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Is organic food expensive or is conventionally farmed food too cheap?


Is organic food expensive or is conventionally farmed food too cheap?

Credit: Cecilia Par

For most of the history of the planet, farming was organic, even if it wasn’t called that. We grew organic food and farmed with the help of natural fertilisers, without using chemicals to kill weeds and pests, and animals were allowed to roam free and graze on natural pasture.

The first worm in the organic apple was German scientist Justus von Liebig who, in the 1840s, argued that if, as he believed, the minerals nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus were all that were required to grow plants, then chemical equivalents of these minerals could be substituted for manure or other natural fertilisers in the soil. And, indeed, these synthetic fertilisers did increase yields and made it easier to farm.

...the organic farmer makes his own compost, uses animal manure or builds up the health of the soil by encouraging native grasses.

Then, in the early years of the 20th century, with the march of science, chemical pesticides and herbicides began to join synthetic fertilisers on the farm. By the 1920s, there was some disquiet about the increasing chemical inputs on farms, and it was a British agricultural scientist, Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947), who began the organic farming movement.

It was Sir Albert’s time in India that taught him the connection between healthy soil, healthy livestock and healthy humans. His work, especially his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, influenced many others, including Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association, Rudolf Steiner, who outlined the principles of biodynamic farming, and the American J I Rodale, an agricultural publisher who became a pioneer of organic farming in America and who founded the Rodale Institute, still active today.

After World War II, technological advances introduced petrochemical fertilisers and much more efficient chemical herbicides and pesticides. These were important in bringing about the Green Revolution, which began in Mexico in 1945 and spread throughout the developing world right up until the 1970s. It certainly was a quick fix that averted famines short term, but long term it has left the planet in a terrible state: artificial fertilisers used long-term deplete the soil and chemical pesticides and herbicides have dangerous effects on soil, humans and animal life. DDT was one of the weapons of the Green Revolution.

And so the second wave of organic farming began in the 1970s — of course, some farmers had never abandoned it — and continues to be the fastest growing agricultural sector in the world today.

What is organic farming?

Quite simply, it is a method of farming that avoids inputs. For example, instead of petrochemical fertiliser, the organic farmer makes his own compost, uses animal manure or builds up the health of the soil by encouraging native grasses.

Instead of chemical herbicides and pesticides, the organic farmer allows nature to restore balance — this weed kills that weed, this insect kills that insect — or uses natural herbicides and pesticides. An organic farmer will not use or grow genetically modified organisms, and organic food will not contain any GMOs.

If raising livestock, they will not administer growth hormones or antibiotics to stock unless they are sick. Animals are not raised in crowded and unsanitary conditions: chickens must have access to the outside, and beef cattle are grazed on pasture and are not force-fed grain while being contained in feedlots.

The overall principle of organic farming is to improve the environment, not degrade it, and, according to an excerpt from one admirable (but long-winded) definition, it “minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people”.

In reality, organic agriculture is a little more complex.

How does a farmer become organic?

By certifying with one of a number of organic certifying bodies. They include Australian Certified Organic (ACO), National Association for sustainable Agriculture (NASAA) and Organic Growers of Australia (OGA), among others (see a full list of certifiers and their logos on the Organic Federation of Australia website below). All certifiers are under the jurisdiction of the Australian Quarantine & Inspection Service (AQIS).

Generally, when a farmer applies for organic status, the certifying body will visit and inspect the farm and, provided the soil isn’t terminally damaged or poisoned, will then be given a three-year “in conversion” period, at the end of which it will be given full organic status. After that, inspectors for the certifying body visit the farm, unannounced, at least once a year to check that the farmer is fulfilling the contract with the body. If not, they can be expelled, or even gaoled.

You can tell whether the food you are buying is organic by looking for or asking for evidence of the certification of the producer, which will be in the form of one of the relevant logos.

Does organic food taste better?

Well, that’s up to you. Try for yourself. Buy a supermarket chicken and an organic chicken. Cook them side by side. You tell me which tastes better. Try it with eggs, too.

Other foods that I reckon taste infinitely better when organic are carrots, peas, apples and stone fruit. Then there are the canned and dried foods. The organic tinned tomatoes and beans I buy have a richer, clearer flavour and there’s nothing like organic pasta and bread.

But organic farming is like conventional farming in one sense: there are good farmers and bad farmers. Although they must exist, I have yet to meet a bad organic farmer.

Is organic food better for you?

Until recently, the answer to that was not so easy to come by, one of the reasons being that the organic industry was small, unorganised and didn’t have money to spend on research. The other was that it was very complex to organise direct comparisons of both.

