Here at FIELDS, it’s no secret that we place a great deal of importance on organic farming and produce. We believe it has many benefits, particularly in terms of food safety, which is why we stock organic food whenever we can and work closely with local organic farms.
  It is worth noting, however, that some people remain skeptical of organic. They usually point to a select few contentious issues that do seem to have some credence. As convincing as these arguments can seem, however, things are rarely black and white, and they can be refuted.
One argument that can be heard against the net positives of organic farming is that it produces a larger carbon footprint than standard agriculture. This argument is based on the view that with non-organic methods, famers have managed to increase crop yields while barely altering the necessary acreage. This is down to technological advances that are entirely nonorganic, through the use of fertilizers and nitrogen extraction of nitrogen. Because these are thoroughly nonorganic methods, surely it follows that if we choose to go organic on a large scale and eschew these methods, we will have to exploit far more land and drive up the environmental cost of farming?

But actually it’s not quite that simple. There is, admittedly, no huge correlation between organic farming and lower carbon footprints. There is, however, mounting evidence that it is possible for certain kinds of agriculture to outperform traditional agriculture in terms of environmental carbon output. This is especially true when the huge amounts of fossil fuels that go into producing fertilizer are taken into account, and the long term environmental damage associated with pesticide use, both of which have been overlooked by those seeking to set out cases against the environmental friendliness of organic farming. It is important to realize that modern agriculture is amongst the causes of the world’s environmental issues, as well as something that suffers because of them.

 Another criticism leveled at organic production is the idea that organic farming could never feed the world; that it may be all fine and dandy for the privileged West, but that if we were to attempt to feed the world’s population in an entirely organic way, not nearly enough food could be produced, (due to issues like production costs and land usage).

Despite the fact that the use of chemicals in farming is strongly associated with increased yields, many studies show that the opposite is possible. It seems that organic farms actually have the potential to produce more than those that employ traditional methods, implying that previous claims to the contrary were largely based on orthodoxy. In the West, there remain yield gaps, though these are becoming narrower and can perhaps be explained by the bombardment of the land with chemicals over past decades. It is important to note that in less developed countries, where chemicals have not slipped into such ubiquitous usage, the yield gap disappears and at times even reverses. These combined findings seem to suggest that given time organic farming in the West could achieve the same results, leaving no reason to assume that the world could not be fed with chemical-free methods. The nature of such a drastic change renders these assertions hypothetical, but they are still important to consider alongside the more cynical points of view.

These findings also lead the discussion back towards one of privilege, i.e. the accusation that organic is something that can only benefit the relatively affluent.

It’s hard to deny that the option of eating organic food is currently a luxury. But given the myths debunked above, it cannot be assumed that its benefits can never extend to developing countries. While the methods themselves currently raise the price of organic produce, if they become more standardized the price difference is likely to become less pronounced. It is also dangerous to ignore the rising prices of non-organic food; while the prices of food increased drastically around 2007-2008, the costs of fertilizer, (an entirely integral part of standard agriculture but entirely absent from organic farming), rose even more.

When these startling increases in price are taken into consideration, alongside the other points made here, organic seems less like a way to exclude poorer developing countries from sustainable agriculture, but more a way to ensure their inclusion and the stability of their agriculture. Organic farming is by no means perfect the world over, and the criticisms against it are worth considering. But there are holes to be picked in these criticisms too, and such are the potential benefits of wide-scale organic farming that we must consider the rebuttals to them. When all is taken into account, organic farming still seems to be the way toward safer, more environmentally friendly, and potentially more productive agricultural practices.

For more information see:

Raj Patel, a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, on how organic farming can help the poor and produce high yields:

A World Watch Institute piece on the ability of organic farming to feed the world: