Transition to Organic

The Rodale Institute, major proponent of organic agriculture, is offering a free online at-your-own-pace course that focuses on the transition from conventional to organic farming. They also have a calculator that farmers can use to find how much more (or less, I suppose) their farm can make if they transition to organic, given their specific situation. If you take the course, let me know what you think.
The Rodale Institute does a lot of good work, although I am frustrated by their nonscience views on quite a few topics, including raw milk and genetic engineering. The whole technology-is-evil schtick is less than productive, but many organic techniques are productive. I used to have a very negative view of organic because of their rejection of science, but Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald changed my views. She explains that reduction of chemical inputs and impact on the environment can be best achieved with a combination of organic techniques and careful application of genetic engineering. Buying organic doesn’t necessarily mean “I think GMOs are evil” but it does mean “I don’t want to eat pesticides, and am looking for a change.”
Thanks to Dr. Cornelia Butler Flora of NCRCRD for pointing this course out to ISU’s Sustainable Agriculture students.
The course overall is a good introduction to what organic is and its benefits. Not unexpectedly, I do have a few critiques (as well as compliments)…

The course includes a too brief history of organic farming that focuses overmuch on the institute itself. I think the not-so-subtle demonization of Norm Borlaug‘s work is inappropriate, especially considering that his efforts have saved more lives than anything else in history. Yes, some of the fertilizers and pesticides used today do have origins in the chemical industry of WWII and Vietnam, but I think it’s rather a stretch to say that the authors of the Green Revolution intended to hurt people. They just wanted to produce more food, and they did. No one considered the effects of these new farming methods (among other things) on the environment until Rachel Carson realized changes happening around her. We face the challenge of continuing high yields while also protecting the environment. Organic is one answer, but it’s not the only one.

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The Rodale Institute’s first definition of organic farming is: “Minimal use of external, off-farm inputs coupled with the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as well as growth hormones and antibiotics for livestock”. The key word here is synthetic – because quite a few pesticides are used in organic farming, although they are required to be from natural sources unless there is no other alternative (see The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances). It’s also good that they clarify: “Organic farming is not simply the substitution of approved input materials. It is the replacement of a treatment approach with a process approach to create a balanced system of plant and animal interactions.”

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One idea left out of the course is that many of the organic ideals can be integrated into conventional farming. I think this is a serious oversight, as small changes made by many farms (even conventional ones) can add up quickly for the environment. An example: “Organic farmers break pest and disease cycles by interspersing crop plots and by not planting the same crop year after year on the same piece of land but instead rotating them [original emphasis].” Conventional farmers obviously can and do rotate their crops, although they might not realize the many benefits. On the same page, the course advocates tilling as weed control, even though more than enough research has shown that tilling is bad for the soil and releases greenhouse gasses.

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A link to the picture heavy Organic Center review Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods is included in the course as evidence of why organic is better. The review includes some good information, but I think should be taken with a grain of salt. As I’ve said before on this blog – we have to consider that some sources have an agenda that may color how they collect and present information. This review, however, seems to be well researched, with only high-quality (as defined by the reviewers) articles selected for inclusion. EDIT: There seems to be more to this story, I’ll post on it as soon as I can. In the mean time, check out the rebuttal by Dr. Joseph Rosen, “emeritus professor of food science at Rutgers University and a scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health”. Both of these reports are funded by organizations that some say have a vested interest in the results – which isn’t very helpful for those of us who want to find the truth.

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The rest of the course gets a little deeper into what organic farming actually is in practice, but I get the feeling that it’s not enough. If I was a farmer considering going organic, I’d want more cost-benefit analysis, less vague tree-hugging. I’ll let you finish the rest of the course yourself, or you can comment with questions.

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar is a science communicator and science policy expert with a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Anastasia has had various risk analysis roles in US government and military service. She serves as BFI's Director of Policy and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for the nice comment on our book. I have to give credit to my husband Raoul for the discussion of organic in our book. He teaches organic farming at UC Davis (and has a scientific background).

  2. My dad sold his farm in 1971, and I really never was privy to what he was doing with fertilizers other than I knew that there were cans in the shed that we weren’t supposed to play around. I do remember that he practiced crop rotation and landfallow, as ways to keep the land productive. Every third or fourth year he would plant clover, or other nitrogen-enriching crops and then switch back to barley or wheat.

    So, I think that the message of introducing organic techniques into conventional farming is not likely to meet as much resistance as one would expect. So, you’re right; a farmer doesn’t need to be “either/or” and the goal can be to intermix methods without necessarily striving for organic certification.

  3. Mike, I didn’t know your dad was a farmer. Thanks for your insight on his use of “organic” and conventional methods on the same farm 🙂

  4. I just read a piece at the Rodale website, where a doctor claims (or they claim that he claims) that raw milk healed his intestinal problems… can we say anecdotal evidence is not science?

    If you want to see something really bizarre about the raw-milk enthusiasts, check out these two posts from 2006 on Aetology:
    http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/2006/09/is_stopping_e_coli_o157_contam.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/2006/09/e_coli_grass_and_pasteurizatio.php

    Raw milk advocate Nina Planck stated both that raw milk is sterile (free of bacteria) and has naturally-occurring healthy bacteria. After this was pointed out, she disappeared.

    The other things you point out in your post about Borlaug, the war tie-in, and conflicts of interest are spot-on. Any agricultural practice that can be shown (through science) to help is needed, no matter what philosophy it came from.

    Oh, I also did an interview with Carl Winter at UC Davis about the organic/conventional nutritional issues, if you’re interested:
    http://www.inoculatedmind.com/2007/07/203/

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