From the Farm: Not easy being green

By Jonathan Underhill

If my vegetable garden was healthy I could keep weed and bug sprays in the shed. I’ve been proud to produce food for the table that’s semi-organic. Only vegetables that thrive get repeat plantings.

That rules out brassicas. Newtown in Wellington has a mighty population of white butterflies. I don’t dare produce broccoli since serving it up to the kids with un-noticed caterpillars wedged in the steamed florets. Delicate lettuces, such as the buttercrunch variety, beans, parsley and tomatoes do thrive as did silverbeet until this season, when it succumbed to rust.

Rip out the plants and spray new ones with a copper spray, was the recommendation from the local garden centre. So copper became the second chemical applied after a fog of Derris dust in the one year I tried to control the white butterfly.

Chemicals cost money so why does organic food cost more? Here’s that the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says:

• Organic food costs more because it is in limited supply compared to conventional crops;
• Production costs for organic foods are usually higher because they’re more labour intensive per unit of output and don’t have the same economies of scale;
• Once harvested, the costs are again higher because of the relatively small quantities and the need to segregate the produce during processing and transportation;
• The marketing and the distribution chain for organic products is “relatively inefficient and costs are higher because of relatively small volumes.”

The UN body helpfully says that as demand for organic produce grows, so the costs will come down. I’m not sure that’s happening, at least here. Can anyone remember when Fonterra cut back on the number of farms it would collect organic milk from? It couldn’t justify the cost.

My local supermarket, a Pak ‘n Save, has a small section of organic fresh produce but I don’t recall it growing much since inception. It is up there with health food - an odd section that lines the shelf above the frozen vegetables and ice cream and includes some Asian specialties and Bircher muesli.

There are two branches of Commonsense Organics I’m aware of in central Wellington, one in the CBD and another in the suburb of Kilbirnie. These stores always seem well patronised by those consumers who don’t mind paying more. I’m starting to think it will forever remain a niche market.

The world is going to struggle to produce enough food for its exploding human population. For most people conventionally grown vegetables will suffice. Unless you’re a dreadlocked idealist, the daily shopping grind is a success if the shopping basket actually contains any fruit and vegetables. Price and availability dictates what people buy. You’d be a mug to buy asparagus mid-winter.

The organic movement got something of a setback last month when a team of researchers from America’s Stanford University published a study showing there is little nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods.

There’s little incentive to pay the premium “if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” Dena Bravata, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, published in the Sept. 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. Her team’s work was highlighted in an article on the Stanford School of Medicine’s website

The team led by Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy “did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods”

“They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure,” the article says. The same applied to organic meats.

Globally, organics is still a growth phenomenon. US sales jumped to US$24.4 billion from US$3.6 billion between 1997 and 2011, the report says.

I predict the forecast surge in global demand for food in coming decades will be a steeper curve than the rise in demand for organic produce.

Organic farming has a marvellous theology and includes a holistic care for the land and the environment that arguably is absent from conventional farming. But in the starving corners of the globe hunger will drive choice.



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