However, more recently and with more organic farmers and organic organisations coming on board, there have been more research programs. And the findings have been unanimous.

Besides the fact that eating organic food means you avoid residual herbicides, pesticides, GMOs, growth hormones and animal antibiotics, organic food generally contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, as well as antioxidants. Organic beef has a better balanced of omega-3 and omega-6 (more omega-3) fatty acids, as does organic milk.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is the principal cause of global warming.

Similarly, research has shown that the mineral content in food grown conventionally has become severely diminished. Fruits, vegetables and other plants that we rely upon to supply minerals in our diet can’t take adequate amounts of minerals from soil because it’s deficient in them. Intensive chemical-dependent farming returns little or nothing to the soil and gradually depletes it of minerals, with only a small number of nutrients replenished in chemical fertilisers (especially nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus). The soil gradually loses trace elements essential for health such as boron, chromium and selenium. Over time, the soil of an organic farm rebuilds stocks of these minerals.

And, finally, if you’re buying organic — and especially if you’re eating mainly fresh whole foods prepared from scratch — you’re avoiding most of the additives allowed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Is organic food better for the environment?

According to the American-based Rodale Institute, because organic soils have a greater capacity to retain water, carbon and nutrients such as nitrogen, establishing 10,000 medium-sized organic farms would be equivalent to taking around 1,100,000 cars off the road.

A 33-year side-by-side comparison study conducted by the institute showed the carbon levels of organic soils increased while there was little change in the non-organic systems. The study also showed that organic systems used just 63 per cent of the energy required by conventional farming system.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is the principal cause of global warming. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and put it into the soil as carbon compounds. The use of composts inoculates the soil with humus-building micro-organisms that convert these carbon compounds into humus. CSIRO research shows that humus chains can last thousands of years.

And that’s just one of the ways in which organic farming benefits the environment. Freedom from herbicides, pesticides and GMOs, more judicious use of water and, overall, support for wildlife are a few more.

I came to organic produce, first, because of the environmental issues. I stay with it because it tastes better.

Why is organic food so expensive?

Well, is it? Is organic food expensive or is conventionally farmed food too cheap?

First, let’s look at the degradation of the environment caused, in the main in this country, by 200 years of inappropriate European farming and more than 60 years of chemical farming.

At the end of that, we have saline soil, erosion, an all but total destruction of the major river system on the east coast (the Murray Darling) and, where there is water in the rivers, regular outbreaks of algal bloom.

All these ills can be laid at the feet of conventional farming techniques. Chemical run-off, wasteful water use and badly managed farmland. What’s the cost of remediating the Murray Darling river system? Billions if dollars. That’s not to blame the farmers. That’s the way they were encouraged to farm.

Meanwhile, the supermarket chains continue to put pressure on farmers to supply cheaper and cheaper food so they can make higher and higher profits, even in the face of consumers demanding from the supermarkets cheaper and cheaper prices. So how does the farmer supply cheap produce? By cutting corners.

Every time you see really cheap food, remember that somewhere a farmer is being screwed. And a farmer who is being screwed can’t afford to look after the land. Let’s take one example.

New methods of farming beef cattle can actually improve the landscape, replenish the soil and encourage native grasses, which also help to make soil more bioactive, storing more carbon. It’s called “cell” or “rotational grazing”. To explain it simply, it means the farmer has to create more paddocks on his or her land and move the herd from paddock to paddock every couple of weeks. Instead of four paddocks, there might be 30 or 40. That’s expensive in two ways: fencing and time. If you see steak for $10 a kilo, you can bet it hasn’t been farmed this way, but the old-fashioned way, where the animals trample on the same paddocks, break up the topsoil and ruin the environment.

Organic farming is more labour intensive and that will make a difference at the cash register. But how much is the environment worth? And how much is the health of your family worth? Not to mention the wellbeing of the animals and the farmers? Paying the real price of food is one way you can help save the environment and our own agricultural industries.

But one thing does need to be said. We have occasionally come across instances of retailers exploiting the demand for organic produce by either “passing off” (of conventional produce as organic) or over-charging. If you find passing off after March 2009, you can — and should — report it to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Unfortunately, the only thing you can do about over-charging is complain — and not go back.

Finally, a lot of people have a problem with the word “organic”, for which we can thank dear old Sir Albert Howard (see above). “Everything’s organic,” snorts one sceptical friend. I tend to agree. I wish we could refer to the two ways of farming: Natural = organic; and Unnatural = conventional. But like it or not, “organic” the word and the way of farming are both here to stay.

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This article is an updated version of the original, which was published in 2009.