agriculture globally. When land is converted to agriculture, it often loses a lot of its environmental and social qualities: for instance in terms of biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water retention.
However, although organic produce does take up more land, water and labour, it likely remains the better option for the environment (and by extension, us) in the long run. Conventional farming does not complement the natural world, and this is becoming increasingly problematic. On many soils, higher and higher applications of artificial fertilisers are becoming necessary as soils become more impoverished. Given the extent to which the extraction and application of chemicals is altering the natural world, our current conventional method of farming is clearly unsustainable in the long-term.
So far we have focused on crops, but it is also worth considering animal products. Many of these products, especially red meats such as beef, are known to be very environmentally damaging compared to plant-based foods. It may be assumed that eating organic meat prevents at least some of these impacts, but in fact research suggests the opposite may be true. For animals, the ‘organic’ label tends to include higher levels of animal welfare (generally free-range or pasture-fed rather than factory farmed), and lower or no application of therapeutic antibiotics and hormone treatments. This is likely better in terms of welfare, but environmentally could be more damaging. For all their flaws, factory farms are designed to make efficient use of resources. Taking the example of beef cattle, raising on pasture not only increases the amount of food, land and water needed to produce an equivalent amount of meat to those intensively reared, but also increases the amount of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) released. In this case, the obvious answer to both the ethical and environmental issues appears to be: don’t eat meat – but this is a whole other contentious issue in itself!
Some believe we are on the verge of a new ‘green revolution’, that revolves around advances in biological understanding rather than chemical applications, technology and selective breeding. Indeed, the field of agroecology is expanding, as greater amounts of scientific effort focus on already-existing biological relationships, and how they can be employed to further agricultural yields. For instance, conservation agriculture focuses on long-term yields whilst also maintaining the health of the soil and surrounding environment. It achieves this via techniques such as no-till (so preserving root systems and associations with beneficial filamentous soil fungi) and not leaving land bare, via leaving crop residues or planting cover crops, that help to maintain the nutrient balance of the soil – simultaneously benefitting the environment, nullifying the necessity for chemical application, and securing healthy high-yielding land for years to come. This sounds like the future of agriculture in a truly sustainable world. Supporting the organic movement – for all its current drawbacks – may make this a reality sooner rather than later.