Is Organic Food the Answer?

The journalist Marc Gunther recently posted a thoughtful article discussing public perceptions of the role of organic agriculture in a future sustainable food system.

He found that many consumers believe that there are only two ways to produce food:

“The first can be described, depending upon who’s talking, as big, fast, modern, conventional, industrial, intensive, chemical, genetically-modified, processed and global. It’s the system that delivers most of the food that most Americans eat.”

“The second is described as organic, sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural, agro-ecological and slow. It’s driving the growth of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as Whole Foods, and it’s increasingly being taken seriously by big companies like Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s.”

But farming practices are not so black and white in the U. S. and around the world.

The USDA’s National Organic Program Standards do not require that a farm be family- owned, local or small-scale. Take Earthbound farm for example. This 30,000 acre certified organic mega-farm sells boxes of processed, packaged greens to distant locales. Earthbound is big, fast, modern, industrial, intensive…and certified organic. Is that necessarily negative? I don’t think so. They have an impressive operation and produce wonderful greens. However one drawback to their operation is that the convenient packaging, which reduces time spent on washing and spinning, also generates millions of plastic containers each year.

Not only are some of the most successful organic farms gigantic and global, but so are some of the enormous corporations that buy organic food (Whole Foods, Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s).

Some local strawberry producers provide an opposite example. Down the road from us is a family farm of less than 2 acres. They grow local strawberries continuously from year to year, without crop rotation, and every couple of years, tarp their field and apply chemical fumigants. These strawberries are local, small-scale, family owned…and chemically intensive. We don’t buy their strawberries, we grow our own.

Another monkey wrench to the two-ag view is the genetically engineered papaya. As I have blogged about before, GE papaya exemplifies a sustainable, small-scale, non-corporate approach to plant breeding in Hawaii.

Weeds are a major limitation of crop production globally, as they compete for nutrients and sunlight. These weeds also are a problem for forage growers because they can be toxic to animals. One method to control weeds is to spray herbicides that kill them. Some newer herbicides, such as the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup), are considered nontoxic (class IV). The use of genetically engineered herbicide Round up Ready tolerant alfalfa reduces the use of herbicides that are more toxic. This is one of the reason genetically engineered alfalfa is attractive to dairy farmers: it reduces their cost, reduces harm to farmworkers and makes the feed safer for animals.

Comparing organic and conventional tillage practices is also not straight forward. While crop rotation and adding organic matter help organic growers reduce erosion, most organic growers also till the field each season, which degrades soil structure and contributes to erosion. Conventional farmers of herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean, are able to use low-till and no-till agriculture, which leaves the topsoil intact and protects it from being removed by wind or rain. Such no-till methods improve water quality and reduce soil erosion. Also, because tractor tilling is minimized, less fuel is consumed and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

These are just a few examples point to the complexities of farming practices. There is no single solution. For peer-reviewed, science-based information on this and other GE crops, please see this recent review.

Gunther writes,

“I’m skeptical in particular of the claim that organic agriculture is as productive or more productive than farming methods that use synthetic chemicals and genetically-modified foods. Partly that’s because most farmers have embraced modern ag. Less than 1% of US farmland is farmed organically. If farmers could improve their yields by giving up chemicals and genetically modified seeds, why wouldn’t they?”

With 80-95% of all sugar beets, corn, soy and cotton in the US, grown from genetically engineered seed, many farmers have clearly made their choice. The reason is that GE crops can be more profitable due to reduced input costs (fewer insecticides and reduced tillage). Other benefits include massive reductions in insecticides in the environment (Qaim and Zilberman 2003; Huang et al. 2005), improved soil quality and reduced erosion (Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability and National Research Council 2010), enhanced health benefits to farmers and families as a result of re-duced exposure to harsh chemicals (Huang et al. 2002, 2005), economic benefits to local communities (Qaim et al. 2010), enhanced biodiversity of beneficial insects (Cattaneo et al. 2006), and reduction in the number of pest outbreaks on neighboring farms growing nongenetically engineered crops (Hutchison et al. 2010). Genetically engineered crops have also dramatically increased crop yields– ca. 30% in some farming communities in developing countries (Qaim et al. 2010).

