We live on a planet in the process of an ecological collapse. Some of us want to know what we can do to fight climate change. The fact that THTC *still* exists and has a globe-spanning community means that at least some people are keen to make ethical and environmentally-friendly changes in their lives, practices and consumption habits.
We've discussed at length on this blog what 'sustainability' means and have introduced the idea that organic certifications can provide a baseline for growing and producing things with better or minimised environmental impacts. However, a contentious debate around 'organic farming' exists.
Critics say organic farming is less efficient than conventional farming - using more land, thus more significant deforestation, causing higher carbon dioxide emissions and biodiversity loss. As it is, global agriculture is directly up to 8.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with a further 14.5% coming from land use change - deforestation in the developing world to clear land for food production or general development.
For a modern example, critics point to the collapse of Sri Lanka's farming sector. Recently ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned synthetic fertiliser and pesticide imports into Sri Lanka in 2021, forcing Sri Lanka's millions of farmers to go organic - practically overnight. Rajapaksa had correctly identified that such inputs were causing water pollution and adverse health effects on the population. However, the policy implementation resulted in a colossal drop in yields and a collapse in Sri Lanka's self-sufficiency and market exports. It also exacerbated the economic collapse that saw Rajapaksha's presidential palace burned to the ground.
But it would be silly, irresponsible and reductive to say that it was solely a shift to organic practices that caused this. Sure, fertilisers, pesticides and GMOs allow people to grow more on a smaller amount of land and increase yields. However, this doesn't consider the vast levels of corporate and government corruption and wealth inequality that force farmers in such nations to adopt 'conventional farming methods.
We need to look at the factors that necessitate so much produce needing to be grown - especially when over a third of all food produced globally goes to waste, unconsumed (source: UN Environmental Programme). That proportion is even higher when you add the entirety of agricultural produce, including non-food crops (for things like clothes!).
What is Organic?
Let's revisit the main principles of organic farming. According to the IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), the Principles of Organic Farming are described below:
- It shall sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plants, animals, and humans as one and indivisible.
- It should be based on the living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
- Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness concerning the environment and life processes.
- Organic farming should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.
The general objectives of organic farming are:
- The production of safe and healthy food, free from agrochemical residues
- The overall protection of the environment through sustainable management (protection of soil and aquifers, biodiversity assurance)
- The sustainable use of energy and natural resources (such as water, soil, and organic matter)
- The maintenance and the increase of fertility and soil biological activity
- Protecting farmers' health from exposure to harmful chemicals.
- To ensure the welfare and well-being of the animals.
Organic practices include crop rotations, avoiding GMOs, not using synthetic fertilisers, preserving habitats on-farm, and ensuring soil fertility through non-synthetic inputs (like rhizome and myco-tech).
Between different countries and territories, the methods and practices which specifically define sometimes change - for example, looking at EU and US legislation. However, the principle and mindset are pretty much the same wherever you go.
Why does an 'Organic mindset' matter?
Ecosystems rely on biodiversity - a variety of organisms which ensure their health and resilience. Across the planet, insect and bird populations are plummeting. For decades, studies have shown a direct link between pesticide use and the death of bird populations.
Between 1990 and 2015, global pesticide use increased by more than 70%, which coincided with an increase in congenital defects in regions of intense agriculture like the American midwest and southern India. Runoff has been an ongoing problem in farming since the expansion of intensive agriculture - chemicals leach off of fields into waterways.
In the absence of pesticides and aggressive fertiliser applications, organically managed land has been shown to support biodiversity levels. One study showed effective organic farming systems are responsible for an average 30% higher species richness than conventional farming systems.
These pesticides are also products of the fossil fuel and mining industries. Nitrates, phosphates, potassium, and many chemicals derived directly from oil, are needed to make fertilisers and pesticides. These products themselves require tremendous amounts of energy to produce.
Such conventional farming practices have also led to soil erosion, flooding and severe environmental damage.
Why aren't more people farming organically?
It's odd that something that requires fewer inputs would be better for you, with no pesticide residues, would be more expensive and harder to produce. Modern, conventional farming relies on so many inputs to 'drive efficiency. What this really means is removing the need for more labour on-farm. Under capitalism, the goal is to remove and manage overheads - like employed workers - and sell your product for as much as you can.
In the UK, the National Farmers Union has long been lobbying for the repeal of controls on certain pesticides to make domestic farms 'more productive'.
