Organic – benefits, challenges, and your thoughts

Organic farming most benefits the environment: no manufactured chemicals, and more wildlife due to more diverse plants on organic farms. There doesn’t seem to be much argument here, and it’s not an insignificant benefit.

Other claims seem harder to verify. As with so many health and environmental issues, conflicting information abounds. The Soil Association says that organic soils store more carbon; another report says this is only true for the first few years of turning organic. Some people claim the food is more nutritious; little evidence backs it up.

Still, organic food is still looking preferable at this point. Difficulties come with the practicalities.

Long-time regulars at Woodruffs may know that the café started as 100% organic but in recent years we have had to be “nearly 100%” due to astronomical prices, customer expectations or simply lack of availability. 

If some organic food is available from abroad and a non-organic version available from Britain, do we still choose organic? Do we accept that longer transport time means reduced nutrition in fruit and vegetables (vitamin C is especially susceptible)? Do we support local jobs or not?

Local AND organic would be the best of both worlds of course, and does happen, but is often not reliable enough for a business needing predictable and frequent supplies. This may not change: a study done a few years ago suggests that if Britain grew exclusively organic food, productivity would go down (the crops aren’t as abundant) and even more would have to be imported from abroad, actually increasing net emissions.

Back in the cafe, organic brings daily challenges. Sometimes it means having to use an inferior product just because it’s organic, rather than the one that tastes best. Some things are just impossible to get hold of as organic: microherbs, gluten free flour, some breads, a few spices and dried chillies. Coconut milk for coffee. People asking for Oatly or marshmallows for their hot chocolate, unaware that we don’t have these things because they aren’t organic.

Price is the other challenge, and a big one. Organic ingredients typically cost double, sometimes as much as four times, the price of conventionally-grown items. Avocados are small, expensive and poor quality, and once factoring in all other costs (labour, electricity etc.), our avocado and eggs on sourdough should really be on the menu for close to £20. We did try not having it on the menu (avocados are water-hungry crops) but customers expected it to be there. We sell our smoothies at perhaps 12% more than other places despite the organic orange juice costing 500% more (and the price has just risen again). Almonds are three times the price, meaning our popular chocolate almond cake should really sell at around £5 a slice. Prices are continuing to rise and profit margins in a cafe are slim at the best of times.

Given these challenges and conflicts, we are wondering: is aiming for 100% organic food the best choice? Should we also support local or British even if not organic, such as buying from the farmers pioneering British chickpeas instead of buying from China? Perhaps we should consider “sustainable” as an ethos, choosing ingredients that might be organic, might be local, might be neither if the cost dictates whether we can run a business or not. Or do we stick to organic principles just like in 1998, even though only a fraction of customers (we think) visit for that reason?

Opinion? Indifferent? Let us know in just a few seconds! Just select a link below (whichever is closest to your opinion). You then optionally type further comments. 

(For the avoidance of doubt, we aren’t planning to completely change what we do at Woodruffs! We still want to provide natural, homemade, healthy vegan and vegetarian food as well as organic coffee and organic milk from up the road from cows not being fed imported (possibly GM) animal feed and antibiotics.)

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