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Organic food and farming

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by Chris Woodford. Last updated: February 9, 2017.

Two words, more than any others, helped to spark the organic revolution in farming: "silent spring". Back in the 1960s, when the Green Revolution's industrial-scale use of pesticides and fertilizers was helping to bring about a massive increase in crop yields, the seemingly solitary voice of science writer Rachel Carson raised a note of caution about chemicals that might be doing more harm than good. Through a combination of determined campaigning, poetic writing, and carefully informed science, Carson alerted humanity to the dangers of agrochemicals that would kill not just bugs and bacteria but (in her eyes) also decimate the vibrant ecosystems built on top of them. A half century later, organic food is mainstream—obligatory for many parents, highly desirable for many more. But is it really better for our health and the environment? Why does it often cost more? And if it's so good, all round, why don't we do all our farming that way? Let's take a closer look!

Photo: Organic vegetables are often supplied loose in a reusable box to minimize packaging and reduce the food's overall carbon footprint. That's an illustration of the comprehensive approach taken by most organic growers: they consider the cradle-to-grave (lifecycle) environmental impact of their product, not just the effect of agrochemicals on the food itself.

What is organic farming?

The easy answer comes in one sentence: instead of using artificial chemical fertilizers or pesticides to boost yields, organic farming uses traditional, mostly natural methods to achieve the same ends.

But a negative definition—"no pesticides"—doesn't capture the positive essence of what organic farming is all about: organic farming isn't merely a matter of "not doing" something: it's about placing a healthy, vibrant, environment (human, animal, plant, and soil) at the heart of genuinely sustainable food production. That means organic farmers strive to treat their animals humanely (giving them "free range" and shunning the use of antibiotics, animal wormers, and other drugs), do what they can to reduce "food miles" between their fields and their consumers (both to promote local farming communities and to reduce fuel consumption during delivery), celebrate the variety (biodiversity) of plant and animal life by growing a wide range of produce, and do everything else they can to minimize the negative environmental impacts of what they do (including pollution, oil and other energy use, and their impact on global warming). The Soil Association (a leading UK promoter of organic farming) sums up this positive vision: "Organic farmers take a holistic, principled approach that respects and harnesses the power of natural processes to build positive health across the ecology of the farm." [1]

How do we define "organic"?

An organically grown cabbage.

Photo: A very delicious, organic savoy cabbage grown by Guy Watson's Riverford Organic cooperative in Devon, England.

Organic farming sounds simple—but is it really? Probe a little further and "organic" suddenly becomes "organics": one vision of healthy farming becomes many, as subtle and varied as the farmers who promote them. Ponder how organic farming might work in practice and the questions soon stack up...

What is natural?

What is humane?

Local or organic?

Organic standards

Now the questions up above are very important but, for my purposes, essentially rhetorical: organic farmers have good answers for all of them—and many more. The point I'm making is that differences of opinion about what might or might not constitute "organic" are the reason why organic standards exist in countries where organic food is produced and consumed. Standards are very rigorous (and relatively unambiguous) definitions of exactly what constitutes organic food (and a very successful example of what's known as eco-labelling). Broadly, they're designed to underpin consumer confidence in organic food while making it clear to farmers exactly what they can and cannot do if they want to sell their food as "organic": they make it easy for all of us, producers and consumers alike, to settle on a single, agreed definition of organic food [3].

Example of an Italian organic certification label from Controllo Biologico.

Photo: Organic standards: Organic food generally carries precise information about how it was certified and by whom. This is an example of the Italian Controllo Biologico organic certification label.

What are the benefits of organic farming?

Many people buy organic food because they believe that it's healthier, though organic farming is intended to have far wider benefits—for consumers and growers and for the local and global environment. But what evidence is there that organic food and farming have any benefits at all?

