What are organic products to you? Medicine for harmed ecosystems and human bodies? Or an expression of large corporations reaping the benefits of our environmental concern, without changing their ways? While the reality of the matter is unlikely to be as black and white as that either/or question, it certainly deserves an inspection. So, let’s dive in.

The aim of organic agriculture

We buy organic because we think the labels assure the products are good for us and good for the planet. And that is certainly the aim. Paraphrasing the definition — or vision — of organic agriculture, according to IFOAM (Organics International), organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity (if you are not sure why biodiversity is so important, you can check out this video lesson) and cycles adapted to local conditions.

Sounds like they’ve got what we as consumers are asking for covered, doesn’t it? But does actual practice mirror the aim? Not necessarily.

Four arguments against organic

No matter the vision, defining the details of requirements for certificates is a difficult task. Some rules regarding organic farming are very clear; GMO (genetically modified organisms) and pesticides widely acknowledged as harmful are prohibited.

Picture by Scott Webb

Other rules are less clear. The biodiversity mentioned in the definition, for instance, is generally encouraged rather than strictly required, with possible exception of some unusually strict certifying bodies. Maybe this is because biodiversity by nature is less clearcut than the use or nonuse of certain chemicals. It might also be because we are still focusing on “production alone rather than acknowledging that agriculture is multifunctional and also provides economic, environmental and social services”, as put by Robert Watson, the director of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

In any case, a loose encouragement of biodiversity allows organic farming to be strikingly similar to conventional farming, since it means organic farming can still be large-scale, intensive and monocultural. “Monocultural” means that only one variety of crop is grown, i.e., the opposite of fostering biodiversity.

With a low level of biodiversity, the plants’ natural resilience against attacking insects and diseases go down, and since organic farmers are not allowed to use the highly effective but highly toxic pesticides, this leads to a relatively large portion of the harvest being lost. This is typically referred to as the “yield gap”, and is one of the most common arguments against organic farming — since it cannot produce as much as conventional farming, it cannot feed a world with a growing population.

Partly due to the yield gap, organic products are generally sold at a higher price, which is another major argument against organic farming — if organic products are more costly than conventional, they can never reach further than to the small elite wealthy enough to be healthy.

And even when the cost of production is not higher than conventional, products labelled “organic” run the risk of being greenwashed — a fourth argument against organic labels. “Greenwashing” refers to agents making a profit off consumers’ increasing willingness to pay a higher price for sustainable products and services, by marketing their products as sustainable/organic even though producing them were neither more costly nor more sustainable than the production of their conventional counterparts.

Alternatives

However, these four arguments against organic farming need not be a defence of conventional farming. Some of those who criticize the shortcomings of organic farming think more could be done to stay true to the organic vision — a vision one can pursue without necessarily being certified as organic. The methods these critics propose are not in opposition to the guidelines issued by organic certification bodies, but could rather be seen as expansions of them. Perhaps agroecology rings a bell? If not, then what about permaculture?

On the lands belonging to the castle of Courances, some 50 kilometres south of Paris, different forms of alternative farming practices are being carried out — certified organic as well as “maraîchage sur ‘sol vivant’”; farming on “living soil”. According to Julien Passe, caretaker of Marîchage Sol Vivant in Courances, what is special about farming on so-called living soil is that it follows the mantra “Do not till the soil, cover the soil”.

In conventional agriculture, as well as in organic farming, the custom is to till or plow the soil before planting new seeds —  to get rid of weeds, make the soil porous and let oxygen in. But as Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist at USC, writes, “it also accelerates the breakdown of organic matter and exposes bare soil to carbon loss, erosion and runoff”. Because of this, IFOAM requires minimal tillage in organic agriculture — but what “minimal” means, is open to interpretation.

Picture by Kyle Ellefson

Julien Passe stresses that although tilling our soils may seem like a necessary way of uprooting weeds, it is in fact an invitation for them to grow. The way he sees it, “weeds are part of the soil’s protection system. The soil needs to be covered, in order for the organisms in it to thrive and not suffer under sun and rain. When we till the soil, we tear its skin off, and that’s when the seeds of the weeds get activated.”

And once the weeds are there, even organic farmers need to fight them somehow. With toxic pesticides out of the question, they might make use of steam. Julien Passe, with the biodiversity of farmlands in mind, is skeptical. “Would you say that treating the land with steam is organic? That’s a method used, because steam is ‘natural’, but you have killed everything in your path, so what difference does it make?” Less chemicals on the end products perhaps, but a nonetheless damaged ecosystem.

