organics: a step in the right directions?

We have referred quite a lot in previous articles to the benefits that organic agriculture can have to the environment and also, potentially, your health. A recent study which was published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that there were up to 60% more key anti-oxidants in organic crops as opposed to non-organic. In addition, there is very little controversy over the fact that organic agriculture is better for the environment than conventional agriculture.

But are there any problems with organic’s?

Well like everything, there are a few problems which people bring up when referring to organic agriculture. We are going to focus on three here: the ability to feed the world, the increased cost to you and the demands placed on farmers.

So to start, a nice easy one! Can organic agriculture feed the world? No one wants to be responsible for taking food out of other peoples mouths, particularly when those people are simply clinging on to survival. So by encouraging organic agriculture, are we pandering to our own feelings of eating ethically without regard to those less fortunate?

The first thing to note is that for the current Western food supply system, organics do pose a bit of a problem. The vitality of organic fruit or vegetable cannot not be prolonged in the same way as it can be in conventional agriculture. In essence, it is likely to have a shorter shelf life. The biggest problem with this, of course, is that it means we have to get it to our supermarkets faster than we would a conventional product. In an international supply system, this means airfreight.

While internationally grown conventional produce is making its way to Europe in a relatively environmentally friendly cargo ship, your organic alternative will be flying over it to ensure that it is as fresh as possible. This basically negates the benefits that were received through growing it organically.

To eat organically can be slightly different from eating in an environmentally concious way. And this is one problem that occurs with organically certified foods.

However, this doesn’t answer the question, can it feed the world. It is difficult to be 100% sure but ultimately, leading experts tend to agree that if it was carried out correctly, there is not reason why the world couldn’t go organic.Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture and Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World are both examples of the research which has been carried out to make this claim.

The only caveat here really, while organic agriculture can feed us, it may not feed us in the way which we are now used to. Which takes us to our previous point. In order for organic agriculture to feed the world, there will need to be a change in what we eat, when we eat it and how we get it to our plates. These elements are not exclusive and need to be addressed together.

So if organic agriculture can theoretically feed the world, why is it more expensive?

One reason is that of supply and demand. The transition to organics takes three years in order to get certification, however the transition back is immediate. During the recession in 2008, people spent less on their food and organics were the first element to be cut. As a result of this lack of demand, farmers returned to conventional agriculture. Now, as demand for organics grows again, there are not enough organic farmers to meet that demand.

There are other reasons as well. Not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers can mean that the food takes longer to grow and is more labour intensive. And it is not that fertilizers are out altogether, they just have to be organic. Organic fertilizers such as manure can be more expensive to transport and apply. In respect of meat, organic can conditions mean better welfare. Not shoving all the animals in a small feedlot can be expensive in its own right.

All of these items add up to mean that organic foods are a little more expensive that conventional agriculture. But that doesn’t mean that it is not a price worth paying. The ethical argument of maintaining the environment for future generations may be enough to persuade you on its own. When this is coupled with the benefits to your health and the welfare of animals, it does seem like a price worth paying.

The demands on the farmer

This is where organic agriculture can fall down. There is a lot of regulation – which means paperwork – in all aspects of life and agriculture has not escaped it either. Adding organic to the list of how to produce can seem like just another layer of administration to undertake. In addition to this, there is the cost. It can be an expensive.

However, before we write it off as too difficult and costly, lets just think about this again. Record keeping may be a boring thing too do in its own right but there are two elements we can’t ignore. Firstly, it has to be done. There is no getting round record keeping and so it just needs to be accepted and done as efficiently as possible. Secondly, record keeping is actually a useful way to build up metrics on which you can build up a body of research which should assist in future decision making. The record keeping the farmer does may even help with future profitability.

The cost is offset too. The Government – through the EU Common Agricultural Policy – assists farmers going through the conversion period. For the first two years, farmers receive £175 per hectare per year as they convert. Once conversion is complete, they receive £60 per hectare per year over and above the subsidy already available to conventional farmers. Whether these payments make organic conversion worth while is a decision which needs to be taken by each individual farmer. However, they do go some way to ensuring that farmers are compensated for the loss of yield which will come with the initial move to organic farming practises.

However, organics are not perfect. Simply buying organic does not necessarily mean that you are buying in the most environmentally friendly and ethical way. There are many cases where local conventional agriculture may be a better alternative to international organic agriculture. And that is the key problem with organic. Sometimes it becomes a brand rather than a badge.

As we stated in ‘our day out at a trade show‘ branding sometimes becomes more important than the product. The organic label needs to ensure that this does not become the case. They should add to their aims – keeping the cost of organic food competitive. So maybe it is time for a new label. A label which combines organic and local or environmental.

Buying organic is a great step to make, its just not the end of the road.

Thanks for reading!

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