Drinking water in a reusable bottle, check. Not using plastic bags for grocery shopping, check. Knowing by heart that little speech you give every time you’ve got a weird look after saying “no straw please”, check. These things are certainly efficient in avoiding trash we can see, but what about trash we don’t see?
Ever since I moved out of my parents’ two years ago, I’ve always eaten organic, whether the food budget was a bit tiny or more comfortable. But was is exactly organic food, and how is it different from non-organic food?
Organic food, what it is and what it isn’t
To talk about organic agriculture, we first need to talk about intensive agriculture, which emerged after the Second World War. It mainly consists of selecting and improving animal and plant species, mechanising agriculture, practising monoculture (growing a single crop several years in a row), and using pesticides and fertilisers.
So let’s keep this clear between us, producing more food is a good thing, but not at any cost.
An agriculture that feeds more people sounds ideal, except that the way this is mainly done nowadays is not, and comes with heavy consequences. Deforestation, desertification, the devastation of animal habitats, water and soil pollution, destruction of the micro-organisms regenerating farm soils, and concentration of pollutants in the human body, just to name a few.
Now that we know a bit about intensive agriculture, let’ go back to organic farming. It is a strictly regulated form of agriculture (have a look further below on the labels), that respects the environment, the animals, the planet, our health, and provides practical solutions to global warming. Yes, my loves, all of that! More specifically, organic farming forbids or reduces considerably the use of pesticides, maintains water quality as well as soil fertility, and thus respects biodiversity.
Better for the planet
Some pesticides can stay for years in soil or water. And it is a vicious circle, as some of them also kill insects that are natural predators of voracious pests.
In September 2018, neonicotinoids (which is the category of the world’s most used pesticides) will be forbidden in France (nothing has been decided on a European level for now). Why such a radical decision? Because the use of those pesticides is responsible for the decline of 50% of the bee population in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Can’t be bothered by bees? Think again! It’s been estimated that 70% of fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat daily depend on bees. As you may have noticed, plants do not have legs, ? so they need an external factor to meet and transmit new genes. And that is the role of pollinators. Have a look at those — quite depressing — images that illustrate what our plates would be like if bees were to disappear.
Better for your health?
It has been confirmed by WHO (World Health Organisation) that pesticides are a health hazard. They could have an impact on cancers, procreation, as well as our immune and nervous systems (Parkinson, Alzheimer, autism,…). Eating organic will thus avoid taking that risk concerning pesticides (health must be considered as a whole though: eating organic chips every day won’t keep you healthy either — yep I know, I wish too!).
You may have heard of that experiment lead by Greenpeace in two Japanese families: the 4 family members of each family have eaten only organic food for 10 days. The pesticide levels in their urine dropped drastically after the experiment.
I’m a tad sceptical regarding those experiments though, as I think it would’ve been more relevant to make blood tests as well to assess the long-term effects of pesticides (because the thing with pee is that we eliminate it anyways, right?).
Regarding animal products, ?organic farming strictly regulates the use of antibiotics, whereas in conventional agriculture, antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock, to maintain decent health and promote faster growth. According to the FDA, approximately 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals. The more we consume antibiotics (directly or by eating animals that were fed antibiotics), the more infections that are today benign will become deadly, because of the evolution of bacterias into “super bacterias”. It is estimated that antibiotic resistance will cause 10 million deaths by 2050, becoming the first cause of mortality in the world, before cancer and diabetes.
More vitamins in organic food?
I’d like to tell you that an organic broccoli ? contains more nutrients than a non-organic broccoli but folks, I haven’t been able to find anything reliable and official on that matter. If you do, please let me know! In the meantime, I’ll just keep in mind that the health benefits from eating organic come from avoiding the absorption of loads of chemicals, but nothing proves for now that an organic orange contains more vitamin C than a non-organic one.
Can’t afford that!
One of the arguments that come up quite frequently is that organic food is more expensive, and that is true. But I like to keep in mind that the cost of something isn’t just monetary. For organic food, there’s also the environmental and health costs to consider. A non-organic vegetable costs less in money, but more in the planet’s resources and health capital.
Let’s also keep in mind that organic farming is clearly less subsidised, meaning that farmers have less financial support from the government, whilst industrial farming is more generously funded.
Do pesticides feed the world?
The World’s population should reach 9.8 million by 2050, according to the United Nations. We’ll have to increase our agricultural production by 70% until then if we want to feed everyone. According to FAO, we could already feed that many people today. The problem is unequal distribution and not the production quantity.
So no, the daunting vision of global hunger if we eliminate pesticides and nothing more than a groundless myth, or a marketing campaign led by pesticides lobbies. Let’s not forget that the pesticide industry is worth 50 billion euros per year and aims at growing agricultural activity rather than eradicate famine in the world.
Using a system that is not effective on a long-term basis and not risk-free is thus not a solution. But then, what’s the solution?
- Equally allocate land. Having a part of the globe suffering from obesity while the rest of it is starving is as ridiculous as unfair. A way to combat that is to eat as locally as possible (eating pineapples from Brazil implies that the land used for growing pineapples is not used to grow beans for example, that’d be eaten by Brazilians instead) reducing our carbon footprint at the same time.
- Reduce food waste
- Adopt eating habits that are less resource-intensive by prioritising fruits, vegetables and legumes while limiting animal and refined products
- Favour organic food (you didn’t see this one coming, did you?!)
According to the FAO, we have today the resources and technology to nourish the 2050 population. But that’s going to happen only if we migrate towards more sustainable practices, as the way we do today is leading to soil fertility decline, which means that the soil productivity potential is dropping alarmingly.
So the answer to that question is: no, intensive farming isn’t going to feed the world, quite the opposite in fact.
But it is really organic?
In the European Union, the term “organic” is protected, meaning you can’t pretend a product is organic if it isn’t respecting a whole set of rules, the first one being that at least 95% of the finished product needs to be organic.
Know your labels!
You can’t recognise an organic tomato from a non-organic tomato by simply looking at it, so one of the first things to do when going organic is to get to know the labels. They all give you an idea of the standards respected and origin of what you’re eating.
Here’s a nice guide to know more about labels!
Certain brands pretend to be organic without having any label at all. In those cases, it’s yours to investigate! A certification doesn’t come without a cost, so for some smaller brands, it might actually make sense not to have any, even if they truly follow organic practices.
My organic and low-waste life
(That could be the title of a fascinating book ?) We’ve been using an organic box scheme for a few months now, and that decision really pleases me, as:
- it is all organic (duh!)
- It’s mainly local
- Fruits and veg come in two big cardboard-ish bags that we give back to the delivery person next week, no there’s no packaging related waste at all
- The circuit is short, which means that there are fewer intermediaries between our kitchen and the farmer. At the end of the day, our money goes to the farmer’s wallet instead of a supermarket’s.
While it’s almost impossible to eat entirely organic without becoming obsessed and freaked out about it, the food I eat at home is almost entirely organic. When eating out, if I have to choose between a place that serves organic food and one that doesn’t, I’ll always go for the organic one, but I won’t have insomnia either if that option is not available. It’s all about balance, and doing the best you can, with the means you have.
The food we’ll eat tomorrow that will truly nourish the world in the healthiest way is still an open question, to which you have your word to say, and this as often as at every meal!
Cover image source: Debby Hudson — thank you.
Morgane is a London-based writer passionate about sustainable living, ethical fashion and social justice.