Organic Farming & The Environment

I really appreciated this article from Scientific American, which tells the other side of the organic vs. conventional farming debate. Having grown up in conventional farming, I’ve found myself a bit troubled by the rather uninformed way the general public seems to be jumping on the organic farming bandwagon without realising that it’s not the panacea it can feel like. I’d recommend the whole article, but here are a few salient quotes:

“…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 altogether. 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… 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….
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… 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?”

And:
“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.”

I’m not against organic, per se. Each year I grow (or attempt to grow, I have kind of a brown thumb) some of my own vegetables from Seed Savers’ open-pollinated seed and I grow them without chemicals. But consumers who push for organic, non-GMO produce without being fully informed on both sides of the issue drive unrealistic government regulations and financial stresses on the domestic agrifood industry, which in turn drives retailers to source cheaper produce from overseas in places like China where food safety, workers’ rights, and environmental regulations are all much looser– it’s a cheaper product but it comes at a high cost.

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