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Is organic better? Magazine says no

“Although its supporters assert that organic agriculture is superior to other farming methods, the lack of scientific studies means that this claim cannot be substantiated.” Propaganda from the agrichemical industry? The position of ag organizations representing conventional farming?

No — actually, the quote's from the March issue of the world-respected journal, Nature, in an article entitled “Urban myths of organic farming,” and it effectively punches holes in the position of organic farming adherents that such foods are superior to those conventionally produced and that organic production methods are environmentally/ecologically preferable.

While organic food sales represent only about $8 billion of the U.S. total of $460 billion and only about a third of consumers purchase some organic products over the course of a year, demand over the last 10 years has risen by about 20 percent annually. More food stores offer organic products and the government has recently adopted standards for organic foods.

“The current aims of organic systems — maintenance of soil fertility, avoidance of pollution, use of crop rotation, animal welfare concerns, and wider environmental aspects — would be hard to quarrel with,” says author Anthony Trewavas in the Nature article. “But the rules and regulations that have to be followed to achieve these ends caused one leading organic researcher to admit that in organic farming ‘there is very little science’ and ‘this gives rise to a great deal of illogicality and confusion, particularly in some areas of production.’”

Agriculture based on the principles of prohibiting soluble mineral inputs and the use of natural pesticides over synthetic materials “results in a more costly product, mainly because of lower yields and inefficient use of land,” he notes.

Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, “is a diverse set of technologies, using the best available knowledge, whose ultimate goal is the safe, efficient provision of foods in abundance and at lowest price.”

There is a widely-held belief that organic farming is environmentally superior, says Trewavas, who is at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh, but these “practices (do not) necessarily conserve the environment.” While organic farmers control weeds through frequent mechanical weeding — a method that damages nesting birds, worms, and invertebrates — and high use of fossil fuels, which greatly increases pollution from nitrogen oxides, “a single treatment with innocuous herbicide, combined with no-till conventional farming, avoids this damage and retains organic material in the soil surface.

“Similarly, although use of manure means higher, beneficial levels of earthworms in organic fields, there are numerous problems with the use of manure, including possible effects on human health.”

Developments over the past quarter-century have shown, Trewavas says, that “conventional agriculture can be much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than organic farming. A conventional farm can match organic yields using only 50 to 70 percent of the farmland.”

Integrated farm management, he contends, “combines the best of traditional farming with responsible use of modern technology,” integrating “care and concern for the environment with safe, efficient methods of production.”

A common argument by organic farming proponents is that it is “holistic” and thus superior to chemical agriculture, but Trewavas says this is “false and neither is superior to the other.” While the organic community “resists dissection of its system,” this “resistance to comparison and examination invites suspicion.”

Organic agriculture was “originally formulated as an ideology,” he declares, “but today's global problems — such as climate change and population growth — need agricultural pragmatism and flexibility, not ideology.”

A mealy, mushy, tasteless tomato is the same, whether it's organic or conventional. The only difference is in the price.


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