Is organic still the best servant of sustainability?
The organic movement is a good one. Its aims are noble: that human farming activities are sustainable when it comes to land and water use. That they reduce chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides. That we protect the planet. Nobody would argue with that.
It’s what’s driven increasing organic food sales globally for decades. Meticulous Research predicts the global market will be worth about $280bn by 2027 and growing at 12% annually
Most people perceive organically grown produce as environmentally friendly, even if there are some who are sceptical about how trustworthy some organic certifications are. But that’s another issue. If we assume organic produce can indeed be trusted to be organic, there remains the issue that as we enter 2021, is organic the best the planet can do to safeguard its own health and safety? Organic might be sustainable but is it the most sustainable?
Have technological developments moved passed organic so that it is no longer the gold standard in agricultural sustainability? What if genetically modified produce or vertical farms are more sustainable than organics for instance? (They can be.)
VERTICAL FARMING VS ORGANIC FARMIN IN THE EU
Certainly European organic farming has a problem with certain technologies and vertical farming is one of them. If it’s not soil-based, it’s not organic, the EU says.
“’Soil-related crop cultivation’ means production in living soil or in soil mixed or fertilised with materials and products allowed in organic production in connection with the subsoil and bedrock,” state EU organic standards. while other countries like Singapore and the US approve vertical farms as being organic.
“Having a national organic certification will help local urban farms to be on equal footing with the US…” said the chair of Singapore’s Food Standards Committee at the time of last year’s certification.
The EU is actually moving in the opposite direction, stripping indoor farming operations of their organic status over a 10-year period after a 2017 ruling.
When it considered that many vertical farms tick every organic box except often not being connected to the “subsoil and bedrock”, the demarcation can look a little absurd given the end goal of sustainable food production is often more powerfully achieved with vertical farming than soil-based organic farming.
Why should soil matter ?
With non-urban vertical farming, former farms that may have been damaging to local ecosystems via tree hacking, soil depletion and destruction, waterway damage and more are condensed into enviro-neutral vertical farms requiring a fraction of the land footprint of traditional or organic farms.
With vertical farms growing conditions are optimised; yields elevated exponentially; pesticide requirement eliminated. Damage to fauna like birds, insects and other animals is minimised while water and land security is enhanced and wetland destruction reversed.
The OECD estimates traditional agriculture accounts for around 70% of water use today and contributes to water pollution from excess nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants. Vertical farming uses around 95% less water than traditional agriculture.
Yes vertical farming can be energy intensive, but lighting technologies are improving as is the use of green energy sources.
All of this aligns with the organic movement.
Fact is, organic crops can be more pristinely grown to organic standards via vertical farming. Vertical farming offers the kind of pure input control organic farming tries so hard to achieve with conventional soil-based farming.
This input control solves one of the major problems organic farming has always faced – drift. The fact that organic farms are often proximal to regular farms makes it very difficult to control the drift of pesticides and pesticide residues from non-organic to organic operations. This fact is one of the main reasons many people remain skeptical about organic certifications.
CAN ORGANIC BE CONSIDERED AS THE SUSTAINABLE BENCHMARK?
Perhaps emphasis needs to shift from organics as the benchmark sustainability measure, to sustainability itself. What are the most sustainable food production methods and how can the public be educated about them?
As vertical farmers we at BOTALYS believe vertical farming should be able to attain organic certification. We know our methods are organic, but no we don’t grow ginseng and other herbs in soil.
Perhaps the European organic movement will change its criteria but that is not the only avenue to certified sustainability.
The EU’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition defines a sustainable food system as “a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised.”
Issues like reducing air miles and the localisation of food, fair trade and fair labor, women’s rights and other corporate social responsibility (CSR) measures are also part of the mix.
If organic standard bearers won’t move with the times – yes, technology can be a force for good – then other standards will rise to become the ‘organics of tomorrow’.
Organic farming dwarfs vertical farming market in size but vertical farming is expected to expand by 25% by 2024, to reach €11.4bn, according to Global Market Insights.
And as GMI has observed, and we at BOTALYS know from years of vertical farming work and refinement, vertical farming usually produces more nutritious foods and ingredients.
“Items grown in vertical farms have superior nutritious values over conventional farm products,” research analyst Soumalya Chakraborty told FoodNavigagtor. “The controlled growth environment in vertical farms negates the requirement of agrochemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, thus keeping the natural nutritious value of the food items intact.”
Other certifications are already stepping into the breach and gaining prominence.
The Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) welcomes vertical farmers which meet its standards.
“Working with UEBT is a powerful way for businesses to demonstrate impact to consumers, governments and other supply chain actors, and UEBT certification allows all of us to choose brands, products and ingredients that are contributing to a world in which all people and biodiversity thrive.”
Other sustainability initiatives like UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance are aligned with UEBT (formerly known as the Ethical BioTrade Standard).
B-Corp is another body that backs entities “that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
In this way, these bodies and farmers like BOTALYS are ensuring sustainability means more than an arbitrary definition as the planet seeks solutions to the environmental crisis.