We instinctively know that the label “organic” means better. But do you know why organic farming is better, who benefits from it and how it helps the environment?
What is organic farming?
Organic farming is centred around the idea that farming should be a part of the natural cycle. It doesn’t exploit the soil but enriches it, keeps it alive, protecting biodiversity, while making farming sustainable.
It is a farming system that uses only natural fertilizers and environmentally friendly methods of pest, weed and disease control.
When it comes to plant foods, it means the crops are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, dangerous pesticides, genetic modification (GM) and ionizing radiation.
Organic farming relies on principles such as crop rotation, crop residue utilisation, composting, less mechanical and more manual labour.
Organic foods don’t contain chemical preservatives. They aren’t coated in synthetic wax (e.g. citrus fruit) and don’t contain synthetic colourants or flavourings.
That means not just that they are healthier, it also means they are fresher because they don’t have a long shelf life.
Organic crops contain no or only tiny amounts of chemical residues. They have more antioxidants and some other nutrients, richer flavour, are safer for people with food sensitivities.
They are also less likely to cause adverse reactions (due to the lack of chemicals in them)1.
How is organic farming more sustainable?
Organic plant cultivation is great for the environment because it doesn’t pollute, it increases soil fertility, reduces soil erosion and protects wildlife.
That way, it ensures the land can be used for generations to come without exhausting the natural resources in the area.
One of the features of organic farming is cultivation of naturally more resilient crops that can ensure a reliable food supply.
The organic standards mean that farm workers and people living in the area are not exposed to dangerous chemicals, which supports their health. That’s also a key part of sustainability.
How does organic farming support wildlife and biodiversity?
Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals don’t just kill the unwelcome plants (weeds) or insects, they kill a number of species that are important to maintaining balance in nature.
The poster species for the devastating effects of some industrial pesticides are bees.
When bees die, our entire food supply will collapse because bees are the main pollinators ensuring successful crop yields. Yet it’s not only about bees.
Organic farming also protects thousands of other insect species, hedgehogs, birds, bats, frogs and fish. It doesn’t poison them and their environment.
Another big factor is that organic farming supports wildlife by maintaining hedgerows, ponds and woodlands.
Synthetic fertilizers can pollute streams and ponds, throwing the whole ecosystem into disarray and causing problems such as algal bloom.
When that happens, algae reproduce at a rapid pace, covering entire water surfaces and suffocating fish who live there.
This simply doesn’t happen with organic farming! But that’s not all.
By avoiding GM, organic farming also protects local species from introducing foreign genes into their populations.
It’s true that some GM plants are safe but we still don’t have enough data to be certain of long-term effects of GM on native species and the environment.
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Organic farming supports wildlife by maintaining hedgerows, ponds and woodlands.
Why does organic farming use less energy and release less carbon emissions?
According to the longest organic versus conventional farming comparison study2, organic farming uses 45 % less energy and releases 40 % less carbon emissions.
Simply not using nitrogen fertilizer in organic agriculture saves huge amounts of oil used for its manufacture and transport.
It also saves a lot of emissions as nitrogen fertilizers produce nitrous oxide – a powerful greenhouse gas.
Another saving comes from organic farming relying more on manual labour rather than the use of machines and utilising local resources more thoroughly and efficiently.
Growing organic crops also results in greater carbon sequestration. More carbon dioxide is captured and stored in the soil as carbon.
This is a major advantage as not only it means that more carbon dioxide is sucked out of the air, it also means better soil quality.
A large study showed that the best land management practices in organic farming can increase the amount of carbon locked in the soil by 24%3.
Lastly, organic soil holds more water.
That, of course, helps to conserve water but it also means organic crops are not as severely affected by dry weather as conventionally grown crops.
Organic farming relies more on manual labour than machines and so uses local resources more thoroughly and efficiently.
Could the world’s farming ever be 100% organic?
Organic farming requires more land than conventional farming to produce the same amount of food.
Without chemicals, the yields and harvests are 10-20 % smaller4 . This begs the question whether we could feed everyone on the planet if all our farming was fully organic.
A team of researchers modelled various food production scenarios. They came to the conclusion that the world population could be fed entirely through organic farming and without any deforestation but only under one condition. If we all go vegetarian5.
Are there any disadvantages of organic farming?
That depends whether we talk organic animal or plant farming.
When it comes to plants, more manual labour and smaller yields make organic produce more expensive.
Some argue that the energy and emission savings are not that big in organic farming because we need more land than non-organic farms to produce the same amount of food.
Yet, organic farming has so many benefits that they still outweigh the need for slightly more land.
Organic animal farming is usually a little better in terms of animal welfare. But because organic standards are meant to mainly protect the consumer and the environment, it’s often the animals who pay the extra price.
It’s because the use of antibiotics and medication in general is severely restricted. So some animals may actually suffer more or for longer when they fall ill.
More manual labour and smaller yields make organic produce more expensive.
Is buying local and seasonal produce more or less important than buying organic?
Of course, if you can buy local, seasonal, organic produce, that’s the absolute best scenario!
If that’s impossible, it may help to organise your decision-making into steps.
Is the food organic but from the same continent? That may be the next best choice.
Is the food organic and from the other side of the world? Then it depends on your priorities. Your health versus emissions caused by transport but you may also want to factor in how often you buy it.
If it’s an occasional treat, it’s probably still a good choice.
If it’s your staple, it may be better for you to look for a more local alternative.
There’s no easy answer but the best policy may be to buy organic whenever possible and not beat yourself up when it’s not.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if the world went vegan?
This is what our future would look like if plant-based farming became widespread.
- Crinnion WJ, 2010. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Altern Med Rev. 15 (1): 4-12.
- Rodale Institute. Farming Systems Trial. Available at: https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/farming-systems-trial/
- Crystal-Ornelas R, Thapa R, Tully KL, 2021. Soil organic carbon is affected by organic amendments, conservation tillage, and cover cropping in organic farming systems: A meta-analysis. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 312: 107356
- Reganold JP, Wachter JM, 2016. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nat Plants. 2:15221.
- Erb KH, Lauk C, Kastner T, Mayer A, Theurl MC, Haberl H, 2016. Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Nat Commun. 7:11382.