Is organic farming the solution to our global food system challenges?

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Organic foods have been getting popular in recent years. From mothers purchasing such products for their children to the health conscious trying to get healthier. Organic farming also claims to solve our food challenges. That’s been the premise and promise of the organic movement since its origins in the 1920s: farming that’s healthy, ecological, and socially just. – from consumers and farmers to scientists and international organisations – believe that organic agriculture can produce enough nutritious food to feed the world without destroying the environment, while being more resilient to climate change and improving the livelihoods of farmers.

But as with many important issues of our time, there are more passionate opinions about organic agriculture than there is scientific evidence to support them. And there’s nothing black or white about organic agriculture.

Organic farming does matter. However not in the way that people think. Compared to a neighbouring conventional farm, an organic farm at first appears to be better for the environment. But that’s not the whole story. Here’s how it breaks down.

Is it really good for the environment?

Organic farms provide higher biodiversity, hosting more bees, birds and butterflies. They also have higher soil and water quality and emit fewer greenhouse gases. However, organic farming typically yields less product – about 19-25% less. Once we account for that efficiency difference and examine environmental performance per amount of food produced, the organic advantage becomes less certain (few studies have examined this question). Indeed, on some variables, such as water quality and greenhouse gas emissions, organic farms may perform worse than conventional farms, because lower yields per hectare can translate into more environmentally damaging land-clearing.

Is the comsumer is better off?

For consumers in countries with weak pesticide regulations, like India, organic food reduces pesticide exposure. Organic ingredients also most likely have slightly higher levels of some vitamins and secondary metabolites. But, scientists can’t confirm whether these minor micronutrient differences actually matter for our health. Because the difference in the nutritional value of organic and conventional food is so small, you’d do better just eating an extra apple every day, whether it’s organic or not. Organic food is also more expensive than conventional food at present and therefore inaccessible to poor consumers.

Below is a wonderful chart that provides the comparison.

 

In short, we cannot determine yet whether organic agriculture could feed the world and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture while providing decent jobs and giving consumers affordable, nutritious food. Things aren't always what they seem and in black and white. You should identify and support those organic farms that are doing a great job of producing environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially just food. Conscientious consumers can also push to improve organic farming where it is not doing so well – for example on yields and worker rights.It might not be that simple and the correct question to ask. It's more of whether it's a solution to the problem it claims. In the meantime, everyone can learn from successful organic farms and help improve the other 99% of agriculture that’s feeding the world today.

 

This post is dedicated to Mr G.


Interesting reads:

http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/

http://www.beyondpesticides.org/programs/organic-agriculture/why-organic/health-benefits

https://www.thebalance.com/environmental-benefits-of-organic-farming-2538317

http://theconversation.com/organic-farming-matters-just-not-in-the-way-you-think-74124

http://tranquilmonkey.com/environmental-benefits-organic-farming/

https://small-farm-permaculture-and-sustainable-living.com/advantages_and_disadvantages_organic_farming/

12 thoughts on “Is organic farming the solution to our global food system challenges?

  1. So many factors to consider really–I myself can’t come up with a conclusion. The issue of food wastes in developing countries (do we need to produce that much?); the high demand for high-value crops (as well as meat) when we can probably do better with food that grows abundantly even with low external inputs; the need to re-discover [efficient] indigenous knowledge in organic farming which was lost in the recent generations; etc., etc. Cheers! 🙂

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    1. Production efficiency should rise as time goes by with better growing techniques. And with better food preparation techniques, wastage will decrease. But on a whole we are eating better. The post points out that we sometimes think that there is a solution for all of this but you are right, there are a multitude of factors. Having better output is only one way.

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  2. I am a farmer daughter based in India. Organic farmers is something we are exploring to reduce cost of producing. I loved the comparison chart which you showed. I would say, food prices of organic grown products are costlier than the rest. Thanks

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  3. Interesting, but I also believe this article fails to address the reduce food quality within the conventional nonorganic food system within the last couple decades. Our food is less healthful than it has ever been. The answer may not be organic per se, but at least you have a slightly better idea. I believe the answer is eating locally and knowing where your food comes from.

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      1. I really liked this article, you did a great job (wasn’t at all trying to be critical!). I am deeply concerned with the food system in the world and especially the United States and more than a little nervous for our future generations. One other thing I haven’t researched but am curious about: why did organic get so popular and mass market in the last 20ish years, when it’s been around so long? Thanks for the article I learned a lot and can’t wait to read your next installment ❤️

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