Organic food

• The advantages of organic foods: list of advantages

• The cost of organic foods: cost, cost of fresh foods

• The economics of organic production: externalities

• The quality of organic foods: nutritional content, freedom from unwanted chemicals, appearance, meat quality

• The flavour of organic foods: flavour

• Why farmers and gardeners grow organically: a statement by an organic cattle farmer

The difference between: organic, Biodynamic and Permaculture approaches

• Why consumers choose organic produce: A list of advantages

Yes, organic foods generally costs more. But so they should: organic farmers – if they are truly organic – are husbanding the soil and the environment. And this costs more than running a mainstream farm. Mainstream, non-organic farmers are taking more from the soil than they give back – it is impossible to sustain this mode of agriculture. Conventional foods are subsidized by the environment so their cost does not reflect the true cost of their production: fuel, transport costs and subsidies, chemical regulation and testing, health and downstream social problems and other externalities. Mainstream agriculture has a higher ecological footprint than does organic agriculture. In the long-term, an organic approach to agriculture is the only sustainable mode of food production.

Organic farmers have most of the costs of mainstream farmers, but they also have the additional costs of replenishing and maintaining the soils so that each year's crops come out of soils that are no more depleted than the soils that produced the previous crop. We consumers should feel privileged to be able to pay our farmers for this replenishment, restorative and rejuvenative husbandry.

Characteristics of organic foods and their production

Soil quality - organic soil quality is rich and cropping can be sustained, preventing soil erosion; rainwater is absorbed rather than running off.

Water quality - both the water that runs off and the water that is absorbed are free of pesticides and artificial fertilizers that contaminate downstream and underground water storage. More water is absorbed in soils with high organic content and more water is held for longer in soils with higher organic content. This will become increasingly important with climate change to absorb rainfall and prevent damaging floods, to prevent desiccation of soils (allowing more vegetation to grow and cool the surface.

High nutrition levels - because they are grown in rich organic soils, with abundant bacterial, worm, insect and fungal activity and stable moisture levels, the plants and animals growing on those soils are themselves optimally richer, [3] healthier and when the time comes – better food for predators ... like us. In the absence of peticides, organically-grown plants produce more compounds to protect themselves from fungal and other infections; some of these compounds also have health-giving properties for humans. These compounds are present in very small quantities, are rarely tested for, and their effects on humans are larely unknown. What we do know is that these compounds which were part of our evolutionary diet and, also, present in the air our ancestors breathed are disappearing from our diet as a result of industrial farming techniques combined with a market focus on shape, size and sweetness as selection criteria.

Free from human-made chemical management aids - fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides. Artificial fertilizers are inimical to soil microbes. Many other chemicals are implicated in cancer, birth defects, nerve damage and mutations. They also can accumulate to toxic levels as they move up the food chain. Humans are the only species that deliberately poisons its food and there is far less chance of such poisons in the food chain from an organic grower to you, the consumer.

Energy efficiency - organic farms are relatively labour intensive (using the skill, judgement, time, knowledge as well as the physical power of workers) rather than petroleum intensive. Mainstream farms also use fertilizers that have heavy production and transport costs and are generally produced or refined with high fossil fuel inputs.

Promotion of biodiversity - organic farms have a wider range of plant and animal species than monoculture farms. (See below.)  Monocultural farms are also more vulnerable to pests.

Supporting farm workers' health - farm workers in monocultural agriculture have a much greater risk of cancers. In third world countries the same risks are magnified as control mechanisms are weak and there are children, illiterate people and farmers desperate to squeeze production out the soil without regard to future seasons.

Preserving rare species of food plants - organic farmers are renowned for their devotion to producing heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables.

