We hear almost constantly about its virtues in the media, with celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow remaining advocates of organic produce. It is supposedly better for the consumer and the environment, but what does organic actually mean, and is it all it is cracked up to be?
The global agricultural market has a value of $80 billion USD, covering 500 million hectares of land. However, this is a drop in the ocean compared to conventional farming, making up just 1.1% of total farmed land. Organic products can range from cosmetics to food and clothes and must be certified by a governing body of that country. The organic label can have different meanings all over the globe, but in the UK it roughly equates to GM-free crops grown with reduced chemical pesticides, and livestock reared in free-range conditions with GM-free feed with reduced antibiotic use.
Organic farming holds many benefits. The reduced use of antibiotics is vital in the face of increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics currently administered. Farmers can also access funding to operate organically, and they can get a higher price for their produce. The environment also gains some benefits, crop rotation reduces nutrient loss from the soil and soil erosion, and the surrounding environment benefits through the reduced effects of monoculture. Another benefit is the incorporated animal welfare standards. In the UK, organic farming means that traditional animal rearing practices are banned, such as nose-ringing in pigs and overly cramped conditions. Furthermore, calves are kept in family groups for much longer under organic conditions rather than being removed from a very young age in conventional methods.
However, one common misconception about organic farming is that it does not involve the use of pesticides. Pesticides are still used in organic farming, but must be approved by certified bodies and be of a natural origin, for example, Rotenone found in the roots of the tropical plant Derris, and Azadirachtin from Neem plant seeds. However, just because these compounds are acquired from natural sources does not automatically mean that they are less harmful or better for the environment. Approved organic pesticides have historically faced issues with toxicity and unknown effects causing them to be banned later on.
Another issue is that of the organic standards. The produce has to be grown or reared to the standards of the country of export, not the country of origin. Therefore organic crops grown in Kenya, but sold in the UK, must adhere to UK practice. Many of the guidelines for UK organic farming are based on studies based on temperate climates matching the UK. These methods are not as effective in completely different climates and conditions, reducing the potential yield.
Arguably the biggest issue with organic food is that a smaller yield is produced per area when compared to conventional farming. The reduction in the use of pesticides means crops are more susceptible to pests, and a low-fertiliser environment reduces their ability to grow. Organic farming, therefore, requires much more land to grow the same amount of crops as conventional farming, land that would be likely converted from natural habitat. Agriculture is already one of the greatest threats to natural environments globally, with 62% of IUCN threatened species being affected by it. Increased organic farming would increase the amount of agricultural land required to grow the same amount of food, an even greater issue when faced with the global population expansion.
There is still no scientific consensus on the debate of organic vs conventional farming, with evidence supporting both arguments. There is unlikely to be a clear solution, with the best method being different per crop, per growing conditions, making summarising the solution even harder. But next time you see the benefits of organic produce being shouted from the roof-tops, be aware that it may not be all it sems.