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The Soil Association on why organic farming works with nature, not against it

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By the Soil Association

There’s been a lot of talk lately on how to sustainably produce healthy food, nurture wildlife and address climate change. The human health impacts of Monsanto’s glyphosate hit headlines over the summer, Brexit has raised the risks to food safety in future trade deals, while a heatwave – that could become the new norm – pushed the resilience of our food and farming supplies to the limit.

A question that is often asked is just what organic actually means, and if it lives up to the sustainable hype. Indeed, The National Student asked just that last week.

Organic

Image: Pixabay

Organic is a ‘whole system’ approach to farming and food production. It recognises the close interrelationships between all parts of the production system from farm to fork. The standards for organic food are laid down in European law so any food labelled as organic must meet strict rules and be certified by law. 

A common claim is that, without pesticides or genetically modified crops, we would not be able to feed a world whose booming population is set to hit 9.8 billion by 2050.  In fact, scientists have shown that globally we already produce enough food for more than 9 billion and that it is economic and political, not agricultural, problems that need solving if we are to sustainably feed the world. Organic shows it is possible to innovate by working with nature, getting farmers off the chemical treadmill to produce plentiful, high-quality food without relying on pesticides and fertilisers.

Organic farmers are permitted to use just a handful of pesticides, derived from natural ingredients including citronella and clove oil, but only under very restricted circumstances. In fact, research suggests that if all UK farming was organic, pesticide use would drop by 98%.

It is hard to ignore the other harmful impacts of a reliance on the routine use pesticides; UK wildlife is in a steep decline, particularly on farms. Many pesticides don’t just kill the target pest. They can affect other wildlife and the environment by either direct poisoning, contaminating water courses or disrupting ecosystems. Instead of relying on pesticides, organic techniques look for natural resistance, encouraging natural predators and working with nature to reduce the need for chemicals. As a result, organic farms are a haven for wildlife – on average it’s 50% more abundant on organic farms. 

Producing healthy soils isn’t only good for us and wildlife, it is also a major store of carbon – soils contain three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and five times as much as forests. If the UK went fully organic, at least 1.3 million tonnes of carbon would be taken up by the soil each year - the equivalent of taking nearly 1 million cars off the road.

Organic doesn’t just bring environmental benefits. Organic requires high animal welfare standards, including animals that are genuinely free range and able to express their natural behaviours. Organic standards also ban practices that are common in other farming systems, like docking the tails of pigs or clipping chickens’ beaks.

The routine use of antibiotics on organic animals is also banned and organic farmers only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary. In contrast, many non-organic pigs, poultry and dairy cows receive antibiotics routinely, whether or not they are unwell, as a means of stopping the spread of disease. Shockingly, farm animals account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU and resistant bacteria can be passed down to us through the food chain. Scientists predict up to 10 million people a year could die from antibiotic resistant infections by 2050 if the use of antibiotics on farms isn’t dramatically reduced. 

Ultimately, organic means working with nature, not against it. No system of farming does more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, protect natural resources like fresh water and healthy soils and promote animal welfare. Organic is nutritionally different – scientific research found organic milk and meat contains around 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic and organic fruit and vegetables have up to 68% more antioxidants. So, whatever you’re buying – from cotton buds to carrots – when you choose organic, you choose products that promote a better world. 

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