Study finds organic farming needs to stick to its roots

In Canada, eating organic rather than conventional produce may yield only marginal health benefits — the real benefit is the sustainability of farming methods, according to a UBC study.

'You may be better off eating an apple a day and it doesn't matter if it's organic or not'

UBC researcher Verena Seufert says conventional farming and organic farming both have something to learn from each other. (Stephen Cameron)

The increasing demand by consumers for organic food may have confused the actual reason the practice was first pioneered in the 1920s.

That's one conclusion of the UBC study, Many Shades of Gray: The Context-Dependent Performance of Organic Agriculture. The recent study weighed the costs, benefits and sustainability of organic agriculture. 

"You may be better off eating an apple a day and it doesn't matter if it's organic or not," said study author Verena Seufert, speaking with guest host Angela Sterritt on B.C. Almanac

Seufert said the study found organically grown crops offer minimal health benefits over conventually grown crops, especially when consumed in small quantities. 

The real benefit, she said, is that organic agriculture can be looked to as a model for healthier farming practices. On organic farms, she said, they found better animal welfare, less water pollution, less nitrogen being added to fertilizer and generally better soil treatment.

Seufert said it's a common misconception that the original intent of organic farming was about the health of the consumer — it was about the health of a farm's soil.

She said conventional farming methods have degraded soil quality while organic agriculture allows for increased soil fertility and, in turn, sustainability. 

It's all about context

The issue of sustainability is why the study's title includes the term "many shades of gray."

The study found the perceived sustainability of organic farming came down entirely to context. Seufert said while there are potential benefits, there are also many costs, such as lower yields and higher consumer prices.

"Compare an organic farm to a regular farm," she explained. "Typically, the organic farm has better biodiversity — more bees, more earthworms ... However it's not as efficient as conventional farming, and then if you compare environmental impact per unit, versus food output per unit, then organic farming may not fare as well."

Seufert said the findings may suggest organic agriculture isn't the answer to providing a sustainable future.

She said most organic farms are relatively quite small —very large ones begin to abandon organic practices for efficiency's sake. She pointed to California as an area that is struggling with this.

'Still a niche market'

Seufert asserts only one per cent of agricultural land on the planet is organic and only 1.7 per cent of food sold in Canada is organic. She says it's a small number but the growing demand is promising.

"Growth in the organic sector shows that people are interested in these topics, that they are looking for alternatives. This should be a message to the 99 per cent of our farms that are not organic."

Seufert stressed that rather than thinking of organic farming as good and conventional farming as bad, consumers should demand quality and humane practices from both.

With files from B.C. Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: BCA Podcast March 13