AAfter 10 years of slow but steady growth, sales of organic food and drink in UK supermarkets are down 2.1% on the previous year. More worryingly, despite boasting strong year-on-year growth for a decade, organic started from a low base with a share of 1.8% of the total food and beverage market compared to 1.2% a decade ago. So even if this year’s dip is a flash in the pan, a gain of o.6% market share every decade means it will be another 800 years before most of what we eat and drink is organic. Even if we have 50% rapid growth in ten years, we will have to wait until the 22nd century.

The movement is facing other critical challenges. Except true believers think we can sustainably feed the world organically. There is a wide consensus that on average organic products are about 80% of “conventional” crops. More organic farming requires a lot of good agricultural land, which is in short supply. Worse, researchers who have examined the consequences of the UK going fully organic have concluded that it will increase greenhouse gas emissions and reduce biodiversity.

Even some of Organic’s old friends turned it on. George Monbiot In 2000, he went from saying “organic farming feeds the world” to labeling pasture-fed beef and lamb as the world’s most harmful farm products and calling organic farming itself “all bad and no magic.” Former anti-GM campaigner Mark Linas recently said that organic farming methods “have become a catalyst for agricultural expansion and a smokestack for the animal industry.”

Consumers who buy organic cite health, not the environment, as the bottom line. But study after study shows that organic foods have no health benefits. The Advertising Standards Authority, the main certifier of organic food in the UK, does not allow the Soil Association to make health claims. It still points to the “perceived health benefits”, carefully emphasizing that organic products are “nutritionally diverse” and contain fewer pesticides and additives, inviting people to draw their own conclusions.

Anyone who hopes this is the future of food has to admit it’s not going to happen. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. It means facing the reality that completing the journey to find sustainable food will require widening the road to accommodate more and more diverse travelers.

For decades now, there has been a binary choice narrative between organic and conventional agriculture. The first opposes all that is bad about industrialized agriculture: excessive use of man-made inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, soil erosion; loss of biodiversity, excess nitrogen entering rivers; Poor welfare standards associated with intensive animal husbandry. Organic farming has presented itself not only as an option, but as an alternative of Optional.

But it’s an option that many people are either unwilling or unable to pay for. The sales slump we’re seeing now is an echo of the last dip in the three years since the 2008 financial crisis. As household budgets tighten, organic sales take a hit, even though the poor can’t afford to buy much or anything in the first place.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to unsustainable farming. A growing number of farmers are using “agroecological” and “regenerative” methods, which share many of the goals of the organic movement but do not prescribe strict boxes. For example, a key principle of agroecology is that practices are adapted to the environmental, social, economic, cultural and political context and are “bottom-up”. This is contrary to the top-down dictates of all similar organic laws.

Advocates argue that we need a “gold standard” for certification in a world where many questionable environmental claims are made. But the strictness of organic standards is also part of the problem. Good agricultural practice cannot be reduced to one, long and strict rules. This allows farmers very little leeway to adjust what they do to meet the unique conditions and challenges of their local ecosystems. The certificate costs from £415 per year for a small holding of less than five hectares to £1,115 for 500.01 hectares or more in England. What ends up costing farmers is that they expect to pay more for their produce as a result. Part of the Soil Association’s recruiting pitch for farmers is the fact that net income for organic farms is significantly higher than for non-organic farms.

For all the strictness of organic standards, they vary by state, so there is no single definition of “organic”. US and EU organic laws are very different, however, according to an agreement signed in 2012, US-certified organic can be sold as organic in the EU and vice versa.

At the very least, organic farming should move from being an independent leader in agroecology to becoming an equal partner in the wider movement. Even if it does, we need another type of farming. Even a “typical” farm is more diverse than its name suggests. Technology is helping farmers to be more precise, providing the right amount of fertilizer, water and pesticides when needed. “Sustainable reinforcement” is not an oxymoron. Take the controlled environments of fully indoor permanent farms that dramatically reduce water, pesticide use and food waste. “We don’t use any chemicals anywhere,” says David Farquhar of Intelligent Growth Solutions, which runs such a farm at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee. “Everything is grown organically – although we can’t say it’s organic, because we’re not growing crops in the soil.”

Organic products still play an important role in our food system. I will continue to buy it, and I am also a member of the Soil Association. It may not be past the sell-by date, but the crude organic/inorganic divide remains. New thinking is needed to ensure the world has a healthy, sustainable food supply.

Further reading

Feeding Britain: Our food problems and how to fix them by Tim Lang (Penguin, £12.99)

Rooted: Biographies, Land and Farming Revolution by Sarah Langford (Penguin, £16.99)

The English Shepherd: A Legacy by James Rebanks (Penguin, £10.99)

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