The Benefits of Eating Organic

The aim of organic food and farming is to provide products that are as natural as possible. The use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides is greatly restricted; the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited; external inputs are rejected in favour of inputs gathered internally from the farm itself; diseases are combatted by high quality husbandry practices and crop rotations instead of medicines; animals are free range and given natural food free from GMOs and hormones; preservatives and additives are prohibited; and so on. As the EU puts it, organic food and farming is about ‘respecting natural cycles and ecology’, which is achieved through the methods listed above. Organic farming is highly successful in terms of maintaining and improving environmental conditions- in the agricultural ecosystems as well as the wider environment. In addition to environmental and ecological benefits, the organic farm animals also experience a higher quality of life compared to conventionally farmed animals. The direct human health benefits of eating organic are more widely debated, however this is an active area of research and findings around this matter are accumulating. 


Benefits to the environment 

The number of confirmed environmental benefits that organic farming brings is astounding and ever increasing. In a way, organic farming takes agriculture back to it’s origins thousands of years ago, when farming was far more ‘natural’ (humans did not have factories to manufacture chemical fertilisers and pesticides, laboratories to genetically engineer crops and livestock, or access to antibiotics and hormones to feed to animals). Agricultural ecosystems were not all that different from natural ecosystems. However, modern agricultural techniques (such as fertiliser and pesticide use, genetic modification, animal feed with drugs and hormones added, etc.) enabled humans to completely change and control our agricultural ecosystems and agricultural output so much that today, they no longer resemble any aspect of natural ecosystems.  

So, how does taking agriculture back to its roots, via organic farming, benefit the environment? Firstly, we can consider the pollutants involved in conventional farming. It is near impossible to contain the synthetic inputs within the agricultural system- water pollution of nearby bodies of water occurs when these chemicals get into runoff water. Huge amounts of energy are required to synthesise agricultural chemicals- particularly into making fertilisers- meaning that tonnes of CO2are released into our atmosphere to sustain conventional agriculture. Furthermore, the high levels of external inputs that go into conventional agriculture translates into high fuel use in terms of petrol and diesel through transportation from origin to farm. Thus, air pollution is also a result of conventional farming practices. Soil health is degraded significantly by conventional farming techniques- soil is eroded and loses fertility, largely due to the lack of organic material contained within it. Soil quality is a key factor for crop growth: microbial systems and plant-microbe symbioses rely on the amount of organic matter in the soil; and crops rely on the moisture content of the soil, which is determined by organic matter and erosion levels. Organic farms produce contribute far less to pollution through limiting the use of artificially synthesised chemicals, and by using internal inputs; and make sure to maintain soil health through their practices. 

Other environmental impacts surround the ecological and evolutionary processes within agricultural and surrounding ecosystems. Organic farms aim to keep natural ecosystems unaltered, by maintaining high levels of biodiversity and supporting high levels of species evenness (where relative numbers of individuals within a species are similar between species; i.e. there is lack of skew in relative population numbers). In conventional systems biodiversity is diminished, and species evenness is greatly lowered: ecosystems are dominated by only a few species and other species are extinct from the system or present at worryingly low numbers. These unnatural conditions make pest outbreaks far more likely, contributing to the overall detriment of the yields and the farm itself. Furthermore, high inputs in conventional farms place strong natural selective pressures for evolving resistance on pests, which is the main force behind the emergence of ‘super-weeds’ and ‘super-pests’ that we see evolving in agricultural systems today. By maintaining biodiversity and applying little to no chemical inputs, organic farms ensure pests are kept at bay naturally and that natural selection for resistance genes in pests is low. 

In summary, by buying organic, one invests in practices that promote environmental respect and protection that have proven significant long-term effects on environmental health. 

Animal Welfare 

Animal wellbeing is enhanced by the practices of organic farming- for both agricultural animals and animals that inhabit in the surrounding ecosystem. In terms of the farm animals, the free-range living conditions, organic feeds, and species-specific husbandry practices mean that they live in as natural conditions as possible and can behave and live as they would in non-agricultural conditions. The absence of hormone and drug treatments allows them to develop and grow naturally, which is beneficial to the animals’ health and condition in the long-term. Additionally, animals outside of the agricultural ecosystem benefit from organic farming: they are less exposed to artificial fertilisers and pesticides (which may harm them) from food sources they require from the farm; and they are less likely to suffer food shortages, high competition levels, diseases, etc (which are very likely in skewed evenness systems) due to the high evenness and likeness to natural ecosystems of natural farms. 

Direct human Benefits

As afore mentioned, the benefits to humans that are gained from eating organic are less clear. Rigorous scientific evidence is yet to be achieved, however some research that has been conducted does indeed indicate that there may be human health and nutrition benefits to eating organic: studies have found that organic crops have higher levels of vitamin C (Worthington 2001); that organic milk contains has a better composition of beneficial fatty acids than conventionally farmed milk; that there is higher antioxidant activity in green vegetables (Ren et al 2001) and strawberries (Olsson et al 2006), which translates into higher suppression of cancer cells in laboratory models; and that people with allergies suffer far less severe symptoms when on an organic diet. Organic foods have far lower levels of pesticide residues on them- the direct effect of pesticide residues on human health is unknown and levels at which they can pose a risk have not been determined, however many pesticides are considered unsafe and carcinogenic by the Word Health Organisation (WHO) e.g. glyphosate. We have to make our own choices based on evidence available to us.

 Despite the ambiguous claims on human health and nutritional benefits, eating organic has the psychological benefit of confidently knowing one is investing in and supporting an agricultural practice that aims to protect the environment and animals that we rely on for survival, whilst trying to undo some of the damage that us humans have caused via past unsustainable and environmentally-harmful practices; as well as the indirect benefit of healing the worlds ecosystems and providing a better world to live in for future generations.