Organic food and farming
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." 
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 .
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?
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.  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 ; 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.
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." 
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." 
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." 
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." 
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.  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. 
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. 
Left to its own devices, Earth acquires a thriving, biodiverse ecosystem ; its currently dwindling
biodiversity is a sad reflection on our own ability as planetary custodians. 
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.  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..."  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." , 
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.)
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
become 75 percent greener if the
remaining 90–95 percent are making no improvement at all or steadily
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.
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."
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
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. 
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. 
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.
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.
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."  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. 
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. 
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. 
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. 
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).
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).
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).
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
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.