Since this month is “Organic September”, we’ve enlisted some local experts to share their expertise and explain what the O-word actually means — and why going organic is a good thing.
In a world where we are facing ever-increasing issues relating to climate change, diet-related ill health and a widespread decline in wildlife, the need to be mindful of our food systems, and make changes to the way we view them, has never been greater.
Organic September is a month-long campaign by the Soil Association, to raise awareness of the benefits of organic food and farming.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Organic is a word that’s bandied around a lot these days, but for many people, what the label really means is a bit of a mystery. In reality, though, it’s not too complicated — at least not according to people at Yeo Valley Organic in Somerset (and they should know, since they’ve been an organic brand for more than 25 years!).
“It means no chemical pesticides, fertilisers; not using antibiotics as a preventative measure (antibiotics can be used if the animals are sick when it becomes a necessary medicine),” says Adrian Carne, Yeo Valley Managing Director. “It means higher animal welfare and truly free-range livestock fed on a grass-based diet.”
Mark Bury, founder and director of Eversfield Organic in Devon, explains more. “Organic food is made in the most natural way, without any artificial fertilisers, pesticides, livestock feed or manmade resources — the way nature intended,” he says.
According to the Soil Association, organic farming has the highest animal welfare standards of any international farming system; which means truly-free range animals, encouraged to forage, graze and roam, with plenty of space, fresh air, and conditions that allow them to express their natural behaviours.
This is certainly the case at Eversfield Organic, as Mark tells us: “At Eversfield Organic, our cattle and lamb are only fed on a 100 per cent organic grass fed and finished diet, with our other meat fed on organic, natural feed. The animals are also allowed to roam, graze and forage freely, expressing natural behaviours. This high level of animal welfare also means the need for antibiotics is reduced — keeping these out of the food chain. Indoo living forces the requirement of veterinary visits and antibiotics.”
Modern life means that almost every part of our lives has some impact on the environment, but by choosing food that has bee produced organically, we can lessen the negative effects, as Tom Richardson, Communications Manager at The Community Farm, near Chew Magna in Somerset, tells us. “The way food is produced has a massive impact on our health and the health of the planet. A whopping 75 per cent of land in the UK is used for agriculture and about 20 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from food, so the food system has a huge role to play in answering the climate and nature crises. According to a recent report by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, if Europe’s farmland all went organic, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions could drop by up to 50 per cent by 2050 and we’d still provide plenty of healthy food for everyone,” he says.
Eversfield Organics’ Mark agrees: “Organic food is better for the planet, as avoiding man-made fertilisers and utilising waste products, such as organic compost in our closed-loop regenerative farming model, provides naturally nutritious soil to sustain crops and livestock. Using less energy than intensive, traditional farming, organic farming and supporting local farm shops can reduce food miles and ultimately CO2 emissions.”
He continues: “It’s also better for the soil, which is a vital investment into our future. Organic farming adds to the natural humus (no chickpeas involved) of the soil, which acts as a glue, important for the health of all living things. As we continue to improve the soil, we also use a rotational grazing system for our cattle. In this, livestock are moved to different areas of fields to allow the other sections to rest and recover. Increasing soil fertility and organic matter can help to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration), an effective strategy to offset the rise in atmospheric CO2.”
The team at Yeo Valley Organic take a similar approach. “At Yeo Valley Organic, we always strive to put nature first,” says Adrian.
“Organic farming does more than any other system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Healthy, organic soils are one of the biggest carbon sinks, locking away — or ‘sequestering’ — carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and helping to prevent climate change.”
“Organic is great for the ecosystem and community dynamics within our wildlife,” continues Adrian from Yeo Valley Organic.
“Without widespread chemical use, organic farms, like Yeo Valley, tend to have high levels of wildlife — on average, 50 per cent more than on other kinds of farms! We help this along by looking after habitats like hedgerows, giving wildlife the space to thrive!”
“Plus,” adds Tom from The Community Farm, “the chemicals used in conventional, non-organic, farming can be hugely damaging to pollinators, pollute our waterways and are degrading our soils at such a rate that, according to the UN, we could have as little as 60 years of conventional farming left.”
So, we’ve established that the organic thing is better for the animals, and better for the environment. But it turns out that it’s better for us as consumers too.
“There’s a growing body of research that suggests that food grown organically has a greater amount and variety of antioxidants and micro-nutrients, as well as being better for your microbiome and gut health,” says Tom.
Mark agrees. “As the food chain continues, organic food presents higher nutritional values than traditionally produced food,” he says. “Organic, grass-fed meat contains lower levels of saturated fats and boosts omega-3 fatty acids with organic dairy and fruit and vegetables also seeing more essential vitamins and minerals.”
“Organic milk is not only high in protein, calcium, and iodine; research suggests it contains around 50% more omega 3 fatty acids than non-organic milk,” adds Adrian.
“Our bodies only produce a small amount of omega 3 fatty acids naturally, which means we need to get as much as possible from our diets to promote a healthy heart and blood circulation.”
With so many benefits, it might seem that adopting organic practices should be a no-brainer for all food producers. But it does pose some challenges, as our team of experts knows only too well — especially when it comes to dealing with the seasons and the unpredictable nature of British weather.
“Whilst organic farming is sometimes a battle against the weather, it can also be a race against time, especially in autumn,” says Mark. “Our organic cows must genuinely be free range and spend most of their time outside grazing on grass, on average 215 days per year! In fact, their total diet must be at least 60 per cent grass-based (but we aim for more!). Therefore, as summer turns to autumn, and the growth of the grass starts to slow down, we are preparing the silage, which is preserved grass through fermentation, that is used to feed the cows organically from late autumn until early spring. As you can imagine a lot of time and effort is needed working out the perfect balanced diet for each of our cow and most of their food is grown on the farm.”
“The main challenges of organic farming come from learning to work with nature, rather than fighting against it,” adds Tom. “For example, here at The Farm, we plant flowers in our polytunnels that encourage insects that might eat the ‘pests’ that would otherwise damage our crops. And we work hard to keep our plants healthy, as healthy plants are far less vulnerable to attack than unhealthy ones that have relied on artificial fertilisers to grow.”
Overcoming the challenges can take a bit of thinking outside the box sometimes too, as Adrian tells us. “We’ve been an organic brand for more than 25 years, and throughout this journey we have had to find innovative approaches to farming organically. For example, organic standards mean you can’t use a nitrogen fertiliser so we use clover instead. Clover is considered a nitrogen fixing plant, meaning that it will take nitrogen from the air and get it into the soil so that our crops and grass can use it to grow.”
Another aspect of organic farming that can pose some challenges is meeting the expectation of consumers, who often expect their fruit and veg to look perfect, and have a long shelf life.
“Environmental conditions mean it’s not always possible to meet public expectations with the food we grow,” says Tom.
“Some of our veg is wonky, or a bit smaller than you might find in the supermarket, and we can’t grow all types of produce all year round. Obviously, we can only sell what the public will buy, so building an understanding of what natural and seasonal food looks like is another challenge that we all need to work to address. That’s why we encourage everyone in our community to visit the farm, get their hands dirty and experience the realities of food growing. Most people find it really enjoyable as well as educational.”
“Organic fruit and veg also sometimes doesn’t last as long as normal fruit and veg due to not using any artificial preservatives,” adds Mark.
You might notice the price tag on organic products is a bit higher than on the non-organic equivalents. But it’s for good reason.
“Organic farming takes a lot more work and planning than traditional farming,” says Mark. “Artificial methods and resources are used in mass production of food for a reason: they are cheaper than natural methods. Farmers and producers of meat often choose grain designed to pack on weight to their animals to rear them more quickly and hence receive payment quicker. The grain also usually comes at a cheaper price than maintaining grass fed animals. Rearing grass fed animals at a more natural, slower pace is more expensive, making the final cut of meat more expensive too, but is made with more care, thought and precision than traditional methods — and tastes a whole lot better too!”
“It goes without saying that organic cows need organic food,” adds Adrian. “They’re designed to eat grass, and we’re firm believers that free-ranging, pasture-fed cows produce the very best milk. During the winter months, when it’s too wet or cold for them to be outside, we bring them into our warm, dry barns and feed them conserved grass, cereal crops and hay — all organic and entirely produced on the farms. Once the spring comes, they all go back to the fields to graze on the fresh grass in the clover-rich fields. But of course, there will be higher costs associated with organic approaches, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As organic farmers, we see ourselves as custodians of the land, which means we work to leave it better than we found it for future generations.”
“Our current food system doesn’t account for the true cost of the food that it produces,” says Tom. “If you included the cost of environmental damage, greenhouse gas emissions, health problems caused by poor diets and exposure to farming chemicals, to name just a few, the Sustainable Food Trust estimates that nonorganic food should cost about double its current price! Growing food organically deals with a lot of those negatives through care and attention throughout the growing process, but this takes more people and more time, and that’s where the extra costs come in. If nonorganic food was priced to reflect its full cost, the price difference would most likely disappear. It’s just that at the moment, when we buy non-organic food, we save money at the moment of purchase, but we pay the difference in the health of ourselves and the planet.”