What’s the deal with ‘Organic’?

Being a vegan, you are probably well acquainted with the likes of wholefood shops, farmer’s markets or even shops specifying in organic produce. Having opted for a plant-based diet and lifestyle for moral reasons, I feel obliged to continue to question and inform myself on what I consume and what affect my lifestyle has on the environment. Though I generally knew that organic tends to be accepted as the more ethical option, I had not looked into it extensively. Now I have. Here’s what I found.

First, what does organic really mean? In Britain, the producer must complete an application, inspection and certification process with one of the UK’s 9 organic control bodies. Organic farming may include the following: avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides, using crop rotation and other forms of husbandry to maintain soil fertility, controlling weeds, pesticides and diseases using husbandry techniques and where necessary approved materials to control pests and diseases, using a limited number of approved products and substances where necessary in the processing of organic food. These 9 bodies agree on 5 basic values that are guaranteed in organic farming: sustainability, environmental priority, transparency and health and welfare.

Organic farmers use animal waste to replace the chemical fertilisers that are used in conventional farming. This is often made up of manure, chicken blood, fish slurry and other animal products. While these must, according to the organic farming guidelines, also be derived from organically held animals, it seems questionable as to whether we should be supporting this when eliminating animal products from our lifestyle. While the thought of animal waste fertiliser is surely repulsive to any vegan, one must weigh up the damage caused. One must remember that what the organic farmer re-uses as fertiliser is essentially waste and while in an ideal world, the meat and dairy industry would not exist, it currently does and the use of its waste product closes a production loop. Furthermore, synthetically produced chemicals used as fertiliser in conventional farming are tested on animals to assess an amount that is ‘safe for human consumption’. Are we thus choosing between the lesser of two evils?
A further contention that vegans may have to organic farming’s ethical claim is the fact it misleads non-vegans with the false assumption that there is such thing as “ethical meat and animal products”. Of course, even a pig or cow held on an organic farm will still be slaughtered and the brutality of this act cannot be veiled by the claim that it was ‘ethically’ done. Likewise, the justification that organic eggs are cruelty-free does not hold true as the male chicks are nevertheless killed off as they have no purpose in the egg production.

While the Vegan Organic Network has made an advance on these issues and advocates the implementation of vegan and organic agriculture it’s still a niche form of farming and will take time before it is more widely implemented. Meanwhile, the mainstream organic farming industry does not claim to be vegan.

Also: buying organic costs. Though it may only be a few pence more per apple or carrot, people who find themselves on a tight budget will find this hard to justify. The label has become notorious for being elitist and a luxury for the privileged few. GM-crops and industrial-scale farming have enabled the price reduction of crops to feed even the most impoverished levels of society. Whether conventional farming which comes with a range of exploitation and environmental destruction is truly the more egalitarian form of farming is nevertheless debatable and almost impossible to prove.

Should vegans go organic ? Below I have found that the three most common reasons vegans give who opt for organic produce are 1) environmental benefits, 2) health benefits and 3) ethical benefits.

Organic farmers claim that their methods are more environmentally sustainable. Water and soil contamination is reduced as herbicides and pesticides are prohibited. The soil rotation practiced by organic farmers reduces the soil erosion. The focus which organic farmers place on the health of their soils helps these to store carbon dioxide and thus prevents it being expelled into our atmosphere. A variety of wildlife is endangered by the pesticides prohibited in organic farming. The pesticides not only kill the targeted pests but likewise, bees, birds, insects and aquatic animals suffer or die.

As pesticides are strictly limited in organic farming and herbicides such as glyphosate are prohibited thus organic produce exposes the consumer and those involved in the production to fewer toxins than conventional produce whereas the chemical pesticides used in conventional farming cannot be fully eliminated through washing and cooking. According to the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the herbicide glyphosate used by Monsanto and regularly found in British bread is a probable carcinogen. Thus, one can opt for organic options not only to protect the health of the environment but also one’s own.

While critics of organic farming may stress the potential of conventional farming methods to feed an ever-growing population, this fact is still to be proven and needs to be weighed up against its moral costs. In organic farming, the guarantee of fairness ensures that those working at the very base of the production line, such as the fieldworkers are ethically treated and paid adequately. Organic farms exist – according to the organic control bodies – to reduce exploitation and ensure fairer trade.

After having considered both sides of the organic argument I find myself more torn than before. As annoying as the conclusion may be, I believe that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer for everyone. I believe that everyone should adopt a vegan and cruelty-free lifestyle, whether this involves opting for organic or conventional produce is a matter of individual judgment as neither option is ideal.