Organic food is produced by a system of farming that eschews most or all synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, growth hormones and non-necessary pharmaceuticals. In the UK, the Soil Association certifies food as organic if the method of production meets its organic “standards” (Soil Association, 2007). From a low base, UK organic food sales were worth “£1.6 bn … [which represented] … a 30% growth in sales last year” (Milmo, 2007). This represents not only substantial growth, but also substantial acceleration – 2004 showed growth of 11% (Soil Association, 2005). Proponents of organic farming claim that it benefits both the environment and human health when compared to conventional farming. Sceptics point to the lower efficiency (and hence need for more land) of organic farming; many also dispute the health and environmental claims. David Miliband, the UK Environment Secretary, recently described organic food as a “lifestyle choice” (Milmo, 2007).
NUTRITION AND HEALTH
The Soil Association’s Peter Melchett “says that environmental concerns, rather than health benefits, are now cited by British consumers as their main justification for buying organic food” (The Economist, 2006). Despite this, the Soil Association (2005) does attribute strong growth in organic milk sales to “significant media coverage of the health benefits of organic milk”. Professor Sir John Krebs, of the Food Standards Agency claims that there is no evidence that organic food is healthier than conventional (Guild of Food Writers, 2001), in particular that it has not been shown to contain more nutrients. However, another health aspect – pesticide residues on crops, and antibiotics and pharmaceuticals in animal produce – was highlighted by toxicologist Dr Vyvyan Howard: “everyone in the UK has in their bodies residues from a substantial number of some 200 farming chemicals which have only been in use for 50 years” (Guild of Food Writers, 2001). Not only are these novel compounds not degradable by human enzyme systems, but the unknown “cocktail effects” of simultaneous exposure to many individually toxic compounds should compel use to take a precautionary approach.
Highly processed foods can be certified as “organic” provided the production of the ingredients is certified, and concerns were raised at the Guild of Food Writers debate (2001) that this may be at odds with the wider ethos of organic farming. Professor Anthony Trewavas, a microbiologist, also suggested that the increased cost of organic fruit and vegetables may lead to a decline in their consumption and hence worsen dietary health outcomes. Food writer Lynda Brown argued that “those who bought organic foods have made a conscious decision to change their food priorities” and those households who used an organic veggie-box scheme had higher fruit and vegetable consumption.
The sustainability of organic farming can be thought of as how able organic methods are to provide sufficient food for future higher populations. Norman Borlaug, architect of the “Green revolution” notes that “thanks to synthetic fertilisers … global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%” (The Economist, 2006). The implication could be that organic farming would not have been able to provide this, and hence the great success of agriculture being able to feed far more people (Lomborg (2001) notes that from 1960 to 1998, the daily intake of calories per capita in the developing world increased from 1,900 to nearly 2,700). However, despite the huge increases in productivity due to green revolution techniques, organic methods can be nearly as productive as conventional (Guild of Food Writers, 2001) – 85% according to Alan Gear of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (a pro-organic organisation); and 90-95% according to Howard-Yana Shapiro of Seeds of Change. A key phrase here is “can be”, not “is” – presumably these figures refer to the highest efficiency organic farms.
A key global agricultural concern is soil erosion, which can reduce the fertility of soils. A lack of soil organic matter makes soil more prone to erosion (Stocking, 2000) and organic proponents such as Gear (Guild of Food Writers, 2001) point to this as an important benefit. Others though, dispute whether or not soil erosion is happening at quite the high rate alleged by many (e.g. Lomborg, 2001), whilst Stocking (2000) notes several other factors that also affect rates of soil erosion.
As well as the soil erosion and land-use concerns discussed above, other potential environmental problems of conventional farming include eutrophication (harmful nutrient enrichment) of natural waters due to runoff of highly soluble mineral fertilisers (Milmo, 2007). Using organic matter as fertiliser can reduce this problem, because the breakdown of organic matter releases soluble nutrients to the soil only slowly. The EU’s Water Framework Directive will lead to stringent limits on permissible levels of nutrient runoff from farms (Foundation for Water Research, 2005). This may lead to organic methods being seen as more favourable by conventional farmers. A related environmental issue is the pollution of water bodies with pesticides from conventional farming – the “cocktail effects” and presence of farming chemicals in humans noted above can apply similarly in natural ecosystems.
The debate around organic farming includes topics that are seen as very important but are also not particularly simple – few other debates will include environmental concerns, human health concerns, eating habits, and how best to sustainably provide food for an increasing global population. However, the certification of foods as “organic”, with quite rigid standards being applied seems to make the debate one of “either/or”. Professor Trewavas (Guild of Food Writers, 2001) pointed to the concept of “integrated farm management”, or taking the best bits of both organic and conventional farming to achieve sustainable food production in the future. In the articles and discussions summarised here, his was quite a solitary voice. The Economist (2006) notes that “the most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be ‘no till’ farming which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops… Alas, shoppers look in vain for ‘no till’ labels on their food”. Issues of food quality and dietary choice are in danger of being artificially conflated with the organic/conventional divide – one can buy both organic processed food and conventional fresh vegetables.
The organic debate seems to be providing consumers with a false choice – “good” organic versus “bad” conventional, or “lifestyle choice” organic versus pragmatic conventional, depending on the view being expressed. Further, the complexity of the issues involved may lend themselves to a selective use of facts and assertions, depending on point of view. Organic farming can be a lucrative business, as well as an important political statement (or “lifestyle choice”?); but equally conventional farming does not want to be seen as bad for health or the environment. Thus, many views are not disinterested and this needs to be taken into account when following the debate.