Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Organic Vs. Conventional Farming

Christie Wilcox, at Scientific American Blogs, defends her points that:

1. Organic farming uses pesticides – and yes, organic pesticides are bad for you, too.
2. Science has yet to support claims that organic foods are healthier.
3. Certified organic farms don’t have yields that equal conventional ones.
4. GMOs aren’t evil, and yes, they might even do some good for the world.
5. Farming practices of all types should be considered and weighed for their merits independent of labels.

In The Immortal Words Of Tom Petty: “I Won’t Back Down"
- Christie Wilcox

Some contentious points. What do you think?

- I agree with her about #1.
- I don't know about #2. Apart from the science, I imagine some ethical problems. If you conclude that organic is "nutritionally superior," how do you deal with the fact that only 1-2% of all food grown is organic? Do you make sure those who need it most, say people in hospitals or care homes, get it first?
- In #3, there are external costs that may be higher with industrial farming, e.g. water use and soil depletion, that you may need to factor. So I'm not sure about that one either.
- In #4, genetic engineering has some unique problems. It affects communities that can't afford to buy seed every year (because it was engineered to be sterile). It creates super-resistant weeds. And there are, in my mind, inadequate long-term health studies in humans. Genetic engineering causes unexpected mutations in a plant's DNA, affects of which are unknown.
- For #5, sure. Do a cost/benefit analysis. Why not?


Shreela said...

I wonder if a GMO food would qualify as organic under US labeling laws? I would guess yes, if the food wasn't frankenized to be used with pesticides.

Bix Weber said...

Last I checked Shreela, the USDA's Organic label prohibits genetically engineered foods ... mostly. It allows for some level of background contamination.

Also, the USDA's Organic label is only "95% organic".

There is a push in the USDA to allow genetically engineered foods to be labeled "organic" under their existing label.

Laurie Endicott Thomas said...

The first GMO product that hit the market had to be recalled because it caused potentially disabling and deadly disease:

Dr. Mel said...

There are *many* agri-biz lobbyists out there who have their conventional, unhealthy methods and products to defend. The pesticide& herbicide industry is HUGE! So much so that the ed.-in-chief of either JAMA or NEJM said a few years back that he no longer believes any published, refereed studies!

Not all organic farmers use organic pesticides & herbicides, and not all organic pesticides and herbicides are harmful. I don't care *what* anyone says, I think organic food is healthier, not necessarily in the sense that it contains more healthy nutrients (though depending on the food and how long it sat in storage, that might be true), but at *very least* in the sense that it does NOT contain as many harmful residues as most conventional food (as documented by Organic Consumers' Association and others).

Science generally hasn't bothered to study the nutritional content of organic foods (as you noted several years ago, Bix), largely b/c there are not organic-food lobbyists pushing for studies. And organic food is expensive to grow and transport; hence organic farmers make very little profit, which explains why it's only a small percentage of what's grown. Agri-biz food can be sold cheaply b/c farmers are subsidized by the govt to grow (or not grow) their product, an evil system imo.

Third, I have read a number of studies over the last few years that disagree w/ her point #3--that say that organic farms, run properly, can indeed yield as much per acre as conventional farms, and without killing the soil with mono-cropping.

I agree w/ you that the case is out on GMOs, but given the choice b/tw a GMO food and non-GMO, I'd choose the old fashioned kind. And if agri-biz wants to do a cost/benefit, fine, but not with our tax dollars.

So, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it!

Dr. Mel said...

Hungary is doing away w/ GM corn.

Bix Weber said...

I recall reading that plants that experience stress (for a plant that would be not enough water or bug infestation, and the like) put out chemical defenses. These chemicals have medicinal or nutritional value (or even flavor, say bitterness from alkaloids which are natural pesticides) for humans ... antioxidants, antivirals.

So, organic food is probably different, but how much different? Would eating a diet of mostly organic food translate into better health? I don't know.

Bix Weber said...

I saw that Hungary story. I don't get the chasm in thought between Europe and us regarding GMOs.

The least we could do is label them.

Dr. Mel said...

I can't swear that organic food is healthier, but personally I believe it is. The toxic residues on conventional and organic produce have been measured by the Environmental Working Group:

Dr. Mel said...

Here is EWG's methodology:
and here is the full list of produce tested (the lowest numbers have the highest pesticide-residue levels):

Amy Pearson said...

In order to truly live organic we need the tools and resources to point us in the right direction. We can't expect the USDA or corporations to teach us, it's not in their "financial" best interest.