Having been a choice confined to those in the know just a few years back, organic food has rapidly gone mainstream! In the minds of the general public, organic food is bound to be better for human health and the planet than conventional farming. So is it true, or false?
What make a crop organic?
Unlike those yielded from what is referred to as conventional farming, organic fruit and vegetables are grown in line with a charter. The organic farming schedule of specifications prohibits the use of pesticides, i.e. “phytopharmaceuticals”, or synthetic plant health products. These terms refer to any substance used to combat organisms that farmers consider detrimental: fungi, pests and weeds. Organic farming does use pesticides, on condition that they come from natural substances, from derivatives of natural substances or are listed as one of the few exceptions. These include slaked lime (scientific name calcium hydroxide), paraffin oil (even though it is a petroleum derivative), sulphur and copper compounds. Copper sulphate is the pesticide most commonly found on organic produce, and is used as a fungicide (antifungal). Such methods are not necessarily harmless to human health, or without harmful effects on the environment.
Natural does not mean perfect
However, on the face of it we tend to think that the absence of pesticides is bound to be better for human health and the planet. But perhaps the charter is not stringent enough. For example, it allows copper preparations derived from synthetic mineral chemicals like the notorious “Bordeaux sludge”. This is a mass-produced mixture of lime and copper sulphate yielded by chemically stripping copper with sulphuric acid. This sludge is allowed, but far from virtuous. Since copper is not biodegradable, it has detrimental effects on the microorganisms in the soils in which it builds up. This collateral damage is well known, and was also highlighted by the French national research institute for agriculture, food and the environment [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique – Inra] in a scientific inspection report. But there’s a problem: there’s no alternative for organic vines or potatoes. This counterexample makes it clear that it’s hard to generalise when it comes to organic farming, because every crop has its own specific features.
The pitfalls of organic farming
Thus organic produce meets a schedule of specifications that singles out chemicals, but disregards some essential factors. So produce can be farmed organically whereas the practices involved are harsh on the environment and soil. Because organic farming relies on ploughing as much as “conventional” farming does, yet this is one of the most disruptive practices for soil and biodiversity. All of a crop’s characteristics do have to be considered to assess its impact and be in a position to draw a comparison between organic and conventional farming. As it happens, it’s probably less harmful to use a few grams of glyphosate but protect the soil from practises that upset its balance by turning it over, than to do without a bit of chemical additive and destroy the soil’s ecosystem. Bacteria, earthworms and fungi are what make it so rich. Moreover, organic farming yields are smaller. Meaning that for organic farming to get the same yield as conventional farming it takes more land. This greater surface area will generate more greenhouse gas emissions over the production cycle.
Globalised organic produce = harmful organic produce
There’s another factor to take into account: the location where organic produce is grown versus the one where it will be consumed. If organic produce comes from the other side of the world (and all the more if it comes in plastic packaging), it will have a very poor ecological footprint compared to produce that is grown conventionally but consumed locally. Because the ecological damage caused by freight transport and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, and the petrochemicals used to produce the packaging, will never be offset by the absence of pesticides in organic farming.
Moreover, the organic certification and charter provide no guarantees on respect for plantation workers. Farmhands on organic farms, including those in Europe, work under deplorable conditions. For example, peppers, tomatoes and other summer vegetables still on sale at the end of the season in France come mainly from Spain’s “sea of plastic” in Almeria. Much of this area, which supplies the whole of Europe with organic produce, is covered with plantations. The seasonal job of harvesting is done by migrant workers who live under conditions not far removed from modern slavery. In this case, organic certification is a marketing ploy that is very much at odds with consumer expectations.
Are organic fruit and vegetables better for human health?
Organic growers often trumpet the nutrient content of their produce, however this does not depend on the use (or non-use) of pesticides, whether natural or synthetic. Rather, it depends on the varietal, exposure to sunlight (or lack of), air pollution and the rich or depleted nature of the soil. Not forgetting any nitrogen-based fertilisers used and the timing of the harvest. A piece of fruit that’s organically grown but is ripened off in a container will not be as high in minerals, vitamins and so on as a specimen that has been allowed to ripen on the tree and soak up the sun’s goodness. So it’s very tricky, not to say impossible, to form a clear opinion and pass judgement on this issue. Again, an organic family farm, supplying either locally or nationwide, is bound to stand for higher quality than that of fruit or vegetables grown organically but under factory farming conditions, far away from the consumer.