Taste and flavour - although some people place a large store on organic foods having a more appealing flavour, improved flavour is not necessarily a characteristic of organic food. Organic foods may have a stronger flavour as they will have grown more slowly on a fuller range of nutrients, but there is no reason why that should necessarily make them more palatable to Homo sapiens. As organic foods are growing in soils closer to those under which they evolved and under husbandry practices that leave them more free to be themselves, their flavour may actually be less appealing to humans. [4] Don't be disappointed if you can't detect a more favoured flavour in your organic foods. Modern plant varieties have often been selected with flavour as a main criterion. But modern mass market taste is for sweetness and blandness; a more refined palate will look for a distinctive flavour and will not be seduced by sweetness.

Appearance - Like taste and flavour, the appearance of organic fresh foods may stand in contrast to foods from the supermarket chains. Larger size, uniformity and absence of blemishes are features that wholesalers and retailers can select for at wholesale markets. This means that what reaches the shops is often only those deemed the most attractive grades of foods, the others having been sold for processing, animal feed, sent to landfill or left to rot on the farms. These supermarket-preferred grades have no relation to nutritional quality and are determined solely on external appearance. Organic retailers are less critical of superficial, cosmetic differences from the commercial ideal, so what they sell will not always look as pretty. Superficial appeal is often achieved by more spraying, by addition of colouring agents (in the case of eggs and oranges) and by selective breeding for appearance. Supermarkets stock only the mainstream varieties of, say, apples and pears, whereas organic growers and sellers delight in growing and selling heritage varieties, even when these have been superseded in the supermarkets. Organic retailers will accept a larger range of skill blemishes than will supermarkets. Often these skin blemishes (especially in the case of apricots and russeted apples) point to a much tastier fruit. Organic foods have a smaller market than the mainstream and organic fruit and vegetables may remain on the shelves longer than in the supermarkets who often dump fruit every few days; supermarket foods may, therefore, be fresher. They may, on the other hand, just look fresher as their fresh appearance could have been achieved by storing the fruit and vegetables in gases and specially-developed plastic wraps that retard the natural ageing processes, while also allowing unnatural chemicals to permeate the food plants.

Certified organic foods - certification costs organic producers, but it is your best single guarantee that the foods you purchase are organic. [5]

Biodynamic foods - Regard biodynamic foods as a superior form of organic produce. Biodynamics focuses on soil quality, particularly the health of soil microrganisms. We have added a footnote comparing organics and biodynamics here. In our opinion, although biodynamics involves a proportion of "muck-and-mystery", at the worst this is benign and there may in some instances be a small opportunity cost of adhering to the more arcane biodynamic principles. However, biodynamic products are generally of higher quality than any other class of produce and land nurtured according to biodynamic principles is of 'good heart' and in better condition than conventionally-farmed land. Biodynamic agriculture draws on the philosophies of Wolfgang Goethe, Rudolf Steiner. To learn more about biodynamic agriculture visit Alex Podolinsky's site and read what my beef supplier says here. For scientific research on biodynamic principles see Maria Thun's book. From an evfit perspective, however, biodynamic certification is not a guarantee of palaeo quality. [2]    Back to top

Permaculture foods - Just as Biodynamic foods are "superior-organic" through their special emphasis on soil quality, Permaculture is also fully organic, with the added emphasis of garden, farm and community design to help integrate food production (animals and plants) and water use more fully into community life and, further, using design to build, foster and maintain rich and rewarding communities. Permaculture growers are more likely to have visitors (including craftspeople and musicians), guests (and guest workers) than other organic producers. They are also a little more likely to be involved in production for the commercial market.    Back to top

Considering the impact of your food intake on the environment

Buy locally-produced food - When you buy organic food, try to buy local organic food: it supports a healthy environment near you and avoids the use of polluting transport. A consumer in North America who buys organic strawberries flown in from Central America misses the point completely.

Organic farming increases biodiversity - at every level of the food chain, all the way from lowly bacteria to mammals. This is the conclusion of the largest review ever done of studies from around the world comparing organic and conventional agriculture. Typically, each of the 76 studies reviewed measured biodiversity in groups of organisms ranging from bacteria and plants to earthworms, beetles, mammals and birds. Of 99 separate comparisons of organisms, 66 found that organic farming benefited wildlife, eight concluded it was detrimental and 25 produced mixed results. Organic farming aids biodiversity by (1) using fewer pesticides, (2) using less inorganic fertilizers, (3) by adopting wildlife-friendly management of habitats where there are no crops including strategies such as not weeding close to hedges and (4) mixing arable and livestock farming. And this is what we purchasers pay for in the price of organic produce. (This came from a New Scientist article by James Randerson.)

