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Exploring the Myths of Organic vs. Conventional

July 29, 2011
Scientific American’s “Science Sushi” blog looks at common myths around organic and mainstream agriculture.  Blogger Christie Wilcox says upfront that there are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods.  But organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods, and people are shelling out their hard-earned cash for what they believe are the best foods available. So Wilcox looks at organic’s four most common myths and includes scientific cites for her claims:

Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides
Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides. There are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the U.S. Organic Standards.  Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use.  Organic pesticides are not all safe.  In fact, some  might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.

Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier
Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

Myth #3: Organic Farming Is Better for the Environment
People seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not.  Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy.

For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways.

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.

Myth #4: It’s all or none
In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally.