Commentary: Is the old fashioned way best for food production?

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The food industry has gone through many trends from the rise of ethnic foods to the increase in organics to the push for local and slow food. The recent trend of producing food the old fashioned way though is a bit puzzling. The idea that food production should take a step backward and abandon any progress the agriculture industry has made in the past 50 years seems counterintuitive.

Throughout most of the history of mankind, humans have spent an inordinate amount of their lives around finding, producing, storing, enhancing and cooking food. It’s only been in the past 50 to 60 years that people living outside of developing countries can devote their lives to doing more than grow, harvest and prepare food. It’s allowed the world to advance and for people to devote their time to other pursuits outside of producing for their own basic needs.

So, when the trend of turning away from traditional agriculture and moving toward growing organic, local food began gaining acceptance, it seemed just a fluke. But the movement has grown over the past decade. Many of those who support this movement toward organic, local food have become anti-science, anti-technology and anti-modern production.

The organic industry has grown immensely by offering consumers an ideal that feels warm, inviting and old fashioned in a comforting sort of way. It’s been grown through the feeling of nostalgia. But what the organic industry does not share very convincingly is that just because something was grown organically does not mean it was grown without the use of pesticides.

In August, I was at an event that is attended by many who are pro-organic food. I spoke to a woman that had been on many medications and had multiple health issues. She told me she was trying to get off as many medications as possible and was eating organic food because it was grown with no chemicals. So, I asked her if she realized that organic farmers use pesticides? She stared at me in disbelief and I could tell she was shocked and felt betrayed. I explained that the pesticides they use are labeled for organic production but that organic farmers use some pesticides that are considered “natural.”  It appeared that her belief in organics was fueled by the idea that organic production uses no chemical or biological form of weed or insect control.

It doesn’t seem that the average soccer mom or grocery shopper has linked recent food recalls to organic products. Just this summer, Costco recalled certified organic frozen berry mix because it was contaminated with hepatitis. It seems consumers only wake up and begin questioning production practices after food scares and disease outbreaks.

Although organic production in and of itself is not bad, science still needs to be used to keep consumers safe whether consumers want to believe their food was produced the “old-fashioned way” or not.

Food safety is not old fashioned. It’s one of the technological advances the world has made to protect people and to prolong lives. It’s not a step the agriculture industry should take backward or do in an old-fashioned way. Hopefully, the movement toward old-fashioned farming will recognize that some advances are worth keeping today.

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September, 11, 2013 at 10:34 AM

Slightly biased perspective Colleen. 'So, when the trend of turning away from traditional agriculture and moving toward growing organic, local food began gaining acceptance, it seemed just a fluke. But the movement has grown over the past decade. Many of those who support this movement toward organic, local food have become anti-science, anti-technology and anti-modern production." For thousands of years, local organic food production WAS traditional agriculture. Industrial Agriculture, now saturated in GMO's is the new kid on the block. Criticisms of the many shortcomings of industrial Ag are valid, and are in no way 'anti-science, anti-technology'. People looking for a nutritious, diverse food supply require more than just corn, soy, cottonseed oil, canola oil and sugar beets. Look around, it's widely evident what consumer cheap convenience foods has on ones health and wellbeing.

California  |  September, 11, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Okay, we won't confuse you with the facts on food safety.

California  |  September, 11, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Excellent article addressing food production. I will use it in my college Agriculture Issues class. Students last week were studying organic vs inorganic pesticides and, as you indicate, most of them believed organic food was produced without the use of pesticides....and therefore safe.

ny  |  September, 11, 2013 at 11:52 AM

Agree with JB. No different than the food industry/media labeling chemical laden,GMO crops as "conventional". Agribusiness is the non-sustainable "fluke" that temporarily took over the "conventional" (traditional) organic farming practices. The author mentions chemicals/pesticides used by the organic industry. Curious as to what type of chemicals are used in organic farming & by who? Can author please reference these statements?

ny  |  September, 11, 2013 at 06:45 PM

.author writes: "commentary: Is the old fashioned way best for food production?" " The recent trend of producing food the old fashioned way though is a bit puzzling" " So, when the trend of turning away from traditional agriculture & moving toward growing organic"... I guess I'm a bit puzzled too. "old fashioned" refers to organic & "traditional" refers to the agriculture industry? I think what you were trying to convey when using basically the same description for two entirely different methods for producing foods was this: You inject negative connotations & minimize organic as being "old fashioned". Which conjures up dusty thoughts of things no longer relevant, stodgy, old & out of the way. As opposed to how you present Agribusiness as " traditional". Something long established that gets passed down through the generations as a worthwhile & welcomed custom. Two words with basically the same meaning but presented in two very different ways. Being a paid cheerleader for the ag. industry it's understandable what side you would publicly come out on." It is difficult to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on them not understanding" On the other hand I try to do what's best for me & my family with no bias or monetary compensation involved with my decision making. I am honestly trying to live as consciously as I can in a ravaged, abused & broken system. " Ecological health in a land dying of abuse, is not worth 'something' it is worth everything." Your commentary is based on an adept play of words & nothing more. " You're entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts"

