Why organic is the eco choice

There are many reasons to choose organic and increasingly, people are doing so for the benefit of the planet. Kathy Slack takes a look into what makes organic farming better for the environment.

Why organic is the eco choice

OF&G National Organic Combinable Crops

Over the past few years, we consumers have become well-versed in the implications our food buying habits have on the wider world. From plastic packaging to fairtrade, we’re so much more aware than we used to be.

If we buy organic food it may be for many reasons, including for the 'good of the planet', but what exactly is it about organic that makes it so environmentally friendly?

Bee illustration

Well, for one organic farming is good for wildlife. Studies have shown that there is between 40% and 50% more wildlife on organic farmlands than non-organic*. This biodiversity means nature is in balance and able to weather storms and pests without needing our help.

Organic is also a great way to reduce pollution. Organic farming regulations are very strict about the use of manufactured chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It’s easy to demonise ‘chemicals’ and clearly not all are harmful, but some require a lot of energy and resources to manufacture which causes pollution. For the organic farmer, there are natural fertilisers (like manure and nitrogen-fixing plants) and other forms of pest control (like encouraging natural predators and physical barriers), which are less polluting and often cheaper as well.

Organic farming helps future proof our land and soil. The same study that noted the biodiversity benefits of organic also measured the resilience of the soil to flooding and drought. They found that organic farmland had less soil erosion and better water retention than non-organic land – perfect for withstanding unpredictable weather.

Tree in an organic field

OF&G National Organic Combinable Crops

It’s easy to see then that an organic farm has happy wildlife, happy soil and a happy farmer. So why would we grow any other way? Well, feeding the growing global population without irreparably damaging the world itself is, as you can imagine, a thorny tangle of a problem for which you need a degree in economics and good understanding of international policy making to grasp. However, there are two questions often asked about organic food’s potential to help the environment.

Wheat illustration

The first: if we only grew organic food there might be less pollution, but we couldn’t feed the world’s growing population because organic yields are (sometimes) lower and take up more land.

The problem with this question is that it sees feeding the world and saving the planet as opposing problems. But we can’t grow food at the expense of the planet. There’s no point having a well-fed population if there is nowhere habitable for them to live thanks to climate change. We need to see food security and the environment as two sides of the same coin. To feed everyone sustainably we might need to change our diet and not rely so heavily on the intensively grown/reared food we buy so cheaply today. The Organic Farmers and Growers ‘Future of Farming’ paper puts it well...

The truth is that we can eat well, remain healthy and feed a global population of nine billion sustainably but it will need to be on a different diet to the current western one. In reality it is unlikely we will be eating a 99p burger in 2050.

Which leads on to the second question: wouldn’t food cost too much if it was all organic?

Well, it depends what's meant by ‘cost’. At the moment organic food is, sometimes, more expensive to buy than non-organic. But that’s partly because there is less organic food grown so the economies of scale aren’t so great. If there was more organic food to buy, the price would come down.

There are many ways you can eat better for less, check out this excellent article featuring shopping tips to make organic more affordable.

Bowl and spoon illustration

But even that answer only considers the end consumer costs rather than the real cost of producing, say, an apple. In their study, “True Cost Accounting in Farming and Finance”, Triodos Bank painstakingly accounted for every pound spent in growing an apple including the cost of medical care for pickers affected by pesticides, water consumption, greenhouse gases. This is certainly fiddly, but is a more accurate way of ‘pricing’ food. Cheap food is often only cheap because the environment or the workers are paying the price.

The planet faces many challenges in food security and climate change. Organic farming is surely part of the solution. Yes, the full answer is complicated, but while the world sorts it out, you and I can make a difference to the environment today by putting more organic food in our shopping bags. And that seems a good and simple place to start in a complex world.

* Bengtsson, J., Ahnström, J., & Weibull, A. C. (2005 ‘The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: A meta-analysis’ Journal of Applied Ecology). You can find the study, here.

Kathy Slack

Kathy Slack

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