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Organic is good for the planet but needs more support, say authors of UBC study

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A text published in the Hill Times on March 27th 2017, co-authored by Jane Rabinowicz and Karen Ross, Ph.D. Project Manager - Pesticides and Toxic Substances at Équiterre.

Organic growers and researchers have been sustainably innovating on a shoestring budget for decades. Imagine what could be achieved with more.

Investing in organics is worth our while, concludes a study released Friday, March 10.

While the study has received significant media attention, the coverage has missed the mark, suggesting that organic is not all it claims to be, or worse, is a risk for the planet.

So what did the authors really say?

Setting out to answer the important question of “where does organic agriculture perform well, and where does it not?” researchers at the University of British Columbia reviewed scientific literature and analyzed the performance of organic agriculture across 17 criteria such as yield, impact on climate change, livelihoods of farmers, and consumer health.

The authors found that organic systems outperform conventional systems in several areas. Organic agriculture can improve farm profitability by 35 per cent, and decrease the exposure of farmers and farm workers to toxic agrochemicals. Organic systems protect biodiversity and water and soil quality, and emit far less greenhouse gases per area cultivated.

These results are even more impressive if you consider the miniscule research and development investment organics receive. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s 2016 overview reports that $649.5-million were invested in agricultural research and development in 2015. Only $1.6-million of it went to organic agriculture in that same year—that’s a mere 0.25 per cent of the R&D budget, significantly out of proportion with the overall percentage of Canadian agriculture represented by organics (two per cent and growing rapidly).

Investing in research in organics pays off. Wheat bred for organic production performs better on organic farms than conventional varieties, according to research by Martin Entz at the University of Manitoba, and the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, a project of USC Canada. When tested against conventional varieties, the organic wheat—carefully selected to grow well in low input environments—showed greater early vigour, better disease resistance, greater concentration of micronutrients, and was competitive on yield. What does this mean? By investing in organic agriculture research, we can narrow the yield gap while producing healthy food using fewer chemicals that we know are toxic for the environment and human health.

All farmers are interested in growing healthy food in a sustainable way for the planet and their bottom line. As the UBC authors explain, organics have provided conventional agriculture with many helpful innovations in management practices, such as diversifying crop rotations, composting, cover crops, conservation tillage, and biological pest control. Investing in organics benefits all farmers, organic or otherwise.

Organic agriculture faces many challenges. The UBC study cites that organic farms typically yield less by 19-25 per cent. The authors question whether this gap offsets the environmental benefits of organic farming, and argue for more research. Much has already been done. Dozens of reports, including a 30-year study by the Rodale Institute, have shown that organic yields can compete with those of conventional, in some cases doing better over time and in years of moderate drought. And although yield is an important measure, it does not indicate the overall productivity of a farm, and should not come at the cost of the health of the agro-ecosystem, or the viability of a farm business. We must also remember that approximately 30 per cent of the food produced in Canada goes to waste. Feeding our communities now and in the future is as much about minimizing waste, and improving equitable access and distribution, as it is about optimizing productivity.

Ultimately, is organic agriculture worth our attention? The UBC authors say absolutely.

The organic market is the fastest growing food sector in Canada. This is a testament to its success, and the desire of Canadians to eat healthier, more sustainably grown food. More than ever, we need strong political engagement and investment in sustainable, climate resilient agriculture. Organic growers and researchers have been sustainably innovating on a shoestring budget for decades. Imagine what could be achieved with more.


Jane Rabinowicz is executive director of USC Canada and the founding director of The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security.

Karen Ross is pesticides and toxics project manager at Équiterre.