Health

The most contentious aspect of organic food is whether it's better for your health than food grown through conventional methods. That's hard to prove either way because there is no instant correlation between the food you eat and the state of your health, which can be good or bad for many other reasons. Even if we could demonstrate that people who eat organic food are healthier, could we demonstrate that diet was the causal factor? Maybe people who eat organic food are wealthier, on average, which could be a confusing factor, since poverty often correlates with poor health. [4] In other words, fans of organic food might turn out to be healthier because they are wealthier or perhaps better educated and those factors might account for their better health.

Many people simply assume that the lack of pesticides and fertilizers automatically translates into food that is healthier (or less harmful), but what scientific evidence is there? In a BBC news report from 2007, the Soil Association argued that there "is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you," citing higher levels of nutrients and vitamins [5]; the Association has published a number of studies about the health benefits of organic food, including (in 2001) a very detailed summary of the evidence called Organic Farming, Food Quality, and Human Health. [6], [8] Now a body that exists to advocate organic food might not be considered the most objective judge. So what do others say? According to one nutritionist, Claire Williamson, "It would be irresponsible to promote organic food over non organic food as being better for you as there is not enough strong evidence." [5] But Shane Heaton, nutritionist author of the Soil Association's detailed report, reached the opposite conclusion: "After two years of gathering and carefully sifting through the evidence, I can report that, collectively, the available scientific evidence does in fact support the view that organically produced foods are significantly different in terms of food safety, nutritional content and nutritional value from non-organic foods." [7] In 2009, the UK's Food Standards Agency (a government department) refuted that claim: "An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food." [28] Not surprisingly, organic food advocates criticized the study's methodology, with the Soil Association's Peter Melchett countering: "It doesn't say organic food is not healthier, just that, according to the criteria they have adopted, there's no proof that it is." [29]

And the controversy rumbles on. A 2012 study by Stanford University scientists failed to find proof that organic produce was healthier or more nutritious than conventionally grow food. [34] But a 2014 study by Professor Carlo Leifert at Newcastle University found "statistically significant, meaningful" differences between organic and conventionally farmed fruit, cereals, and vegetables. [35]

Now it's no particular surprise that scientists, who often have to rely on statistical interpretations of evidence, can often reach quite different conclusions from the same results. But if proving that organic food can be good for you is difficult, demonstrating that conventionally farmed food could be bad for you is equally as problematic. Most of us routinely consume pesticides with no obvious, immediate impact on our health. But how would you prove such an impact anyway if it didn't manifest itself until years or decades later? You could hardly test the idea by feeding children a diet of DDT. As Sandra Steingraber has argued, there may well be connections between illnesses such as cancer and chemicals in the environment—but proving a casual link beyond doubt is often extremely difficult. [9]

Environment

Left to its own devices, Earth acquires a thriving, biodiverse ecosystem [30]; its currently dwindling biodiversity is a sad reflection on our own ability as planetary custodians. [10] The huge increase in human population and our ever-growing need for food, energy, and other materials is, of course, the main reason why nature is being squeezed out of the picture. [11] While it's easy to make a link between habitat loss and threatened species, it's not so easy to prove a connection between different styles of farming and environmental problems, even if (to some people) that link is intuitively obvious. According to a factsheet produced by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center "roughly 672 million birds exposed annually to pesticides on U.S. agricultural lands, 10%—or 67 million—are killed. This staggering number is a conservative estimate..." [33] In the UK, there have also been huge declines in many bird species over the last few decades, suggesting some dramatic (if relatively gradual) change has been underway, but studies have often struggled to prove a direct connection with pesticide use. According to the UK's leading bird charity, RSPB, any connection may be subtle and long-term: "Most research into the indirect effects of pesticides on farmland birds relates to short-term effects of pesticides, but it should also be remembered that the widespread introduction of pesticide use is considered to have caused large-scale losses of seed and invertebrate food over time that will have affected many species of farmland bird." [12], [13]