Buying food is the most political decision made by consumers in wealthy Western consumer societies

Jules Pretty says that modern agriculture is set up to encourage one thing: produce more. Yet farmers clearly do many other things we value, such as managing the landscape, helping fix carbon in the soil and preventing flooding. The key to making sustainable agriculture viable is to convince people that farmers should be paid for all the extra things they do. Every time we buy food, our choices shape farms, nature, markets and communities somewhere in the world. It's the most political decision we make and we make it every day.

Organic foods do not necessarily replicate Pleistocene characteristics

A note on grassfed meat - In North America, the term 'grassfed' is used to distinguish meat (mainly from cattle) fed on pastures rather than in feedlots. 'Grassfed' does not necessarily equate with organic, though it may. 

Fat profiles in organic meats - Organic foods are not always of Pleistocene quality either. Organic meat may, for example, come from animals that have never been exposed to the rigours of surviving without human husbandry. Organically grown cattle may be fed (organic) grains; they may not range free, exercising vigorously as they migrate with the seasons and have quite different SFA:MUFA:PUFA fat profiles from fenced, watered, nurtured 'couch potato' livestock that may still be certified organic. Talk to your butcher and discuss the criteria the butcher uses to distinguish organic meat, grassfed meat and regular meat.

Eat food in season - In the Pleistocene almost all food would have been fresh and consumed only in season. Tony Chettle says "If you want to eat strawberries or tomatoes all year round you pay for that, but there's a better solution. A fresh tomato salad is perfect mid-summer but not in mid-winter. A tomato out of season is terrible." He, of course, advocates using the richer-flavoured sun-dried tomatoes in winter – well, he markets them. Food preservation that is impossible without modern technology is hardly Pleistocene – and it could puzzle the otherwise healthy body. 

The cost of fresh foods

Tony Chettle, Europe's largest producer of organic groceries, believes that cost pressures have taken the romance and meaning out of farming. Food is too cheap. "In Europe and the US the big supermarkets are constantly waging price wars, and the turf they fight on is the fresh food and vegetable floor because they make the lowest margins here. They're willing to have a margin loss because it drives shoppers into their stores where they also buy products with real margins. Farmers, however, are forced to use any yield loss efficiency to maximize profits. When they get four Euro cents for a lettuce, of course they cut corners and do the unthinkable."

The cost of organic fresh foods

Are organic foods a luxury for the wealthy? If organic fresh foods are more expensive, doesn't make them the preserve of the wealthy? Not necessarily. Certainly it will if the purchaser expects to (1) maintain the same proportion of their budget devoted to food, (2) continue purchasing the same foods, (3) not grow their own foods or swap with neighbours. Even people who are far from wealthy pay extra for flavour, novelty, packaging, convenience, cache, brand, out-of-season availability etc. – features without nutritional merit. A re-alignment of our attitudes to food might be all that is needed to make a saving. Such a realignment would be made easier for those who understand about nutrition, horticulture and the food supply chain and are prepared to step outside their unexamined acceptance of the cultural determinants of their food consumption.

The price paid for organic foods includes a levy for some of the externalities. Consumerism and excessive waste are possible on their present scale because purchasers don't pay the full cost of their purchases. The free market system is arranged in such a way that we pay, in the purchase price, for some of the inputs to our purchases, but not all. For example, we pay for the wages of the workers who produce the product, and these wages might include a component for workers’ sick leave. However if the worker is taken sick by occupational exposure on the job which manifests itself after the worker retires, the cost will usually be borne by the worker, not by the employer. We refer to the costs we don’t pay for as ‘externalities’. Most externalities are borne by the environment of which future generations of humans are a part; these include depleted soil quality and pollution.