Organic farming – better for farm workers’ health
While these days we know that it’s best to avoid ingesting pesticides, their effects on consumers’ health are still disputed. It’s not the case when it comes to farm workers. Sustained, repeated exposure to pesticides in the course of one’s work is a proven risk factor for the development of Parkinson’s disease, some types of blood cancer and prostate cancer. It robs people of their health… Moreover, France has fallen short of the target of the Ecophyto plan aimed at cutting the use of plant health products by 50% by 2025. The timeline for this target set in 2008 has already been pushed back several times since then. Incredible but true: In 2018, France saw a significant rise in plant health product sales, with a 10% increase for the notorious glyphosate. The latter is extremely toxic but extremely effective. Dropping its use would make farm work barely profitable. Some growers have stockpiled it in preparation for future bans. They have also bought large quantities of products that are less harmful but have to be used in larger amounts to get the same results.
The advantages of organic farming
Despite the charter’s shortcomings, from a grower’s perspective organic farming is about rediscovering the farming profession, reconnecting with nature and observing it to take action at the right time. Large-scale, globalised organic farming aside, organic farmers live by a virtuous holistic philosophy even if it does not form part of the schedule of specifications. I.e.: safeguarding ecosystems; producing healthy food; feeding into short supply chains; optimising energy and water usage; and bringing back biodiversity. This is also a positive choice for the community, because organic farming is much less polluting. This makes it possible to cut costs related to water and air depollution treatments. Organic farming helps reduce this expenditure for society. That’s why organic farming is needed, and often better, even if it is not perfect.
Beyond organic farming: conservation farming
So the organic charter has room for improvement with a third way, between conventional and organic farming: Conservation farming. This non-organic type of farming uses a set of practices which are virtuous for ecosystems. They involve not ploughing the soil, and avoiding leaving the soil “bare”. This is done by sowing a “plant-based soil cover”, i.e. an assortment of plants that stop it from being degraded and depleted by the loss of its valuable organic matter. Yet conservation farming requires the use of a little glyphosate, to destroy the “plant-based soil cover” between crop cycles and stop it from growing back and mingling with the crops. Glyphosate is so potent that an absolutely tiny amount is enough (the most skilled farmers manage to use only 1-2 litres per hectare!) to manage the “plant-based soil cover” problem. As for organic farmers who want to preserve the soil too, but cannot use pesticides, they use mechanical weeding to remove the plant-based soil cover. This is a fastidious and complex technique which must be used in addition to organic farming practices. These days, this conservation farming makes it possible to stop depleting the soil, whether farming organically or not.
The future of organic farming
So to really do the right thing and safeguard human health AND the environment against the damage done by intensive farming and pesticides, farming should go organic. It should also shun any synthetic chemicals and embrace all best practice when it comes to soil conservation. These practices would make it possible for farming to be really virtuous, “genuine organic farming” rather than globalised or low-cost organic farming. Sale via short supply chains should also go mainstream. Cutting out the middle man means that the farmer gets a fairer price.
These are the practices that will make for the regenerative farming of the future, which some here in France are already referring to as ABC (Agriculture Biologique de Conservation – Organic Conservation Farming). At present, this new type of farming relies on the motivation and willing of new-generation farmers who genuinely care about ecology.
While organic farming was an important stage, it has now been overtaken by the ecological crisis, which calls for tougher measures and genuine support for farmers from the authorities. At consumer level, you can support this transition by cutting down on supermarket shopping in favour of local farmers’ markets. In doing do, opt for foodstuffs that come without packaging, produced domestically (in our case, France) or better still in your own region. That way, you get produce that’s fresh and in season. At the present time there is no such thing as yield-driven farming that allows farmers to make a good living whilst safeguarding the environment. So what’s required is an overhaul of the whole farming system!