Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mythbusting Organic Ag

Christie Wilcox has an excellent article over at Scientific American on the unfounded myths surrounding organic agriculture. This is not a comprehensive article on every scientific study that relates to the issue, but it summarizes the basic fallacies at work in how organic foods are marketed and some incorrect perceptions of how they are produced.

The first myth dealt with is that organic crops are grown without the use of pesticides. Pesticides that are derived from plants and fungi are used and often in higher concentrations than their non-organic competitors.
"What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is different than the current pesticides used by conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. It has been assumed for years that pesticides that occur naturally (in certain plants, for example) are somehow better for us and the environment than those that have been created by man. As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential – or serious – health risks."

Next up is the myth that organic foods are healthier. They aren't. I've written about that before.
"They found absolutely no evidence for any differences in content of over 15 different nutrients including vitamin C, β-carotene, and calcium. There were some differences, though; conventional crops had higher nitrogen levels, while organic ones had higher phosphorus and acidity – none of which factor in much to nutritional quality. Further analysis of similar studies on livestock products like meat, dairy, and eggs also found few differences in nutritional content. Organic foods did, however, have higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats. So if anything, the organic livestock products were found to be worse for us (though, to be fair, barely)."

Then the idea that organic farming is inherently better for the environment. It isn't. Here is just one example from the article as to why:

"But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!)."

Lastly the idea that any of us, consumer or producer, have to choose only one side or the other. I'm not an organic producer, but that doesn't mean that every organic practice is bad or that every outcome is hurtful. I've been beating the "Buy Local" drum for years and organic producers are very often our local producers.
"In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally."

Well said, Christie Wilcox.

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