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#4 - Organic
by Mike Allan on Wed 30 Jul 2014 11:06:22 AM EDT

     This post is all about organic farming. From labelling and certification to common misunderstandings and environmental impacts, this post dives into what can be a pretty controversial space surrounding organic production. Organic certification has become increasingly popular over the past number of years,1 now with a global market for organic foods reaching $63 billion,2 so let’s explore some of the reasons for that.

     To become certified organic, a farm must meet a series of criteria. In order to be certified organic in Canada, one must meet the requirements set out in the Canadian Organic Standards, be able to show traceability of products (the history of the products’ supply chains), and be inspected by an independent third party so there is no conflict of interest. The Canada Organic website has a simplified version of the standards. There are 20 certification bodies in Canada, and the certifying bodies must  either be accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or be recognised under an organic trade arrangement with a foreign, competent authority under the Organic Products Regulations, 2009.3 The high number of certifying bodies in Canada is a common criticism of organic certification.

     Another common criticism of organic certification is that the process excludes some farmers. While the certification process intends to provide a legitimate “stamp” for organic products, the reality is that the annual fees can be prohibitive for some small farmers (be they Canadian farmers or farmers in developing countries). In this article from The Guardian, Nune Sarukhanyan claims that certification schemes can entrench inequality. There are other issues with the certification process itself as well. I recently spoke with a forager at a farmers market who was from Forbes Wild Foods. He gets his berries from nature, leaving him ineligible to get certified organic (lacks traceability). This does not bother him because he can personally talk to all of his customers, but if he was unable to explain this in person then it would be much more difficult for him to portray that his products are actually organic even though they are ineligible for certification.

     Certification aside, much of the conversation around organic farming methods relates to environmental impacts. The FAO claims that CO2 emissions per hectare of organic agriculture systems are 48 to 66 percent lower than in conventional systems. A study mentioned in a New York Times article claims organic products have less pesticide residue and are better for the environment overall. A study by the Washington State University Regents found that organic farming techniques for strawberries are better for the environment.4 There was also a study done by professors at New Mexico State University on soil quality of organic and conventional farms. This study concluded that conventional fields are the least sustainable.5 All of these studies point out how organic is better than conventional when talking about the environment, but a study done by the University of Guelph came to a different, and interesting conclusion.6

     This University of Guelph study looked at the amount of pesticides used and the environmental impact that this has in organic farming. One of the most common misconceptions about organic farming is that there are no pesticides used, demonstrated by a survey done by the Soil Association, in which 95% of respondents said they buy organic to avoid pesticides.7 This is not the case. There are no chemical/synthetic (man-made) pesticides used, but there are other “natural” pesticides used. The study compared organic certified insecticides against synthetic insecticides. The certified organic pesticides had active ingredients of mineral oil and beauveria bassiana, and their trade names were Superior 70 oil & Botanigard, respectively. There is a whole list of permitted substances, in case you’re wondering what some alternatives to synthetic pesticides may be. Since the non-chemical pesticides tend to be less effective, they are often applied in greater quantity to organic versus non-organic crops. The study looked at soybeans production and pointed out that because of the increased quantity of organic pesticides required to get the same effect as synthetic pesticides, it was actually more harmful for the environment.

     This National Post article discussed a very common anti-organic argument. The article was titled “Organic farms’ need for more land is bad for Earth: study.” The study mentioned in the article found that organic farming may yield up to a third less of some crops when compared to conventional farming. The argument that organic farming requires more land raises a critical consideration, but the Worldwatch Institute released an interesting post discussing whether organic farming methods can actually feed us all, and concluded that it could. A UN report also came to this same conclusion, highlighting yet another controversy in organic farming.

     Biodiversity is another very important factor in sustainable agriculture. Gerold Rahmann reviewed 766 studies about biodiversity and organic farming, and concluded that organic farms tend to be more biodiverse. According to a study performed by scientists from the University of Oxford, organic farms support 34% more insect, plant and animal species than conventional farms. The fact that organic farms tend to be more biodiverse is not nearly as disputed as many other topics, but of course this does not mean that every organic farm has more biodiversity than every conventional farm.

     Some people view organic farming as a human rights issue. Farm workers on conventional farms are exposed to very high amounts of chemical pesticides. Pesticide exposure has been linked to different diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease -- an American study showed that workers exposed to pesticides were 1.6 times as likely to develop the disease, with herbicides and insecticides the most likely to increase risk. The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but Kieran Breen, director of research at the Parkinson's Disease Society, said that this study “strengthened the fact that pesticides play a key role."8 A study entitled “Acute pesticide poisoning: a major global health problem” from the National University of Singapore was released in 1990. This study mentioned that an estimated 25 million agricultural workers in the developing world suffer from an episode of poisoning each year.

