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The multiple rewards of going organic

Outdoor Living

WIN WIN Supporting organic farmers by buying their produce means enjoying more-nutritious food while supporting biodiversity.

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

Cycling on the Greenway, heading to the weekly Coastal Communities demonstration in Westport one Friday, mind wandering, thinking of the value of organic produce, legs going like bumblebee wings.
“Ye know the price of everything and the value of nawtin,” an old boss of mine once said, flooring a room full of bigwigs, sticking up for our small department, squeezed on all sides. His words came back to me as I thought of some attitudes to organic farming and food.
Sounds bit harsh, I thought then, considering all the people beating a path to Pax Whole Foods & Eco Goods in Westport, to Glasraí organic farm’s stalls in Castlebar and Westport, and to various other organic-produce market stalls up and down the country.
‘What does ‘organic’ mean?’, you might ask. It simply means working with nature rather than against it whilst providing food that tastes like nature intended. Westport’s Edible Landscape and Pax, among others, are sowing the seeds for change a while now. Pax especially, since its inception, has been a revelation, effortlessly radiating community to the environmentally cognisant. In the store, shoppers serendipitously meet others with a mutual interest in plastic-free goods, organic local produce, palm-oil free products, sustainability, biodiversity and climate change.
Organic produce is worth that little bit of extra cost, or the time and effort in your own garden, because it is more nutritious, never mind all the benefits to our planet. Fruit and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. The main culprit is soil depletion. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is less good for you than the one before.
The key to healthier produce is healthier soil. If you want this, buy regularly from local organic farmers. But still, increase the amount of vegetables and fruit in your diet regardless – extraordinarily rich in nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals, they’re our best source.
Eat the rainbow for good health dieticians often tell us. Each plant produces various phytochemicals to make these colours, and they’re more abundant in organic produce, according to scientific research, such as a 2014 study in the British Journal of Nutrition by Marcin Baranski et al.
There are wider reasons to go organic, besides them being more nutritious and tasty. From a biodiversity perspective, a variety of pesticide-free organic planting and habitats will attract the complete spectrum of wildlife, including bumblebees, butterflies, beetles, hoverflies, dragonflies, hedgehogs and birds. And the larvae of hoverfly and ladybirds are good example of natural pest control: they eat the greenfly.
Taking a leaf from the organic farmer’s bag of tricks, arable farmers now sow wildflowers around their tillage fields, as well as another strip down the middle for greater effect. Doing so reduces pesticide costs by attracting all sorts of ichneumon wasps, which are bad news for many crop pests. An elegant solution.
Monsanto (now owned by German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer) was recently forced by US courts to pay out millions of dollars in damages to people who got cancer after using its glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup, with thousands more cases yet to be heard. No doubt headlines about the cases have given many people pause for thought. Every year, some pesticide previously thought to be safe is banned somewhere in the world – a problem no organic farmer needs to worry about.
With the increasing pressures of climate change, food security is also something we all need to consider. Most conventional farmers use very few crop varieties, but diversity is essential for survival. We would do well to remember that during the Great Hunger, there were only three varieties of potato in Ireland, and all were prone to blight. We should also be grateful to organisations like Irish Seed Savers, who are doing Trojan work in preserving heritage varieties of Ireland’s fruit and vegetables before they’re lost forever.
Organic is the future. Organic farmers are young, energised and on a mission, matching conventional farming after a relatively short transition, outperforming conventional during drought, building rather than depletes the soil, using 45 percent less energy and generating 40 percent less greenhouse gases. Not only that, the food consumers who go organic tend to be careful about food waste – a huge and unnecessary burden on the planet. If you pay that little bit extra, you won’t think of food as being cheap and throwaway.
We’re all learning the cost of the quick fix and the value of nature’s services. These changes are priceless, because they are our future. We’re all on that journey. What’s good for us is also good for our planet – the only one we’ve got.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.