The term organic is often used as an alternative for the concept of sustainable, but is this really true. There is no doubt that organic food is grown by people who care about the environment and work their land to strict conservation principles , but is it really best for the planet overall? Organic farming has made an enormous contribution to altering farm practices and raising public awareness, especially in relation to biodiversity and conservation issues. Indeed many of the underlying principles of organic farming are now seen as best practice. So why is organic farming having such a bad time?
Sales of organic food has been falling in recent years and in 2011 it fell 3.7% in the UK alone with the number of producers also declining by a similar amount to just under 7,300. This is in stark contrast to the ethical trading certification products such as Fairtrade whose have steadily risen over the same period with a 12% increase in 2011. There are three reasons why people buy organic. The majority believe it is healthier (52% ), next come better animal welfare standards (34%) and a similar number buy organic because they believe it to be a more ethical way of farming (33%).
So what has changed? Quite simply consumers interested in sustainability are using different criteria in buying food such as is it in season, is it local, does it carry an ethical trading label such as fairtrade, and have welfare issues been addressed. I must admit to being confused at some organic farmers markets where I have been confronted by out of seasonal vegetables, exotic fruit and vegetables that clearly all have large air mile tags attached. Also authenticity is also another problem, especially with the price premium attached to many of these products sold in such markets. A carrot looks very much like another, and with it now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that organically grown is not really better than conventionally grown fruit and veg in terms of health or taste, then we have to reassess the role of organic farming in terms of sustainability and supply the growing demand for food. The oft quoted WHO estimate that 3 million people are hospitalized annually due to pesticide poisoning has been shown not to be relevant , as the trace pesticide residues found in conventional food, according to the Food Standards Agency in the UK, poses no risk to health.
Welfare of animals is normally higher with certified organic farmers, however there is sometimes a conflict between using proven chemical intervention (e.g. antibiotics , anti-inflammatory drugs and anthelmintics) and maintaining organic status. In the UK antibiotics are allowed to be used by organic farmers in certain circumstances but largely banned in the US. Farmers may be in a cleft stick, where necessary chemical intervention on welfare grounds could lose them their organic status.
Is organic farming sustainable? Probably not in terms of being able to feed an ever increasing global population. Professor John P. Reganold in a recent article in Nature demonstrated that in developed countries organic farmers are achieving up to 20% smaller yields compared to conventional farmers which offset financially by charging a premium for organic produce. In developing countries most organic fruit and vegetables are exported which brings severely needed overseas currency into the country, but creating food scarcity within often highly productive areas.
Organic certification standards are excellent in Ireland and the UK but do vary widely between countries and the certification body, some of which may cause significant confusion to the consumer. So very often the consumer is unaware of exactly what they are buying.
So in terms of sustaining and promoting biodiversity as well as protecting landscapes then organic farming is clearly advantageous over conventional farming, but the majority of farmers are now aware of the importance of these issues are responding by using a broad range of conservation techniques. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions going the organic route may not be all that it seems. Certainly soil fertility and quality improves under organic regimes, but research carried at Oxford University suggests that while pollution per unit area of land farmed is lower than for conventional farming, it is generally higher per unit of food producedBut the four tenants on which the Soil Association is based i.e. health, ecology, fairness and care, are now increasingly at the heart of conventional farming as well. To this effect the Soil Association are now working with non-organic farmers which appears to be a sensible development for sides of the farming lobby. So should we buy organic? If it locally sourced and seasonal then it is preferred by me, but cost will always be a factor as is the need to develop farming to meet the challenges of climate change and increased food demand.