     Other major points of conversation when talking about organic food are the different health effects. The Annals of Internal Medicine completed a review of 240 studies,9 and the Medical School at Stanford University also completed their own study and both concluded that there are no significant pieces of evidence supporting the fact that organic foods are healthier.10 There have been other rigorous studies done that have found organic foods to be more nutritious, such as the study led by Washington State University Regents. This comprehensive study found clear evidence that organically grown strawberries have more nutrients than those that are conventionally grown.11 The Barański et al. study from the aforementioned New York Times article found similar results -- that there are more anti-oxidants in organic food. While nutritional content of food is not typically the primary reason for choosing to buy organic, it is nevertheless part of the debate surrounding organic production.

     With highly opinionated voices, sometimes contradictory evidence bases, and potential trade-offs at play (for example, do I buy organic certified or do I buy products I know support smallholder farmers for whom certification is inaccessible), it can be hard to know what "good" decisions look like. My objective isn't to answer that question. But I do hope this posts sparks curiosity among our members and gets each of us asking: what is it about organic production that I value? What more do I need to learn about how my purchasing choices can help me direct my dollars and my behaviours towards those values? Does that require me always to buy organic? Why, or why not (or perhaps when, and when not)?

     I definitely recommend talking to farmers at farmers' markets and understanding their perspectives, what they value, and why. This can be a really valuable part of building an understanding of issues like organic, and what role they should play in sustainable agricultural production.

Additional Resources:

Did You Know:

  • Organic farming systems use ~⅓ less fossil fuels than conventional farms12
  • 1.8% of Canadian farms are certified organic13

Food for Thought:
Is spending the extra money on organic produce worth it?

All the best, 
Mike

 

Organic Consumers Association. US Organic Food Market Increases.
Academics Review. Organic Marketing Report. 2014
3 Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Certification Bodies Providing Organic Certification Services - Canada. 2014-07-08
4 Reganold, J. et al. Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems. Oct. 6, 2010.
Ikemura, Y. & Shukla, M. K. Soil Quality in Organic and Conventional Farms of New Mexico, USA. 2009.
6 Bahlai, C.A. et al. Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. June 22, 2010.
Food Navigator. Organic foods taste better, claims new poll. September 5, 2005.
8 BBC News. Pesticide Parkinson’s Link Strong. March 28, 2008.
Smith-Spangler, C. et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? 2012.
10 Brandt, M. Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, study finds. Sept. 3, 2012.
11 Reganold, J. et al. Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems. Oct. 6, 2010.
12 Hepperly, P. Organic Farming Sequesters Atmospheric Carbon and Nutrients in Soils.
13 Frick, B. Farm numbers dip, but organic farms up: Statistics Canada June 19, 2012

 

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Patrick Miller, Wed 06 Aug 2014 04:29:59 PM EDT

Thanks for starting this conversation. I always find the discussion of organic vs "..." to be an interesting one.  I eat organic produce – sometimes, but have always been curious about more of the science behind it. There was a fairly interesting study done on organic and conventional farming practices in Europe that was released last year - (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479712004264) - that provided a lot of interesting discussion and evidence that suggests that's it not so clear cut as 'better for the environment' or worse. It all depends on what is measured and how those measurements are contextualized.

That's a major issue with complex topics - if we measure 8 indicators and we select those 8 because we know it makes our intervention look better and we ignore the uncertain 100 other indicators, we haven't really established much about the relative performance of our intervention, have we? Another way to look at it, the better than/worse than argument is often a way to justify a particular set of interventions for reasons that aren't entirely evidence based, as opposed to digging in deep (pardon the pun) and finding a unique intervention that matches the issues/opportunities being addressed. Often though the answer is always “organic” and the right questions are picked. (Or if you don’t like organic, then the answer is ‘not organic’ and the right questions to lead to that question are picked.)


Specifically (drawn from the abstract) - "The results show that organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, but not necessarily per product unit. Organic farms tend to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions and ammonia emissions) per unit of field area. However, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit."
One can follow the study's argument and data to suggest a fixation on 'organic' vs. 'in-organic' is not the most effective pathway to stated ideals of low impact and accessible food and actually limits the ability for better farming practices to emerge. I’m not a food scientist and I have no idea what those practices would look like, but I’d rather see novel techniques emerge that manage trade-offs intentionally across all relevant indicators than stick to a narrow set of interventions that demonstrate value on a handful of indicators

Jacques Drolet, Fri 15 Aug 2014 03:40:53 AM EDT

The work toward ecological, sustainable, biological or organic agriculture, as it is called in different part of the world, is a process. Everyday getting a little better than what was done yesterday. Not to enter into the process is the problem. That process, I think, start with taking stock of your "plant health toolbox" and local history for each local production and then taking the best decisions based on your knowledge and the ones you trust. And that process is iterated at each new season.