What does organic mean? Here’s the most up-to-date definition from IFOAM Organics Europe, one of the world’s leading non-profit organisations in the field of organic farming
Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.
Sounds great. So why the backlash? Organic farming has come under fire in recent years, from a variety of sources – some scientific, some less so.
To keep it simple, we’re going to use Williams, Kirk et al (2019)[i], as a popular, recent, and representative example of the science used to promote anti-organic views. Basically, if someone has been dissing organic farming in the last two years, they’ve been quoting this article.
Williams, Kirk et al argued that organic farming was no better for the environment than non-organic farming. They said that if we switched the whole of England and Wales over to organic farming, we’d be damaging the environment. Their reasoning went like this;
- A ton of organically grown wheat needs more land than a ton of conventionally grown wheat.
- That extra land could be used for trees and bees and stuff, which would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- If we settle for growing less food, and keep our land use the same, we’ll need to import more food from abroad, so we’ll just be creating greenhouse gases elsewhere.
They also argued that feeding livestock organically would make it even worse, because we’d have to stretch these crops even further to give the animals the healthy diet required for organic livestock farming. These conclusions were drawn by comparing information gathered from life cycle assessments, or LCAs. These are very detailed assessments, which measure the inputs (water, fertiliser, transportation costs, etc) and the outputs (how much food can be grown, measured as metabolizable energy) related to a particular food product.
Ah, ok. Sounds like we should stick with the modern conventional farming techniques then. Better the devil you know, and all that?
Er, no. Where to start?
These arguments have been successfully rebutted by an excellent study by Van Der Werf et al[ii], which was published last year.
The problem with (most) LCAs (including the ones referenced by Williams, Kirk, et al, is that they fail to properly account for several factors. Williams and Kirk sort of admit it (a bit shiftily, I might add) in their conclusion, where they make passing reference to the “undoubted local environmental benefits” of organic farming practices. There is a broad scientific consensus [iii][iv]that organic farming leads to;
- Greater biodiversity on the land used
- Lower levels of toxic chemicals on both the food grown, and in the air, water, and ground of the land used
- Healthier soil (less erosion, salinisation, compaction, loss of organic matter)
Under the LCA model used by the majority of studies, the inputs/outputs thing simply doesn’t account for these benefits. Just measuring soil health is a hugely complicated task, and different places give different results.
The difficulties posed by variations in local conditions have led to several erroneous conclusions being drawn on both sides of the debate. The oft-repeated idea that we only have ’60 harvests left’ is based on a misreading of only one peer-reviewed paper from the University of Sheffield in 2014, which was a series of comparative measurements of nitrogen and organic matter from various soil sites around the city of Sheffield. The paper contains no predictions about future harvests at all[v]).
The Van Der Werf study systematically pulls apart the flawed conclusions drawn using LCAs.
“The current modelling approach in LCA, in which soils are considered mainly as part of the technosphere, thus making them equivalent to replaceable capital stocks, is inadequate. The degree to which erosion, compaction, salinization and loss of organic matter degrade soils, and the influence of agricultural practices on these disturbances, is crucial information that urgently needs to be included in LCAs and other frameworks for analysing agri-food systems.”
It also questions the assumption that using less land is the best way to protect the environment;
“Ignoring important intensive practices (for example, widespread pesticide use and low crop diversity) when assessing biodiversity impacts is not consistent with recent research identifying drivers of species decline and can lead to the conclusion that land sparing is the best solution for halting biodiversity losses associated with agriculture.”
We also need to look carefully at the way that ‘importing food’ is viewed automatically as a bad thing – given that the UK has always had a ‘hungry gap’, where we have to rely on preserved or more recently, imported food. While the figures given in the William and Kirk study indicate a greater amount of food required from overseas, they also contain an assumption about the greenhouse gases those crops from overseas will have generated. In fact, organic farming is a worldwide phenomenon, and is growing fastest in economies across the ‘developing’ world. This includes places like the Wadi Rum farm in Jordan – an area of desert that has been reclaimed for farming, using a combination of ancient and modern organic farming practices.
This regreening of arid drylands will yield benefits of biodiversity and soil health, and may also pave the way for reforesting and other natural carbon capture methods that will offset the greenhouse gases emitted through organic farming.[vi]
The Williams and Kirk study fails to take into account significant factors related to consumerism too – the figures used to calculate livestock land usage are based on global trends towards increased meat consumption. However, recent surveys suggest that British meat consumption is beginning to decline.[vii]
Then there’s food wastage. It’s estimated that a third of the land used globally for agriculture produces food that no-one gets to eat. In the U.S.A, approximately 30-40% of all the food produced is wasted. The UK is considered to be broadly similar to the US in terms of food consumption patterns, with an estimated 20 million tonnes of food wasted last year in the UK. [viii]
So in conclusion…
- Scientists are united in their opinion that organic farming is better for the health of the land and the ecosystems that serve it
- Assessments that suggest the costs outweigh the benefits systematically fail to take into account those benefits, and don’t give accurate information on the costs
- Those costs pale into insignificance, compared to the costs of our wasteful and negligent food distribution systems.
- On an international scale, the benefits of organic farming are even greater, levelling up agriculture and economies across the developing world, and bringing environmental and agricultural benefits to parts of the world that struggle to provide sustenance to the people that live there
[i] “The greenhouse gas impacts of converting food production in England and Wales to organic methods”
Laurence G. Smith, Guy J. D. Kirk, Philip J. Jones & Adrian G. Williams – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12622-7
[ii] “Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessment” Hayo M. G. van der Werf, Marie Trydeman Knudsen and Christel Cederberg https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-0489-6 (accessible for free through ‘New Scientist’ website)
[iii] Organic farming enhances soil microbial abundance and activity—A meta-analysis and meta-regression
Martina Lori ,Sarah Symnaczik,Paul Mäder,Gerlinde De Deyn,Andreas Gattinger https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180442
[v] “Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture”
Jill L. Edmondson Zoe G. Davies Kevin J. Gaston Jonathan R. Leake https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.12254
[vi] “Organic Farming: Status, Issues and Prospects – A Review”
Reddy, B. Suresh https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/record/97015/
[vii] National Diet And Nutrition Survey, 2020 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-9-to-11-2016-to-2017-and-2018-to-2019/ndns-results-from-years-9-to-11-combined-statistical-summary