Organic

The Organic Way

According to the Australian Organic Market Report for 2021, the Australian organic food industry is blooming. As a whole, the organic food industry in this country is estimated to be worth $2.3 billion annually and has seen an annual growth rate of 13 per cent every year since 2012. Consumer demand for organic produce is growing at between 20 and 30 per cent each year, and estimates are that 60 per cent of households buy organic food on some occasion. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this eager embrace of organics, the number of certified organic food producers has increased by 38 per cent since 2011. Clearly, there is an established demand for organic food, but if we want to understand the role organics can play in our society, we need to dig a little more into the nature of “organic” production.

Digging deep

Organic farming can be split into two categories: farming of plants (agriculture) and the raising of animals (husbandry). Organic agriculture prohibits the use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers, and interventions such as genetic engineering (GE) and irradiation are excluded. Under organic animal husbandry, no antibiotics or growth hormones can be used. There is also an inherent ethical component to the treatment of animals under organic practices, ensuring that animals are treated more humanely.

In organic growing, not only are synthetic inputs banned, but these practices also focus on stimulating the biological processes in the soil, so that deterioration of the soil is reversed. Since synthetic inputs are banned, other methods are used to manage nutrient and pest issues. The fundamental philosophical recognition here is that you cannot just take from soil; you must also give back as with any good relationship.

Soil management practices include crop rotations, applications of natural soil fortifiers (rock dust, manure, crop residues, household waste, compost etc) and appropriate soil tillage. Pest, disease and weed management practices include crop rotations, crop breeding for resistance, manipulation of pH and soil moisture (with irrigation or soil surface management), manipulation of planting dates, use of appropriate plant varieties, biological control methods (encouraging natural enemies of pests), trapping insects and using biological pesticides in which the active ingredient is short-lived and may be produced locally.

By contrast, modern industrialised monoculture agriculture is based on very simplified ecosystems. It requires large inputs of potential pollutants, including pesticides and synthetic fertilisers to control pests and diseases and provide adequate nutrition for plants and animals. Large-scale monoculture agriculture sacrifices diversity for quantity. Organic farming reclaims diversity and, in the process, recognises the absolute pre-eminence of soil. Farms foster greater biodiversity, playing host to more bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinators at the same time as building biotic and nutritional diversity within the soil.

It all sounds as though a turn to organics is a no-brainer, but that does not mean there are not issues or opponents.

Time to yield the field?

One of the arguments against a complete turn to organics is that organic farming produces a lesser yield than conventional farming. A study published in the journal Science Advances in 2017 reported that organic farming yields between 19 and 25 per cent less per land area than conventional farming. The argument goes that if this is the case, then more land will need to be cleared to produce the same amount of food and that land clearing will have negative environmental impacts. Against this, however, is a report from researchers at Washington State University published in the journal Nature Plants. This study involved an analysis of hundreds of published studies from the last 40 years that compare organic to conventional farming. The conclusion of these researchers was that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, enhance the environment and be safer for farmers.

In detail, the researchers found that in drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change, organic farms have the potential to produce high yields because of the greater capacity of organically farmed soil to hold water. However, the researchers point out that even when yields are lower, organic farming can still be profitable for farmers as consumers are willing to pay more, and that can allow organic farmers to continue to support the ecosystem. Many studies in the review did indicate that organic farms store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, reduce soil erosion, and produce less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. According to the review, organic farming also creates greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes. Among the benefits of biodiversity are improved natural processes such as pollination and enhanced capacity of farms to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

Even these researchers do not advocate organic farming as the only way to produce food for the future. However, they do conclude that the way forward is a blend of organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture and mixed-crop/livestock farming.

Organic consumers

If organic food is going to cost more then people will need to be convinced that it is worthwhile not only for the planet but for themselves — that is the harsh reality of capitalist, individuality culture. Thankfully, there are multiple ways in which organic food is better for any given individual.

Pesticides

Monitoring programs in Australia, in line with other Western countries, show that around one in three food items tested has detectable pesticide traces. Although organic food can never be 100 per cent free from these chemicals due to occasional spray drift migration from nearby farms, a study conducted for Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries showed that the state’s organic produce is virtually chemical-free. In theory, then, eating organic food should lower levels of potentially harmful pesticides in your body. Hard evidence supporting this theory came in a study published in the journal Environmental Research.

In this study, researchers from RMIT University allocated subjects to a diet of either 80 per cent organic food or 80 per cent conventional food for seven days. The two groups switched to the alternate diet for another week. After just one week of eating an organic diet, organophosphate (OP) levels, as measured by metabolites in urine, dropped by 89 per cent.

Nutrition

Food is about enjoyment, but it is primarily about sustenance. Feeling full is one thing, but being nourished is another. One of the arguments in favour of organic food production has been that it provides more nutrients. In the debate over organics, however, it has also been said that the actual nutritional differences between organic and conventionally grown foods are minuscule. Let’s think about that nutritional proposition for a minute (or three).

Conventional agriculture relies heavily on fertiliser inputs, which result in faster, lush growth and a higher water content in the end product. Crops grown in organic fields, where soil fertility is built up by traditional practices, have more dry matter. Microorganisms that are killed off by chemical applications thrive under organic regimes, where they help to break down the soil, making more nutrients available to plants.

That rationale would lead us to believe that while conventional crops generally possess sufficient levels of the basic nutrients required for crop growth, they often lack trace minerals such as zinc, selenium, manganese, copper and molybdenum that are important for the maintenance of human health.

Nevertheless, the actual nutritional superiority of organic food has certainly been questioned, and some of this has come from reputable research institutions such as the Stanford University School of Medicine (2012) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (2009). However, an analysis from Newcastle University (UK) published in the British Journal of Nutrition, incorporating more data than either of the two earlier studies, found that organic food is significantly nutritionally different from conventionally grown produce. The Newcastle analysis found that in organic crops the concentrations of antioxidant phenols was between 18 and 69 per cent higher than in conventional crops. The clear conclusion from this study was that there are significant and beneficial compositional differences between organic and conventionally grown food.

There are many studies that drill down further and support this basic premise. In 2008, a report from the French Agency for Food Safety found that organic plant products are more nutrient dense, have a higher mineral content and contain more polyphenols than non-organic plants.

Organic farmers

Right now, farmers get paid a premium for their produce. This is because the cost of producing organic food is higher as, for instance, you can’t just spray weeds but have to control them in other more costly ways. IBISWorld estimates that the premium is between one and a half to two times more for an organic product compared to an equivalent non-organic product. That premium price, however, is declining simply due to competition as more farmers enter the organic market. Lower prices are good news for consumers but not necessarily enticing for new organic farmers. Currently, the certification process for organics requires around three years for a farmer to convert to organic production methods. The rigour of that process is necessary to maintain the integrity and value of organic food. As we move forward, though, to provide incentive for farmers to convert to organic production, some streamlining of the certification process would be a worthwhile pursuit. While we need to maintain rigorous standards, we also need to be mindful of creating an environment that will allow this transition for the future.

The organic attitude

At the heart of organic farming is respect: respect for animals, respect for soil, respect for the environment in which farming takes place and respect for ourselves as consumers of the food that is produced. Respect is integral to any way forward, because we know that thinking that features disregard, elitism and selfishness leads to damage. The real advantage is that it necessitates thinking about what we eat and what we want our food to be, rather than consuming it thoughtlessly. This sort of respectful and deliberate thinking can be the basis of our pathway to a better future.

Terry Robson is a writer, broadcaster, television presenter, speaker, author and journalist. He is Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing magazine.

This article is featured in WellBeing 206 

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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