Organic farmers can cite plenty of examples where their best practices are directly reducing environmental harm. Like many organic producers, Guy Watson's Riverford Organic company (based in Devon, England) delivers vegetables and fruit in returnable, reusable cardboard boxes, using a minimum of packaging to lower its carbon footprint. (Interestingly, it often does use recyclable plastic bags in place of paper or bioplastic ones having calculated that they have a lower environmental impact overall.[14])

It's important to remember that although organic farmers are doubtless caring and benign, they still represent a minority of farmers, so whatever extra efforts they make to reduce their impact are likely to show diminishing returns for the planet overall: globally, it really doesn't matter if 5–10 percent of all farmers (supposing that's the proportion of organic growers, [15], [16]) become 75 percent greener if the remaining 90–95 percent are making no improvement at all or steadily getting worse.

John Deere tractor harvesting corn using a Claas baler pulled behind it.

Photo: Although organic farmers use machines like everyone else, they do tend to think twice about the impacts of mechanization—particularly the oil that tractors use and the damage that heavy agricultural machines can do to the all-important soil structure.

Animal welfare

Even in areas such as animal welfare, organic farming has occasionally proved contentious. According to the Soil Association, organic standards "put animals first," guaranteeing not only that their meat isn't pumped with drugs, but that they lead happy, free-range lives with good access to fields and plenty of space to roam, so "animals raised in organic systems enjoy the very highest welfare standards of farmed animals." [17] Doubtless this is true: free-range animals live happier lives. But occasional counter-examples have emerged too. In a 2007 BBC report, presenter Simon Cox claimed to have "uncovered evidence of serious concerns from insiders about the way some organic meat is produced," including organic pigs reared indoors in cramped conditions. [5] In 2009, there was widespread outrage when an organic slaughterhouse in Devon, England was found to be mistreating organically reared animals taken there for slaughter. [18] Compared with the well-documented animal abuse in traditional factory farming, occasional examples of mistreatment in the organic system probably don't add up to much; indeed, they may well attract attention and scrutiny precisely because they are so unusual. [19]

Organic pics roaming and rooting in a wide enclosure.

Photo: Pigtastic! Unlike factory farmed pigs reared in indoor stalls, these lovely little piglets (and their mother, top left) have the run of a huge enclosure (several times the size of the area you can see here) with plenty to occupy and amuse them.

Workers

It's telling that many gardeners choose organic even when they're not growing fruit and vegetables; the assumption is that using artificial pesticides and fertilizers really can't be a good thing. Compared to people who work with agrochemicals all day, every day, weekend gardeners get off lightly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some 3.5–5 million people suffer acute pesticide poisoning every single year, with shockingly high incidence even among schoolchildren—and, naturally, farmers and farm workers are on the front line. [20], [21] As Guy Watson notes: "Having made myself sick spraying corn as a teenager, and seen my brother committed to hospital with paraquat poisoning, my initial motivation for farming organically was simply a personal desire to avoid handling pesticides." [22] It's worth noting that the World Health Organization has highlighted that "pesticide ingestion is one of the leading suicide methods," especially in countries such as China. [23]

People who harvest cotton in developing countries are among those at greatest risk, not least because lower levels of literacy make it harder for them to read and understand chemical warning labels. In some countries, soil is considered sacred so people spraying toxic chemicals don't even wear shoes to protect themselves. [31] According to African-based journalist David Hecht, writing in New Internationalist way back in 1998: "An estimated $7 billion-worth of pesticides—about 25 per cent of all insecticides in the world—are sprayed on cotton every year, with the fastest-growing markets in the least-developed world." Hecht charted an unhappy legacy of post-war pesticide use including accidental overdoses, reproductive problems, illnesses such as lung cancer, and suicides. [24]

How much food is grown organically?

