Organic Farming

Organic Farming

The demand for organic products has never been higher as consumers are beginning to realise that the massively resource-intensive farming mechanisms of the 21st century are simply not sustainable for future generations. Furthermore, a recent study published in the Journal of Food Agriculture and Environment stated that the average premium a consumer is willing to spend on organic products stands at 30%, while some consumers are willing to spend a premium of up to 50%. What is it about organic products that justify these price premiums in comparison to other conventional products, and do organic products really make a difference to our overall wellbeing and benefit the environment simultaneously?


Firstly, what is organic farming? Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association in the UK, described organic farming as “trying to farm with nature, as opposed to trying to crush out nature, which is what a lot of conventional farming has done.” In Ireland, a farm can only obtain organic status when it has been certified by one of the certification and inspection bodies designated by the Organic Unit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).


Organic farms must adhere to internationally acknowledged standards and certification procedures to obtain and maintain their status as an organic farm. For example, the use of soluble mineral fertilisers and herbicides is prohibited (these are the typical nitrogen fertilisers found in agricultural stores nationwide). The highest standards of animal welfare are obligatory on organic farms, where livestock must be fed a diet that is at least 60% roughage (roughage is grass, silage, hay). On Beef Bros farm, we go even further and ensure that our livestock’s diet is 100% roughage. Finally, while routine preventative treatment of healthy animals is not prohibited, it is minimised under organic farming. Organic farming instead emphasises designing a system that avoids health and welfare issues, as opposed to treating these issues when they occur.


To sum it up, organic farming takes a step back from the high yield mindset which has gripped modern-day intensive farming and instead tries to produce quality food in a sustainable manner that is both beneficial to the environment and wildlife.


Given the fact that organic products come with a price premium, a consumer can justifiably question what are, if any, the differences between organic produce and products from a conventional farm?


A research team from Newcastle University, led by Prof. Carlo Leifert, reviewed 67 papers and found that there was a clear and distinct difference between organic and conventional meat. They found that organic beef has 50% higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids when compared to non-organic beef. The reason for this is due to the required grazing and feeding practices implemented by organic farming and the wide variety of wildflowers in the animal's diet, such as clover. The ideal ratio of omega-3 fatty acid to omega-6 fatty acid should stand at 1:1. Given that the typical Western diet has a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 of 1:15, it is evident that we are all in dire need of additional omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Furthermore, low levels of omega-3 fatty acid in our diet have been linked to causing cardiovascular disease, asthma, and several forms of cancers. Substituting organic beef into our diet as opposed to non-organic beef can provide a solution to the omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in many Western diets.


As stated previously, the use of antibiotics on healthy animals is minimised under organic farming. Instead, organic farming designs a system that prevents these health and welfare issues from occurring among animals. The use of antibiotics is however commonplace on conventional farms. This use of antibiotics can be linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that can be passed onto humans. These antibiotic-resistant microbes can be very dangerous for humans because they effectively render our primary defence against many bacterial diseases useless. For example, if you get food poisoning from bacteria such as salmonella, antibiotics may not be able to kill the bacteria. To emphasise how serious this issue is, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labeled antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today”.


Farming and agriculture have been on the receiving end of some harsh publicity in recent years in terms of its’ negative environmental impact. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, livestock are responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly because an individual cow will produce 220 pounds of methane on an annual basis. In response to this, it has been argued that intensive farming practices are more environmentally ‘efficient’ as opposed to extensive farming practices (of which organic farming is a part). This is because, in intensive farming practices, animals reach maturity quicker and therefore produce fewer greenhouse gases over their lifetime. However, this opinion disregards the fact that methane emissions are significantly lower from livestock that feed on a biodiverse pasture system which includes many wildflowers (i.e. organic farming) when compared to methane emissions from animals from intensive farming practice. The reason for this reduction in methane emissions is due to the presence of fumaric acid in the wildflowers, and when fumaric acid was added to the diet of lambs present at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, methane emissions were reduced by 70%.


Artificial fertilisers and herbicides are prohibited under organic farming standards, however, they are commonplace in intensive farming systems. According to a Teagasc report, one of the many environmental problems with intensive farming practice is the water quality due to the misuse and/or overuse of chemicals by farmers. When artificial chemicals are sprayed on the land by farmers, a proportion of these chemicals will inevitably wash into nearby streams, rivers, and lakes which then contaminate the groundwater. In her report, A Global Assessment of Nitrate Contamination in Groundwater, Zhao Zhou found that agricultural fertilisers are the largest source of polluting groundwater quality, and given the fact that 50% of the worlds drinking water is extracted from groundwater resources, this is a major cause of concern for human health and wellbeing


As well as this, excessive levels of nitrogen in water stimulates a process of eutrophication, which is the enrichment of surface water with plant nutrients. This increase in plant nutrients on the surface reduces the penetration of light into the water, therefore preventing the process of photosynthesis for any plants in deeper waters. Essentially, eutrophication changes the entire aquatic ecosystem.


The use of anti-worming agents is minimised under organic farming practices, however similarly to all antibiotics, they are used extensively in most intensive farming practices. Due to the low usage of anti-worming agents in organic farms, the animal's manure can be used to feed a variety of bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates such as the dung beetle, which enables the manure to be pulled back down into the earth. This enables the vital process of ecosystem restoration, which provides nutrients and structure to the soil. In 2015, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that each year, 25 to 40 billion tonnes of soil are lost globally to soil erosion. The main cause of this is due to intense cropping and ploughing of the soil. Soil depletion is so severe in the UK, that the Farmers Weekly reported in 2015 that we may only have 100 harvests left. This is anything but sustainable and something has to change, and organic farming, since it enables the process of ecosystem restoration, seems like an obvious solution to me.


This is not to say that organic farming is perfect, because it’s not. There are legitimate concerns about how organic farming may be used to feed the 9 billion people on the planet, given the extensive nature of organic farming, as well as the affordability of organic products for a large proportion of the population. However taking into consideration the points which I have outlined above, I do believe that organic farming is a ‘best in class’ farming practice and the best solution we have at present to pave the way for a sustainable solution.


In terms of the price of organic produce, I believe that if one is to take into account the total cost of conventional food produced today, that is, the environmental cost, the social cost, and the health cost, I believe that organic farming is the most cost-effective way to produce food. The issue is that at present, food produced from intensive farms does not carry its’ true cost, and as consumers, we are led to believe that organic produce is expensive and conventional farming produce is most cost-effective.


So, let us take a step back, look at the bigger picture and let us pave the way for a more sustainable future. I believe that organic farming is the mechanism that will enable us as a society to achieve this.