Opinion

Is organic food sustainable?

Master of Sustainability Candidate Pusanisa Kamolnoratep explores our growing consumer preference for ‘organic’ produce, and questions whether or not organic agriculture is more sustainable than industrial farming.

Image by Caroline Attwood via Unsplash.

There is a growing consumer awareness in western industrialised nations of the environmental impacts of the food industry, which has led to consumer demand for good food and increased support of good farming practices. This is evident in the rise of ethical consumerism and the rise in animal-based products that are labelled ‘grass-fed’, ‘free-range’ or ‘cage-free’, instead of the conventional alternatives.

Furthermore, consumer preference for ‘organic’ vegetables over conventionally grown produce, has led to rapid growth in organic agriculture as it is perceived to be more sustainable healthier than the industrial farming (Clark & Tilman, 2017).

But why do people think it is more sustainable?

In some cases, buying food according to ‘ethical’ or organic labels can make us ‘feel good’ about helping to conserve the world by consuming more ethically. This is the reasoning given by Biostatistician Justin Anthony* who explains: “Buying free-range chicken and cage-free egg makes me feel better about myself. It feels better on principle. Even though, I don’t really know what organic farming means.”

Justin further explains that: “I tend to select from how the product and the label looks. A little bit more expensive one might mean that the vegetable is grown in better conditions, or the animals are treated in better ways, but maybe I shouldn’t believe what I see from the labels anymore?”

This raises interesting questions about how consumers can be sure that they are purchasing sustainably and whether or not organic products really are more environmentally friendly and sustainable compared to conventional farm products.

This article explores the meaning of ‘organic’ and questions whether or not it is genuinely a sustainable food source, or in fact just an effective marketing ploy.

What is organic food?

Crops

Organic produce is grown using manure instead of synthetic fertiliser. It is often ‘promoted’ as a farming method that produces lower environmental impacts because it replaces the chemical inputs with the natural inputs (Clark & Tilman, 2017). On the other hand, conventional food relies on high nutrient, herbicide, and pesticide inputs that can have negative impacts on human health and the environment. (Clark & Tilman, 2017).

Organic farming does not rely on herbicide and pesticide, and this is perceived as beneficial to human health because it avoids the negative impacts of consuming these potentially harmful chemicals. However, even though organically grown produce has higher micronutrient combination and lower or non-pesticide level than conventionally grown produce, there is little evidence that there are outstanding human health benefits to eating organic over no-organic produce (Clark & Tilman, 2017). It is argued that if organic farming operates sustainably, it will significantly benefit the environment. However, in some cases, organic farming may use 25% to 110% more land than conventional farming systems and larger amount of water and soil (Clark & Tilman, 2017).

Meats

Organic meat refers to livestock that is raised without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals. While organic meat is marketed as a sustainable alternative to conventional meat, research shows that grass-fed beef requires more land used than grain-fed livestock and that both types have similar environmental impacts per unit of produce (Clark & Tilman, 2017). In terms of human health benefits, grass-fed beef has higher micronutrients and fatty acids that might lead to improved human health outcomes than grain-fed beef (Clark & Tilman, 2017).

What is sustainable food?

The term ‘sustainable’ overlooks the whole food production system: from how the farm is managed to how the crop is grown; if the water is used efficiently, growing diverse crops to help enhance the soil and conserve land resources, using energy efficiently and apply renewable energy such as wind, solar, or water-based power, to the way the product gets packaged and transporting sustainably to the consumer’s hand.

Knowing this concept, we can say that organic label does not mean the whole process from growing crops to packaging is sustainable. Imagine growing an organic strawberry but then wrapped it in a plastic wrap, then put it in a plastic box, and then put plastic boxes in a bigger carton box before transporting them to a supermarket. Choosing from a local sustainable farm is probably better than choosing an organic label product that is grown somewhere far away before it comes to your hand (Cotler, A., 2009,10-13).

Khanh Doan*, a Vegetarian Food Caterer who shops from local farmer’s market shares that:

“I buy both organic and conventional farm products. I usually get organic vegetables from a local farmer market, not only because it is cheaper than in the supermarket but also, I can talk to the farmers and really know where the food comes from. When I buy the food from the supermarket, I will look for the organic label by the government so that I can trust the source. If I buy from the weekly farmer market near my house, I don’t have to search for a label because I knew the person who grows it.”

Khanh’s reasons to consume organic products are mainly for health purposes and secondly to support the farmers’ practices not to use the chemical in their food production.

“I would like to support the local farm business. I am thinking of visiting the local farm where I usually buy my food from.”

The environment will benefit largely from sustainable farming as the practice help increases in crop yields through more efficient agriculture management systems (Clark &Tilman, 2017). Adopting techniques such as rotational farming, cover cropping, multi-cropping, and polyculture can reduce the land use in organic farming (Clark & Tilman, 2017) and thus support the sustainable idea.

How to choose wisely according to what you believe in?

The first step is to not be fooled by the ‘greenwashed’ products but to really know what organic food is by studying the label and read the ingredients. The Australian organic labels such as Australian Certified Organic and Organic Food Chain provide trust for the consumer from the farm that is certified organic.

References

Clark, M. Tilman, D. 2017. Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters. Access here. 
Cotler, A., 2009. The locavore way: discover and enjoy the pleasures of locally grown food. Storey Publishing.

*Khanh Doan is a Vegetarian Food Caterer and Private Yoga Teacher in Sydney, who was interviewed by Pusanisa Kamolnoratep on 2 October 2017 for this blog.

*Justin Anthony is a Biostatistician at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, who was interviewed by Pusanisa Kamolnoratep on 28 September 20172 for this blog.


Pusanisa Kamolnoratep is currently studying a Master of Sustainability at The University of Sydney. She just started to explore the challenges in global issues of food and water security. Pusanisa’s background moved from Public Relations to an art and lifestyle magazine writer, and a youth social worker in Thailand.