Food Ethics: Is Organic Really the Answer?

It’s no secret that environmentalism has grown from a radical fringe concept to a mainstream worldwide movement. As our global society begins to strive increasingly towards the now ubiquitous concept of sustainability, while the population continues to skyrocket, it is crucial that we examine our methods of production for our most vital needs. Agriculture is clearly one of these vital production activities, and arguably chief among them. In this push towards sustainability, a plethora of problems with modern conventional agriculture have been identified, and equally as many alternatives have been proposed. One alternative method, however, appears to be rising above the rest, earning widespread recognition, support and increasing market shares. If organic farming is to truly provide an alternative to conventional agriculture, however, it must be more than commercially and economically successful, it must also provide a truly ethical method of feeding people. In this article, I will explore organic farming from multiple angles, including the perceptions of consumers and the effects on farmers, farm workers, the land, and involved animals. When all of these factors are taken into account, it becomes clear that, despite questioning and criticism, organic farming does offer some ethical benefits over conventional methods. However, in order for it to truly act as the holistic solution for agriculture it is perceived to be, organic farming must maintain its initial core values and avoid being reduced to a greenwashed version of conventional practices.

In order to delve into the ethical complexities surrounding organic farming, one must first have a functional understanding of what exactly the agricultural method is. Organic certification is controlled by the United States Department of Agriculture, who states that “organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” The USDA uses a specific set of guidelines when certifying a product, surrounding practices such as methods of pest and weed management, crop rotation, and livestock health care, but for many the idea of organic agriculture extends far beyond simply meeting these standards. There are many values, ideals, and goals embedded in organic as a social movement which are not, and most likely cannot, be measured and regulated: interacting “in a constructive and life-enhancing way with natural systems and cycles”, considering “the wider social and ecological impact of” organic systems, and encouraging and enhancing “biological cycles within the farming system” are all listed as “principle aims of organic production and processing” by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (see this article). These principles speak to what could be considered the “heart” of the organic philosophy, however this heart is not necessarily captured in the regulatory incarnation.

The long history of governmental regulations do, however, set organics apart from the variety of other sustainable and/or ethical farming practices; the standardization of the label “organic” gives it clear and precise meaning and allows for increased consumer trust. The subject of consumer perceptions and decision making surrounding organic food has been the subject of much research and debate in the past few decades, and understandably so. Organic food sales jumped from $3 billion to over $10 billion between 1997 and 2003 and have continued to grow at a rate of 20% annually (source). This increasing consumer demand has intrigued researchers as well as farmers, with the number of USDA certified organic farms, ranches, and processing facilities rising 250% between 2002 and 2015 (source).

In the research performed on consumer attitudes towards organics, a few major trends have emerged. Primarily, it is revealed that the most important factor driving consumers’ decisions to buy organic is the perception of health benefits (source; source). The validity of this perception, especially in terms of nutritional qualities, has been challenged. One study found that although they are slight, organic produce does appear to be more nutritious, based on the presence of higher quality protein and more ascorbic acid and the finding that animals that were fed organic feed were overall healthier (source). Following health and nutritional concerns, the next four most prevalent themes in organic consumer decision making are better taste, environmental concerns, food safety concerns, and animal welfare concerns (source). It is noteworthy that of the nine total themes identified, only two or three (environmental concerns, animal welfare concerns, and perhaps also supporting the local economy) were broader ethics-related themes rather than for individual benefit or preference. Consideration of farmers and/or farm workers was not mentioned as a theme amongst consumers.

