In addition to being part of the summer break (well-deserved for all!), September is also a celebration of organic food through the Soil Association’s Organic September campaign! As a leader in campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use, the Soil Association invites us to understand more about what organic food is, where to find it, and how to identify credible sources. This is also a great opportunity to explore how organic food and organic farming can be relevant to farming practices!
Before we dive into the environmental benefits of organic food, we need to understand organic farming. A paper from the American Association of Paediatrics defines organic farming as a process that does not use synthetic agrochemicals (pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers), growth hormones and antibiotics, genetic modification, and food irradiation on the finished products. Instead, organic farming focuses on agricultural techniques with minimal artificial chemical or mechanical inputs, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) providing examples such as using natural fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, soil building practices such as cover cropping and giving livestock to non-chemically processed feed. The entire process of organic farming is often associated with broader concepts such as animal welfare and sustainable development, as seen via the Organic Trust. In turn, organic food is packaged to reflect these broader concepts through labels such as ‘free-range’ or ‘pesticide-free’. However, these labels can be deceiving. Organic food can be taken to be the product of an organic farming system that minimizes artificial intervention holistically. However, if a product is labelled as ‘free-range’, the animal may simply have access to the outdoors, but still be subject to processes like genetic modification or chemical treatment according to Organic Trust and Zvi.
From the above paragraph, it is clear that the environmental benefits of organic food mainly stem from the organic farming process. A common concern to start with would be fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to Beyond Pesticides, organic agriculture can use up to 75% less fossil fuels than conventional agriculture both directly and indirectly. Direct reductions in fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions could be from the reduced use of machinery, such as combine harvesters or mechanized slaughterhouses. While the name may mislead most people, indirect reductions are what most people think about in the context of organic farming, as reduced use of agrochemicals – largely petroleum based – results in less fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from their production and transportation. Do note, that organic farming can still use natural alternatives to pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer, such as using clove and star anise extract as pesticides according to Isman, and use compost as fertilizer. Furthermore, Trobe’s work also points out that when organic farming is done in a local context, the shorter distances involved in sourcing raw materials and transporting the finished products – compared to conventional farming that could be import-heavy and done overseas – would reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from food miles. Thus, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from organic farming could be lower not just in the farming process itself, but both in the upstream and downstream stages concerning the farming inputs and finished products respectively.
Sources such as the FAO website to papers such as Dorais and Alsanius’ work in 2015 all state that organic farming has important benefits for soil and water conservation. For organic produce, soil health is especially enhanced through soil building practices such as minimum tillage – reducing the artificial turnover of soil – and cover cropping – planting one or more crops to supplement a main crop – as listed by Beyond Pesticides. Reducing till, with the ideal being no-till organic agriculture, helps improve the physical structure or aggregation of soil and lessening wind and water erosion. Cover cropping using species such as hairy vetch or field peas based on Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education guidelines could actively improve soil structure through the more extensive plant root systems in the soil, and through increasing the nitrogen content of the soil via nitrogen sequestering bacteria in their root systems. Segueing to how organic farming encourages water conservation, cover cropping can help reduce water wastage by improving the soil’s water infiltration capacity, and thus more water trickles into the soil for plant roots to absorb instead of remaining on the surface and being lost to evaporation. Furthermore, the reduced use of petroleum-based agrochemicals leads to reduced contamination of water resources, and less water is used due to reduced production of these chemicals. This latter point can also tie to organic livestock, as water use could be reduced because less machinery and less processed animal feed are used. Finally, linking back to soil, using less herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers also lessens the chance of soil contamination by heavy metal salts contained within the chemicals.
In terms of the organic food products themselves, there could be some direct environmental benefits tied to them. Choosing to opt out of genetic modification, food irradiation and other conventional practices such as waxing fruit or adding chemicals to enhance the appearance of meat could all result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use and water consumption. This would further be enhanced if the packaging involved is not energy or water intensive, possibly through measures such as using paper bags for organic fruit and vegetables, and according to Trobes, the organic products are sustainably sourced. Beyond these examples, organic food is often associated with health benefits, with Dorais and Alsanius pointing out that organic produce has lower nitrate content and pesticide residues, and higher vitamin C compounds compared to conventional counterparts. In addition, freedom from genetic modification and irradiation ensures that there is minimal interference from processes that society may not have sufficient knowledge of yet.
The key message ultimately is that organic farming and organic food have environmental benefits. However, these benefits can sometimes be outweighed by costs. The issue of comparative advantage in terms of resource consumption for agriculture is one issue: would growing a crop or raising livestock locally result in less greenhouse gas emissions or water consumption than overseas, even if the species is not native in the local context and needs a large input of energy and water to survive? Another key counterargument would be that despite the reduced resource consumption involved in organic farming, the losses in yield from pests and diseases that cannot be prevented using natural farming technique may mean more resources, especially land, will be needed to reach the same yields achieved by conventional farming, as argued by Seufert, Ramankutty, and Foley. At an individual scale, it helps to consider these counter-arguments when making purchases of organic food, and to also be mindful that the ‘organic’ label is holistic and not simply a marketing tool. All exceptions aside, organic farming and organic food can help lessen our planet’s environmental issues, especially if done holistically upstream, and bought via informed choices downstream.
Soil Association. (n.d.). Organic September 2018 - Get Involved. Retrieved from https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/food-drink/business-support/marketing-organic/organic-september-get-involved/
Soil Association (n.d.). About Us. Retrieved from https://www.soilassociation.org/about-us/
Forman, J., & Silverstein, J. (2012). Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. Paediatrics, 130(5), 1406-1415
Organic Trust CLV. (n.d.). Organic or Free Range – Is there a difference? Retrieved from http://organictrust.ie/info/organic_or_free_range_is_there_a_difference
Zvi, A. (2018). Organic Vs. Free-Range Chicken. Retrieved from http://homeguides.sfgate.com/organic-vs-freerange-chicken-79168.html
Beyond Pesticides (n.d.). Environmental Benefits of Organic Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.beyondpesticides.org/programs/organic-agriculture/why-organic/environmental-benefits
Trobe, H. L. (2001). Farmers’ markets: consuming local rural produce. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 25(3), 181–192
Food and Agricultural Organization. (n.d.). Frequently Answered Questions. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/
Dorais, M., & Alsanius, B. W. (2015). Advances and Trends in Organic Fruit and Vegetable Farming Research. Horticulture, 43, 185-268
Isman, M. B. (2000). Plant essential oils for pest and disease management. Crop Protection, 19(8–10), 603-608
Sustainable Agriculture Research Education. (2012). Managing Cover Crops Profitably (3rd edition). Retrieved from https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition/Text-Version
Seufert, V. A., Ramankutty, N. A., & Foley, J. A.B. (2012). Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature, 485(7397), 229-232
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