Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Organic Myths and Realities

Organic farming methods offer several benefits for the environment and human health as a whole, but unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and falsehoods being spread regarding organic food and farming methods. Both proponents and detractors have been guilty of spreading false information and there are many widespread misunderstandings. The goal of this article is to present the facts so that we can reach a better understanding of how organic methods can be properly used to benefit the environment.

First, let's dispense with the issue of nutrition. Many studies, including one based on 50 years of research have shown no difference in the nutritional value of regular food as compared to organic food. This means that the consumption of organic foods will not make an individual any healthier. It is possible for organic farming methods to improve health indirectly, however, by being used to improve the environment, as we will see below. A healthier environment, obviously, leads to healthier humans.

A major problem with regular farming methods is the use of pesticides. However, before going into the environmental damage caused by pesticides, I need to address the issue of pesticides in food. As the above studies show, there are no detectable differences in the healthiness of regular food and organic food. However, studies have also shown that organic food does have substantially less pesticide residue. How do we reconcile this difference? The short answer is we need more studies. It's possible that the benefits of lower pesticides in organic food is offset by something else, such as natural biotoxins. But really, we just don't know right now. The point is that no nutritional advantage of organic food has been demonstrated, and it is not useful as a rational argument in favour of organic food.

Pesticide use in farming, however, has clearly been shown to be damaging to the environment, and to farm workers. According to a study (PDF) by the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 1 million unintentional poisonings each year and 2 million intentional ones (suicide attempts) requiring hospitalization. Since this only counts reported cases, others have estimated the total number could be as high as 25 million. That's a lot of people, and it indicates a serious global problem.
The effects of pesticides on the environment are also very significant.
Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, including nontarget species, air, water, bottom sediments, and food.
The above link provides a summary of the environmental impact of pesticides and provides links to various studies. They can result in increased air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination. They can also result in the disruption or death of non-target plants, insects, birds and other animals, and aquatic life in lakes, streams and oceans. Pesticides can also accumulate and become more concentrated as they cycle through the food chain. Runoff of pesticides and fertilizers are also contributing to large dead zones in the oceans.

One of the major criticisms of organic farming methods is that they cannot produce enough food to feed the entire population of the planet. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, is famous for making this argument. He also argues that if all farming were organic, much greater amounts of land would be required, and this could lead to deforestation. This is a valid argument, and it is a very good reason why we should not try to switch all agricultural production around the world to organic methods over the short term. It is also a powerful reminder that we have overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, and that we must immediately cease paving over farmland, and indeed must consider reclaiming this land in many areas.

At the same time, however, while conventional industrial farming methods, using fossil fuel based fertilizer and mass mechanization, may dramatically increase crop yields, they are unsustainable. They can produce much larger yields today, at the expense of the future productivity of the land. These intense farming methods degrade the land by eroding the soil and increasing soil salinity. Over time, the land becomes infertile.

Conventional farming methods are largely dependant on fossil fuels, which are needed for fertilizer and for running the machinery. As peak oil approaches, we will soon be faced with a yearly decline in the availability of oil. Oil won't run out, but there will simply be a bit less available every year than the year before. For the past hundred years, our economy (and agriculture) has depended on the yearly growth of oil production. This decline will raise prices and could potentially make it much harder to obtain supplies. Conventional methods will then become either too expensive, or simply starved of supply.

Organic farming methods, then, become a critical tool for revitalizing land that is becoming damaged and less fertile. Since the remaining productive life of this land has already been curtailed, there is little point in continuing conventional methods in these areas. The use of organic methods, which includes intermixing crops, rotating crops, and allowing the land to remain fallow for periods, can slowly begin to replenish the land. Eventually a stable and sustainable level of production can be reached.

We also need to reclaim land that has been paved over. This can be done by introducing more efficient transportation methods such as electrified rail in order to reduce the need for some roads and long distance highways. We can also restructure our cities to be more dense and efficient and eliminate some suburb or exurb areas. In many parts of the US the housing crisis and unemployment have already left many of these areas virtually abandoned. By pulling up the pavement and using organic farming methods this land can be returned to agricultural use and can generate a stable level of sustainable food production.

In Africa, a recent study by the UN has suggested that small-scale organic farming methods in Africa can more than double current yields. This can produce a significant increase in production, yet still remain sustainable. Also, many farmers in Africa cannot afford the fossil fuels or machinery needed for large scale industrial farming. Even better, the study suggests that organic practices would result in crops more resistant to drought, an important advantage as global warming increases.

Still, with an increasing population and decreasing arable land, organic farming probably can't deliver enough food for everyone. In some areas it may be necessary to use intense industrial methods over the short term in order to produce enough food. However, these practices should be limited to a certain number of years and then rotated to other areas while the original areas are then converted to organic production. A difficult balancing act will be needed in order to maximize total production without completely destroying the productivity of large areas, which would just make the problem worse in the future.

There is no room for extreme positions on either side of the organic debate. Organic food is not a magic product that will solve all our problems. But it is also absolutely necessary in the long term for stable and sustainable food production, which industrial methods cannot provide. As we deplete the supply of fossil fuels (or hopefully voluntarily reduce their use) organic methods will become essential. We must expand the use of organic farming where appropriate, reclaim and restore land where we can, and use conventional methods in some areas to fill the gaps. We need a comprehensive long term approach based on science and foresight.

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