Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is organic food really better than conventional food and genetically modified organisms?

This Scientific American piece debunks several myths about organic farming, and concludes that the organic vs. conventional debate has been drastically oversimplified by both sides. An excerpt:

Yes, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do. As we speak, there are sweet potatoes are being engineered to be resistant to a virus that currently decimates the African harvest every year, which could feed millions in some of the poorest nations in the world. Scientists have created carrots high in calcium to fight osteoperosis, and tomatoes high in antioxidants. Almost as important as what we can put into a plant is what we can take out; potatoes are being modified so that they do not produce high concentrations of toxic glycoalkaloids, and nuts are being engineered to lack the proteins which cause allergic reactions in most people. Perhaps even more amazingly, bananas are being engineered to produce vaccines against hepatitis B, allowing vaccination to occur where its otherwise too expensive or difficult to be administered. The benefits these plants could provide to human beings all over the planet are astronomical.

Yet organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy. For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals, like making food plants flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds. If the goal is protect the environment, why not incorporate the newest technologies which help us do so?

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!).

Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now. Unfortunately, what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of currently untouched habitats, thus plowing over the little wild habitat left for many threatened and endangered species.

Already, we have cleared more than 35% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, an area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystem and its inhabitants than agriculture. What will happen to what’s left of our planet’s wildlife habitats if we need to mow down another 20% or more of the world’s ice-free land to accommodate for organic methods?

The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for space is devastating. As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats altogether. That’s not to say that there’s no hope for organic farming; better technology could overcome the production gap, allowing organic methods to produce on par with conventional agriculture. . . .

Organic farming does have many potential upsides, and may indeed be the better way to go in the long run, but it really depends on technology and what we discover and learn in the future. Until organic farming can produce crops on par in terms of volume with conventional methods, it cannot be considered a viable option for the majority of the world. Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price and want to have it, but . . . [y]ou would improve your nutritional intake far more by eating a larger volume of fruits and vegetables than by eating organic ones instead of conventionally produced ones. . . .

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides. Guess what? You don’t. You can appreciate the upsides of rotating crops and how GMOs might improve output and nutrition. You, the wise and intelligent consumer, don’t have to buy into either side’s propaganda and polarize to one end or another.
(The article seems to be very thoroughly supported, with 18 citations. Of course, I've omitted them from this block quote.)


Organic vs conventional said...

I found this article you posted while searching my site keywords Organic vs Conventional. I also believe that we can't switch over to total organic until their ability to produce could rival conventional farming. I'm going to take what I've learned from your site and build on it. I am also going to let my readers know about you!

Thanks John

Bob Ellison said...

My goodness! This Christie Wilcox takes no prisoners. Thanks for the link.

BTW, she's cute, too. Probably just a matter of time before one of the big TV programs hires her as an expert commenter.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

She's no Olivia Judson (Times Opinionator columnist and author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation.)

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I just thought I'd raise the tone of the discussion.

Bob Ellison said...

Consider it raised, Richard. I really loved that Dr. Tatiana book, and the woman's not hard on the eyes.

karen said...

It's interesting for me to read your post, John-- as i grew up on a small conventional dairy farm, went to a Tech college to get an Associate degree in Ag and now live and manage a small dairy farm w/my husband.

We began conventional, but the $$$$ spent to do so while building a business and paying down debt did not help us out. The organic craze went through our area a few yrs ago and we decided to transition to organic. It's a different mindset, altogether, but we are very happy w/our decision(back in '04)to produce a better product(IMhumbleO)while making more money more consistently.

As for the GMO thang, it may have something to do w/pollination, not to mention that Monsanto did not allow any harvesting for re-seeding value, saving seed for the next yr-- and maybe(IIRC)the seeds have been altered genetically so that they cannot reproduce in this way and new seed has to be bought yrly, a big boon for Monsanto, eh?

As for feeding all of these starving people? I am very disgusted w/countries who's gov't are selfish bastards and let their people get into such dire straits to begin w/. The US is considered to be able to feed the world, i suppose. There's so much cross talk and crossed wires when it comes to taking care of our own vs exportation, etc.

I have a friend that's writing a book on his experiences growing organic grains and he'd be the one to give this article/post a very fair rebuttal.

Me? I just milk cows for a living.

Anyway, i just peeked in to ck out the debate results. It looks like it was really a no show of four?

karen said...

ps-- RLC and Bob... (shakes head and smiles)... you guys are just 2 cute, lol.

karen said...

Oh-- another thing.

As milk producers, yeah-- we don't have the need to push our cows and ~make more milk~. Grain's too expensive and rising every day. Needs and mgmt are different, too.

Bottom line. That's the end focus.
A lot of research has been done on the differences economically between to two mgmt systems.

Yield isn't everything.