Photo: Thought for food: Organic farming is good for you and the planet

Local food production goes hand-in-hand with organic farming (Credit: Casey Lessard via Flickr)

By By Dr. Art Wiebe, MD

Not all organic farming is sustainable, but all sustainable farming must be organic. As organic farming grows and more and more large operations sprout up, attempts to broaden the range of what may be included under the term organic have increased.

Just as the term organic is subject to change and interpretation, so is the term conventional. In my lifetime (60 years), its meaning has shifted from referring to what we would now call "organic" to referring to petrochemical- and toxic-dependent farming. In many parts of the world, it now assumes transgenic (GMO) crops.

Truly organic farming is an ecological approach that attempts, as much as possible, to "close the loop" of the energy, carbon, nitrogen, water, and micronutrient cycles. This is difficult; when you buy organic food, you are taking these valuable substances from the farm. The organic farmer ensures they are replaced, while minimizing use of non-renewable resources. Balance is achieved through inputs from the world's energy and water cycles, nitrogen-fixing crops, and waste products (e.g., manure).

Local food production goes hand-in-hand with organic farming to extend this principle of ecological balance "beyond the farm gate." It is more energy-intensive to eat foods from further away because of the energy used during transportation.

Ever since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, human activity has been depleting the earth's soil. Organic farming attempts to rebuild soil by treating it as an organism rather than a medium. A good organic farmer feeds the soil, not the crops. Healthy soil is an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Fungi liberate formerly inaccessible minerals and form symbiotic relationships with photosynthesizing plants, exchanging minerals for sugars (energy). Bacteria do the difficult task of fixing the almost-inert but vital gas nitrogen, which is important in all our metabolic and reproductive systems. These functions can only occur if the soil is fostered, and not if it is poisoned.

If organic farming is so sustainable and doesn't require petrochemical inputs, why is organic food so expensive? The short answer is that it's not. For example, if I, as a physician, go to a pharmaceutical presentation at an expensive restaurant and am not given a bill, does that mean that the meal is free? Obviously not. The restaurant is paid by the pharmaceutical company, and ultimately, the drug consumer pays for my meal. "Conventional" farming relies on others, usually taxpayers, to pay much of the bill. As taxpayers, we all subsidize mineral exploration and then transportation in the form of roads and pipelines (for gas, the feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer, etc.), as well as cleanup of agricultural pollution, not to mention transportation-related air pollution. If the cost of cleaning up the Great Lakes of agricultural waste were added to the cost of Ontario beef, for example, the cost of a steak would be astronomical. Organic farmers do not ask you to help defray the cost of your food; they have already done it for you. You have paid the cost of inputs, as well as the cost of waste disposal, when you complete your organic food transaction.

Organic food is clearly healthier for the planet, but is it healthier for you as an individual? We are so diverse (what scientists refer to as "heterogeneous") that it is impossible to find a clear answer. We all swim in a planet-wide "soup" of man-made chemicals. Some of us try to minimize our exposure, and people who eat organic foods do have fewer pesticide residues in them. Organic foods also have generally been found to have fewer nitrites (bad things) and more of the good things, like antioxidants, in them.

Thomas Pawlick, in his book The End of Food, documents the decline in nutrient value of foods over the past few decades, as recorded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Potatoes and tomatoes have far fewer nutrients than they once did, as they have been bred for shelf life, durability in handling, colour, and uniformity but not flavour or nutrient value. At an organic farm, you are likely to encounter heritage varieties grown as they were before this nutritional decline.

Organic growing is labour-intensive. Petrochemical agriculture was developed to minimize labour; it is more productive per unit of farmer's time, but not per unit of land area. We can grow enough food to feed the planet organically, but we will need more farmers. Another way of saying it is that organic farming invites participation, both from thoughtful eaters and workers and growers.

Art Wiebe, M.D., CCFP, FRRMS (Fellow in Rural and Remote Medicine), has been a rural physician for more than 30 years and is a board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. He lives on 44 hectares of land on the shore of Lake Huron, where he and his wife, Janice McKean, have a small ecological farm, selling at a local farmers' market. They study, grow, and sell indigenous plants, run a farm Bed & Breakfast, and enjoy the company of their national heritage-breed horses, the Canadien. (His garlic won first place at both the Tiverton and Kincardine Fall Fairs in 2009.)