One such group of pesticides they have been fighting for are neonicotinoids - a chemical that kills insects that eat certain crops like wheat. It's also found to cause the collapse of bee colonies. A 2013 study associated higher concentrations of neonicotinoids in polluted water with overall insect population drops, not just the deaths of pollinators. While crops absorb some pesticides, the rest can seep into water and soil, where it can linger for almost three years before degrading. The NFU's view - as is shared by most who profit from the industrial food complex - is that these studies are overblown, and farmers should be allowed to do whatever it takes to grow what they need to survive.
Again, they leave out the material conditions that force farmers into such a position - namely, land rents and the cost of living. Most UK farmers are tenants, forced to pay exorbitant rents and mortgages on equipment and feed for animals. While the NFU and legacy media will often portray UK farmers as heroes fighting against a tide of wokeness - they're little more than pawns and cash-cows for landlords, the agrochemical industry and, of course, the supermarkets and processors who engage in predatory price gouging.
And in fact, these are the same problems that farmers across the world face - lots of middlemen who do little or no work, extracting wealth out of a system where they don't belong in the first instance.
Organic farming and certification in this context act as a bulwark - a wall against these material drivers forcing farmers to take up less sustainable methods. But here's the thing - organic farming, by definition, makes a farming business less economically competitive. In fact, this is the same trap that THTC finds itself in. We make business decisions based upon environmental and social benefit - rather than financial return. That's why we're not rich - you won't find us with tons of cash to splash out on influencers and giant billboards. Now, that's a decision that a couple of lads in London can make - is it a decision that an impoverished farmer living in the middle of Sri Lanka can make? No.
Organic food is also slightly more expensive than non-organic. This is justified by the added labour needed to ensure organic produce is compliant. To provide low prices for consumers (which they still profit from), the supermarkets who are price-gouging their suppliers do very little to remedy this.
Unless everyone is doing organic and sustainable farming, and everyone's human right to access food is legally upheld, you're simply creating a two-tiered system of production and consumption. This means organic products for the rich, made by people who can afford to do so, and conventional, intensive farmed stuff for everyone else who doesn't have the privilege.
The most significant cause of higher emissions from farming - Landlords
It's no big secret that billionaire Bill Gates is the world's most prominent owner of agricultural land. He's part of a trend which has seen agricultural lands across the globe being bought up by investment firms and individuals at an alarming rate, putting land ownership - and thus purpose - into the hands of a select few. 1% of the world's farms, and farm managers control 70% of the world's farmland.
While folks like Bill might talk a big game about making farming green, his entire property portfolio relies on those lands making as much money as possible. As we've said previously, revenues are determined by yield sales and whatever crops the market desires. This has seen more land pushed towards monocultures and thus intensive farming practices to ensure a financial yield.
This drive for a financial return to serve the bottom line is what's at the bottom of the agricultural industry being turned into a destructive force.
Is 'organic' better for the planet?
Our agricultural industry as it exists is not environmentally, socially or financially sustainable. Much farm labour relies on family and unpaid labour. Those farms around the world that do employ gangs of labourers pay a pittance - and usually below minimum wage in those countries. In the UK, until recently, we even had specific legislation that allowed farm managers to pay day-labourers less than minimum wage to pick fruit and vegetables. Post-Brexit, we no longer have swathes of vulnerable people from abroad willing to do anything for a few coins.
Organic farming contributes to a small proportion of the products that make it to the world's shelves, restaurants and pre-packed food and drink. It's also not a sustainable economic choice for many of the world's farmers - and definitely not for the retailers that would buy from them. Organic farmers are economically disadvantaged to other farmers - unless they get some kind of government subsidy.
But as to the question, is 'organic' better for the planet - as a set of ideals and a direction for what farming needs to become - the answer is invariably 'yes'.
In our humble opinion, the nightmarish construct of global capitalism upheld by landlordism, the petrochemical companies and multinational food retailers and producers ruin organic farming and make it unviable.
Should you buy organic? Yes - when you know the brand and are confident they aren't full of greenwash - AND if you can afford it. Don't judge others that haven't the privilege you have in being able to find and source organic - show some class solidarity. Remember, the amount spent on developing propaganda marketing for unsustainable products will outcompete whatever impact you think your weekly Facebook posting does.
What can I do to help organic farming?
On an individual basis - learn and shout about the core facts. Indigenous-owned and managed land geared towards community subsistence, using farmland practices such as permaculture and organic farming, protect and sustain 80% of the world's biodiversity.
We need collective action to halt the consolidation of land ownership by the world's billionaires. Above all else, remember that the rich have nothing to offer us besides the return of the lands they have stolen.