banana farm
Agriculture and Sustainability,  Lifestyle

Organic Food – What you already know, don’t know and should know

Chemicals

Conventional farming systems rely heavily on chemical additives. Alternatively, organic farming avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Even low-level exposure to toxic pesticides and fertilizers can damage human health. E.g. Organophosphorus and Atrazine used in pesticides have been connected to a number of developmental problems, including autism, ADHD and impaired cognitive abilities in children (Organic Facts, 2015; Rodale, 2011).

As for animal products, when animals eat chemical laden food the chemical concentration increases (bio-accumulates) and then we eat it and get a concentrated dose along with antibiotics. These antibiotics can weaken the immune system and potentially increase susceptibility to long-term diseases e.g. cancers (Bower et al., 1999). A review of 97 studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods revealed that organic plant-based foods contained higher levels of 8/11 nutrients (Andrews et al., 2008). Additionally, the organic foods contained significantly greater concentrations of the health-promoting polyphenols and antioxidants. The team of scientists concluded that “organically grown plant-based foods are 25% more nutrient dense, on average” (Andrews et al., 2008).

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

The National Standard defines GMO’s as “materials produced through modern engineering methods such as bio and gene technology, to alter the genetic makeup of a living organism to produce results which do not occur in nature or through traditional breeding techniques” (OISCC, 2015). Food Standards Australia New Zealand Food (FSANZ) state that “a food produced using gene technology must not be sold or used as an ingredient or component of food unless it is listed in the ingredients” (2011). However, this particular regulation omits highly refined foods like sugar, animals that have been fed GM feed and food in restaurants. Finding a list of GM foods or ingredients in Australian products is unlikely as FSANZ state they are only responsible for approving GM foods. You will never find GMOs in organic food or in organic animal feed. Buying organic is the only way you can be completely sure GMOs are not in your food!

Animal Welfare

Animal Welfare. Organically farmed animals, for the most part, maintain a higher quality of life than conventionally farmed livestock. Livestock must have access to genuine free-range grazing facilities, organic certification requires the animals be kept in adequate living conditions, have sufficient food availability, be fed a chemical/drug/hormone free diet, and also be transported and slaughtered using “humane” methods by an organically certified processor (Soil Association, 3025).

These environments reduce stress in animals and improve their resistance to disease due to not having been fed antibiotic laden food. However, there are some conventional practices that are still used on organic farms. These include dehorning cattle and the destruction of male dairy cattle and chickens soon after birth. Unfortunately these animals cannot be used for a profit and are therefor an expense for the business and destroyed. Overall animals live out a much nicer farm than most on conventional farms but it’s not perfect!

Environment & Sustainability.

Organic agriculture is a viable solutions to many of the negative side effects produced by conventional agriculture and climate change. Soil is a non-renewable resource and is lost in large amounts through erosion (wind and water) on conventional mono-culture (one crop) farms. When organic practices are implemented, soil organic matter increases, increasing water retention, nutrients, beneficial bacteria and reducing erosion. When chemicals are applied on conventional farms, they are lost through increased water runoff and leaching. These nutrients generally end up in water sources, damaging these marine environments. This is currently happening along the Great Barrier Reef resulting in eutrophication (algal blooms) and crown of thorns starfish outbreaks (a very bad thing) at the expense of corals.

Organic farms generally produce more than once crop, increasing resilience to extreme weather (climate change), pest and disease events and beneficial plants and animals. Agriculture accounts for around 13% of greenhouse gases emitted worldwide each year. A 30 year trial studied neighbouring corn and soybean farms (some organic and some conventional) and found the organic farms used over 45% less energy than the conventional systems. Additionally it was found that the conventional systems emit nearly 40% more greenhouse gases per pound of crop produced than the organic systems.

But organic farms can’t produce as much as conventional farms right? Wrong. A study found 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil were all able to double their annual yields of maize and wheat through integrating common organic techniques. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015), states that the earth indeed has a sufficient amount of agricultural land to feed the global population now, and into the next century. The problem however, is the inefficient and unsustainable management of much of this land. So next time? Buy organic.

Issues

My aim is to provide you with the most objective information possible so today I will be shedding light on some of the issues relating to organic agriculture. Firstly, any product can be labelled as organic even if it isn’t. This ‘eco labelling’ makes it incredibly confusing. One way to ensure a product is certified is to look for a certification logo. Another key issue is the fact that organic guidelines are incredibly rigorous and very rarely updated. For example, hydroponics (farms that don’t use soil) and aquaculture (fish farms), which can both be done very sustainably and naturally cannot be certified as organic.

Organic certification is also ridiculously expensive for farmers and involves multiple audits and tons of paper work each year, they ain’t makin’ it easy! Another issue is the cost of organic produce to buy. Unlike popular belief it is not because it’s more expensive for farms to produce organic food it is due to the certification costs and large supermarkets paying ridiculously cheap prices for large amounts of conventional produce. Organic food is actually cheaper for farmers to produce due to a reduced need for fertilisers and pesticides.

How can you do your bit?

Don’t buy produce that looks perfect! Choose the wonky bananas. Non-organic produce undergoes a strenuous selection process, whereby only the most perfect fruit is chosen for retail sale. This chosen fruit is then usually covered in a shine enhancing spray or wax coating, to further improve aesthetics for the average consumer (Solomon, 2013; Presler, 2015). Alternatively, organic produce is grown without the aid of chemicals and growth enhancers. Whilst this means that the organic goods are therefore totally natural and chemical free, there are fewer individual pieces of produce choose from. Accordingly, each piece may differ somewhat in size, color and shape, and may also retain some discoloration or bruising.

Buy produce from all organic farmers (certified or not)! Buy in season! Organic produce is often available according to the season. Pay a bit extra for organic wherever you can, this money will go to the producers who more often than not will need it. Remember, every dollar you spend is a vote cast. Vote for produce that is in season, chemical free, produced ethically and sustainably!

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