Thursday, February 11, 2010

Organic Agriculture

It is not very hard to find food that is marketed as being organic in many grocery stores. I've seen that label on snack foods, vegetables, and chicken, just to name a few. Various means of buying directly from organic producers have become more popular as well, such as farmer's markets or subscription based community supported agriculture businesses.

In many ways this is a good thing. People should think about their food and how it arrived for them to buy. Eating fresh foods and getting more vegetables in a meal are positive changes for many Americans. Buying locally produced foods also keeps a consumer's money within the local economy and reduces transportation costs. I have subscribed to a local CSA for exactly those reasons.

I live in the midwest of the United States, which is gifted with fertile soils and typically reliable rainfall in the growing season. In the not too distant past, most rural families had large gardens where they grew much of the food they would consume during a given year. We have a well established history of growing food locally.

However, in recent decades a shrinking percentage of midwesterners have bothered to invest in the time needed to raise livestock or tend gardens. Much of the arable land has been turned over to corn and soybean production, neither of which yields a direct food source for humans. So increasingly, food bought in stores tended to come from other parts of the country or the world. On any kind of meaningful scale, we have lost our ability feed ourselves.

Thanks to organic producers, vegetable production is returning to the midwest. Which brings me to the greatest gift organic agriculture has to bestow on the midwest. These people are showing us all that it is possible and are establishing the perception among consumers that local is good. In the long run, the economic foundations they have built will be invaluable.

However there is an elephant in the room. Which is the shortcomings of organic production. The reason that mainstream agriculture uses fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides is because those practices work to boost yields and increase the quality of what is grown. Decades of research has gone into creating reliable means for farmers to increase production and therefore profit, much of which is discarded in order to earn an organic label.

If locally grown food is going to become a staple of our diet, then the industry must grow beyond its boutique status, which will require many more acres to go into production along with reliably higher yields. Enough acres will come only when farmers see an economic advantage to turning corn or soybean production over to vegetables. Which will require labor saving mechanization and agronomic practices similar to what they now employ.

If we achieve the ability to feed ourselves, then what we grow will generally not be able to be marketed as organic. That represents the loss of a sales tool that has been used to create the organic food industry, namely that organic food is healthier, more nutritious, etc. A series of claims that is not supported by the science.

Link to a Reuters story

This study was released in the Summer of 2009 and concluded, "On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs."

Link to the research article

Unfortunately the organic food industry and much of their customer base is really caught up in the marketing hype surrounding the perceived benefits of organic production. Until that changes as the evidence is embraced, locally grown food will remain on a scale too small to feed us.

Longing for a past that never existed



Anonymous said...

Bill, very much enoying your blog.
On this particular subject, would like to add that nutritive value is not the only thing that consumers are looking for in buying 'organic'; I would posit that lower levels of insecticide/herbicide are just as much if not more of an attraction.

bj carr

Billtannica said...

Studies have shown that if the farmer uses approved methods of pesticide application and the consumer uses reasonable precautions in the preparation of food, that there is very little exposure.

crocksocks said...

Hi Billtannica,
I enjoyed the Blog...but I'm not sold on home grown.
Brian Dunning of Skeptoid did an episode on Locally Grown Produce.
Brian argued that it can be a false economy to grow something locally that can be grown more efficiently elsewhere. Obviously the transport costs need to be carefully analysed here. I tend to agree with Brian; for example, a banana grown in tropical Africa and shipped to the U.K. is going to have a much lower carbon footprint than a banana grown in a local English glasshouse. This is obviously an extreme, but you would have to weigh up each food item on its own merits before you could say locally grown is more efficient.