Organic has been a growing trend throughout Europe, making a continued expansion since the 2008 recession in which sales dropped dramatically.
But is organic really the panacea for the food system’s environmental and health related problems?
A review of scientific literature analysing organic farming with seventeen different criteria found that a number of factors, including crop yield and consumer health, do not show such glowing results.
The study shows that the costs and benefits of organic farms have often been analysed in comparison to conventional farms with the same land area which does not take into account crop yield.
When the efficiency of farms is measured by yield, organic methods have been shown in numerous studies to underperform by around 19 – 25%. For some crops this figure can rise to as high as 30 or 40%.
“Although the need for increased food supply is still debated because of the inefficiencies and inequities in the current system, yields do matter not only for farmers whose incomes critically depend on the yield but also for many environmental outcomes. Even if food production does not need to increase, higher yields could still be environmentally beneficial because we could take land out of production and restore natural ecosystems” the study notes.
This is not only a problem for increasing output and satisfying the world’s shortage of food, but also for environmental degradation.
Land conversion for agriculture is the world’s leading cause of habitat loss and climate change. The world wildlife fund (WWF) state that 38% of the world’s habitable land is currently used for agriculture and that a further 120 million hectares will need to be converted to intensive monoculture farms by 2050 to continue feeding the world’s population.
Despite organic farms requiring more land for production, biodiversity within that land usually increases greatly under organic methods.
Pesticides and health
Health concerns are the number one factor motivating consumers to opt for organic products.
However, the study shows that the potential harm caused by pesticides in food is highly context dependent and that consumers in economically developed countries would be far more at risk than those in developing countries:
“The only entirely unequivocal benefit of organic foods is reduced contamination from pesticide residues although this might not matter for consumers in high-income countries, where pesticide contamination on conventionally grown food is far below acceptable daily intake thresholds it could provide an important health benefit for consumers elsewhere.”
Hans Muillmen of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) however, told FoodNavigator that this does not cover the whole picture.
“Food from industrial agriculture contains numerous pesticide residues. Consumers eat dozens of pesticides on a daily basis and the combined effects of these pesticides are not accounted for in the regulations. Industrial food is not safe. Organic doesn't contain synthetic pesticide residues at all and is safe.”
A recent PAN release reported on the cumulative effects of different types of pesticides, saying that whilst individual residues are minor, western consumers still take on dozens of different types per day, which can be toxic.
The researchers said the literature review showed ultimately that whilst organic has huge benefits and requires larger amounts of research and funding, “organic agriculture cannot be the Holy Grail for our sustainable food security challenges”.
Instead, more emphasis should be placed on finding and utilising the areas where organic works best, and this requires trade-offs for separate problems like output and biodiversity.
Published 2017; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602638
"Many shades of gray—The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture"
Authors: Verena Seufertl, Navin Ramankutty