Over at the Scientific American magazine blogs, science writer Christie Wilcox takes on some of the mythology surrounding organic foods, including the belief (Myth #1) that organic farms don’t use pesticides and (Myth #3) that organic farming is better for the environment. I’ve been covering a lot of the same territory over the years (here and here, for example), but it’s nice to see this in a more “mainstream” publication.
A couple of highlights:
What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is different than the current pesticides used by conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. It has been assumed for years that pesticides that occur naturally (in certain plants, for example) are somehow better for us and the environment than those that have been created by man. As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential – or serious – health risks. … Not only are organic pesticides not safe, they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.
Even if the organic food you’re eating is from a farm which uses little to no pesticides at all, there is another problem: getting rid of pesticides doesn’t mean you’re food that is free from harmful things. Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens. One study, for example, found E. coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farms samples, but only 2% of conventional ones. The same study also found Salmonella only in samples from organic farms, though at a low prevalence rate. The reason for the higher pathogen prevalence is likely due to the use of manure instead of artificial fertilizers, as many pathogens are spread through fecal contamination.
But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!).
As far as I’m concerned, the biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides. Guess what? You don’t. You can appreciate the upsides of rotating crops and how GMOs might improve output and nutrition. You, the wise and intelligent consumer, don’t have to buy into either side’s propaganda and polarize to one end or another. You can, instead, be somewhere along the spectrum, and encourage both ends to listen up and work together to improve our global food resources and act sustainably.
It’s an interesting read, and complete with citations to the published scientific literature.