Boycott food for thought

Bravely attacking the idealised image of environmental harmony that we tend to purchase with the organic label, Tom Goldie declared that he was “boycotting” organic food in the previous edition of Woroni. However, Goldie’s claims that organic agriculture “makes it more difficult for the impoverished to feed themselves” and his insistence on GM, pesticides and mechanisation as the answer to the global food challenge ignore how our food systems really work. Considering wider elements of the food system, organic agriculture does have a positive role to play in securing our food future.

More than half of the world’s poor live in rural areas. To ensure the impoverished are fed, agricultural systems need to support poor farmers. It is expensive for farmers in developing nations to access genetically-modified crops, artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. In the event that they follow this path, a dependency cycle is established as these technologies degrade the land, leading farmers to rely on artificial fertiliser inputs bought from large corporations. This means a greater proportion of what we pay for food goes to the corporations producing agricultural technologies, and less to the producer, unless there is a rise in food prices.

Conversely, farmer field schools in developing countries such as Vietnam have enabled poor growers to increase their yields by adopting some of the principles of organic farming. Maybe it’s over-the-top to imagine flowing rivers and happy peasants when you eat organic rice, but you can picture farmers with greater autonomy, safety and access to food who leave the land in a better condition for future generations.

Goldie’s other key reason for boycotting organic food seems to be “the increasing scarcity of wilderness areas”. This environmental concern is recognised by the organic industry. For a “certified organic” label to be put on food sold in Australia, production must adhere to standards set by certification bodies such as the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA). BFA standards explicitly target the issue by requiring 5% of each farm over 4 hectares is set aside for trees, bush or native grasslands.

Whilst significant, land availability is not the only challenge in feeding the world both now and into the future. The scarcity of fossil fuels is another challenge that comes to mind.  Gomiero, Paoletti and Pimentel’s 2008 compilation of energy efficiency data for a range of food production found that organic produce is usually 15-45% less energy intensive than conventional produce.

Finally, two of the greatest environmental concerns we face today are climate change and biodiversity loss. Organic agriculture handles these problems much better than the alternatives. It promotes biodiversity through its focus on crop diversity – often as a pest management strategy. When it comes to coping with climate change, organics again outperform non-organic counterparts. Long-term trials have shown that organic crop yields are more resilient to climatic variation, because their soil carbon content is typically higher. This means that organic agriculture will be even more important to food production in the future.

An agricultural system that delivers a greater proportion of profit to the world’s poor, reduces pollution and fossil fuel dependence, protects biodiversity and offers greater resilience to climate change sounds like something we should support. Organic does not offer all the answers, but it undeniably has a role to play in ensuring food security. As Tom himself highlighted, we can create change not just from what comes out of our mouths, but also from the food we put in them.