The words ‘organic’ and ‘sustainability’ are bandied around quite a bit. While some won’t eat anything but organic, others deny that there’s any future in organic farming. After all, with a population that’s seven billion-strong and growing, how can we possibly expect organics to feed the world? Or so the critics ask. In their view, feeding the masses simply can’t be done without strong chemicals and genetic modification.
However, organic farming has far more capacity than many people imagine. It goes way, way beyond growing a few tomato plants on your back verandah. Besides, if we want to live on a clean, healthy planet, going organic is the only way forward – not only for gardeners and farmers, but also for all businesses related to agriculture, from your local café to your nearest supermarket, from your preferred beautician to your favorite clothing boutique. In fact, when you think about just how many industries depend on agriculture, it’s clear that a shift towards sustainable, chemical-free practices is essential.
Worker and consumer health
The first and most pressing argument for organics is human health. Current intensive agricultural practices expose people — especially farmworkers — to toxic pesticides. In 2002, a Californian study revealed that, between 1997 and 2000, an average of 475 farmworkers suffered pesticide poisoning annually. As the study suggests, the total figure was probably much higher, given that many cases go unreported each year. What’s more? Increasingly, studies are demonstrating links between pesticides and cancer, as well as disruption of the endocrine system.
Meanwhile, those at the other end of organic farming – consumers – also face health risks. Food grown using intensive techniques can contain pesticide residues, which consumers ingest when they eat. Plus, some studies show that organic products are more nutritious than their conventionally farmed counterparts. For example, a study (PDF) conducted by the (admittedly biased) Organic Center showed that organic food performs much better when it comes to antioxidant power, polyphenol levels and flavonoid levels. And the same goes for animal products. Dairy products from animals raised on organic farms, which haven’t been fed antibiotics, tend to be higher in antioxidants and omega-3.
If we’re serious about keeping our planet healthy, and make it available for future generations, there’s no way that we can continue to support intensive agriculture. When pesticides and other strong chemicals are sprayed on our crops, they end up not only in our soil, but also in our waterways. Over time, this causes our soil to become severely depleted of nutrients, and eventually completely unable to support life. For our waterways, it can mean extreme pollution. Given that we rely on our rivers for our very survival, there’s no question that our future depends on us turning to organic farming.
But can organic farming produce enough food and materials?
Some people believe that organic strategies are only suitable for private or small-scale farming. But numerous studies have illustrated that organic strategies can produce just as much output – if not more – than regular methods. For example, back in 1989, the U.S. National Research Council studied eight organic farms across the United States – from an Ohio-based farm of 400 acres specializing in grain and livestock, to a California-based farm where 1,400 acres of grapes were growing. When compared with nearby farms, where intensive practices were being exercised, the organic farms yielded just as much, if not more, produce on average.
Finally, one argument often put forward in favor of conventional methods is economics. Supporters of the status quo believe that intensive farming is superior because it means we can produce plenty of food at much cheaper rates than organics can. But this is an exceptionally short-sighted view. For a start, the amount of disease being caused by the chemicals in the environment is already weighing on our health system – and this is only going to become a more and more expensive problem.
Secondly, the more organics are used, the cheaper they’ll become. Running an organic farm actually requires less expensive equipment and chemicals than a conventional one does – plus, once organics become more widespread, operating costs will decrease significantly.
So, if we want to assure ourselves of a happy, healthy, safe future, the only way forward is organics. By reducing the number and intensity of toxic chemicals in our world, we can look forward to living in a planet where disease is reduced and our environment stays pristine for generations to come.
Tim Sparke is the CEO at 4pumps and for several years, he has been an active advocate of organic farming and sustainability. He also has a passion for writing and he writes the blog at 4pumps.
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