Organic food sales grew dramatically up until 2005, driven by a combination of health fears, environmental interest, and a variety of food scares linked to factory farming and industrial food production. [25] The lingering, global financial crisis of the late 2000s slowed that trend dramatically in some countries, though things have picked up again as the world economy has gradually recovered. In 2015, for example, the US Department of Agriculture reported that there were just over 14,000 organic farms in the United States, selling a total of $5.5 billion of produce (a rise of 72 percent on 2008). [36] In the UK, between the early 1990s and 2015, the market for organic food grew by almost 20 times, from less than £100 million to £1.86 billion per year (roughly US$150 million–2.6 billion). [26] Estimates suggest around 5–10 percent of farming is currently organic, though the total amount of organic food people buy is somewhat lower (around 4 percent of all food sales in the United States are organic as of 2011). [15], [16], [32]

Why isn't all farming organic?

If organic farming is better for the environment, people's health, and animal welfare, how come all farming isn't organic? As we've already seen, evidence for the benefits of organic farming in all these areas is encouraging, but still disputed. Organic standards are rigorous and it takes several years for a farm to convert completely, during which time it cannot sell its produce as "organic"; that alone is a major barrier to conversion. Although you might expect food produced without chemicals to be cheaper, organic food is often more expensive than conventionally farmed food for a variety of reasons, including the smaller quantities and much more labor-intensive way in which it's produced. That means organic is more expensive for grocery stores to buy wholesale (as well as for consumers to buy retail), which makes it somewhat less attractive to cost-cutting chains competing fiercely on price. Inevitably, expensively produced organic food is sold as an upmarket option to people happy to pay a premium, which reinforces the unfortunate idea that it's a middle-class preserve. This clearly offends organic growers such as Guy Watson, who comments (refreshingly) that: "... the organic I aspire to is also affordable, enjoyable and accessible... To use exclusivity as a marketing tool is a betrayal of the essential inclusiveness at the heart of true organic farming." [27] Nevertheless, much organic food is—and will continue to be—sold in just that way, so organic will remain a more expensive option. It's difficult to see a majority of hard-pressed consumers willing to pay more for their vegetables, fruit, and meat until the benefits of organic farming have been established more decisively and communicated more persuasively to a skeptical public.

