Organic can feed the world – and feed it well

Two new studies show that organic farming produces meat and milk that contains more vital nutrients and that it is the key to feeding the world in a changing climate.

February 16, 2016 by Pat Thomas

photo of an organic farm

If you care about what you eat and care about what future generations will eat, then there is some very good news.

Two new studies have been published, showing firstly that meat and milk contains more vital nutrients than conventional milk but also that organic farming could be the key to feeding the world sustainably in the face of climate change.

The first study, from Newcastle University, shows organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic. In addition to organic milk and meat, the nutritional differences also apply to organic dairy products like butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt.

The analysis, published  in the British Journal of Nutrition is a companion piece to a 2014 analysis of organic fruits and vegetables which found that, compared to conventionally grown crops, organic crops contain higher levels of certain antioxidants, lower levels of pesticides and lower levels of the heavy metal cadmium.

More good fats and other nutrients

The current study is considered the largest systematic review of its kind and its key findings are that:

  • both organic milk (dairy) and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products
  • organic meat had slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats linked to heart disease
  • organic milk and dairy contains 40% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – CLA has been linked to a range of health benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and obesity, but evidence is mainly from animal studies
  • organic milk and dairy contains slightly higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids
  • organic milk contains less iodine than non-organic milk

The difference in omega-3 is because organic animals have to eat a more natural grass-based diet containing high levels of clover. Clover is used in organic farming to fix nitrogen so that crops and grass grow (instead of manufactured/chemical fertilisers), and this research has found that clover also increases the omega-3 concentrations in meat and milk. Under organic standards, organic cows must eat a 60% fresh grass based diet or hay/silage (conserved grass).

Although historically organic milk has contained less iodine than conventional milk, industry has taken measures to address this. OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) representing over 65% of the UK’s organic milk supply, announced that in 2015 organic milk had achieved comparable levels of iodine to conventional.

Feeding the world – better

Not long before the Newcastle study emerged, another lengthy analysis from Washington State University trashed the idea that organic farming is ‘ideologically driven’ and not practical on a large scale.

The review of hundreds of published studies provides evidence that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers.

Published in the journal Nature Plants is the first such study to analyse 40 years of science comparing organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and community well-being.

“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world” said was John Reganold, WSU regents’ professor of soil science and agroecology and lead author of the study. “Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic agriculture with conventional. In the last 15 years, these kinds of studies have skyrocketed.”

Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. The review paper describes cases where organic yields can be higher than conventional farming methods.

“In severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change, organic farms have the potential to produce high yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils,” Reganold said.

However, even when yields may be lower, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices can be justified as a way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.

Numerous studies in the review also prove the environmental benefits of organic production. Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion. Organic agriculture also creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Healthy soil for healthy plants and people

Organic is also more energy efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. It is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increases the services that nature provides like pollination and improves the ability of farming systems to adapt to changing conditions. And of course it is better for soil health, which in turn is better for plant health and in turn better for human health.

Losses of organic matter from British soil now cost the country £82m a year and while the Government admits that this is “not sustainable in the long term” it has also done little about it. There is, for example, no countrywide monitoring of soil health.

The authors recommend policy changes to address the barriers that hinder the expansion of organic agriculture. Such hurdles include the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labour and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Legal and financial tools are necessary to encourage the adoption of innovative, sustainable farming practices.

How we farm matters

The really crucial questions these studies provoke are about farming and food production.

We have long allowed ourselves to be bullied into believing the lie – promoted mainly by proponents of high tech, intensive monoculture farming – that all methods of farming are pretty much equivalent in terms of the crop you get at the end.

What makes one farming method superior over another, we are told is yield. In other words we have for many years focused on quantity over quality.

The problem is that farming doesn’t happen in a laboratory or vacuum where yield is the sole measure of success. Intensive monoculture farming can produce big yields, but the costs, which fall outside of the realm of how many and how big your oats or your apples or your tomatoes are, are big as well.

Conventional farmers are caught on a vicious treadmill. They add chemical fertilisers to the soil in the hope of increasing crop yields. But doing so ultimately increases many plants’ susceptibility to pests. So more pesticides are used. But pesticides can also affect the soil’s capacity to sustain and generate fertility.

Pesticides such as benzene hexachloride (BHC), DDT, DDD, aldrin, lindane and heptachlor, for example, all prevent nitrogen-fixing bacteria from forming the necessary root nodules on leguminous plants (such as beans, peas, clover and alfalfa). This means less nitrogen is available for the soil so farmers use more fertilisers.

Using synthetic fertilisers to make plants grow in otherwise depleted soils has other disturbing consequences. For instance, while the fertiliser will stimulate the plant to grow in the absence of any of the usual protective nutrients they should contain, the plants will also take up more of the heavy metals in the soil such as aluminium, mercury and lead, and these, in turn, are passed on up through the food chain.

All the while, the nutritional value of our food is plummeting and people continue to go hungry in spite of the fact that globally, we currently produce enough calories to feed 14 billion people.

GM is a symptom of bad farming, not the solution

The yield-above-all argument is used to justify all kinds of new farming technologies, chief amongst them GM crops. And yet even here the argument falls short as there is no evidence that GM crops consistently increase yields. Indeed a recent US government report found yields from GMOs are in some cases lower.

What you may not know is that GM also interferes with the nutritional quality of food.

Studies have shown, for example, that:

GM foods also have higher residues of pesticides like glyphosate. As we’ve reported earlier glyphosate has been shown to devastate the population of good bacteria in the gut of animals studied and if this is also true in humans could have an effect on how well we absorb nutrients from our food, how well we digest proteins and ultimately how easy it is to maintain a healthy weight. This may be one factor behind the results seen in recent studies into GMOs and weight gain.

How we farm, the techniques and technologies that we use to produce the food that we eat, matters.  The nutritional quality of our food matters.

If you want to encourage farming that protects the ecosystem ‘out there’ as well as your own internal ‘ecosystem’ the simple truth is: More isn’t better. Better is better.

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