But there is a part of the economy in which the externalities are paid for by consumers: organic food and clothing. People complain about organic produce being more expensive, but it is only so because the farmers who grow organic food and cotton are preserving their soils (rather than "mining" them), avoiding the use of toxic chemicals and fertilizers (and possibly producing smaller, less supermarket-attractive produce and replacing the chemical inputs with more labour) and this costs money. We should rejoice that our purchases of organic produce pay to preserve the soil and biodiversity on farms. So organic purchasing or growing should be an imperative – and so, too, should high-quality organic certification standards, to ensure we are paying for the externalities, and not being conned.

Why can't we have foods of Pleistocene quality? Isn't there an issue of equity here? That is, are not organic foods the preserve of the relatively rich and denied to the poor? In the Pleistocene, everyone ate organic and everyone was pretty much equal in terms of wealth. This whole website is about the changes wrought by 10,000 years of agriculture – not only on our nutrition, but on our health, our psychology, our attitudes (including our attitudes to 'equity'), society and the planet itself.

Organic cf. GM foods

From The Spectator 1 November 2003: '... What seems increasingly clear is that in this country [UK] there is no measurable demand from consumers for GM products, but there is an increasing demand for organic. Would not the effort and money that is being diverted into trying to persuade the public to swallow GM be better invested in building up organic agriculture? ...' (Letter from Edward Collier).

Notes

1. My main beef supplier is Greenhill Farm of Bungendore, New South Wales. Their cattle are selected to do well on grass: Murray Grays and New Zealand Angus (regular modern Aberdeen Angus 'finish' better with grain, not grass). This is what the farmers say about their farm and its produce: "We are fully Demeter-certifified and do not use artificial chemicals of any kind on our animals, pasture (including fertilisers or herbicides) or soils. All our beef comes from animals born and raised on our certified biodynamic farm. Our animals graze only pasture and never grain (and thus are lean and high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). It is leaner than beef produced in feedlots. Pasture-fed beef is also much less likely to carry harmful bacteria such as E. coli 0157 and campylobacter. ... Did you know that cattle are social animals? They are happiest when they are free to choose who they socialise with. On Greenhill Farm we separate groups of cattle only when really needed, such as weaning or joining. We often see three generations come together in the evening to graze as a family unit. ... Biodynamic farmers use a range of methods including biological activator preparations to enliven the soil and plants. Biodynamics takes all the influences on the plant into account. We try to balance these influences so that the plants can grow to their full potential. The health of animals depends on the health of the plants on which they feed – just as our health is influenced by what we eat. Keeping our soil and pasture healthy also keeps our animals strong and free from disease. We control parasites, and improve both soil and plants, by moving our cattle to fresh new pasture every few days." [Cell grazing - developed by Alan Savoury using the model of ruminant herds on the African savannah.] Back to text

2. My previous beef supplier surrendered his biodynamic certification around 2004 during a severe drought when he had to bring in fodder from another farm. The biodynamic certification required that this source farm also be biodynamically certified and it happened that the nearest source at the time was over 3,500 km away. He still farms organically, largely using biodynamic principles but, with a reliable butcher as a purchaser, he has no need to go through the cost and bureaucratic procedures which certification requires. Back to text

3. Organically-grown foods may or may not have more of the main minerals that are also contained in some fertilizers - NPK: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. The range of minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and other nutritionally desirable compounds available in minute amounts will be different (not necessarily greater [6]) and in different proportions and ratios, simply because the plant is growing in conditions that are closer to those under which it evolved over thousands of generations. Looked at this way, it is not possible to say that organic foods are nutritionally "better" (however we like to define that) than industrially-produced crops. You won't find out if the organically-grown plants are more nutritious in any meaningful way by analysing them in a laboratory. My body is not a laboratory, so the only meaningful way of testing the nutritional quality of the food is to look at its impact on the animals consuming it – over a number of generations. We could say the same thing in reverse about industrally-grown foods: we need to measure the effect of the intake of pesticide residues (for example), over generations of the predating animal. And, as indicated elswhere on this page, humans are just one of the animals involved in consuming and cycling food. Studies that look at the nutritional benefits for humans of organic food consumption miss the point if that's all they do. Studies also need to consider the benefits of organic and biodynamic agricultural practices on soils (their organic matter content, moisture content and absence of soil salinity/sodicity etc.) and biodiversity over many years. Back to text

