Is the practice of organic farming supposed to be about eco-farming at its best or is it supposed to be all natural? It’s important to know because it cannot be both at the same time. Such is the confusion on this question today that everybody seems to have a different answer. Even the European Union (EU) has defined organic in radically different ways depending where you look, for example the Organic Legislation 2007 says this:
1) Organic production is an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices […] and a production method in line with the preference of certain consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes.
The appeal to nature should be obvious to most of you. However, while this is the way it is defined in the regulation, in this literature on sustainable farming the EU defines organic like this:
2) Organic farming is a system of farm management and food production that combines the best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, and the application of high animal welfare standards.
The problem here is that this second definition is brilliant and something we should all support, but it doesn’t exist. That is to say, it only exists in the promotional literature, but it is the first definition that is used officially to drive the certification of the organic products we see on the shelves. You might have noticed that the only difference between the two definitions is the inclusion of the ‘preference for naturalness’. To many this might seem like a moot point but this has a huge net negative environmental impact, which raises questions about the ability of organic to perform against other evidence-driven eco-farming strategies.
With all this said, the relative safety of ‘organic’ in the market against potentially better strategies is assured because later on in the regulation it says:
The terms listed in the Annex, their derivatives or diminutives, such as ‘bio’ and ‘eco’, alone or combined, may be used […] for the labelling and advertising of products which satisfy the requirements set out under or pursuant to this Regulation. The terms [...] shall not be used anywhere in the Community and in any Community language for the labelling, advertising and commercial documents of a product which does not satisfy the requirements set out under this Regulation.
This has two very important outcomes that I believe the EU need to address. First, it ensures that even if organic in a particular locale is less environmentally friendly than a more rational regime, for whatever reason, organic farmers will still be the only ones able to promote themselves as ecological through labelling. Second, it ensures that farmers and producers who use evidence to farm in an ecologically superior way face restrictions on advertising this value to their customers due to the poorly conceived legislation. This is akin to the EU making a rule that says that only homeopathy can label itself as medicine.
Of course I’m not the only one calling for a scientific and evidence-led overhaul of the organic system. Aside from agricultural scientists, even organic farmers can see the problem. Don Lotter, an organic farmer for 30 years in some of the most food insecure regions of Africa, writing in the journal of Agriculture and Human Values, also calls for the use of the herbicide glyphosate and synthetic fertilisers, saying, “the benefits of eliminating tillage and the subsequent buildup of plant residues and soil OM [organic matter], along with concomitant reduction of soil and nutrient loss via erosion and leaching, far outweigh the risks of use of this non-proprietary and widely available, inexpensive chemical.” Glyphosate is among the greenest solutions we have for tackling weeds while maintaining healthy soil so it makes no sense to avoid it if eco-friendly farming is your aim; the same can be said of synthetic fertiliser and many other prohibited ‘green’ technologies.
The EU has a responsibility to make an eco-certification scheme that is as good for the environment as it can possibly be. If organic is supposed to be good for the environment then it is time to remove the preference for naturalness and allow the best eco-practices to reign. If organic is supposed to be ‘natural’ then it is time to remove the monopoly on eco-labelling and grant producers, using evidence-based eco-strategies, the legislative backing and certification in the marketplace. Decision makers should be very mindful that their gold standard eco-farming scheme can be easily and significantly improved by a more consistent approach to evidence and the natural world – such as the marvelous approach they have already championed in relation to climate change.
The author Gary Frewin is the animator behind ‘Derek’s Fetish for the Universe’.
The views of this article are those of the post’s author and Monsanto does not necessarily share them.