16 August 2011

Organic Farming vs. Conventional Farming

Organic food.  When you hear those words, what do you think?  Do you think it must be good for you? Do you think it is good because it's free of chemicals and toxins?  I am not opposed to organic food.  What does trouble me is the fact that most people, not all, who seek out "organic" food think that all conventionally grown food is bad for you.  I believe this is because media and marketing have created many misconceptions.  Everyone loves to hear that “all natural” is good and that chemicals and synthetic compounds are bad. My goal with this article is to educate consumers, not to knock organic farming.  To evoke thought and make your own informed choices.

Years ago, we were happy to have food, whether it had lumps and bumps or somehow was otherwise misshapen, it didn’t matter.  We still ate it and it was good.  These days, agriculture has had to conform to consumer desires.  Produce has to look perfect when displayed for sale.  Tomatoes have to be perfectly shaped with no blemishes, bell peppers should be blocky and not pointy, eggplant needs to have thinner skin.  Agriculture has had to evolve to keep up with the consumer, in quite a large way.  To effect this change, genetics, disease resistance and other factors have played a part in scientific development of new cultivars.  Some changes have been good, others no so good. Fertilizers and chemicals have evolved and there are always new ones being marketed.
Farmers, whether “organic” or not, are the true stewards of the land.  It is their livelihood and it is important to them to operate responsibly and keep their land healthy and environmentally sound.  Farm families live on the land and drink water sourced from aquifers on their land; they are very careful about how things are done and what products are used to grow their crops. 

"The biggest misconception is that organic farming does not use fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides." (Dunning, Brian. "Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 11 Aug 2009. Web. 15 Aug 2011.
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166. Well, if that were true, it would be extremely difficult to raise crops with all the challenges farmers face with insects, nematodes, soil type and fertility, etc.  There is a “National List” for which some of it specifically applies to organic farming allowances. There are some synthetic materials allowed for use in organic farming on that list. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/org_fert/#WhatCanI

ALL fertilizers, whether labeled for organic use or not, utilize the same three elements. nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.  The difference is the way they are sourced.  To make both organic and non-organic fertilizers in commercial volumes, the source materials are processed in factories and reduced to the same desired chemicals.  (Remember, all nutrients are in chemical form and nature is a very complex model of biochemical processes.)  Some small organic farmers and home gardeners may instead use worm castings, manure, or fishmeal, for example.  All of the latter are fine for use on a small scale, but very costly on a large scale.  Much of the organic food in the grocery stores comes from the same large corporations who produce conventionally produced food.

Synthetic nitrogen is extracted from the atmosphere.  Potassium is mined from ancient ocean deposits and seawater extraction.  Phosphorous is mined from phosphate rock and also extracted from seawater.  Organic fertilizer chemicals are not sourced the same way and must come from post-consumer and animal waste. While the processing is different, the end product is comparable to synthetic fertilizers.  The many various forms of synthetic fertilizers giving farmers a more precise control over nutritional programs.  Some organic fertilizers, mainly chicken manure and other animal manures, are processed and dried, sometimes into a pelleted form.   If you remember from previous articles, different forms of fertilizers go through chemically different steps or processes to become available for use by the plant.  Some are more readily available to plants than others. 

As for pesticides, there are pesticides that are labeled for use in organic farming, some safe and some not so safe.  One such pesticide is rotenone and it has been used for years.  It is derived naturally from the roots of certain tropical and sub-tropical plants.   Rotenone is a selective, non-specific insecticide, aracnicide (spider and mite killing properties) and piscidide (fish killing properties) used in organic farming and home gardens for insect control.  It is also used for lice and tick control on pets and for fish management. Rotenone has been linked to Parkinson's disease.  (See the rotenone factsheet at http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Actives/rotenone.htm).  As it is non-synthetic, its USDA-NOP status is "allowed" for use in organic farming as stated in a fact sheet from Cornell University (http://web.pppmb.cals.cornell.edu/resourceguide/mfs/11rotenone.php).  Again, education is important.   It is important to note also that detrimental effects that occur from the use of synthetic or non-synthetic chemicals, whether pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, are because of mishandling of the chemicals by workers and that less than 1% of those cases occur in the United States.  (Dunning, Brian. "Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast.Skeptoid Media, Inc., 11 Aug 2009. Web. 15 Aug 2011.  (http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166)  It is also important to note that much of Mother Earth's contamination is from other activities and businesses and not from farming.  Ice melt and salt applied to roads in the winter and run-off from factories and mills are two such examples.

Organic farmers must follow strict regulations as to their farming practices; they must always look to care for their crops first through preventative, cultural, mechanical and physical methods before using "non-synthetic” compounds.  Farmers, whether organic or not, do that anyway. Again, farmers are stewards of the land.   Farmers and their families live, work and play on the land.  It is important to them that their land remains in a healthy state for many years to come.  Farmers are all about environmental impact and enhancement.  Describing soil management as part of the organic process  (again, another "organic" misconception) sometimes makes it seem as if conventional farmers do not manage their farmland properly, and that is simply untrue.  We certainly do not want ourselves or our families to ingest anything harmful.  My husband actually kicked a chemical salesman off of our farm because he wanted us to use a new insecticide with systemic properties on our cucumber crop.  This would have meant that the plant would absorb the chemical into its system and it would end up in the cucumbers.  As you know, I have always stated that one should stay away from systemic chemicals. We don't use them and don't think they are safe or good for the crops. 

There is a lot of controversy between organic and conventional farming.  I am an advocate of doing your own extensive research and speaking with the farmers you purchase your food from if you buy local.  Beware that not all articles are accurate; look at both sides of the story and know your sources.  Something more to ponder...all food is organic, whether it is organic or not. :-)