If your first thought when it comes to organic food or drink is, ‘Sounds costly…’ then it’s worth examining what you mean by cost.
On the one hand, there’s the actual price on the shelf. Organics tend to be more expensive than conventional produce. For those shopping on a budget, this can be a deal-breaker.
But what about the cost to the environment?
The world is currently facing a ‘catastrophic collapse of natural ecosystems’, the sixth mass extinction in history, because insects are vanishing by 2.5% each year, which means in 100 years they could all be gone, according to a recent report from the journal Biological Conservation. This was the first global study of its kind, noting how 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, with ‘intensive agriculture’ and the heavy use of pesticides cited as the main driver.
‘The world needs to change the way it produces food.’ F. Sánchez-Bayo et al, Biological Conservation
And what of the health cost?
A recent US study found traces of glyphosate, a week-killing chemical, in 19 out of 20 wine and beer samples they analysed. While these levels were below thresholds identified as hazardous by US authorities, the authors of the study noted the possibility that even low levels of glyphosate may be problematic for health, even carcinogenic.
The one drink that didn’t contain any traces of glyphosate was an organic beer (Peak Beer Organic IPA). But, worryingly, another organic lager and two organic wines did test positive. One winery, Frey Vineyards, was reported as saying that it’s almost impossible to completely avoid contamination as glyphosate can now be detected in rainwater. Back to the point about the environment…
So perhaps we need to start re-examining our definition of cost, and think less about why organic produce is expensive and more why conventional food is so cheap.
The definition varies. But essentially organic production promotes biodiversity and rejects synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as GM products.
This isn’t to say that organic winemakers, for example, don’t have to use pesticides or fungicides. Vineyards are a precarious monoculture with a delicate fruit that needs treating if they are to make a productive crop. Organic farmers just use ‘natural’ alternatives. But these aren’t always a panacea – rotenone (from plants) has been linked to Parkinson’s and copper sulphate (to treat mildew) can prove toxic for soil life if used excessively.
The aim of organics is a sustainable farming practice. Some argue that organics aren’t sustainable commercially – which brings us back to the point about these products often being more expensive, because the farming tends to be more labour- (and sometimes cost-) intensive, and whether we’re prepared to pay for them.
Others point out that organic farming methods can be detrimental to the environment because the treatments aren’t as effective so applications are more frequent, hence greater use of fuel for tractors and carbon emissions. As PK Newby writes in Food & Nutrition:
‘Neither organic nor conventional systems will be truly sustainable until renewable and alternative energy sources are used throughout agriculture.’
Biodynamics is like an extension, or an extreme version, of organics. (By way of analogy, if conventional agriculture is pop music then organics is blues and biodynamics is crazy jazz…)
Biodynamics incorporates the philosophies of its founding father Rudolph Steiner as well as the lunar calendar, homeopathic principles and animals (particularly cows) as an integral part of the system. For example, in biodynamic viticulture, preparations for sprays to keep vineyards healthy are buried in cow horns over winter.
It’s easy to be sceptical about biodynamics but some of the world’s greatest wines are made using this farming method. After all, one unavoidable consequence of farming biodynamically is that the farmer needs to be much more involved in the vineyard – which is never a bad thing.
Do organic or biodynamic drinks taste better than conventional ones? Not necessarily. But most of us, given the choice, would rather choose an organic wine over a conventional one. So drinks producers can either choose to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.
Research shows that wine drinkers are happy to pay 38% more for an organic wine. There was a time this meant unscrupulous producers offloaded rubbish wine at a premium. Nowadays, with more competition, that’s not the case and the organic wine category is expanding fast.
Admittedly, it’s a small base – but a growing one.
The organic vineyard is reckoned to be 4-5% of the global total, mostly concentrated in Spain, France and Italy. But, according to the IWSR, the organic vineyard has grown 234% since 2007 and sales growth is significantly outpacing conventional wine. Nielsen predicts organic wine will grow 10.5% in value in the UK and reach £1.15bn in sales in 2022, with organic wine sales up 22% in 2017 versus 3% growth for conventional wine.
Follow this link to find our recommendations of organic and biodynamic wines and drinks for you to enjoy.