4. Many plants protected themselves from predators with tart or bitter flavours or flavours that were in some way unattractive to their common predators over historic and prehistoric time. Growing under organic circumstances, these naturally-evolved protective flavours may be expressed closer to their original quality. As a result, organic food plants may be less bland, less mild, less sweet than foods grown under industrial conditions to meet supermarket criteria. Back to text

5. There have been examples of incorrect labeling of foods as organic. These fall into two classes (a) food grown according to organic principles (such as the crops I grow in my own garden) and are not certified; (b) food deliberately and fraudulently labeled as organic food when it is not. The price premium paid for organic food attracts fraudsters. The only sure defence (other than growing your own) is to get to know your suppliers well enough to trust them implicitly. Back to text

6. A food having more nutrients is not necessarily better for human health. This way of thinking would have us living on pills, supplements and other concentrated manufactured foods and neglecting bodily processes other than nutrition. The body receives many nutrients (and antinutrients) in each mouthful: some it can use and some it can't (that is, not all are equally bioavailable). Some of the bioavailable nutrients are not required by that body at that particular time (time of day, time of life). Others may even be of net disbenefit. Back to note 3

7. Here's a comparison of (a) standard agriculture, (b) organic agriculture (c) biodynamic agriculture, written by biodynamicists Brian Keats and Stefan Mager from Aracaria.com.au:

Standard agriculture: Chemical formulae for nature and life - disconnected from the ecosystem. Short-term, unsustainable future view. Understanding of the plant is largely restricted to its physical existence. Focus is on matter rather than life. Uses artificial water-soluble fertilizers in the form of nitrates, phosphates and potassium (NPK), pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. Emphasis tends to be on producing a comodity for profit and quantity, not necessarily quality. Potential disregard for long-term environmental and nutritional consequences. trend towards large scale operations toed to major food corporations resulting in agri-business and agri-technology. The grower can become a pawn, subservient to a system somewhat divorced from nature.

Organic agriculture: No synthetic pesticides or fertilizers - connected to the ecosystem. Sustainable longer term future view, beyond the mere physical aspects of production. There is a recognition of the living plant being more than a chemical equation. Generally raw manures and composts are used for fertilizing, supplemented by judicious use of minerals. Organic growing rejects artificial fertilizers and all "-cides" like herbicides (Latin 'cide' = kill/destroy). Organic farms are often small scale and independent seeking to supply local markets using traditional methods. Growers have a more sensitive relationship to the land wider environment. The movement was intrumental in organic food certification.

Biodynamic agriculture: Soil and life: a living, sentient organism - connected to the ecosystem and the universe. All-encompassing view of nature, embracing physical and non-physical plus cosmic aspects. As in organics the emphasis is on 'life' (bio-) rather than 'kill' (-cide). Biodynamic growers generally stay away from raw manures because, like artificial fertilizers, they are highly water-soluble and therefore have a tendency to force-feed plants a-rhythmically. Biodynamics endeavours to find the balance between the qualitative and quantitative. Special preparations are used to bring the plant, animal and human environs into a higher state of life. Farming is seen as an integral part of culture (agri-culture) that reflects the well-being of society. Back to text

References:
Canberra Organic Growers produce an informative quarterly journal (the writer of this page is a COGS member)
Tony Chettle, British producer of organic groceries, in article by Susan Owens in the Australian Financial Review, 12 December 2003
Good Foods Organic Co-operative, Red Hill, Brisbane, Australia (their brochure c. 2001)
Griffith Organic Butchery, Canberra, Australia
Jules Pretty, University of Essex, in New Scientist, 17 July 2004
James Randerson, New Scientist, 9 October 2004

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