Is organic sustainable?

Is organic sustainable?

I asked this question to Dr Alessandro Pulga, who is Sales Manager at Bioagricert, a leading certification body based in Italy, and which is also part of the American Food Chain ID group. Alessandro has a degree in Agronomy, and specialised in organic farming and has been working with product certifications since 1993.

  1. What are the original principles behind organic farming?

Organic farming’s key principles have been clearly defined by IFOAM, an International organization that started in Versailles back in 1972, and the aim was to unify all organic associations all over the world. The original four principles were:

  1. The Principle of Health

Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil; plant, animal, and human life and the planet are one and indivisible.

  • The Principle of Ecology

Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, aim to emulate them and help to sustain them.

  • The Principle of Fairness

Organic agriculture should build upon relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and to life’s opportunities.

  • The Principle of Care

Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect both the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

In Italy, some fifty years later, we have a proposed law that defines organic farming in a very inspiring way:

“Organic production is an activity of national interest, with a social function. Its economy is based on quality and premium products, where food safety, animal welfare, rural development, environmental protection and biodiversity are intirinsic parts. These qualities contribute to the objective of reducing gas emissions and greenhouse gases…”

Organic farming has been very successful in the last decade, with double digit growth and a large distribution, so much so that perhaps it has lost part of its original spirit.

The European Union has contributed to such success.  It has pioneered a regulatory framework for organic farming along with the control systems that support this, increasing the confidence of consumers and the market place and leading to ever greater sucess for organic produce.

On the other hand, it could also be claimed that it has failed to carry through all of the original ethical vision that stood behind the organic movement, which was based on changing farming  for the benefit of the whole planet.

  • Sustainability is complex and it is in constant development, trying to find the balance between humans, the environment and economic activity. In the context of organic farming, a sector you have been working in for over 30 years, what measurable environmental benefits can you inform us about?

Organic farming is based on keeping any external inputs to a minimum, with the aim of preserving the soil’s natural fertility and to stimulate nature’s balancing mechanisms; for this reason, it forbids monoculture and protects biodiversity with crop rotation.

For example if, in one year, organic corn is grown, in order to give back to the soil the nitrogen used by the crop, then in the following year nitrogen fixing crops are grown, usually legumes.

Organic farming forbids the use of synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides;  it favours mechanic methods and the use of native plant species that are more resistant to local pests and diseases.

This means using less pesticides and creating improved soil fertility and biodiversity.

Several governments projects are showing that organic crops have high Carbon sequestration potential also thanks to higher humus production, a stable form of Carbon, as well as a lower GHG (green house gas) emissions.

Another advantage of organic farming is increased animal welfare, leading to healthier meat, eggs and milk. This is in contrast to intensive animal farming, which has led to a high water and carbon consumption in the last few years.

An interesting potential solution to the growing demand for animal protein comes from research into insect farming.  Insects are very efficient in converting biomass into protein and therefore are a possible sustainable protein source for humans in ihe future. In fact organic farming is developing a standard for the use of organic insects on a large scale along a welfare framed system.

  • Biodiversity is getting trendier with regard to sustainability; what interesting initiatives can you tell us about that are related to this?

Recently I was fortunate to come across the World Biodiversity Association (WBA), a non-profit organisation that is based in Italy. The people behind this association are naturalists, botanists, zoologists and also committed people who are passionate about nature. They promote education and even a certification that marks a product or process as Biodiversity Friendly. This certification is voluntary and is aimed at farmers, both organic as well as conventional, and seeks to promote a different sustainable farming model that is based on low environmental impacts and is adaptable to the local landscape.

Consequentially, the certified farms need to modify their operations in light of their environmental protection commitment. Such a proven commitment – via the certification process done by the WBA – can give the opportunity of communicating with the consumer from a position of proven credibility and trust.

The certification journey starts with a self-assessment questionnaire, after which there is an audit performed by a third-party certification body, consisting of people who are authorised and trained by the WBA. I am pleased to say that Bioagricert has recently become authorised to certify according to this Biodiversity Friendly standard.

  • Biodiversity does not only apply to plants, but also to soil microorganisms, which greatly contribute to its health and fertility. What technologies or initiatives are available in relationship to this important aspect of farming?

The earth is a microcosmos that is as big as it is mysterious. Under our feet there are billions of microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria, that live in symbiosis with plants. In every gram of soil there are about a billion microorganisms! The entirety of these countless microorganisms is called the soil microbiome.

A nice example is fungi, that live in symbiosis with plants, which they both bind to and in return help the plant to extend it root system, networking and allowing plant to plant communication; it is like a kind of optic fibre for plants.

The same way our gut microbiome is influenced by our diet, and the state of our health is heavily dependent on the state of our microbiome, in the same way that the plant’s health is related to the soil microbiome.

This similar connection has led farmers and companies to a new approach which is called “symbiotic farming” where the fertilizers used respect soil microbiome. This new approach, which also has the name “eco symbiotic”, does not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and is based on the belief that a healthy soil microbiome leads to strong healthy plants whose nutrients, in turn, can support our own microbiome and health.

I believe this could be a new angle for organic farming, as well as an opportunity for new non-conventional farming. For example, farms that might not be eligible for organic certification, could nevertheless utilise such an approach to create a very innovative point of difference.

In the last few months Bioagricert has collaborated with the Eco-Symbiotic Society to revise a standard for this innovative approach to farming and its unique related certification mark.

  • How do you see organic farming evolving in the context of sustainability and what new systems are emerging?

For many years organic farming has represented a comprehensive reference model in the context of sustainability, thanks to its standards and control systems. I am glad that organic farming is strongly regulated and that it has gained credibility as a result of that; however, sometimes I wish that there was not as much red tape involved, because this can be a real hurdle to innovation.

For this reason, I believe that there is an important role to play for voluntary certifications that promote other aspects of sustainability, for example related to biodiversity, workers in organic farms and other sectors. They may retain the same rigor as that of organic farming, and can apply similar criteria to other natural products such as cosmetics, house-care and textiles; sectors in which, as yet, there is no official standard.

I also believe that organic farming is not the only method that can supply sustainable bio commodities. It is important to develop measuring tools to assess sustainability, so that the new, up and coming and “sustainable” claim is supported and substantiated by valid data.

As organic farming has full traceability and highly developed systems behind it, it is an ideal candidate for subjection to sustainability metrics.

This means that organic farming can use such data in review of its systems and can therefore improve its environmental impact and other sustainability related aspects. For example, it would be great to see organic produce using less packaging and move to circular or compostable materials.

In Europe, one interesting initiative is the formal definition of PEF, of a product’s ecological footprint, and the concomitant LCA, that measures not only Carbon, but other parameters behind the process.

As you can see the original and inspiring principles behind the organic farming movement are very much linked to sustainability, and these pertain, but today there are also many other interesting and innovative ways to apply sustainability to the way we farm the land.

If you wish to know more visit Bioagricert website.

Otherwise, discover the science behind upcycling food waste into botanical extracts.

Dr Barbara Olioso, MRSC and MSCS, is the founder of the Green Chemist Consultancy, specialising in green cosmetics development for over 20 years. She was behind the launch of the first organic eau de toilette back in 2005 at Primavera, now owned by Espa International. She loves working with new concepts to drive innovation and value to new brands as well as well established brands. She also trains online on organic certifications and cosmetic preservation with multifunctional ingredients. She has been moderating the Sustainability Corner at in-cosmetics Global since 2018

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