This month’s speaker event was on organic food and farming, a subject close to my heart. Recently, farming has had bad UK press due to health scares like BSE and the foot and mouth epidemics, and also due to the floods that have threatened crops, predicting a difficult winter with regards to the supply of food. With all the discussions about carbon and ecological footprints, we really need to start thinking about what cost the food on our plates has to the environment.
John Davenport, from Flight Orchard Organics, spoke about the West Midlands organic box scheme that he set up with local growers. John’s talk illustrated that there are many benefits of a box scheme. The box scheme irons out any surplus in the food supply chain because the stock supplied by farmers is distributed among the boxes, minimising wastage. Another benefit is that it educates people to the variety and availability of vegetables around the year. Too many of us have become used to having conventional salad all year round, but at what real cost is it to the environment?
A question frequently asked is: “Why is organic food more expensive?”. In organic farming the crops are spread out more than in intensive modern farming to stop the spread of disease and insect infestation. Also, they use a four crop rotation system, which means that the land lays fallow for a year so that the soil can get back nutrition; this means that, at any one time, organic land will be only 75% utilised. All this adds to an increased cost of organic food.
Gareth Davies, from the HDRA (Henry Doubleday Research Association), posed the question: “Is organic farming part of the solution to climate change and peak oil?”. With considerable pressure on the world’s resources, food production is having a huge impact on biodiversity.
So, what are the problems we face with food production?  We all have to eat, but there are 6.5 billion of us and we are rapidly running out of options due to resource depletion.  To measure these impacts of food production on the environment there is no agreed consensus but there are many perspectives. A widespread environmental measurement is the ecological footprint (measure of the overall impact on the environment, including land and water use), generally considered as superior to talking only of the carbon footprint (measure of CO2 emissions alone). However, the big problem with these is that there are so many different ways of measuring them that we need to ensure that we are comparing like with like.
So, how does organic food fare? In production, they use no artificial fertiliser, fewer pesticides but have slightly reduced yields. When you compare footprints, organic does well in ecological footprints but not always so well in carbon footprints. In processing and transport, organic again does well as it focuses on local and seasonal. In packaging and marketing, organic puts an emphasis on minimal and environmentally-friendly packaging. Innovative schemes like the box schemes are better, but only if you don’t go to the supermarket as well! In consumption, waste is a large factor. In some studies as much as 50% of food is wasted in the food chain. So, in conclusion, organic food offers advantages in the production stage, but many further gains depend on personal choices and other factors, such as whether the food is local and seasonal and how much is wasted. Gareth’s conclusion was: “Be radical, buy local, fresh food and buy organic where you can or even grow your own organically.”
Gundula Azeez, from the Soil Association, talked about the nutritional merits of organic farming. Organic farming promotes the soil and plant processes that generate and supply a whole range of minerals while non-organic farming uses fertilisers to maintain the soils minerals. Furthermore, organic food contains a higher amount of vitamins. The theory is that organic crops rely on their natural biochemical defences, so need more vitamins and other metabolites. This is backed up by scientific evidence – for example, organic milk has an average of 68% more omega-3 fatty acids and organic tomatoes have more vitamin C, B-carotene and flavanoids than the non-organic equivalent.
Action:
Order a box scheme:
www.vegboxschemes.co.uk/
Growing your own organic food: www.gardenorganic.org.uk
Join the Soil Association:
www.soilassociation.org/