Organic vs Conventional Farming or is There Another Option?

The use of chemical pesticides, growth enhancers, and synthetic chemical processors in agriculture has created a highly polarized industry of either organic or non-organic foods. Organic farming means that crops are grown with limited synthetic additives and are not subjected to non-natural chemicals for processing. Advocates of organically grown foods argue there are human health benefits as well as overarching environmental benefits for consuming only organic foods. The criticisms of non-organic farming practices, often referred to as conventional or industrial agriculture, are well known. garden

While we can acknowledge the benefits of organically grown foods, of which there are many, there are also many criticisms and misconceptions about organic practices. For example, organic does not mean that no chemicals were used, only that the chemicals used are based on natural compounds. Numerous organic pesticides exist and these biopesticides are widely used in organic farming.

Pyrethrin-based pesticides are available as organic pesticides at garden centers across the country. However, pyrethrins are potent neurotoxins that affect all insects non-specifically. In small concentrations, they may not kill insects but the effects on butterflies, bees, and other helpful insects are largely unknown. At the very least, pyrethrins repel bugs which may be beneficial for the gardener. One of the purposes of designing synthetic pesticides was to specifically target the insect group causing the damage, not all insects in general. This science surely isn’t perfect, but natural does not always mean safe and not everything synthetic is bad.

Nitrates and phosphates are natural compounds which are found in organic fertilizer. Although they exist naturally in our environment, in large quantities they can contaminate waterways, especially in combination with other sources of these pollutants. For further reading there’s a great book on the benefits and drawbacks of organic gardening by Jeff Gillman.

From the consumer’s standpoint, the public has a right to choose which foods they feel are healthiest. When buying directly from the grower we can ask our farmer what chemicals are used on crops but we can’t talk to the farmer when we purchase from supermarkets…..which is the way a majority of Americans purchase their food. To address this problem, the USDA established defining criteria for organic farming and standardized labeling so the public can make informed choices. Defining criteria requires inspection and enforcement on farms, and inspection and enforcement requires manpower and money, and ultimately the cost of being USDA certified falls in the lap of the farmer. Becoming certified can be a limiting obstacle for many small-scale farmers and contributes to the higher cost of organically grown foods. So clearly there are economic and environmental downsides to organic farming as well. Despite the USDA’s efforts to clarify what is organic and what is not, there are still many criticisms of the labeling criteria.

But are there really only two categories to agriculture, organic and everything else? Perhaps not.

The problem is not synthetic products versus natural products it’s the extensive use of products. Humans are “environmental engineers” in that we can manipulate our environment for our purposes and sometimes this distorts natural processes. It is easy to overly use a natural product in unnaturally occurring quantities and result in equally unhealthy outcomes. It is also easy to create a product which intends to target a certain problem which has unintended effects in other species like DDT. The answer is that we must be better stewards of the land and strive for reasonably grown foods.

Rural System proposes the idea of reasonably grown foods as those which implement best practices which favor the natural balance of nutrients, growth rate, and healthiest environmental outcomes. It’s not so much about how we farm but rather where we farm because this often dictates the need for additives. Reasonably grown foods are those which minimize costs (i.e. minimize additives used) by farming in optimal environments. This means using scientific knowledge to place plants in areas where the soil is fertile, where rainfall is sufficient, where climate is appropriate and in combination with other crops (polyculture method) to reduce pest burden. In other words, putting the right plants in the right places decreases stress to the plant and therefore the need for growth enhancers and pesticides is substantially reduced.

The “reasonably grown” method isn’t just ideology or cost efficiency, it has long-term implications. When we aim to maximize yield in the immediate term, we exhaust the soil of its resources meaning more and more additives are needed over time. If we want to preserve a fertile regions’ ability to produce high-quality crops over centuries then we must aim for reasonable crop yields with the longest continuous productive, and profitable, output. This means smarter crop placement to reduce the need for additives. This is especially important considering toxins from previous farming methods can linger in soils for decades continuing to contaminate crops, soils, and waterways. The future of farming lies in using current technology and existing data to determine the optimal locations for crops, like a comprehensive GIS map, which will reduce our dependency on industrial additives. Using less additives and aiming for reasonable productivity within natural bounds will result in healthier crops, healthier people, and healthier environmental outcomes.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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