Dr Oliver Moore (Ollie) is an author, academic, journalist, blogger and all round organic know-it-all! We asked him to analyse some of the more prevalent myths or accepted wisdoms around organic foods. In this column, Ollie addresses the issue of organics and climate change - once accepted as logical that organic has less impact on the environment, increasingly this view is being questioned. But as Ollie explains, when it comes to organics, often it is the exceptions to the rule that make the headlines:
Climate change is a big, daunting question. One very direct thing we can all do to help fight climate change is to increase the proportion of organic food in our diet. This is because making and transporting the agri-industrial inputs in conventional food, from feeds to fertilizers to biocides, uses up an incredible amount of hidden energy, mostly in the form of oil and gas.
For example, a 100 hectare stockless arable farming the UK uses up 17,000 litres of oil every year, through its fertilizer inputs alone. In broad terms, research comparing organic and conventional farming in long running trials suggests that organic farming uses considerably less oil and has considerably less global warming potential than conventional farming does. For example, research suggests that energy used in organic systems ranges from 30% to about 50% less.
Studies have also shown that organic farming sequesters (locks away and makes safe) Co2, which in itself also works against global warming. When sequestering is taken into account, the overall global warming performance of organic farming is better again, even in the few studies that show otherwise negative results for energy use in organic as compared to conventional farming. Sequestering rates of organically farmed soil is up to 200kg of Co2 per hectare, while the production of all green house gases is lower in organic systems.
Conventional farming in Ireland is not the worst culprit by global standards: Ireland's great grass growing weather - rain – reduces the ammount of winter feeds, as compared to other countries. However, it could still perform better.
Take this example: Organic farmers use clover to take nitrogen from the air, instead of using synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers. While it is true that all farmers could do this, and fetilizer useage is down, in reality only about 1% of conventional farmers in Ireland use clover as an alternative. More research does, however, needs to be done to try to find a way to reduce organic agriculture’s reliance of animal manure and ploughing.
Why, in light of all of the above, is there even a myth on organic and climate change to be busted? When research suggests some organic food, some of the time, might not be as climate-change friendly as other food, subeditors the world over jump for joy. Simply put: there is a myth to be busted because the media loves a bad news story. It is no longer news that organic is good – it seems now that anything that says organic is bad has a higher news value.
An example is research from the Manchester Business School and the UK's DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ) from 2007. This research was quite balanced when read in full, but not if you look at the headlines related to it. A good example it gave was of tomatoes: in Spain, conventional tomatoes can grow outdoors for a long season. In places like Holland, organic ones grow indoors in heated greenhouses. So even though the tomatoes travel a shorter distance from Holland, the heated greenhouse provided out-of-season produce is the problem in climate change terms.
Of course, there is more to organic than climate change: many farm labourers in Spain are African migrants, and pesticide poisionings kill and injure a disturbing number of un and underregulated labourers each year - but not on organic farms.
However what the tomato example also suggests to me is shopping with more than just organic in mind: organic is the starting point, not the destination. It makes sense to aim for a holy trinity of local, seasonal and organic where possible. Try to avoid excessive transportation, out-of-season consumption and the many other energy intensive aspects of food production, distribution and consumption.
Try to aim for food from an organic farm, and then look for the local/Irish and the seasonal option.
This might be seen as increasing your kitchen creativity or reducing your choice, depending upon your perspective.
It is also the case that organic is a very small yet comprehensive and demarked agri-food system. Building an alternative from a tiny base will result in occasional anomolies. To maintain the certified and coherent status of a small but growing organic sector, occasionally the use of fossil fuels can go up – for example, to avoid using the manure of animals fed on feed containing GM, organic farmers without their own manure may have to bring in manure from further a field than their nearest neighbours. This means more fuel used. But what is the alternative? Giving up and self-declaring your enviro-niceness is one option, but what is the consumer to think of this?
As the organic sector grows, and a critical mass of producers develops, these anomalies will be reduced: the farmer above will have a certified organic neighbour.
While in the majority of cases, organic scores better than conventional in climate change terms, those subeditors love to pounce on organic pork and poultry. Here's the pork and poultry situation: Because pork and poultry live longer and eat a processed feed, organic's carbon footprint can be higher for these products. In this case, other considerations, especially more general environmental and in particular, animal welfare considerations have to be balanced against climate change.
Organic pigs and chickens grow at a more natural and slower pace, in more natural surroundings, eating a more naturally produced feed over a longer period of time. Needless to say, their factory farmed comrades have a different experience altogether.
However even within this, all organic pork and poultry options are not the same: which brings us back to the holy trinity. Your local organic producer at a farmers' market stall probably operates in a far more environmentally benign way than the big scale examples you'll find were the subject of most research.
I know egg producers who, for example, grow their own feed, supplement with pasture feed, and sell locally. Their animal welfare standards are far higher too – small natural flock sizes of up to 100 animals, which reduces the stess levels of the birds. Inevitably, local pollution and their own carbon footprint is lower than that of others who operate on a massive scale but within the technical limits of organic.
As consumers we differentiate in so many areas: cars, clothes, holidays and many other options differ greatly in price and meaning. A Micra costs less than a Merc. We need to do the same with our food.
One of the many things all of this points to is that aspects of organic cannot be taken in isolation: the whole package, from environment and climate change to animal welfare and health, need to be seen as one big holistic package – a holy trinity at least.
All told, with justifiable exceptions, organic food can play an important role in the fight against climate change.