Not worth the hype

Does organic farming offer many health and environmental benefits? Maybe not. Evidence has already piled up to indicate that organic foods are no better than those produced through regular agriculture. Studies now show that it may not be all that advantageous for environment as well. A research report published in the latest edition of the prestigious journal Nature claims that organically grown food results in higher emissions and causes bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food. Even organic meat and dairy products are worse than their normally produced equivalents from climate impact viewpoint.

Nature’s article, titled “Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change”, is based on the study carried out at the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, using the crop yield data from the Swedish Board of Agriculture for 2013 to 2015. It attributes the adverse environmental effect of organic food to greater land required to produce the same quantities. No doubt, the direct carbon emissions from organic agriculture are typically lower than those from conventional farms, but the overall climate footprint is much higher because the use of more land contributes indirectly to greater deforestation, the researchers maintain. Significantly, they found that growing peas organically did 50 per cent more damage to the climate than producing them in the normal way. Such impact of wheat was even worse — at 70 per cent.

This apart, more scientific evidence is also emerging to discount the nutritional superiority of organic products. The initial credible indication to this effect had come in 2009 from a meta-analysis (a study of other studies) which found no nutritional difference between organic and other products. This conclusion has subsequently been endorsed by other studies, including a bigger 2012 meta-study involving 240 published research reports on this subject. It found hardly any variation in organic and non-organic foods in terms of vitamins, proteins and fat contents. There were, however, hints of marginally higher content of phosphorous in a few products and slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organically produced milk.

Taste-wise, too, the organic and non-organic foods are not too dissimilar. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), while some people say they can taste the difference between the two kinds of foods, the others find no distinction. “Taste is a subjective and personal consideration”, the USDA points out.

The merits and demerits of organic farming aside, plant scientists generally believe that it may not be possible to revert back to totally chemicals-free farming now. The late Nobel Laureate, Norman E Borlaug, hailed as the father of the Green Revolution that helped many countries, including India, to become self-sufficient in food, often used to say that the problem of hunger cannot be solved by organic farming alone. If the needed food was to be produced organically, it would require not only more land, which is just not available, but also massive amount of organic manure, which would be nearly impossible to arrange. “The plant roots absorb nutrients in ionic form. It does not matter for them whether these nutrients comes from an organic or inorganic source,” he often argued.

The basic problem with non-organic agriculture is not so much the fertilisers as the toxic pesticides, especially their indiscriminate and improper use without observing the prescribed precautions. If this aspect is taken care of, through whatever means, many of the objections to modern farming would get resolved.

All this argumentation is, indeed, not meant to denigrate organic farming which has several plus points, especially concerning the physical health and the biological and micro-nutrient profile of the soils. It is chiefly to put this mode of agriculture in the right perspective by clearing certain misconceptions about it. Those who can afford and are willing to pay higher prices for organic products should be welcome to do so. Organic farming, too, needs to expand to cater to this niche market. But regular, chemical inputs-based agriculture is indispensable to meet the burgeoning demand of farm products from steadily diminishing land.

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