Last week, I looked at the choices and environmental impacts of whether or not we consume meat. This week, I’d like to take you (and me!) on a tour of the organic vs. non-organic debate.
As I see it, it’s a debate with three main questions that need to be examined;
1) What is organic food?
2) Are the nutritional benefits greater for organic foods
3) Is organic food production actually better for the environment?
So, what does organic even mean?
Good question. Dictionary.com defines it as follows:
1.noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.
2.characteristic of, pertaining to, or derived from living organisms: organic remains found in rocks.
3.of or pertaining to an organ or the organs of an animal,plant, or fungus.
Frankly, that doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of the whole food debate. So I dug around a little further and found a handy-dandy chart provided by the USA’s Mayo Clinic:
|Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth.||Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.|
|Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease.||Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.|
|Use herbicides to manage weeds.||Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.|
|Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth.||Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.|
In a nutshell, that all sounds pretty shiny. We’re using less chemicals, re-using animal waste and encouraging the presence of the “birds and the bees”, to get all poetic about it. But that doesn’t make it inherently better than conventional, modern farming methods, nor does it guarantee that the food produced is of any higher standard.
What are the nutritional differences between organic and conventionally produced crops?
All the research I’ve looked at says that there is no conclusive evidence indicating that the nutritional value of organic food is any higher. In 2008, the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture published a report which indicated that there were no differences in the levels of major and trace contents in the fruit and vegetables grown using three different methods; organic, semi-organic and conventional. Further, in 2009, the Food Standards Authority UK released the results of an independent study, concluding that ‘Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.’ Of course, this caused a bit of a furore in the organic community, who came up with some fairly unconvincing counter attacks along the lines of ‘Ecuadorian Organic Chocolate tastes better’ and ‘Eat more organic herbs and spices because people consume too much sodium and it’s bad.’ Well, shit. Whodathunk that good quality chocolate tastes better and that too much salt is bad for you?
There is also the issue of the health impacts of pesticide and herbicide use. Theoretically, organic produce is no safer than conventional produce, which is bound by strict standards around the types and quantities of chemicals that can be used. Then again, I can see the merits of this argument – there was once a time when we thought DDT was safe. By all accounts though, most products are relatively low in pesticide residue. Once again, the EWG comes to my rescue with a fantastic Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Read it!
The only really valid argument that I can see about organic farming lies in meat production. But ‘organic’ meat is not the only way to avoid additional antibiotics and hormones – there are a lot of pasture-raised animals in Australia that may not count as ‘organic’ but which aren’t pumped up with half a pharmacy on a daily basis.
So, now that you’ve trashed the health argument of organic food…what about environmental benefits?
The arguments for the environmental benefits of organic farming are a lot more compelling than those for the health benefits. In addition to the most well-known harms caused to wildlife by pesticides like DDT, conventional farming causes greater problems in terms of land degradation, water pollution and greenhouse emissions.
On heavily cropped land, one of the major causes of soil erosion and degradation is soil acidification…and one of the causes of that is the use of nitrogen based fertilisers. It’s a vicious cycle – the more that nitrogen fertilisers are used, the worse the lower the quality of the soil, the worse the quality of the soil, the more fertiliser is required. The types of synthetic fertilisers that cause these problems are banned in organic farming practices.
Obviously, all that soil erosion needs to go somewhere – and often, it’s washed away by rain to end up in nearby lakes and rivers and thus, in the ocean. Fertiliser runoff is a major contributor to eutrophication and hypoxia (oxygen starvation), leading to the creation of ‘dead zones’ in which river and marine life cannot survive. This is a threat to biodiversity and local ecosystems, and can also damage the livelihoods of those employed in fishing and tourism etc.
Again, nitrogen based fertilisers are the main culprit…nitrogen fertilisers give off N20 (sorry, wordpress isn’t being too friendly about the chemistry thing), which has a Global Warming potential (GWP) of 298. That’s 298 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
Ultimately, the question of organics is still very much a middle-class, first-world-problems type issue. Organics are much higher priced – my guess would be that they are prohibitively expensive most of the time for most of us. But where possible (i.e. when I can find an organic option – and when I can afford it), I do choose them, purely for their smaller environmental impact.
Over to you guys – do you buy organic at the supermarket? Is it something that you even care about?
Diaz R, Solow A 1999, Ecological and Economic Consequences of Hypoxia- Topic 2 Report for the Integrated Assessment on Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/products/hypox_t2final.pdf
Fargione J, Plevin R, Hill J 2010, The Ecological Impact of Biofuels, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 21: 351-377.