Inside the hype
Wilcox argued that the real reason organic farming isn’t “greener” than conventional food production is that organic farms only produce about 80% of what similar-sized conventional farms. “While [organic methods] might be better for local environments on a small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones,” she concluded, citing a 2002 study in the journal Science.
It’s relatively easy to deflate some of the hype with which organic growers and marketers have surrounded themselves, such as that organic farming doesn’t require pesticides (organic farmers liberally use pesticides that occur “naturally” in certain plants), or that organic foods are nutritionally superior (a claim that has been thoroughly debunked).
And on the matter of genetic engineered crops, the real source of the enmity between organic and conventional camps, biotechnology has not yet delivered as promised the benefits of increases nutrition, reduced chemical use and significantly higher yields, the science is so new that any condemnation of GMOs is shortsighted and premature.
In fact, the organic industry would do well to consider the potential of genetic engineering to maintain its competitiveness, while conventional producers and growers could learn a lesson from the stewardship that the majority of organic farmers not only preach but practice.
Wilcox concludes her insightful and extremely well-written critique with a memorable observation: “Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price, but it’s not a panacea.”
Personally, I support organic growers and producers—and I do purchase organic foods—for another reason not previously mentioned, and that’s this: Given the current state of U.S. food production—everything from a system of targeted government subsidies to a dependence on commodity exports (including beef, pork and chicken) to a top-heavy downstream marketplace—there’s no way small farmers can remain competitive on limited acreage unless they can market a specialty crop that commands a premium price.
If we lose the agricultural land base and the human capital they represent, our national food security could be compromised.
That alone is reason enough for me to (at least occasionally) go organic.
› To review the Scientific American article, log onto http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator