Is Organic Food Really Better?
We’re going organic. But it’s no silver bullet.
The organic food market is currently worth $168 billion and has more than doubled in the past decade.1 Despite being the fastest growing food sector in most European and North American countries, organic agriculture still only contributes to between 1 and 8% of total food sales in the regions.2 The European Union has now established that by 2030, a quarter of all European food production must be organic, and more and more consumers recognise the organic label.3 But is organic really where we should be focussing for the future of food production?
This is not a new question, and has been a relatively contentious talking point for policy makers and food producers for decades now. But what strikes me is that when I look for answers – not only in popular media, but also in peer reviewed literature – I find dozens of contradictory results.
Some research indicates that organic will be essential to guarantee us a better future on this planet, while other sources suggest that it is only a gimmick to make us pay more for products that, in the end, are not much better for our health or for the environment. So I decided to immerse myself in this topic for some time, reading studies and talking with experts, to finally reach some clarity.
Organic food was born as a philosophical movement
In the midst of so much confusion, it is always useful to start from the beginning. The concepts of organic agriculture were developed in the first half of the 1900s, when intensive agriculture began to scale-up. Thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, Eva Balfour, and Albert Howard thought about a system that would be closer to nature. It was an attempt to respond to an agriculture that seemed to them too industrial and aggressive. Howard worked in India as an agricultural researcher, and drew a lot of inspiration from the traditional practices he stumbled upon there, which seemed to him far more sustainable than the industrialised practices he was witnessing in Europe. Steiner’s vision, on the other hand, was not just that of a new agricultural system. He saw organic as a social system, an alternative way to the “over-mechanisation” of society.4
Steiner and his colleagues were right about the unsustainability of those agricultural systems – the same systems that now lay at the core of our current food supply chains. Now we know that our current, “conventional” agriculture based on monocultures, indiscriminate use of powerful synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and increased animal farming, is one of the main causes of human derived environmental degradation and increased global temperatures.5 But at that time, the idea that an increase in the efficiency and mechanisation of agriculture could be harmful was still largely ignored by the scientific community. What we now call “conventional”, at the time was considered the frontier of science and technology. Cutting-edge. Moreover, it was considered necessary as it guaranteed a way to feed an exponentially growing population.6
In the midst of discussion over agricultural direction, some decided to take action towards organic. From the 1940s, the publisher J.I. Rodale started to spread the concept of ‘organic’ through his magazines in the US.7 But still, the concept of organic remained on the sidelines of the public and political agenda. In the meantime, the very first Organic Farming and Gardening Society opened in Australia in 1944.8
When did we turn to organic?
The turning point is in the Sixties: precisely 1962, at the height of the Cold War. A time when the incessant anxiety for the future was supported by an unshakable faith in the power of science, which guaranteed us security and prosperity. In 1962 a scientist and naturalist, Rachel Carson, published a book called “Silent Spring”, where she talked about the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment.
DDT, which stands for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was developed in the 1940s as the first synthetic insecticide. It was very effective to combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-borne human diseases. It was also effective for insect control in crop and livestock production. In 1972, EPA issued a cancellation order for the DDT based on its adverse environmental effects.9
An American television excerpt from the time claims that “This is one of the nation’s best sellers. Up to now, around 500,000 copies have been sold, and Silent Spring has been called the most controversial book of the year”. The book was not only central to the US government’s decision to ban DDT ten years later, but it made the general public think that perhaps the race for efficiency and abundance had made us sacrifice something important. Perhaps it made more sense to recover more traditional methods. It’s at this point that the organic mission began to take on the features of a social movement. In the 1980s, groups of farmers and consumers began to put pressure on governments to ensure that organic farming was recognised as its own official standard. Starting from the 1990s, the first regulations and certifications actually began to arrive. Shortly after, in the 2000s, the world market of organic products started to grow exponentially with North America and Europe leading the charge.10
What does it mean to do organic farming?
Organic practices are regulated differently across countries, but some principles are generally followed, related to health, ecology, fairness and care. Most of us believe that these practices help to treat crops less aggressively – and so to respect more of the resources we need to produce our food. Indeed, organic rules include prohibiting the use of GMOs, forbidding the use of ionising radiation, limiting the use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, prohibiting the use of hormones and restricting the use of antibiotics to only when necessary for animal health.11
However, various sources seem to suggest that organic is not much better for the environment, for our health, or for socio-economic reasons. I’ve spent some time trying to understand both sides of the debate, so to help bring you up to speed, here’s a little summary of the common critiques of organic, and the responses to those critiques from the pro-organic community.
1. Avoiding “chemicals” is a close-minded way to approach agriculture
Organic agriculture uses a few synthetic (approved) pesticides, and mostly biopesticides, which are naturally occurring biochemical pesticides, such as neem oil extracted from a tree. Some believe that the organic approach is better because it uses less artificial chemicals. And there is a strong stress on the idea of “using much fewer chemicals” in organic agriculture. However, every substance is chemical, because every substance is made up of molecules. Which means that also the chemical structure of some biopesticides can make them non-selective: in addition to killing those pests that destroy crops, they can also kill or alter the behaviour of other living beings that are within their range.13, 14, 15,16 The argument often used is that the USDA and the European Union had to ban the use of some biopesticides because of health and environmental concerns. An example is Rotenone, widely used as an organic pesticide for decades, because of its natural origin. However, research has shown that rotenone is highly dangerous: research found that exposure to rotenone causes Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats, and has the potential to kill or at least damage many species, including humans, because of its acute toxicity.17, 18, 19 For this reason, it was later not approved for use in the EU. And this is the case for other “natural” pesticides too, such as Pyrethrin, which is still approved for use in the EU.20, 21
True, in a way rejecting anything “chemical” is an example of the limits of organic – which at times is guided by a rigidity that ends up being anti-scientific. It is also true, however, that chemically synthesised fertilisers were created precisely to be more powerful and effective than “natural” ones. When we apply these powerful fertilisers in large quantities, as is the common practice on many chemically reliant conventional farms, they will have far more devastating effects on biodiversity than their organically certified counterparts which are restricted to only limited applications.22
2. Organic food is not necessarily better for our health
It’s true that organic food has fewer residues of toxic substances, but the level of pesticides allowed by the European Union for conventional agriculture is already low enough not to damage our health. 23, 24 Plus, sometimes we can find pesticide residues also in organic products.25 And on top of that, you can only enrich organic foods with vitamins and minerals if it is required from legislation. This means that organic alternatives to cow’s milk could be less nutritious than non-organic ones.26
Yes, but it’s not just a matter of pesticide residues and safety. It’s also a matter of nutrients and taste. And organic food not only has more nutrients, such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, but it’s also widely considered to taste better. 27, 28
In reality, the scientific evidence that there are any substantial nutritional differences is not very strong, and more research is needed to distinguish between the role of organic foods and other factors on health outcomes.29 In fact, consumption of organic food is often tied to overall healthier lifestyles and dietary practices, as well as to lower levels of overweight and obesity – and all of these other factors are likely to influence the results of observational research.24
3. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean better conditions for small farmers
This type of production was also born as an attempt by farmers to protect small-scale production, be more independent and receive sufficient pay for their work. But in reality, the strict standards we now have actually make it harder for small farmers to certify as organic.30 Additionally, the growing market for organic products means large producers have launched organic lines that they can sell at a lower price due to scale, and an unequal distribution of government farming subsidies that favours those with larger plots of agricultural land.31, 32 Both of which further reduce the benefits for small producers.
That’s true, small producers are starting to struggle, even in the organic sector. But in general, the fact that more organic food is being produced should be good news. If organic is truly better for the environment, then we should try to produce as much organic as possible.33
But is it really better for the environment?
As if the current debate wasn’t already fairly confusing, answering this question becomes even more difficult. At one point in my research I came across this graph, taken from a 2017 study, which left me quite perplexed.34
Infographic by Cait Mack
" "For organic crops, yields are not so high, because you control less of the inputs. And because you need more land, you end up applying more fertilisers, using more water, and so on." "
This graph shows us different types of impacts stemming from agriculture: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water pollution and acidification, and energy use per unit of food produced. Put simply, when the vertical coloured lines are above the horizontal line 1 on this graph, organic is statistically shown to be environmentally better. Under the assumption that this graph is true and accurate – and it should be as accurate as it can get, as it’s a peer-reviewed meta-analysis that compares the results of more than one hundred studies –organic would only help to reduce GHG emissions related to fruit production, and to reduce energy consumption for the production of cereals, dairy products and eggs. But in terms of land use, eutrophication and acidification potential of all foods, and GHG emissions of all foods aside from fruits, organic has equal or even greater impacts than conventional agriculture. While not all of these environmental factors can be directly compared in terms of their overall contribution to environmental impacts – for example, energy is not as important in terms of environmental impact, because agriculture accounts for only about 2% of overall energy use – there is a startling amount of instances where organics fare worse than conventional.35
Not what you were expecting? I wouldn’t blame you. At this point in my research I was utterly confused: was it really possible that organic is a fad we pay more for but doesn’t really make a difference?
I sought expert help. Dr Marco Springmann, an Oxford Senior researcher who has been studying the impact of the food system for years, explained to me that for organic farming “the really important thing is that you just need more land. For organic crops, yields are not so high, because you control less of the inputs. And because you need more land, you end up applying more fertilisers, using more water, and so on.”
As Dr Springmann alluded to, the issues arising from increased land requirements are directly related to the very ethos that drives organic practices. Organic farming treats agricultural land and the land that surrounds it with more respect. On average, it kills fewer pollinators, the soil is more protected and rich, and animals have more space to graze. It’s not intensive agriculture, trying to extract as much as possible from every small square centimetre of land. It’s the opposite – we could say it’s extensive agriculture – but for this reason, it needs more land compared to conventional agriculture to cultivate the same amount of products. And here’s the paradox: organic farming decreases local environmental impact in the place where it’s done, but it can potentially increase the global impact of agriculture. Because more land is needed to produce the same amount of food, that means more deforestation, more natural fertilisers and pesticides, and so more widespread water pollution.
This creates a divide in opinion of how best to preserve biodiversity. Should we carry out intensive farming on a smaller area, accepting that biodiversity will be strongly affected over that area, or should we carry out organic farming, impacting biodiversity – maybe less severely – over a much larger area?
A possible solution
If we stopped here, we would fairly confidently conclude that organic is great as long as it’s done on a small scale, but it makes absolutely no sense to try to push it for large-scale production. But stopping here would be a mistake, because we may have a solution to this problem. “This conundrum between local and global impacts can only really be resolved if you bring in the question of dietary change”, says Dr Marco Springmann. “You can’t just keep on eating as unsustainably and unhealthily as now and shift to organic, that doesn’t solve anything. Organic only makes sense if you also change your diet.”
This means, for example, significantly reducing the consumption of the most polluting, emitting, land-intensive foods, such as red meat. Producing meat and animal products right now takes up most of the agricultural land on the planet, but produces less than a quarter of the world’s calories and a third of total protein. It’s true that some grazing land would be unsuitable for production. But according to researchers, if we ate and produced less meat, and substituted it with the consumption of an organic plant-based diet, then we would reduce the impacts from food production – and we could safely increase the amount of food farmed organically.36
But is organic farming the only alternative to conventional farming?
Springmann, however, brings up another problem. We don’t need an organic system to address the current environmental problems coming from agriculture. “Another kind of agroecological approach could be just as good, it doesn’t have to have the organic label” says Dr Springmann, “the same organic principles that somehow prevent the bad things of industrial agriculture also somehow close the options that would make the most sense, if you think of feeding a population that is still growing and where we still have malnutrition around the world.”
This left me perplexed as to why the conversation ended in the dichotomy between organic (good and natural) and conventional (intensive, industrial, harmful). Between these poles there is a whole grey scale of practices that could help us solve the environmental issues resulting from food production.
Dr Springmann told me that there was a way of farming in a more environmentally friendly way which didn’t subscribe to either side. It is called “agroecology”. In theory, organic is also part of agroecology, which is the umbrella term for many practices that have been identified as beneficial to at least local environmental indicators. Crop rotation, cover crop, efficient irrigation systems, and a smart and precise way of applying fertilisers and pesticides, for example, are key principles of agroecology. And they could help to significantly reduce the impacts of food production, without having to necessarily follow stricter organic rules.
Crop rotation is the practice of alternating different crops in the same plot of land to improve soil health. For example, if a farmer has planted a field of corn, which consumes a lot of nitrogen in the soil, the next time they will plant beans, because beans return nitrogen to the soil.37
So what is the goal?
The issue is that we want easy answers, and it’s easier to recognise a label than to understand the complexity of the problem and of the solutions to it. So farmers who want to get recognition strive to go through the expensive and labour-intensive process of certifying themselves as organic producers. But those who adopt agroecology principles without being able to afford a certification are left out.
Even Dr Adrian Müller from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL told me that “the goal is not to go 100 percent organic. The goal is to use the insights from organic to shift the entire production system in the direction of fewer external inputs. But at the same time we can use all the good insights from conventional agriculture to improve the organic system, where it fits.”
We need a better system for everyone
The more I learn about this, the more it seems to me that we need a system where the bar is raised for everyone. Dr Springmann agrees. “I think what should really happen is that conventional agriculture changes. I mean, we really need progressive policy that changes the status quo.” At the moment, we have created a label with unscientifically strict rules for more expensive products that only a part of the population can afford – and that cannot really help unless they are accompanied by dietary change – and then the rest of our food keeps being produced in the same damaging way it has been for decades. Higher standards for everyone: this is perhaps the message we can take away as citizens. But what about our consumer role? This is the message I’ll bring home with me: in most cases, the product is more important than how it was produced. So before worrying about buying organic meat, I’ll worry about buying less of it.
Banner and article illustrations by Erica Moriconi