While the effects of organic farming on farmers and workers may not be of major concern to most organic consumers, it is an important consideration to take when judging the ethics of an alternative agricultural practice. For farmers, making the decision to become an organic producer requires the consideration of a variety of different risk factors. Farming is an inherently risky business, as it is highly vulnerable to outside factors like weather and pests, and organic farming can pose even more potential problems for farmers. For example, there is a three year transitional period to becoming a certified organic farm during which farmers experience lower yields and are not yet able to charge the higher price given to organic products, resulting in lower profits for the farm. Once transitioned, while they may be effectively practicing organic methods of keeping their own pest populations in check, farmers are also vulnerable to infestations brought in from outside farms as they are not able to fall back on “quick-fix” methods like pesticides. However, organic practices do offer long term benefits to farmers. Improved soil structure and quality increases the ability of crops to withstand droughts and disease and the ability to charge an organic premium for their products increases farmer’s profits, even with reduced yield. (source)

Working on organic farms is highly beneficial to farm workers as well, as in conventional farming they receive the most direct exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals used. Pesticide exposure is a huge hazard to farm workers and their families, who often live in the area, as pesticides have been shown to act as both carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (source). Working on organic farms which do not use these harmful chemicals therefore improves labor conditions for farm workers. The USDA standards for organic certification do not contain any labor standards, however a 2013 survey did find that many organic farms pay their workers above the minimum wage, although not by much. “Pressure to keep prices low” is cited as major force preventing many small-scale organic farms from offering higher wages (source).

Farmers, conventional and organic alike, have been shown to be concerned with the environmental effects of their farming and to have an emotional connection with nature, however one study found that on average organic farmers adopted 75.5% of applicable environmentally friendly methods (called conservation practices), compared to the 57.5% adoption rate of conventional farmers (source). Organic farming has also been shown to improve biodiversity of plant and animal species on the farm, as one source compiled the findings of 76 studies on the subject and found that the majority indicated an increase in species abundance, richness, and activity on organic farms as compared to conventional counterparts (source). Overall, the aim of organic farming is to limit the amount of outside inputs, especially synthetic ones, in the production of agricultural products, preferring instead farm-based inputs and controls. Not only does this create an agricultural system more in tune with natural biological systems, it reduces the reliance of the farm on finite global resources and its discharge of chemical pollutants into the surrounding environment.

It is my belief that as it exists right now, organic agriculture presents a more ethical alternative to the conventional agricultural system. Although they may be unknown or unimportant to organic food consumers, the increased health and safety for farm workers and their families is one of the most compelling arguments for the ethical superiority of organic farming practices. Farm workers are among the most vulnerable populations involved with our current food system, and they are often forced to bear many of the costs externalized within this system. In efforts to create more sustainable and healthy products for consumers, organic farming has also created a working environment that is free of some of the greatest health risks imposed upon these workers. The environmental benefits of organic agriculture are also extremely compelling when considering the ethics of these practices, as protecting soil, air, and water quality is both intrinsically valuable and a vital step in protecting human health. Similarly, supporting biodiversity is a benefit of organic farming which appeals to those concerned with minimizing the negative impacts of humans on the planet as well as those concerned with maintaining a planet that all humans are able to survive and thrive on.

These ethical benefits do not mean, however, that all forms of organic farming are without fault. Many of the vertebrae in the ethical backbone of organic farming fall outside the range of what the USDA (and international equivalents) are willing and able to regulate when certifying farms as organic. This means that farms looking to capitalize upon the high prices paid for organic products are able to alter their farms to meet the certification requirements without truly embracing the values upon which the organics movement was built. Therefore, consumers who wish to engage in more ethical consumption should not trust the “USDA Certified Organic” label at face value, and should instead investigate the values and practices of the farms in question before purchasing. On an institutional level, including some of the values which the organic movement strives to embody which can be measured, for example labor practices and animal cruelty, into the organic certification program could somewhat alleviate this problem.

As one of our most basic interactions with the environment, changing the way we produce food has the potential to incite a culture-wide shift in the way humans view and relate to the environment. Organic agriculture as a movement has strived to create this change, however organic agriculture as a global market may have lost some of its values along the way in its quest for recognition. This does not render the movement useless to environmentalists, but rather gives us the opportunity to explore how to effectively expand a values-based alternative to a global audience, with all of the industrialization that often accompanies it, while maintaining the very values upon which the alternative is based. Is it possible for organic to keep its large-scale implementation and also regain its soul? I don’t have a definitive answer, but for the sake of our planet and of our collective morals, I hope the answer is yes.