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Myth Busting 101: Organic versus conventional agriculture

There are a lot of myths out there about organic foods … Now, before I get yelled at too much, let me state unequivocally that I’m not saying organic farming is bad – far from it. There are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods. My goal in this post isn’t to bash organic farms, instead, it’s to bust the worst of the myths that surround them so that everyone can judge organic farming based on facts. In particular, there are four myths thrown around like they’re real that just drive me crazy, writes Christie Wilcox, PhD student and science writer, in this post on Scientific American.

Ten years ago, Certified Organic didn’t exist in the United States. Yet in 2010, a mere eight years after USDA’s regulations officially went into effect, organic foods and beverages made $26.7 billion. In the past year or two, certified organic sales have jumped to about $52 billion worldwide despite the fact that organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods.

More and more, people are shelling out their hard-earned cash for what they believe are the best foods available. Imagine, people say: you can improve your nutrition while helping save the planet from the evils of conventional agriculture – a complete win-win. And who wouldn’t buy organic, when it just sounds so good?

Myth #1: Organic farms don’t use pesticides

When the Soil Association, a major organic accreditation body in the UK, asked consumers why they buy organic food, 95% of them said their top reason was to avoid pesticides. They, like many people, believe that organic farming involves little to no pesticide use. I hate to burst the bubble, but that’s simply not true. Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their crops. Confused?

There are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.

The sad truth is, factory farming is factory farming, whether its organic or conventional. Many large organic farms use pesticides liberally. They’re organic by certification, but you’d never know it if you saw their farming practices.

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.

The point I’m driving home here is that just because something is natural doesn’t make it non-toxic or safe. Many bacteria, fungi and plants produce poisons, toxins and chemicals that you definitely wouldn’t want sprayed on your food.

Even if the organic food you’re eating is from a farm which uses little to no pesticides at all, there is another problem: getting rid of pesticides doesn’t mean you’re food that is free from harmful things. Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens.

In the end, it really depends on exactly what methods are used by crop producers. Both organic and conventional farms vary widely in this respect. Some conventional farms use no pesticides. Some organic farms spray their crops twice a month. Of course, some conventional farms spray just as frequently, if not more so, and some organic farms use no pesticides whatsoever. To really know what you’re in for, it’s best if you know your source, and a great way to do that is to buy locally. Talk to the person behind the crop stand, and actually ask them what their methods are if you want to be sure of what you’re eating.

Myth #2: Organic foods are healthier

Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

Just recently, an independent research project in the UK systematically reviewed the 162 articles on organic versus non-organic crops published in peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008. These contained a total of 3558 comparisons of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced foods. 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).

“This is great news for consumers. It proves that the 98% of food we consume, which is produced by technologically advanced agriculture, is equally nutritious to the less than 2% derived from what is commonly referred to as the ‘organic’ market,” said Fredhelm Schmider, the Director General of the European Crop Protection Association said in a press release about the findings.

Joseph D. Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, puts it even more strongly. “Any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money,” he writes in a comprehensive review of organic nutritional claims.

Strong organic proponents also argue that organic food tastes better. In the same poll where 95% of UK organic consumers said they buy organic to avoid pesticides, over two-thirds of respondents said organic produce and meats taste better than non-organic ones. But when researchers had people put their mouths to the test, they found that people couldn’t tell the difference between the two in blind taste tests.

So, in short, organics are not better for us and we can’t tell the difference between them and non-organic foods. There may be many things that are good about organic farming, from increased biodiversity on farms to movement away from monocultures, but producing foods that are healthier and tastier simply isn’t one of them.

Myth #3: Organic farming is better for the environment

As an ecologist by training, this myth bothers me the most of all three. People seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not – at least the issue is not that cut and dry.

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.

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!).

Myth #4: It’s all or none

The point of this piece isn’t to vilify organic farming; it’s merely to point out that it’s not as black and white as it looks. 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 it’s not a panacea. You 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.

What bothers me most, however, is that both sides of the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution.

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. You can, instead, be somewhere along the spectrum, and encourage both ends to listen up and work together to improve our global food resources and act sustainably.

Scientific American: Read more

This is a much-abridged version of the original – click on the link above for the full article, all the references and a string of comments, for and against, from readers.

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii.

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