Future Farmer
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Future Farmer

Is ‘organic’ really better?

Carrots picked from the ground

‘Organic’ refers to an agricultural system which aims to produce adequate amounts of high quality food by ‘working with’ nature rather than attempting to control it.

It is understood as a method which uses fewer pesticides, no artificial or synthetic fertilizers (as well as herbicides and fungicides), no genetic modification (GM), no artificial colours or preservatives and higher animal welfare standards. In contrast to the term ‘natural’, ‘organic’ is protected through legal regulation and requires approval by a certified body, such as The Soil Association.

The ‘organic movement’ was mobilised by a much-needed increase in awareness of environmentalism and sustainability. It was positioned as an alternative to the post-war industrialisation of British agriculture. The movement was based on the premise that traditional agriculture is damaging to the environment (i.e. unsustainable), harms animal welfare and compromises food safety. Conventional agriculture rejects these claims and argues that organic farming itself is environmentally damaging and not much healthier. This has led to controversy within the industry and beyond, leaving many of us confused and asking the question, is organic really better?

Environmental contamination

It is a popular belief that organically grown produce is inherently superior to other methods of farming; that it’s not only healthier, tastier and more nutritious but it’s also the more ethical and environmentally-friendly choice. There is also intense social pressure, particularly targeted towards parents, to continually invest money into organic food.

However, there are many problems with the umbrella term of ‘organic’ farming. For example, compost (a major input for organic farms) has a surprisingly high carbon footprint due to the methane emissions which are produced as a result. A typical organic crop receives between 2 to 10 tons of compost per acre and therefore the medium use of tons/acre would lead to a carbon footprint of 10,833 pounds (CO2 equivalents), according to a study by the University of California, Davis. This figure does not even include the fuel footprint of spreading and transporting the compost to the field.

A meta-analysis found that organic practices had fewer environmental impacts per acre, however not per product unit. Organic farming also has relatively low yields compared to other types of farming and therefore requires more land to meet food demand. Some research has also found that this leaves less land for carbon sequestration, leading to high greenhouse gas emissions.

Organic farmers also use propane weed flamers. Although propane burns ‘clean’ the tanks used to store it, the weed flamers end up in landfills where they cannot biodegrade and therefore produce high levels of methane gas and CO2.

On the other hand, conventional farming has also been criticised for leading to increased water pollution due to its use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, biodiversity loss and soil erosion. Excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can harm rivers, soils, lochs and estuaries by causing algal blooms and changing the natural balance of plants, insects and other life because pesticides can remain in river sediments for many years.

What counts as ‘organic’?

There is also the question of proper regulation. Mainstream agribusinesses and corporations have adopted organic farming which has reportedly weakened the ‘green’ standards organic agriculture is praised for. For example, a farm which produced organic berries in California did not use chemically synthetic inputs. However, it instead opted for equally strong inputs, such as sulfur, which require workers to wear protective gear.

In the US, only a label which says ‘100 percent organic’ indicates that the product was made with only organic ingredients, whereas ‘organic’ means 95% of the ingredients are organic. It has been suggested that organic labels are not fully reliable due to a lack of monitoring.

Organic is expensive

Despite these questions around labelling and regulation, the high price point remains the same across products which are labelled ‘organic’. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), certified organic products are generally more expensive than their ‘standard’ counterparts.

Therefore, there are further concerns around the accessibility (or lack thereof) of organic farming and produce. Being able to afford organic has become a question of class as the high price point renders this food inaccessible to some consumers.

It’s important for everyone to have access to affordable fresh produce which is good quality, great standard and high nutrient.

We need sustainable, pesticide-free farming

Hydroponics and vertical farming

The term ‘organic’ needs to be challenged as the ‘end all, be all’ of nutritious, ethical and sustainable agriculture. What do we really mean when we say we want ‘organic’ produce? Are we simply asking for pesticide-free produce? Does organic mean demanding a more equitable food system? Is it a way of growing and consuming food that causes as little harm as possible — to our bodies, to the planet and to our ethical standards?

The principles of organic farming (pesticide-free, high-nutrient and sustainable agriculture) are vital to transforming our current systems of food production. However, in a time of climate crisis, pandemics, food insecurity and economic instability, we must ask difficult, complex questions about our food systems if we are to find adequate solutions to these multiple intertwined challenges. We need to challenge the terms themselves if we are to calculate how to achieve what we are really seeking — sustainable, accessible, high quality food production.

Future Proofing Food

This is the first of our new series: ‘Future Proofing Food’. In it, we’ll focus on a variety of issues around agriculture and our current food systems and begin exploring how we might solve them.

Upcoming features include an investigation into pesticide use and breaking down speed breeding for biodiversity.




The official blog of the Future Farming Hub. https://www.liberty-produce.com/future-farming-hub

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Future Farming Hub

Future Farming Hub

The Future Farming Hub is based in Dundee, Scotland.

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