NC  |  September, 12, 2013 at 07:44 AM

Great article. Why is it many (not all) who embrace the "organic way" believe our ecology is going down the tubes. Yes there is still a need for improvement but the new technology has made great strides in improving our ecosystem. The disdained GMO technology has for instance, as an example, allowed farmers to implement no-till practices which has made a tremendous improvement on soil erosion. I know farmers who have tried organic farming because the price offered for the commodity looked attractive. They went through all the "restriction hoops to be certified" and after a few years gave up and as one farmer said "the weeds won!" which will always be the case. The organic movement appears to have the passion of a religion. I'm not against "the old way or organic farming", if that is what people want to pay extra for and there are those who can make a living at producing this food, I say more power to them, but please don't try to force the industry backwards. The balance of abundance and not enough food is a fine line and if the industry were to go back to the supposedly "healthy way" we will have food shortages and then the luxury of choosing how our food is grown will not matter. I think we can learn from each other instead of fighting each other. I see some organic practices that may work in our current system, such as cover crops, which is gaining popularity. The vast majority of farmers love the land and want to do what is good for the land in order to grow safe food and still make a living.

September, 12, 2013 at 08:43 AM

Google "Dipel" for just one of the pesticides used in organic farming. It's one of the brand names for Bacillus thuringiensis. Bacillus thuringiensis is also used in GMO corn to protect it from insects. There are others pesticides, but I point out that one since it's common to both organic farming and GMO's.

family farmer    
IL  |  September, 12, 2013 at 10:36 AM

I think that it is great that as U.S. consumers, we have ample choices of nutritious food at our disposal and can also purchase based on our preference based on how that food was produced. I truly do not understand why individuals are fighting for an "either/or" solution, when both production practices have merit. I grew up on a 4 generation family farm that has produced crops using both methods. In our geography, organic production is extremely difficult and yielded less than modern production practices. I know that 2 things that are most imprtant to most family farms are their families and their land. Most want to leave their land in better condition for each successive generation Additionally, most farmers are very concerned about the safety of the food that they feed their children. I know that I research all products that we use on our land. My final wish is that everyone who wishes to promote their cause would first review multiple research studies and direct their passion based on facts vs. opnions.

ny  |  September, 12, 2013 at 11:08 AM

family farmer says: " I know that I research all products that we use on our land" I would be interested in what crops you grow & the "products" you use on your land. This way I "can review multiple research studies" not paid for by big agribusiness. There are always two opposing thoughts on every subject. I guess in the end you come to your own conclusion not only by research but your own gut feeling or conscience.

California  |  September, 12, 2013 at 11:30 AM

Here are some names of chemicals used in organic farming in California. Pyganic, Neem Oil, Dipel, Green Match, Serenade, to name a few. You should also check with CCOF and Washington State. These two organizations are organic certifiers and they have lists of chemicals that can be used by organic growers. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I work with organic growers and we do use "chemicals".

Kentucky  |  September, 12, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Good comments all around. What I particularly like is the relative lack of the absolute in the arguments. There should be more such dialog on this forum. For me, the bottom line is that "it is complicated." I think the problem with our society is that many, including the "media" (always a favorite whipping boy), tend to simplify things for general consumption. Hence the shock of the woman who didn't know that organic farming uses chemicals. Perhaps she should have done more research. But then she was looking for the panacea that would solve her health problems, right? And on the issue of chemicals in organic farming, the question is what kind of chemicals? How much and where are they applied and what impact do they have? (These are rhetorical questions here) So, from my view, absolutist attitudes lead to simplistic solutions. Commercial ag is not all the panacea for world hunger we often hear, but neither is organic. One "solution" (speaking of absolutes) is to pay more attention to small farmers and local production. Of course, that means more land available for agriculture and all that entails. We have come too far to be able to go back to the really traditional agriculture (which I agree was largely "organic"), but we should always be careful of new "solutions" for "improved" agriculture - the negative of industrial farming and the limited control of the application of harmful chemicals. This probably sounds a little rambling, but these are the issues that arise and if I've complicated the discussion, all the better, no? After all, that's life....

