I have looked at the benefits of organic skincare to you as a consumer in the first two posts in this series. I concluded that the risk posed from pesticides in conventional products was zero for ones that didn’t contain natural ingredients. And as we don’t eat through our skins, there is no advantage from the extra nutrients that organic products might contain.
But I have a feeling that most fans of organic products are not simply looking for benefits for themselves. I think they believe that by purchasing organic products that they are helping to make the environment better. This is a noble motive and I applaud people who think that way. Lets have a look at how much this public spirited behaviour is really achieving.
(Before I start, can I just make absolutely clear that that last paragraph was not intended to be in any way sarcastic. I am genuinely sympathetic towards green causes. My criticisms of the natural product sector and the so called environmental activists who make so much noise on these subjects is largely motivated because I think they are abusing a serious issue, not because I dismiss the issue itself.)
The attitude of many believers in organic products was put rather well and succinctly in a response to one of my posts over on Personal Care Truth.
‘As for whether organics are different chemically and better for you; they are better, period. For some people, it’s not just about what they put on their skin, Colin. It’s about not supporting the petrochemical industry when there are sustainable alternatives.
It’s about not supporting Monsanto and Round-up Ready crops when you can support agricultural methods that are not responsible for cancer or the demise of the honeybee population.’
It is hard to fault the sincerity of those words.
Lets have a look a bit more closely at the first point. The organic farming method is less in hock to the petrochemical industry than that the conventional one. That is obvious. Or is it? It is certainly true that artificial fertilisers and pesticides are heavy users of petrochemical inputs. But it isn’t true that organic farmers use no petrochemical inputs. A large part of agricultural activity is labour, and organic farmers use the full range of energy intensive labour savers that their conventional colleagues do. I suspect given that organic plots are generally smaller and so take more work to maintain they use more in fact. I expect the tractor gets a lot more use on an organic farm than on the agribusiness estate.
So when it comes to petrochemical usage we are comparing two systems that both use petrochemical inputs. I don’t believe there are any solid statistics on the actual differences. I haven’t found any – although I didn’t look too hard. If someone knows I would love to hear them. A 1996 report by the UK government estimated total energy usage to be about the same for field crops. Organic animal farming required less energy overall and organic vegetables more.
It was a very sketchy study and I wouldn’t want to read to much into it. But it is pretty clear that organic farming is not that different in terms of energy use than conventional agriculture. It doesn’t seem to me to be all that important which one is the winner. If organic agriculture as practised at the moment doesn’t give a big energy premium then to me the conclusion has to be that the search needs to be on for either a genuinely green version of organic farming or for something totally different again. As it stands buying organic is simply supporting the petrochemical industry just as much as buying non-organic. If you really want to cut the flow of revenue to the petrochemical industry your only option at the moment is to reduce the amount you consume.
Okay, so organic farming may not be as green in terms of petrochemical usage as we thought. But it is surely better for the environment in other ways isn’t it? What about the honey bees? I am afraid I don’t know about the bees. When I first heard about the decline in bee populations I, like a great many others I expect, instantly thought of insecticides. I still think that it may turn out that insecticides are indeed playing a role in this issue. But it turns out that it isn’t that simple. In particular, bees are thriving in Australia where the insecticides that have been fingered as causing the problem are used just as widely as elsewhere. But this will no doubt be solved and if it turns out that insecticides are involved in some way then the insecticides can be changed.
So am I going to concede that organic farming is less damaging to the natural environment than conventional farming. It would be great to draw that conclusion. And if all other things were equal you would probably conclude that this was in fact true. Or at least plausible. Pesticides and fertilisers after all cannot possibly be good for the planet can they.
Well perhaps they can. Suppose the yields on organic crops were so low that you needed to use more land to grow the same amount of food. If that were the case, then it might well be much better to have a smaller total of conventional farmland and leave more land for other purposes such as forestry and just plain wilderness.
And this, it turns out, is in fact the case. Organic farming does indeed have lower yields most of the time for most crops. And the difference is far from trivial. I have included a reference to a paper that estimates that the US would need to increase its farmland by about 40% if organic became the only form of farming. That is one heck of an impact. And with the world’s population steadily increasing we need to find ways of increasing crop yields not decreasing them. These are not trivial matters.
So to get back to my original question. Should you use organic skincare to protect the environment? It is great that you are thinking that way, and I would love to say yes. But the hard facts are that it is not likely to make the slightest bit of difference. It isn’t easy being green.
1996 MAFF (UK) report on energy usage in organic versus conventional farming systems.
This paper that reviews the efficiency of organic agriculture in the US looks very credible. It also looks like its author has put it up on Scribd for people to debate. It isn’t in a peer reviewed journal, so it has to be considered as the individual opinion of one man that has not been challenged by informed people working in the field. But I was impressed enough by his blog to consider him an authority. You can find it here if you want to make your own judgement – http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/