Is organic farming a niche fad, or is the way of the future? There are many advocates who claim that the environmental, nutritional and health benefits of this type of farming makes it the preferred method of farming. Others believe that the benefits are exaggerated and the lower yields and higher costs make it impractical for meeting the world’s food supply. The following are five common questions on organic farming.
Is It Better for the Environment?
Organic farming does not use the pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers that conventional farming does. These chemicals can remain in the land as well as on the product itself. Organic farming methods tend to leave the soil in better condition over the long haul and consume less energy and water than conventional farming. These issues would point to organic farming being more environmentally friendly. However, organic farming covers a very broad array of farming (crops dairy and cattle) and directly comparing the environmental impact of organic farming vs. conventional is nearly impossible. Suffice to say that most people believe the use of pesticides is harmful to the environment and thereby makes organic farming more environmentally friendly.
Does Organic Food Taste Better?
It appears that this is a common perception, in fact a survey from the UK’s Organic Body the Soil Association indicates that most people who buy organic food, believe it tastes better. There is also a supposed scientific study cited by “The Organic Center” that claims that organic food tastes better. There have been many other studies done that are inconclusive. There does not appear to be any valid study that conclusively states that organic food tastes better than conventional. Taste is very subjective and can also be affected by storage and shipping of the produce.
Is Organic Food More Nutritious?
Many organic enthusiasts believe that organic food has more nutrients in it. However two major studies one by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and another done by Food Standards Agency (FSA) dispute any claim that there is significant nutritional benefit from eating organic food. Freshness of the product, storage conditions and food preparation methods will make a bigger difference in nutritional benefits than whether it is organic or conventional.
Is Organic Food Safer for You?
The level of pesticides used in conventional farming has created a concern that conventionally grown foods are covered with pesticides and therefore poisoning the consumer. There is no question that ingesting pesticides is a bad thing, but is the amount of pesticides normally ingested when eating conventionally farmed foods dangerous? Not according to former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, the EPA and even the FDA. A number of studies have concluded that the amount of pesticide residue found on US grown crops is not harmful.
However, there are still many health experts that raise concerns particularly on the effect of infants. There are also concerns for the farmer who is applying pesticide as they are subject to a much greater exposure. Organic food is probably safer, but there is no conclusive evidence that the levels of pesticides on conventional foods are harmful.
Does Organic Farming Produce Less than Conventional Farming?
Today organic farms on the average yields about 92 % of what is produced by conventional agriculture in the United States. In less developed countries organic farming yields over 130% of conventional yield. This is mainly due to the fertilizers that are available to the US farmer, but not to developing countries. Some opponents of organic farming claim that if we all switched to organic farming, there would be world wide shortages of food.
There are a number of studies that dispute the claim that organic farms produces less than conventional on corn and soybean. One study from Ohio University claims that organic farming can produce as much corn per acre as traditional farming. Other research published by Rodale Institute Farming Systems claims that organic farming “produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides.” Additionally, studies indicate that organically produced crops hold up better under drought conditions and organic farmed land may produce more over the long term. The reason is that wind and water erosion degrades the soil on the conventional farm while the soil on the organic farms steadily improve in organic matter, moisture, microbial activity and other soil quality indicators. The same study that cited corn and soybean results also admitted that other crops such as potatoes, apples, grapes and cherries may not be as productive with organic farming because of pest control issues.
Since less than 2% of agriculture in the US is certified organic, there is a huge difference in resources applied to conventional agriculture versus organic. The debate about farming organically being less productive is not yet settled, and any broad statement about organic farming productivity needs to be questioned.
Is Organic food is more expensive to produce?
There is no question that organic food is more expensive for the consumer. Price comparisons on typical produce show organic 50% to 300% more expensive. Organic farming is considered more labor intensive than conventional farming. However the price difference is also due to organic food having much higher profit margins for both the retailer and the farmer. Consumers are willing to pay more for organically farmed product and there is a fairly limited supply. Ask any conventional farmer and he will tell you that price at the grocery store has nothing to do with farming costs. It is supply and demand. So while prices are much higher now, if there was a significant swing to organic farming, market conditions and economies of scale would cause prices to drop significantly at the retail level. Whether the prices ever get as low as conventional farmed foods is unknown.
Summary: There are a lot of good reasons to continue to promote and develop farming organically. The fact that it is better for the environment and tends to leave the soil in better condition over longer periods of time are compelling reasons. Further development and expansion of organic farming should result in better efficiencies and economies.
Whether organic farming grows and becomes a significant percentage of agriculture or remains a small niche is still a mater of speculation.