Is organic better for the planet and health?
Organic. A label that instantly pushes the prices of products up. But what does the term ‘organic’ actually mean and is it any better than conventional produce?
The term ‘organic’ is a farming method that does not use unnatural inputs such as synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), growth hormones and antibiotics. These features influence the price of organic produce, as typically organic food is produced on smaller plots of land and take longer to grow. Nonetheless, there are other hidden costs of conventional produce, which, in my opinion, render organic production superior.
Soil Quality, Biodiversity & Water Use:
Farming in general does cause a degree of environmental degradation, nonetheless, the extent of damage is dependent upon the method of farming employed. Organic farming is less environmentally destructive than traditional methods, with soil building practices such as crop rotations, use of organic fertiliser and absence of harmful pesticides enhancing the nutrient quality and biodiversity of the soil and thus reducing social erosion. Also related to healthier soil are reduced water requirements, as water infiltration will be enhanced. Likewise, the risks of groundwater contamination caused by the pollution of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are reduced when using organic methods, thus, by association, reducing the opportunity for water waste.
Climate Change: Adaptation & Mitigation
In terms of climate change, organic methods are also more advantageous, reducing the demand for non-renewable energy through decreased agrochemical needs, as the production of fertilisers and pesticides require fossil fuels. It has also been found that carbon storage in the soil is higher under organic farming due to its regenerative quality, mitigating global warming. Aside from climate change mitigation, adaptation is also enhanced under organic methods, with the planting of diverse crops reducing the risk of crop failure and increasing resistance to weather events.
For farmed animals, organic farming, in an Australian context, is more humane. Summarising the article by Australian Organic, factory farming is prohibited on certified organic farms. This means that animals are required to be free range, grass fed and grown without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Second, the slaughter of animals raised organically is also more ethical. In dedicated organic abattoir’s, animals must be kept in their social groups until the point of slaughter, then will be rendered unconscious and killed out of sight from other animals, minimising further stress.
Socially, organic farming supports smaller scale farmers, with the Food and Agricultural Organisation arguing that it is increasing individuals social capacity by reducing their reliance, and thus the costs associated with, inputs over which they possess little control. Likewise, as organic farming is more labor intensive, it can create employment opportunities that, together with the greater profitability of organic products due to their higher price premiums, can assist in lifting farmers out of poverty. Furthermore, there is compelling evidence to suggest that organic farming may be a solution to achieving more sustainable, long-term food security due to the factors discussed above. Whilst this later advantage is often undermined by arguments suggesting that organic faming is insufficient to feed increasingly hungry populations, especially as organic farming often produces lower crop yields, I would argue that the current food security challenge is not due to a lack of food production, as there is plenty of food available. Instead, the challenge lies in getting food to those who need it and optimising the resources we currently have, minimising food waste and loss, an issue discussed in a previous post.
At the same time, however, it is important to recognise that some challenges do exist in regards to the transition to organic forms of agricultural production. First, the results of organic production can vary depending on local context, undermining or enhancing the opportunity for success. This is summarised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, commenting ‘results will vary depending on management skills and ecological knowledge, but this can be expected to improve as human capital assets increase’. Second, as good soil is essential to maintaining productivity under organic farming, nutrient management is essential. Nonetheless, as highlighted in the article by Jouzi et al. (2017), this can be difficult for many poorer smallholder farmers, who cannot afford to pay for compost or manure. Finally, attaining organic certification can often be a long and expensive process, requiring costly infrastructure for the monitoring and documentation of producers, again disadvantaging poorer developing countries with their certified organic goods largely targeted towards a wealthier export market.
Health: An Interview with Jennifer Murrant
So from a health perspective, what do experts think? We have spoken to nutritionist and wellness coach Jennifer Murrant to get her opinion on the topic.
Do you buy organic produce? If so, why?
Yes, I buy organic produce as much as possible, ideally also locally produced and seasonal. Buying organic is the only way we can know our food is not genetically modified, contains optimum nutrient levels and is not contaminated with harmful chemicals, including antibiotics and endocrine disrupting herbicides and pesticides.
From a health perspective, is organic produce better than conventional options?
In my view there is no doubt that organic produce is superior to conventional options for the reasons stated above. Analysis of organic produce consistently demonstrates higher nutrient value as well as the absence of pesticides and herbicides. To give just one example, extensively used herbicide glyphosate (active ingredient in round up) has recently been named as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organisation. There are numerous reports on the ways in which this chemical disrupts hormones and adversely affects gut flora, brain function and overall health.
If you could prioritise certain foods that consumers should ideally buy organic, what would they be and why?
Prioritising depends a little on the general way people eat. For example, for omnivores, chicken would be a high priority to choose organic. Non-organic chickens are routinely given antibiotics, having an impact on their growth, similar to that of hormone supplementation and have a higher susceptibility to antibiotic resistant salmonella infections. These chickens are also generally provided non-organic feed and are kept in inhumane conditions. The same applies to non-organic eggs. Consumers of fish should avoid farmed fish, if not farmed under organic conditions, due to antibiotic use and increased levels of disease. When choosing fruit and vegetables, there are resources available to help identify foods more and less likely to be heavily laden with chemicals, such as the ‘dirty dozen’ and ‘clean fifteen’, which should be checked for the country in which the produce is being purchased. Reducing our toxic load is critical to good health.
Further References and Information:
Bilinsky, D 2016 '10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Australian Organics', Youth Food Movement, 6 October, http://www.youthfoodmovement.org.au/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-australian-organics/.
Jouzi, Z, Azadi, H, Taheri, F, Zarafshani, K, Gebrehiwot, K, Van Passel, S, Lebailly, P 2017, ‘Organic Farming and Small-Scale Farmers: Main Opportunities and Challenges’, Ecological Economics, vol. 132, pp. 144-154.