At the moment, Julien Passe covers his soil with straw, which he admits is unsustainable in the long run. “If everyone would farm this way, where would all the straw grow?” Ideally, every farm is self-sufficient and makes do with what can be produced in the local ecosystem. Thus, Passe has started experimenting with fallen leaves from nearby trees.

As indicated by IFOAM’s definition of organic agriculture, another key feature of keeping our soils healthy, besides the covering, is maintaining a high level of biodiversity through crop diversification; or polyculture, if you will. Each crop variety has different demands on its soil, so by not growing the same variety on the same patch of land several years in a row (crop rotation) and by letting different varieties grow close to each other, and even among each other (intercropping), we make sure the demands shift around and deplete no aspects of the soil. One might increase biodiversity even further by planting trees and shrubs on one’s farmlands. This is called agroforestry, and while it gives the soils shadow, improves water retention, protects crops against the wind and counteracts erosion, it also provides homes for birds.

Yield gap disappears

A growing number of studies show that implementing agroecological principles, such as those mentioned above, can make the yield gap between organic and conventional farming shrink or even close. If that is the case, then how come agroecological farming is still the exception, rather than the rule? One reason might be that change takes time, especially when it comes to swaying a sector as enormous as the agricultural one. Something else that might play in, is that agroecological farming does not come easy to food giants — the corporations from which we get most of our food.

You see, agroecological farming is almost intrinsically small-scale, because one of its tenets is adaptation to local conditions. As DeLonge puts it, “the thing about agroecology is that, even though the principles are broadly applicable, one size doesn’t fit all.”

So, to find a “size” that fits your particular piece of land, you have to intimately know that land. The larger your piece of land, the more effort it takes to gather such intimate knowledge, and the more diverse your methods of tending to that land need to be. You cannot own a large number of hectares and treat them all the same. Yet this is exactly what food giants do.

Getting what we want

Organic labels undeniably carry power to ensure certain standards to the consumer. But if the labels do not ensure what we want them to ensure, what is the point? It seems as though to get what we want — food produced in symbiosis with the land — we ought to support small-scale farmers, rather than urge large-scale corporations to get organic certificates. Not because small-scale and local equals sustainable (which it doesn’t), but because small-scale agriculture at least has the potential to fulfil the organic vision in the first place.

Small-scale farmers tend to have fewer middlemen than bigger agricultural industries, and sell their products in closer proximity to where they were grown/made. Local, small-scale producers are overall closer to their customers, which allows for greater transparency, and gives consumers a better chance of discerning what is greenwashed and what is the real deal. Not all organically certified practices are sustainable, and not all sustainable practices are organically certified.

So, small-scale agroecological agriculture fosters biodiversity, effectively closes the yield gap, and makes greenwashing easier to detect. However, the fourth argument against organic farming is yet to be tackled — that of the high prices.

The price of small-scale produce

That agroecological enterprises manage to close the yield gap can on the one hand mean that production costs go down, but on the other hand, relative marketing costs are higher for small-scale farmers. If every small-scale farmer were to market and sell their own produce, entirely on their own, sustainably sourced food would probably be even more expensive than organic food is today.

Picture by Dane Deaner

That is why, in the words of the director of IAASTD, “emphasis should be placed on developing cooperatives, farmer organizations, business associations” and “scientific organizations explicitly supporting the needs of small-scale agricultural producers”. These can “assist the small-scale farmers, who are environmentally sustainable without sacrificing yield, overcome high marketing costs thus enabling them to harness their market potential.”

Ways for consumers and citizens to support and bring about more local, agroecological produce is to shop and talk to farmers at farmers’ markets; keep an eye out for local producers and their networks (such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives — here is a Dutch example); vote for parties and politicians who prioritize the question; and ask in supermarkets for more food of this kind.

With the proper support from policy making bodies, scientists and citizens, small-scale agroecological farming may well become the norm.

Personally, I am not sure the transition should work towards making the sustainable food of tomorrow as cheap as the industrial, monocultural food of today. The division between expensive and (perceived) sustainable food, and cheap unsustainable food needs to go, but maybe pricier food overall might do us good — with the exception of those struggling to put food on the table as it is, naturally. We spend a smaller share of our income on food today than our grandparents did in their days. Maybe more expensive food can make us appreciate food for what it is, make us savour it and not throw so much of it away. Maybe more expensive food — something that actually sustains and replenishes us — can help curb our consumerism. What do you think?