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Debating organics

Published in Irish Farmers Monthly, July 2008, Page 8. Scans of Matt O'Keeffe's original article page 1, page 2, printed version of text below and Matt's reply. NB. Changes have been made by the editor (for space, etc., reasons) from the text below which is 'as sent' to the IFM.

I disagree with the comments in the March issue of IFM by Matt O’Keeffe stating that “there is no proof whatsoever that organic food is better than conventional [non-organic] food”.  As a scientist researching organic agriculture this struck me as pretty odd, as there is an increasing volume of good quality science that shows clear benefits of organic food.  The recently published ‘State of Science Review: Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods’ (available from www.organic-center.org) is as good as you’ll currently get, it says “organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious”.  Matt also said that science shows that how food is processed, cooked, etc., overrides the difference between organic and non-organic food.  However, there is no science researching this issue, and besides, it fundamentally misunderstands what organics is about.  Organic agriculture is much, much, more than ‘just’ how food is grown.  It is primarily a critique of the ‘global industrial agricultural system’, and secondarily an alternative, precautionary, whole-system approach to agriculture based in ecological science.  Since its earliest days in the 1930s organic agriculture promoted the ideas that agriculture should be a nation’s health and wellbeing service, by producing nutritionally high quality food, and what most countries call a ‘health service’ is a only ‘disease curing service’.  Organic food is synonymous with wholefood, fresh food, a balanced diet, slow food, minimal processing etc., i.e., the very things Matt says eliminates the difference between organic and non-organic food are as fundamental a part of organics as the farm system.  The predictions made by organic pioneers that the kinds of foods produced by the industrial food system would lead to national ill-health, look stunningly prescient as this is exactly what is happening with today’s obesity and other diet and wealth related disease epidemics. The cures suggested by scientists, e.g., the food pyramid, are increasingly similar to those presented by organics. 

I’m also puzzled by many farming commentators, criticism of organics generally and for accessing value added markets, in particular.  Firstly organics is a farming system designed by farmers for farmers so I cannot fathom why it is being attacked.  Also, I can not think of any other farm product that is criticised for accessing more profitable, premium-price markets.  The norm is that such ventures get lauded, even if the product is only trading on smoke and mirrors, while organics has many substantive reasons, supported by science, why customers are willing to pay more.  For example, protection of the environment is fundamental to organic agriculture.  In non-organic agriculture and mainstream economics the environment has mostly be treated as an economic externality and given zero value.  Organics recognises the environment as the fundamental system supporting human life and the economy as a subsystem of the environment. Therefore, organic agriculture internalises environmental externalities and charges its customers for this service in the form of higher prices.  At heart, this is also what the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) is about: it pays farmers to protect the environment.  Except REPS farmers are remunerated by the government not their customers.  By accepting REPS, Irish agriculture has effectively accepted the environmental protection arguments made by organics over fifty years ago.  Unfortunately for organics the direct-farmer REPS payment system means that it is unfairly penalised in the market as REPS food does not have its environmental protection charges on the price tag, as consumers have paid for it from their taxes.  If food from REPS farms had the costs of the system added to the price, I suggest it would be considerably closer to organic.  But, it is not just environmental protection that organic consumers are willing to pay for.  There are a host of other reasons such as social justice, animal welfare, personal health and farmers’ livelihoods.  So why is organic farming being knocked when it is trying to give farmers a better income and job satisfaction? If farmers want just one reason to go organic then increased profit from selling a premium product in high demand looks like a great reason to me. 

With the leading issues of the 21 century, such as climate change, the multifunctional role of agriculture, ecological sustainability, food security, health, etc. increasingly aligning with organic’s critique of industrial agriculture and the solutions it has been developing (e.g., the UN’s “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” www.agassessment.org) I am disappointed that farmers and commentators in Ireland continue to make poorly-informed arguments against organics rather than better educating themselves about it and learning from it.  Farmers deserve well informed and reasoned arguments if they are to make the best decisions going forward. 

Dr. Oliver Moore, a rural sociologist based in Sligo IT, recently commented on the relationship between organic and non-organic farming in Ireland compared with our national neighbours.  Based on Michelsen’s (2001) three phases of institutional interrelationships, ‘pure competition, creative conflict and pure co-operation’,  Dr Moore pointed out that in much of Europe organic and non-organic agriculture have a far more harmonious relationship than they do in Ireland, which he considers to have yet reached even the creative conflict stage.  However, with mainstream concerns increasingly aligning with organic’s critique, and non-organic agriculture increasingly picking up the lessons learnt by organics, e.g., clover for nitrogen, green manures, mechanical weed management, to name a few, I suggest that it is time for rapid change.  I believe that all of Irish agriculture could reap significant benefits by leapfrogging both the pure competition and creative conflict stages and moving straight into creative co-operation between organic and non-organic agriculture.  There is much to learn and many challenges ahead.  Are Irish farmers and their leaders up to this creative challenge?  

Michelsen, J. (2001) Recent development and political acceptance of organic farming in Europe. Sociologia Ruralis 41 (1) pp. 3-21.


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Copyright 2008 Charles N. Merfield.