Opinion: Digging past the headlines

Soil management has helped organic farmers stay competitive and profitable. Photo: File

UBC research paper generated creative headlines, but the substance was in the detail

By Ashley St Hilaire

Organics made headlines recently after a study published by University of British Columbia researchers, Verena Seufert and Navin Ramankutty, challenged organic agriculture to do better.

Reporting on the study, major news outlets across our nation and beyond posted various headlines such as “Organic food not automatically better,” “Organic farming doesn’t always deliver benefits,” and including the Hollywood version, “Sorry Gwyneth: Organic food may be good for your health but it will not save the environment.”

It was clear that journalists struggled with the researchers’ analysis, spewing out various misleading combinations of facts and conclusions for readers to then reluctantly swallow along with their morning cup of fair trade, organic coffee. I was among those people.

Thankfully, the researchers have made it easy for us to bypass the headlines and get to the crux of their research findings in their self-published article with a less alarming title, “Organic farming matters — just not in the way you think.”

If industrial food absorbed the costs of soil erosion, poor water quality, exposure to toxic pesticides, and devastation of biodiversity (including bees), cheap food would quickly become not so cheap.

Let’s skip to my favourite part: their conclusion. Seufert and Ramankutty write: “So yes, you should identify and support those organic farms that are doing a great job of producing environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially just food.” They go on to say, “As scientists, we must close some of the critical knowledge gaps about this farming system to better understand its achievements and help address its challenges. But in the meantime, everyone can learn from successful organic farms and help improve the other 99 per cent of agriculture that’s feeding the world today.”

So where are all the negative headlines coming from? Let’s circle back to some of the metrics in the researcher’s critique which included: yields, labour, nutrition, cost, and environment.

Yields are an important measure of productivity and research leading to innovative organic practices in pest, weed, and soil management has helped organic farmers stay competitive and profitable in the marketplace — and as yields increase the land required to grow organic food decreases. While more research on productivity is needed, the mission for greater yields in organics should not overshadow, or come at a cost to, the health of the agro-ecosystem the foundation upon which the organic system is built.

The researchers also critique a lack of specific labour welfare standards for organic producers who at this time, adhere to the same standards as the rest of Canadian producers. However, it’s important to note that the element of care is a core organic principle, and while labour standards have not yet been codified in the Canadian Organic Standards, they will be included in the 2020 review of the standards with help from the fair trade movement. In organic farming, animal welfare is critical, and developing standards for the humane treatment of livestock took priority in the 2015 review.

On the topic of nutrition, very few studies have directly addressed the effect of organic food on human health. In a 2016 report published by the European Parliamentary Research Service, findings suggested that among other benefits, eating organics reduces the risk of allergies and supports better outcomes in the cognitive development of children. However, just as Seufert and Ramankutty concluded, more studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Finally, while the higher price for organic food is undeniable it is largely attributed to the internalization of costs within a well-functioning organic farming system. If industrial food absorbed the costs of soil erosion, poor water quality, exposure to toxic pesticides, and devastation of biodiversity (including bees), cheap food would quickly become not so cheap.

Organic agriculture is a response to consumer demand for food that is produced in a way that protects and enhances the agro-ecosystem. Organic agriculture is a both a movement and a science, and Seufert and Ramankutty have done their duty as researchers to challenge the status quo and make recommendations that lead to more productive and equitable organic systems.

We encourage consumers, scholars, and government policymakers to look beyond media headlines and take seriously the findings of these UBC researchers which conclude that: closing critical research gaps in organics will lead to an agricultural system that is better for the farmer, the climate, the environment and our collective future.

Ashley St Hilaire is the director of programs and government relations at Canadian Organic Growers. She can be reached by email: [email protected] or by phone: 613-216-0741