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Notes and references

  1. [↑]    What is Organic? Organic Farming. Soil Association, UK. Statements of principles from individual organic growers reveal the holistic approach in action. See, for example, About Otter Creek Organic Farm, The principles of organic farming from Sheepdrove, and the ambitious Riverford Sustainable Development Project, which seeks to quantify (and help to minimize) the environmental impacts of Riverford's organic operation.
  2. [↑]    "Food miles: Why local is not always best" by Guy Watson. Essay in The Riverford Farm Cookbook (see "Books" above), pp.394-395.
  3. [↑]    According to Guy Watson, organic regulations in the UK "extend to 400 pages". "Keeping the Faith" by Guy Watson. Essay in The Riverford Farm Cookbook (see "Books" above), p.111.
  4. [↑]    There are many sources about the diseases of poverty and the general correlation between poverty and health. For example, Poverty and poor health are intertwined, experts say by Sabriya Rice, CNN, August 29, 2006.
  5. [↑]    Uprooting the organic claims by Simon Cox. BBC News, 26 April 2007.
  6. [↑]    Organic Farming, Food Quality, and Human Health. Report by the Soil Association. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
  7. [↑]    Organic Food and Health: The Evidence by Shane Heaton, Positive Health, Issue 75, April 2002.
  8. [↑]    Organic food proven healthier. BBC News, 3 January 2000.
  9. [↑]    Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber. Da Capo Press, 2010.
  10. [↑]    Earth facing 'catastrophic' loss of species by Ian Sample. The Guardian, 20 July 2006. Another good review from the late 1990s was Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems. by Peter Vitousek Harold Mooney, Jane Lubchenco, and Jerry Melillo. Science, 25 July 1997, p. 494.
  11. [↑]    What threatens our biodiversity?. The UK Natural History Museum has a good introduction to the various factors, including habitat loss, pollution, alien species, and over exploitation.
  12. [↑]    "A Defra report, issued today, has highlighted that around half of our farmland birds have been lost in England and the UK since 1970, reaching their lowest recorded levels." From: Will our children be able to experience the wildlife our grand-parents enjoyed?. RSPB Press Release, January 20, 2011.
  13. [↑]    A review of indirect effects of pesticides on birds and mitigating land-management practices by Bright, J.A., Morris, A.J & Winspear, R. (2007) Published in RSPB Research Report 28.
  14. [↑]    Packaging: Riverford explains why it has shunned paper bags and bioplastics in favor of more conventional plastic bags.
  15. [↑]    Farms 'lagging on organic food'. BBC News, 4 February 2005. Around 7 percent of UK farmers are organic.
  16. [↑]    Welsh Organic Farming Statistics. Slightly more (8 percent) of Welsh farmers are organic and we can assume a typical figure of 5-10 percent.
  17. [↑]    Organic animals. Soil Association.
  18. [↑]    Three workers suspended and CCTV installed in organic abattoir following cruelty allegations. Animal Aid, Press Release, 11 December 2009.
  19. [↑]    For a reasonably balanced and well-articulated look at the arguments in favor of vegetarianism, including the industrial mistreatment of factory farmed animals, take a look at Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Penguin Books. 2010/2011.
  20. [↑]    "Between one and three agricultural workers per every 100 worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning". Quoted in WHO: Childhood pesticide poisoning: Information for advocacy and action. In 1990, the abstract for Acute pesticide poisoning: a major global health problem (by J. Jeyaratnam, World Health Stat Q. 1990;43(3):139-44.) "estimated that there could be as many as 25 million agricultural workers in the developing world suffering an episode of poisoning each year."
  21. [↑]    Acute pesticide poisoning: a proposed classification tool. Josef G Thundiyil et al, Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
  22. [↑]    "Why organic?" by Guy Watson. Essay in The Riverford Farm Cookbook (see "Books" above), p.xviii.
  23. [↑]    "Pesticide ingestion is one of the leading suicide methods. Worldwide, an estimated three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in an excess of 250 000 deaths." Quoted in Pesticides are a leading suicide method. World Health Organization Media Release, 9 September 2006.
  24. [↑]    Cotton: Benign Urine. by David Hecht, New Internationalist, June 5, 1998, Issue 302.
  25. [↑]    British organic food sales soar. BBC News, 22 December 2005.
  26. [↑]    Countryfile takes a 20 year view of organics. Organic Farmers & Growers Blog, February 7, 2012. [Archived page via Wayback Machine.] Organic market shows improved growth amidst tumbling food prices. Soil Association, 24 February 2015. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
  27. [↑]    "Posh nosh to choke on." by Guy Watson. Essay in The Riverford Farm Cookbook (see "Books" above), p.148-149.
  28. [↑]    Organic review published. Food Standards Agency, July 29, 2009.
  29. [↑]    Organic food not healthier, says FSA by Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, July 29, 2009.
  30. [↑]    What is biodiversity?: A great little introduction from the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, named for one of the world's greatest champions of biological diversity.
  31. [↑]    Pesticide kills '500' Indian farmers. BBC News, 31 July 2002.
  32. [↑]    Organic Agriculture: Overview. US Department of Agriculture, June 2, 2015.
  33. [↑]    When it Comes to Pesticides, Birds are Sitting Ducks by Mary Deinlein. Factsheet produced by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
  34. [↑]    Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce by Kenneth Chang. New York Times, 3 September 2012.
  35. [↑]    Clear differences between organic and non-organic food, study finds by Damian Carrington and George Arnett. The Guardian, 11 July 2014.
  36. [↑]    Sales from U.S. Organic Farms Up 72 Percent, USDA Reports: US Department of Agriculture news release, 5 October 2015.

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Woodford, Chris. (2012/2016) Organic food and farming. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/organic-farming.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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