The Big Idea: Are Organic Foods Past Their Best Before Date?

After 10 years of slow but steady growth, sales of organic food and drink in UK supermarkets have fallen 2.1% in the past year. More worryingly, despite a decade of bragging about strong year-over-year growth, organics have started from such a low base that they still represent only 1.8% of the total food market and beverages, compared to 1.2% ten years ago. So even if this year’s decline is a blow, a 0.6% gain in market share every decade would mean it would be another 800 years before most of what we eat and drink is organic. Even with exponential growth of 50% per decade, we would still have to wait until the 22nd century.

The movement faces other significant challenges. Few other than true believers believe that we can sustainably feed the world organically. There is a broad consensus that average organic yields are around 80% of those of “conventional” crops. More organic farming would require more good agricultural land, which is scarce. Worse still, researchers looking at the consequences of switching to all-biological in the UK concluded that it would increase greenhouse gas emissions and reduce biodiversity.

Even some old friends of organic have gotten into it. George Monbiot went from saying, in 2000, that “organic farming will feed the world” to calling pastured beef and lamb the world’s most damaging agricultural products and organic farming itself “all of mud and no magic”. Former anti-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas recently said that organic farming methods “encourage agricultural sprawl and have become smokescreens for the livestock industry.”

Consumers who buy organic products have always cited health, not the environment, as their main attraction. But study after study has shown that the supposed health benefits of organic foods are non-existent. The Advertising Standards Authority does not allow the Soil Association, the main organic food certifier in the UK, to make health claims. Still, he points to “perceived health benefits,” cautiously states that organic produce is “nutritionally different,” and highlights the presence of fewer pesticides and additives, prompting people to draw their own conclusions.

Anyone hoping this is the future of food now has to admit it just won’t happen. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. It simply means facing the fact that to complete the journey to a sustainable food future, the path must be widened to accommodate more and diverse fellow travelers.

For decades there has been talk of a binary choice between organic farming and conventional farming. The former opposed everything bad about industrialized agriculture: excessive use of synthetic inputs like fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides; soil erosion; loss of biodiversity, excess nitrogen in rivers; poor welfare standards associated with intensive farming. Organic farming presented itself not only as an alternative, but as a the alternative.

But it’s an alternative that most people don’t want or can’t afford. The drop in sales we are currently seeing is an echo of the last trough, which occurred in the three years following the 2008 financial crisis. suffer, even if the poorest cannot afford much or nothing in the first place.

Fortunately, there are other alternatives to unsustainable agriculture. More and more farmers are using “agroecological” and “regenerative” methods that share many of the goals of the organic movement but don’t tick its narrow boxes. For example, a key principle of agroecology is that practices are adapted to the environmental, social, economic, cultural and political context and are ‘bottom-up’. This contrasts with the top-down prescription of the same organic rules for all.

Proponents argue that in a world where many dubious environmental claims are made, we need the “gold standard” of certification. But the rigor of organic standards is also part of the problem. Good agricultural practices cannot be reduced to single, long and strict specifications. These leave too little leeway for farmers to adjust what they do to meet the specific conditions and challenges of their local ecosystems. Certification also costs, from £415 per year for a smallholding of less than five hectares to £1,115 for 500.01 hectares or more in the UK. What justifies this expense for farmers is that they expect to be able to charge more for their products as a result. Part of the Soil Association’s recruiting rhetoric to farmers is evidence that the net income of organic farms is significantly higher than that of non-organic farms.

For all the rigidity of organic standards, they vary by territory, so there is no single meaning for “organic” anyway. US and EU rules on organic products are very different, but under an agreement signed in 2012, US certified organic products can be sold as organic in the EU and vice versa.

At the very least, organic agriculture should move from being a self-proclaimed leader in agroecology to being an equal partner in a much larger movement. Even if that were the case, we would still need other forms of agriculture. Even “conventional” agriculture is much more diverse than its name suggests. The technology helps farmers be more precise, delivering only the amount of fertilizer, water and insecticide they need, when they need it. “Sustainable intensification” is not an oxymoron. Take the controlled environments of totally indoor vertical farms, which enable dramatic reductions in water, pesticide use and food waste. “We don’t use any chemicals anywhere,” says David Farquhar of Intelligent Growth Solutions, who runs such a farm at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee. “Everything is grown on an organic basis – although we can’t actually claim it’s organic because we don’t grow the crops in the ground.”

Organic products still have an important role to play in our food system. I will continue to buy it and am also a member of the Soil Association. It may not be quite past its expiration date, but the raw organic/non-organic divide has become obsolete. Fresher thinking is needed to ensure the world has a healthy and sustainable food supply.

Further reading

Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Solve Them by Tim Lang (Penguin, £12.99)

Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and an Agricultural Revolution by Sarah Langford (Penguin, £16.99)

English Pastoral: A Legacy by James Rebanks (Penguin, £10.99)

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