Organic farming’s environmental friendliness questioned

The rise of the organic farming movement was touted as a way to save the planet and better protect the environment.

But over the decades, the sector has drifted away from those original principles, says a University of British Columbia professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and Food Security.

Nowadays, organic agriculture is all about “no’s”: no synthetic pesticides, no synthetic fertilizer and no GMOs.

“If you ask a person on the street, ‘why do we need organic farming,’ they’ll (think) it’s better for the planet,” said Navin Ramankutty, professor in the university’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

“What we’re finding is that the (organic) standards don’t seem to emphasize that…. If we buy a product that’s certified organic … it’s probably, but it’s not necessary, that the product actually was farmed in a way that was environmentally friendly.”

A few years ago, Ramankutty and former UBC scientist Verena Seufert, who is now at a university in The Netherlands, published a paper called, “What is this thing called organic? How organic is codified in regulations.”

Their research looked at eight organic standards, including the rules in Australia, the United States, Europe, Mexico and India.

They were seeking answers to a couple of basic questions: what’s the purpose of the standards and “what do the farmers have to do on their land to be certified as organic.”

After reading through the regulations, Seufert and Ramankutty found an answer to the first question. It seems like the purpose of organic standards around the world is about avoiding pesticides.

“Across these eight different studies … we found that natural is the most important principle being regulated,” Ramankutty said in a presentation for the 2020 Organic Summit, hosted by the Canadian Organic Trade Association in November.

“In other words, organic regulations are strongly focused on being ‘chemical free’ agriculture…. Principles like soil, water and biodiversity seem to be less important.”

Ramankutty then went through the scientific literature to identify farming practices that are beneficial for soil, air and water, such as cover crops, zero tillage, intercropping and integrating livestock into the farm.

The UBC scientists then studied the organic regulations again.

After going through all the documents, they found few mentions of farming practices that are actually good for the environment.

“We found only for crop rotations… that’s the only environmental best practice that organic regulations seem to emphasize,” said Ramankutty, who this fall was awarded the Wihuri International Prize to recognize his work on sustainable global food systems.

He said organic regulations do matter because the rules help answer a fundamental question: why do we want organic farming on the planet? Do we want organic farming so consumers can avoid pesticide residues on apples and broccoli, or is it about something bigger?

Ramankutty said perhaps the organic sector has become too focused on consumer expectations, particularly food that is free from pesticides.

“I think that (consumer) feedback has resulted in some of these standards become more diluted than they should be.”

He isn’t the only expert who believes organic agriculture has drifted away from its original purpose. Real Organic Project claims on its website to be a collection of people who care about agricultural systems and are “fighting to reclaim the word ‘organic’. ”

Andy Hammermeister, an organic expert at Dalhousie University, said there is a movement to make organic “more grounded” so that more attention is placed on ecology and other outcomes.

However, requiring cover cropping, livestock integration and other practices in the organic code is not easy. The rules for an organic grain farm in Saskatchewan may not make sense on an organic apple orchard in British Columbia. As well, the rules are already complex.

However, some organic standards are changing in Canada to emphasize environmental benefits.

New organic rules, which will soon be unveiled, include a standard to maintain or enhance biodiversity on the farm.

Organic needs to move in this direction, even if it’s difficult, Ramankutty said.

“If we want organic to be an environmentally friendly farming practice, then we need to be emphasizing those practices.”

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