Is Organic the Answer?

Last week we visited the Duchy Home Farm near Tetbury, and it really got us thinking about the sustainability of organic food.

organic-food-fbThe rise in organic purchases demonstrates that people are becoming increasingly concerned with the disappearance of quality food and local farming, with the impact they are having on the environment, and with understanding exactly what it is they are putting into their bodies.

The vision of organic farming – with stewardship its grounding principle – is laudable.  But despite the good intentions, many argue that organic food production remains a pseudoscientific ideology driven more by hype than acknowledgement of actual benefits.  And as with any effective branding, it is important to push beneath the surface to discover, before we buy into the movement, whether it is anything more than sophistry.

What is ‘organic’ farming?

Organic farming is far from new; for ten millennia it was just known as ‘farming’.  It wasn’t until the post-war years that industrialisation of agriculture began with a vengeance.

Modern farming focuses on high yields, squeezing the most calories possible out of each hectare.  Hybrid seeds of a single crop, technologically advanced equipment, irrigation, field margin and hedgerow destruction, and artificial fertilisers and pesticides are all used to boost productivity.  However, the intensive nature of conventional farming causes issues.  Monocultures can lead to widespread crop failure, removing vegetation cover hastens soil erosion and nutrient loss, chemicals in runoff end up in streams and rivers, and genetically modified organisms may have far-reaching impacts we don’t yet understand.


Organic agriculture does not make use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and focuses on maintaining biodiversity and healthy soil by using crop rotation and cover crops to make the best use of soil nutrients.  Animals are fed organic feeds and not given artificial hormones or antibiotics.  Organic agriculture considers its medium and long term impacts on the environment and ecosystems, aiming to produce food whilst maintaining an ecological balance which will allow food to be produced in the future.

In an overheating world that will have an extra 2 billion mouths to feed by 2050, asking whether our food supply is sustainable is undeniably a fair question.

Is organic food healthier?

The jury is still out on this one.  Surprisingly, there is no conclusive evidence that organically produced food is any more nutritious than food grown by conventional methods.  A 2014 Newcastle University study (Baranski et al., 2014) suggested that organic produce could contain up to 60% higher levels of certain nutrients, however another analysis out of Stanford University (Bravata et al., 2012), examining forty years’ research, concluded that organic foods are on average no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts nor are they less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria.  While conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, levels were almost always beneath those harmful to humans, and organic food was only 30% less likely to contain pesticides.

Is it more ecologically sound?

The key feature of intensive, high-yield agriculture is nitrogen addition.  Nitrogen is crucial to plant growth, and the 171 million tons of synthetic fertilizer added to the world’s fields every year enables crops to growth much faster than they would with slow-release nitrogen from compost or cover crops.  The problem is that not all of that added nitrogen ends in crops.  Vast dead zones are being created by a process called eutrophication as more nitrogen ends up in rivers and oceans than they can process.  The addition of chemical pesticides may also be having unintended consequences, for example the potential connection between imidacloprid and honeybee colony collapse disorder.

So organic farming must be better, right?  Maybe, maybe not.

The shift away from monocultures, where crops are grown in plots of a single species, is a boon to soil quality.  Mixed planting and crop rotations are far superior at holding nutrients in the soil, reducing the need to add extra.  And there is no doubt that not using pesticides benefits both wildlife and people.


But it would be wrong to claim that organic farming does not cause any environmental issues.  In 2012 a paper was published in the Journal of Environmental Management (Tuomisto et al., 2012) which asked the question: does organic farming really reduce environmental impact?  The findings were unexpected.  Ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions, eutrophication potential, acidification potential and land use were all found to be higher per unit of product in an organic system.

And if organic farming was rolled out across the countryside?  The low yields would pressure the conversion of more land to farming and also increase water demand.

Isn’t it more expensive?

EU Commission data suggests that organic farming is marginally cheaper per hectare than conventional; £618 per year compared with £690 (European Commission, 2013).  However, organic farms have lower yield; 5-8 tonnes conventional wheat per hectare compared with 2-3 tonnes organic wheat.  Lower yields are currently balanced out by higher sale prices and subsidies, but this is not a sustainable means of income – for organic farming to be widespread it needs to be competitive in its own right.  All things considered, there is very little difference in profitability between organic and conventional farms.  EU studies suggest that the average profitability per work unit on an organic farm is around 20p higher than on a conventional farm.

The Yield Issue

The main argument used against organic food production is yield.  When we talk about energy, efficiency is everything.  Populations are increasing but our resources aren’t, and so the only sustainable solution is to make more out of less.  The yields of organic agriculture are typically 25-50% lower than in conventional agriculture, and this goes against the squeeze for productivity.  But this stance misses one key statistic: we currently produce enough food for everyone on earth to be able to consume 3,000 calories per day.  Put simply, yield is not the issue.  It is the huge amount of waste – 1.3 billion tonnes every year (UNEP) – that needs addressing.

So which is better?

Current conventional agriculture is unsustainable in many ways.  Organic farming is held up as the environmentally friendly alternative, but it is not without its own issues.  While an ‘organic’ label guarantees that synthetic chemicals have not been used, it does not guarantee that a product was farmed sustainably in the full sense of the word.  Organic farming may still be wasteful of land, water and other resources.  It may still be heavily fossil-fuel dependent.  Packaging may not be environmentally friendly.  Workers may not be treated ethically or fairly.

There is no denying that organic farming has many benefits and there is a lot to be learned from it, but it may be that the ideology needs to be tempered with reality.  An ideal global agricultural system would borrow the best from both systems.  Forward-thinking producers need to recognise why it is consumers choose organic; they want healthy food and a healthy planet.  But science-based research and technological innovation have vastly improved many areas of our lives and society, and food production is no exception.  We need to combine both in order to preserve the environment, defend public health, advocate animal welfare and sustain communities to ensure that we can produce abundant nutritious food today and tomorrow.

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