“Is this organic?” Nowadays, the latter is more often a comedic punchline from a stereotypical privileged T.V. character than it is representative of everyday conversations in the supermarket. This tells us what we already inherently know. Organic products were designed to appeal to consumers wanting to protect themselves as individuals and are marketed to those who have the money to do so. ‘Organic’ is more often tied to keeping you and your family safe than it is to the needs of a collective society trying to save their dying world. This has changed only slightly as the public has grown more aware of the very little time we have left before climate change becomes irreversible. For those who can afford it, buying ‘organic’ presents itself as a simple way to ‘go green.’ It comes as no surprise then that organic products have risen in both popularity and accessibility over the past few decades. They sell themselves today as both people-safe and earth-safe alternatives. Rising tides and global populations have nevertheless left many wondering what their true impact on the environment might be.
What we now call the ‘organic movement’ is not new at all. What some call a trend is actually the product of a decades-long battle against soil contamination, pesticides, and industrial agriculture. The use of harmful chemicals to boost agricultural yield began as early as the 1900s. The transition to this kind of industrial production was anything but uneventful. Groups of farmers united from the beginning to defend agriculture without the use of chemicals. Despite their efforts, industrial agricultural practices did not slow down. With more and more people to feed, the demand for cheap food grew exponentially. Mass production techniques led chemically-grown and processed foods to conquer consumer markets. The use of chemical fertilizers quickly became the norm worldwide. The demand for local and organic food did not stop either.
At the end of World War II, contamination was a major public health concern due to all of the chemical byproducts left in fields and at the bottom of the ocean. The same concerns were also seen in agriculture. By the 1950s, interest in organic farming started to grow and sustainable practices had become a topic of scientific research. In the 1970s, growing consumer awareness of industrial farming resulted in a growing demand for organic food. By the 2000s, organic products had become mainstream. Consumers pushed for government regulation by advocating for a system of organic certification. From 2008 to 2019, the sales of organic food nearly tripled.
Popularized by vegan and climate-conscious influencers, organic food has become a generic term recognizable even to children. Most supermarkets now have a dedicated ‘organic’ aisle. While trends have the advantage of spreading new ideas, they are not necessarily accompanied by education. Most people do not know how their food is grown, nor do they really know what is implied by the ‘organic’ certification. They assume it means natural, 100% free of chemical agents, and also ethical, but this is not always the case. Organic farming has nothing to do with ethical production. For example, a cacao plantation can be labeled organic, but not guarantee fair wages for its workers. In the case of the United States, ‘organic’ food does not even necessarily mean the product was grown without pesticides.
Some recent headlines have claimed that going organic is actually worse for the planet. These articles tend to point to the same controversial report published in 2018 by Chalmers University of Technology. In the aforementioned study, two crops were studied in Sweden over the course of three years. The results showed what previous studies already had: conventional crops have a higher yield. In other words, to meet the same demand, the organic supply takes up more land. One of the contributors, Stefan Wirsenius, has linked this excess land use to deforestation, as well as diminished carbon sequestration and increased greenhouse gases.
The study is not a complete sham, but neither is it completely true. When it comes to agriculture, we must acknowledge one important fact: no one farm is exactly the same. It would be nonsensical to conclude from three years of study of only two crops in one country that all organic farming is necessarily harmful. Moreover, not only is the study clearly not applicable to all organic farming – a highly variable practice with no universal definition – but it also falls very short of other long-term studies with very different conclusions. While tilling used by certain organic farms has indeed been linked to erosion, nutrient run-off, and the disruption of microbial communities, the environmental benefits of organic farming systems have been proven to outweigh conventional alternatives.
The Rodale Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to studying organic agriculture, published a detailed report rebuking the Chalmers study in 2018. Therein, they point to the large margin of error present in the former’s data collection, as well as the data they have collected themselves in reports spanning over 35 years. Their findings show on the contrary that organic farming systems “store more carbon in the soil and deeper in the soil.” They were also able to demonstrate that organic systems do out-yield conventional systems in years of extreme weather by up to 40%. Most importantly, they point out the Chalmers study’s error in weighing deforestation against synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The latter mainstays of conventional farming degrade soil health, destroy biodiversity, and create ‘dead zones’ in rivers due to nitrogen run-off. A 23 year-long study from the USDA reached the same conclusion: organic farming generally does lead to healthier soil, less energy consumption, less carbon emissions, and more crucial biodiversity. All of the above are essential components of a healthy environment capable of producing food in the long-term.
So, should everyone pay the extra price for organic? Yes and no. Organic is better for the planet, but with rising populations, high yield is increasingly important. Not every consumer can afford ‘organic’, and not every low-impact farm pays for certification.
Producers and consumers form a set of two complementary gears. Shifting toward responsible production practices is only one part of the equation. We can also affect change by altering the ways in which we consume. The most eco-friendly choice is to adopt a non-processed plant-based diet. The carbon footprint of all animal products and processed foods is far superior to any fruits or vegetables, especially locally-sourced, no matter their label.
Technology today enables anyone to make changes in their personal lives to help combat the climate crisis in other ways. For example, one issue that has come to public attention via social media and journalism is food waste.
One third of global food production goes to waste, and consequently represents 8% of annual global greenhouse emissions. Various initiatives have emerged all across the world to address this issue. Smartphone applications such as Too Good To Go and Phenix in France eliminate food waste while still benefiting both buyers and sellers. Such applications propose selections of unsold fresh food at a lesser cost than usual. They provide a good alternative for both consumers on a budget and businesses who would otherwise lose profit, while simultaneously avoiding excess waste to help the environment.
From anti-waste we can transition to zero-waste. This practice, although less common, aims to eliminate waste as much as possible by optimizing consumption as much as possible. For example, those who try to go to zero-waste cook with parts of vegetables that would otherwise be thrown out and use home compost bins. In the case of newly-popular vermicompost bins, worms feed on vegetable peels and other biodegradable waste, creating a natural fertiliser while also reducing the amount of trash in our bins. They can be laid outdoors or indoors, making them easy to use even in an apartment.
“Organic” may be more and more a part of our daily lives, but we need to be willing to confront the climate crisis at hand with more drastic measures. You are fooling yourself if you think buying organic is enough for our planet’s wellbeing. Sure, organic farming is well and good for the soil, but what about the local politician you failed to vote for because you thought it “cannot make a difference”? Accepting big companies who continue off-shore drilling? Tons of single-use plastic you could have easily replaced with reusable alternatives? Plastic bottles? And how about not throwing away half of the imported organic vegetables you bought at Naturalia last week, but “never had a chance to cook and now they look a bit bad”? Willingness to change our habits on a deeper level, on multiple levels is the real issue at hand. The organic movement is a start, but it barely scratches the surface.
Emma Loiret, Mickael Gayen, Sam Gabbert
EC Racines du contemporain
MC2L (M1) Parcours Anglais
References + Sources
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