Another reason modern farmers don’t switch to organic is due to the complexity and cost of organic fertilizers. Compost and cover crops are the two main nutrient sources of organic growers. To grow corn, at least 10 tons/acre of compost would be required. The cost of compost varies, but this could easily be $120/acre, plus the costs of delivery and spreading. For a 2,000 acre farm the costs of using compost would be high, if it was available. If a farm is not located near a city or a livestock operation, compost may not be an option. Green manure, cover crops that fix nitrogen, are wonderful, but they take time during the year to grow and there are costs associated with buying and planting the seed. In many areas of the corn belt, cover crops would need to be grown instead of corn or soybeans, and yields of the food crops would be reduced. Some of this can be mitigated if the farmer used a rotation of corn, soybeans, a small grain, and alfalfa, where the alfalfa (harvested for hay), which also is a nitrogen fixing legume, takes the place of cover crop. This kind of rotation requires the corn-soybean grower to buy new equipment and develop new markets, another obstacle to changing to organic.

At a recent meeting of organic advocates, Gunther asked the attendees why they are against genetically engineered crops in light of the contributions of such crops to sustainable agriculture.

He received diverse answers to his query. Here is a smattering:

“Big seed companies the market and push farmers towards GM crops”.

Although many people feel comfortable buying their computers from Apple and their software from Microsoft, they still may not like large seed companies.This is partly because consolidation in the seed industry can be a problem for some growers. A few large corporations are controlling more and more of the seed used by conventional and organic farmers. Hybrid, non-hybrid, and genetically engineered crop seeds are increasingly being patented or protected through the Plant Variety Protection Act. While there are efforts within the organic community to reduce dependence on large seed companies, the challenges to produce high quality seed, containing the traits demanded by farmers and consumers in sufficient quantities for millions of acres, is immense.

” Because farmers, like the rest of us, are influenced by their peers, they have a reluctance to go against the grain.”

Farmers are influenced by other farmers for good reason: other farmers have the on-hands experience with a particular seed or farming practice and therefore are often in the best position to provide information on whether or not a particular new approach can benefit sustainable practices and enhance profit.

“The scientific evidence for the health benefits of organic is a matter of great debate.”

Actually, while you can still find ample debate on the blogs, the scientific evidence is clear: organically produced food is nutritionally equivalent to conventionally produced food.

When it comes to nutrition there are limits to what conventional plant breeding can offer. Because organic farming prohibits the use of genetically engineered seed, potential nutritional benefits provided by modern seed varieties will not be available to organic consumers. For example, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, daily consumption of a very modest amount of genetically engineered, Golden Rice – about a cup (or around 150 g uncooked weight) – could supply 50 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A for an adult.

“Because a large proportion of vitamin A-deficient children and their mothers reside in rice-consuming populations, particularly in Asia, Golden Rice should substantially reduce the prevalence and severity of vitamin A deficiency, and prevent at least hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of blindness every year,” says Alfred Sommer, professor and dean emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same as other rice, and they will be able to save seeds for replanting.

“it strikes me as entirely possible (albeit unproven) that chemical pesticides could do some of us some harm.”

A correction for Marc. There is ample scientific evidence that some pesticides (both organic pesticides and conventional) do cause harm the health of farmworkers.

Chronic exposure to rotenone, a certified organic pesticide, can cause damage to liver and kidney. Methyl bromide, widely used on strawberries for years, is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in farm workers. There are many other examples of harm to farmworker health. Pesticide residues on food are generally so small that the consumer is not affected.

For these reasons, reducing the use of agricultural chemicals is one of the important goals of sustainable agriculture. It is clear that organic practices have reduced pesticides on 1% of US cropland. It is also clear that GE crops like BT corn and cotton have reduced insecticide use on hundreds of millions of acres throughout the world [10% of the ~1.5 billion hectares (3.7 billion acres) of global cropland]. In 2010, 90% of the15.4 million growers of these crops were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

As every farmer knows, farming practices span a continuum. Each season, crop and location brings challenges.

Pitting farming practices against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. Without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.