ny  |  September, 12, 2013 at 01:51 PM

No bubble burst here ... chemical babe. Since you live in California I'm sure our aware that it is the only state that has collected pesticide data in the U.S. for the last 40 yrs. ( n.y. more recently) In 2006, 4 out of 6 most used farm pesticides in California were among the most dangerous chemicals in the world. "family farmers" applied more than 35.7 million pounds of pesticides: ( findings were in calif. in 2006) Metam Sodium---the 3rd most used pesticide in Calif. is closely related to the chemical gas that escaped in Bhopul India in 1984 that killed 30,000 people & injured 200,000. It is a biocide, causes multiple injuries & is very toxic to birds & fish. Methyl Bromide---the 4th most used pesticide is one of the largest ozone destroyers. It causes birth defects, cardiac arrest,& nervous system damage. Telone ll---the 5th most used chemical is a cancer & birth defect causing fumigant. When it first came out it was dubbed 666 as in "mark of the devil'. California farmers used about 7 million lbs. in 2006. Last but not in any way least, Chloropicrin (tear gas)---6th most used chemical in sunny california. A deadly biocide usually combined with methyl bromide & greatly increases the fumigation toxicity of both poisons. It causes several birth defects, causes severe respiratory damage & it is highly toxic to fish. California farmers used 6.9 million lbs. in 2006. I'm sure that you're well aware of all this chemical babe. By the way what kind of a person goes by the moniker "chemiebabe"? You're just a regular kind of gal that loves chemicals I suppose. No one in their right mind is a pro synthetic zealot unless they are an Industry shill.

ny  |  September, 12, 2013 at 02:06 PM

I had to rush through my last comment because two separate times on this website my comments oddly vanished right before I had the chance to post. Corrections for my last comment are as follows: First sentence should read I'm sure [you're] aware. Towards end of comment I wrote pro synthetic zealot & meant to say pro synthetic [chemical] zealot.

family farmer    
IL  |  September, 12, 2013 at 02:08 PM

IB is right - I - like all farmers - am willing to risk the health of my family by intentionally poisioning the environment and playing russian roulette in exchange for a modest income. p.s. - I have never used any of the active ingredients listed as the top 6 in California. I actually wish that selling even 1 oz of farm production were illeagal and that all people would have to buy their own land and feed themselves. I am sure that there would be a lot learned by all.

ny  |  September, 12, 2013 at 02:18 PM

family farmer, you use poisons in farming because it is the nature of the agribusiness beast. You really don't have much choice when you plant acres & acres of mono cultured crops that inherently need more chemicals to kill off insect invasions & disease outbreaks. Truly a vicious cycle. I agree that everyone should start planting vegetable gardens. It would do us all well. You still haven't mentioned what poisons you use. Is it some kind of secret?

family farmer    
IL  |  September, 12, 2013 at 02:27 PM

I would gladly respond to a question regarding how I produce the crops that I raise. However, I refuse to respond to your question in the manner that you have chosen to phrase it.

ny  |  September, 12, 2013 at 02:41 PM

Family farmer, I guess sometimes you get the answer you're looking for... by not having your question answered. If you truly are a farmer I mean no disrespect for you or any other farmer that tries to provide for their family & are caught up in this vicious cycle we call modern industrial farming.

family farmer    
IL  |  September, 12, 2013 at 03:01 PM

I am always looking for ways to improve my farm & would be very interested in what specific practices that you have used and would reccomend to operate a farm in a sustainable manner in IL. by the way, below are the inputs that I use to grow crops of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay thifensulfuron mesotrione metalachlor simazine azoxystrobin glyphosate Bacillus thuringiensis - (same as my organic counterparts) potassium phosphorus nitrogen and a lot of labor

Stanley Muhr    
Portland, Oregon  |  September, 12, 2013 at 04:09 PM

If you want to check out the many chemicals okayed for organic farming check out the list at from the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Stanley Muhr    
Portland, Oregon  |  September, 12, 2013 at 04:13 PM

You can check out the list of approved organic pesticides at

IL  |  September, 13, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Well said, T!

Kansas  |  September, 16, 2013 at 08:39 AM

Hint: consumers are less concerned with what's "best for food production" and more concerned with what's best for themselves.

Kansas  |  September, 16, 2013 at 08:40 AM

The author is drawing a false dichotomy with her references to returning to the "old fashioned way." Consumers aren't eager to forgo all advances in agriculture so they can forage for roots and grubs. Rather, as incomes rise in the industrialized world, consumers can afford to substitute quality for quantity in diet. This may be contrary to the industrialized model agriculture has taken over the last 50-60 years, but let's not forget who has the purchasing power here. Modern consumers aren't struggling to get enough calories in their day, and they'll no longer be satisfied with their pasteurized, homogonized, hydrogenated, industrially produced, Soylent Green engineered and manufactured with economies of scale and biological sterility in mind. That's a great model if Americans were dropping from starvation with dead bodies stacked like cord wood in the streets, but modern consumers aren't worried about your economies of scale or your production model. They're concerned about what they're putting in their bodies and what we're doing to the land. Some of it may be overblown, sure, but as consumers they are going to be the ones driving your production model--not the other way around.

Kansas  |  September, 16, 2013 at 08:41 AM

Doing what is best for the environment is not always condusive to sustaining the dietary needs of large population centers. That being said, there's no harm in at least trying to put downward pressure on the levels of damage we do. Besides, there's something romantic about buying local produce from your neighbor or raising some of your own food in a garden, even with the slightly elevated risks of foodborne illness. If eating organic spinach is the most dangerous thing I do in a day, that's a pretty boring existance.


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