Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Organic food: not a fad, but a foundation for the future

Like many issues related to the environment, organic food is one that is often seen through a something of a soft-focus lens. A 'healthy, nicer and tastier' message has dominated the sales message from purveyors of organic food. And it has achieved wonders for the organic 'brand' – when times were good. Whilst there is a little extra change in their pockets, consumers can be quite happy to shell out for food that is better for the environment; or lacking in worrying pesticides; or that they think will taste better.

But when times are tight, and people are focused on just ensuring there is food on the plate, those 'fluffy' concerns can drop away alarmingly quickly. The report from the UK's Soil Association, of a fall in organic food sales in 2010, is one of the latest strands of evidence of this. The soft-sell approach, of tying the message of environmental issues to a 'cuddly' consumer appeal, makes the organic food something of a fair-weather banner.

That is a shame – and also a worry. Because, behind the benefits that individuals may receive from chomping down on that tasty organic tomato, there's a more concrete hard-headed reason to go organic. It's a little more complex, and a little more scary – the future of our food security may depend on it.

At the heart of organic farming – since ideas around a more natural system of food production were first being molded – is the health of the soil. Healthy organic soil is a complex and thriving ecosystem in its own right, home to fungi, earthworms, bacteria and a host of tiny insects and arthropods. Plant matter is broken down by the actions of this bustling community, building up stocks of humus, which improves the soil's texture and ability to hold water. Carbon is stored, mineral elements made readily available, and plant health boosted, through a partnership between roots, and the fungi that grow with them.

The pioneers of the organic movement saw industrial agriculture's liberal application of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers as destroying this community – and so the vitality of the soil. Given that the whole basis of modern life is rooted in the bounty of that soil, poisoning it with chemicals is a dangerous short-term expedient; one that is likely to come back and bite us, if it continues unchecked.

When soils become sterile, and just bare repositories for industrial farming's chemicals, they become vulnerable. They are lost to winds and rains, as the lack of humus no longer holds them together. Without organic matter to bind nutrients, the plants growing in them need artificial fertilizers just to keep going. And when Peak Oil starts to make inorganic fertilizers too expensive too apply, industrial farming methods on a barren soil could lead to plunging harvests.

That is the most basic argument for going organic – recognition of the fact that our very future depends on healthy soils that will continue to feed us. If that argument was made more forcefully – and 'food security' is a button that governments will respond to if pressed – then it's possible that real action may follow. Not just from the fickle consumer, but from concrete government action to tackle the hidden costs of industrial farming – and so move us towards safeguarding the fruits of the land for our children and grandchildren.


  1. Well said.

    The other reason of course is that industrial farming methods are reliant on fossil fuels... and we are not going to have those forever.

  2. Absolutely - though one scary aspect of the shale gas/ fracking explosion is that it may prolong the viability of producing inorganic nitrate fertilizers (which are derived from natural gas) - which is only going to throw out more methane, nitrous and CO2 emissions - and also prolong the process of trashing the soil fertility bank.