Sep 14, 2020
This month is Organic September so Meryl Batchelder considers the benefits of going organic for the food we eat and the clothes we wear. By choosing purchases that have been certified as organic there are positive implications for our own health and also for biodiversity, animal welfare, social justice and even climate change.
Organic September, October, November…
When you go shopping you will have seen fruits, vegetables, meat and items of clothing that are labelled with the organic logo. To gain this label strict standards much be adhered to which limit the addition of pesticides and prohibit genetically modified (GMO) crops. In organic farming, natural methods are relied upon to control pests and disease. The methods include crop rotations, encouraging natural predators and protecting soil.
Pesticides are chemical or biological substances are used to control pests during the cultivation and storage of crops. They can include: herbicides to control weeds, insecticides to protect seeds and plants from damage by insects, nematicides to control attack on growing plants by worms or slugs, rodenticides to prevent damage by small mammals such as mice and fungicides to prevent mould forming on plants.
You are what you eat
The nutritionist Victor Lindlahr coined the phrase ‘You are what you eat’ in the 1920s and published a book by the same name in 1940. He was a strong believer in the idea that our health is directly linked to the food we eat. If we consider the energy flow in food chains and food webs which are studied in KS3 science then this makes sense. Using the example of a traditional Sunday dinner of roast chicken then not only are we eating the chicken but through bioaccumulation we could also be eating any toxins present in the grain that the chicken was fed.
We eat food to provide the nutrients we need to stay healthy but the Soil Association want us to consider what else might have been added to the food. They are raising awareness of the use of the glyphosphate (RoundUp) which has increased 400% in the past 20 years. Residues of this herbicide recently appeared in around two-thirds of wholemeal bread samples tested by the Defra. The manufacturers advise farmers to use it as a weedkiller and to spray crops with the chemical to kill and dry the plants, making them easier to harvest. This wheat is then milled into the flour we bake with at home. Unlike fruit and vegetables which we can wash before eating this is not possible for foods such as flour meaning we are consuming the pesticides they contain. There is a huge amount of research and controversy on the relationship between glyphosate and health. It is licensed in the EU but has also been identified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organisation; the long term health consequences are yet to be fully determined.
Going organic doesn’t stop at what is in your food shop but can also be an important choice for the clothes you wear. Let’s take a cotton tee-shirt as an example. As a cotton crop grows, it is sprayed with fertilisers and pesticides. To make mechanical harvesting easier, the leaves need to be removed from the plant first so a chemical 'defoliant' such as glyphosphate is added to make the leaves drop off. The cotton buds are harvested and treated further.
Woollen products can contain pesticides too – sheep reared conventionally are dipped in a chemical solution containing organophosphates (a group of insecticides or nerve agents) which can be damaging to health and cause local pollution which damages wildlife.
We are beginning to recognise harm that fast fashion is causing from environmental pollution to employment injustice. As demand grows there are an increasing number of organic clothing outlets which also promote fair working conditions for their staff. By investing in a small numbers of garments that are organic and ethically sourced we can protect more than our own modesty.
The ground beneath our feet
In addition to protecting our own health organic farming has wider environmental benefits. Fertilisers, overproduction and the use of pesticides in conventional farming can negatively affect ecosystems, biodiversity, groundwater, and drinking water supplies. By killing weeds there are knock-on effects to pollinators. Recent studies have reported organic farms have around 50% more bees and butterflies than their non-organic rivals. There have been some really uplifting news stories in UK relating to the growing number of wilding projects which use organic methods alongside other measures can promote biodiversity even further.
Soil quality is fundamental for plant growth. It provides essential nutrients, water, oxygen and support to the roots. Soil hosts a huge community of diverse organisms that improve the structure of the soil, recycle essential nutrients, helps to control weeds, plant pests and diseases. The use of pesticides will effectively kill the weeds and also much of the other life in the ground beneath our feet. Another important aspect is that when soil is healthy, it contributes to mitigate climate change by keeping or increasing soil organic carbon.
Poor farming practices such as hedge removal and changing weather patterns is resulting in huge quantities of lost soil through runoff or wind erosion. In addition a recent study reported in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/02/microplastic-pollution-devastating-soil-species-study-finds) suggests microplastic pollution causes significant damage to populations of soil-dwelling mites, larvae and other tiny creatures that maintain the fertility of the land. As soil forms the basis of many of our food chains it is critical to preserve it. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, ‘the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself’.
Check the label
Organic food is often more expensive for consumers than conventionally produced food because of labour-intensive farming methods, the costs of certification and the decreased reliance on synthetic chemicals to increase crop yields. Unfortunately there are trends in some lower-income countries to produce certified organic crops solely for export to wealthier countries which can generate a situation in which the farmers themselves cannot afford to buy the food they are producing thus increasing both food insecurity and food miles. Checking the label and buying organic food grown in the UK benefits local producers and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The organic logo is often synonymous with sustainable development or fair trade; however, large food-processing companies can buy from a single farming operation that produces organic crops on thousands of acres, rather than from many smaller farms that each grow on smaller farms, a practice that effectively limits the participation of smaller farmers in these markets. Although we must decrease our reliance on fossil fuels to combat climate change, some organic policies do little to address the issue of sustainability, focusing instead on the strict list of prohibited substances, rather than a comprehensive, long-term view of farming and food.
All organic food companies and farms are currently inspected annually to ensure that they meet the high standards required for organic food under European law – obviously these regulations may well change as a result of Brexit from January 2021. Using purchasing power to buy organic produce sends a strong message to producers and politicians responsible for coordinating any new trade agreements. Mass-produced chlorinated chicken fed on a non-organic diet might be inexpensive but it might not have been approved by the nutritionalist Victor Lindlahr if we are indeed what we eat.
Organic September is a month-long campaign which aims to raise awareness of organic products, and the brands, producers and farmers who bring them to us in the UK. The Soil Association suggests that by switching just one item in your shop to organic will help contribute to changing our food system. Buying more organic food means more organic farms so fewer pesticides which is better for our wildlife and means more farm animals raised under higher welfare standards.
The Soil Association website provides loads of ideas to join the organic movement including; hosting an organic meal, trying a veg box, growing your own leafy veg, making your own organic face scrub, packing an organic lunchbox or creating an organic school dinner.
It’s already autumn and the leaves are starting to fall. If you decide to turn over a proverbial new leaf to place more organic produce in your basket then you could extend your Organic September to run throughout the next few months and to even go organic when you do your Christmas shopping. Sustainable, organic, locally produced gifts are the bee’s knees!
Links to curriculum:
- KS2 Science: Healthy Diets
- KS3 Science: Plants and Environmental Interactions
- KS4 and KS5 Biology
Resources and Activities
- Garden Organic: https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/schools
- RHS School Gardening: https://schoolgardening.rhs.org.uk/home
- Woodland Trust (e.g., foraging): https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/things-to-do/foraging/
- Sustainable Learning have two resources for Y3-4, Healthy food for a healthy planet and Sustainable Shaun; pesticide panic: https://www.sustainablelearning.com/event/organic-september-2020
- The Soil Association website provides 30 ideas to join the organic movement: https://www.soilassociation.org/organic-living/30-ways-to-join-the-organic-movement
Posters and logos for Organic September: https://goorganicuk.com/organic-september/downloads