October 7, 2010

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Dec 30, 2012
3:05 PM

I live in the beautiful Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia, Canada. With our cold winters, and perfect dry summer climate, we can grow apples orgqanically easier than anywhere else on earth. (maybe)

But while apple growers here struggle to grow the perfect size, perfect color, perfect variety, cosmetically perfect apple that consumers want, for maximum profit, half of the apple growers have ripped out their trees since 1980 and gone out of business, because they are losing money. Funny how that works. There is a lot of overproduction of apples in the world, and that’s why Okanagan apple growers are getting out of the business. Yet, apple growers are encouraged by the experts to maximize production in order to stay in business. Funny.

With organic farming no one will starve. Farmers might appear to be less profitable at first, but in the long term going organic will result in healthier people, not starving people. We need to change people’s attitudes. Apples do not need to be perfect color, perfect shape, perfect size, and perfect cosmetically to be good apples. They need to have perfect internal quality, and perfect nutrition. Organic.

Jun 20, 2011
4:03 PM

Here’s another great article on how small, sustainable farms may be boons for food security

Jun 10, 2011
2:16 PM

How expensive will be the food from that organic German farm?

Mar 29, 2011
1:18 PM

To Jocelyn Plourde:

Increasing the number of organic farms is one thing, but exactly where are you going to put them? Don’t forget: most arable land is already in use, and in order to get to it, we have had to destroy most of the natural world.

Who are you going to starve to death in order to be fed with organic produce? Don’t forget, non-organic modern agriculture is feeding more people than agriculture has ever been able to do before. Also, don’t forget that countries like Ethiopia are starving their own populations in order to feed us with produce produced on their own soil.

I come from the northern part of Belgium, where intensive modern farming is keeping alive six million people. In spite of that, there is essentially no nature left in that part of the country, except for the a couple of hectares here or there. They need the green revolution over there, not romantic organic hobby farming, like Art Wiebe on his 44 hectares.

Canada is a huge country. But hardly anyone lives more than a two hour drive from the southern border. Why? Because of the climate. Organic farming in Canada of the Wiebe type would destroy more arable land than we have.

We need the green revolution. I am advocating building farm buildings in the city itself. It could be a fantastic solution. But it comes with its own challenges, unfortunately. And they are not minor.

Also: what are you going to do with the increased incidence of food-borne diseases and cancers resulting from organic farming?

This is the gist of it: organic farming is not a solution. It is a problem. The green revolution is not a solution either. It is also a problem. But it feeds more people.

I don’t have children. I never will. That’s a very conscious decision I made over four decades ago. It’s the decision most of us will have to make, if we want to save nature. Organic farming just doesn’t cut it.

Mar 29, 2011
11:31 AM

Some realism may not be harmful either. Thanks to the Green Revolution, more people are being fed than ever before. “Organic farming” comes nowhere close. Choosing organic farming above modern farming is a conscious decision to increase suffering and death for billions of people, thanks to starvation.

“Organic farming” is also not necessary as good for us as superficial reasoning might seem to indicate. Anyone who understands how evolution works, will be quick to point out that organic produce may actually be more harmful to our health than produce produced with modern farming methods.

As David Suzuki rightly says: we are all interconnected. It is something we have to take into account. However, we need to take into account all its aspects, not just the ones that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but also the ones we don’t want to know about.

What we need to do is stop breeding like vermin. It makes absolutely no sense that our governments are trying to stimulate us to have more children while they are fighting immigration. We must encourage worldwide birth control and at the same time encourage migration in order to reduce suffering, and protect what little remains of nature.

The Green Revolution must remain in place and be improved. And once our population starts to show a substantial decline, organic farming, improved by then-current knowledge, might become an option again.

Dec 25, 2010
12:58 PM

“Organic growing is labour-intensive… We can grow enough food to feed the planet organically, but we will need more farmers.”

How can the farming industry be changed in order to increase the number of farmers and increase the number of organic farms?

I’ve often said that farmers should be among the best paid people on the planet because the FEED us (followed by teachers who educate us), but that is not the case. It seems that most farmers have a difficult time making a living, and those that are making a living are certainly not living “high on the hog” (pardon the pun). So, how can we make what you’ve blogged about a reality?

Increase food prices? Increase organic food subsidies? Tax the use of pesticides? Tax monoculture farming? Carbon tax?

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