Despite the rustic image, organic production leans heavily on science
As a pioneer of genetically modified crop technology, I often get questions about what I really think about organic farming…or if I personally buy organic produce. My thoughts and answers might surprise you – number one, that being “pro-GMO” does not make me “anti-organic.” Allow me to explain.
I believe that a real strength of our agricultural production system in the U.S. is the successful co-existence of conventional, biotech and organic farms to meet the different market opportunities and consumer product interests. We should all celebrate the fact that we get to enjoy incredible choice and the safest and most affordable food supply in the world!
I also have tremendous respect for organic farmers and producers, whom I view as extremely hard-working. Organic production represents about 4% of total U.S. food sales or less than 1% of U.S. crop production. The low adoption rate relates to the challenging and often labor-intensive nature of organic production, since growers have fewer and less diverse tools to manage diseases and insects. That’s because the rules of organic production prevent organic farmers from using synthetic fertilizers, certain pesticides and genetically engineered seeds. With careful planning and extensive preparation, organic farmers can and do manage these challenges. However, sometimes disease and pests evolve or emerge quickly and decimate crops, resulting in food loss. Consequently, organic crop yields for major row crops are typically 30-40% less than those enjoyed by conventional farmers. Many organic produce growers have told me, “We need new solutions for disease control if we are going to keep supplying the organic market.”
Despite these production challenges, organic produce has succeeded in the market because some of the most sophisticated growers in the world are tackling some of the biggest challenges of organic production with science – and other tools central to modern agriculture – enabling them to deliver a safer, more consistent product to retailers year-round. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the big challenges organic growers face and how science and technology are helping to address them:
Controversial organic regulations
Organic rules are based on some general principles related to what is “natural” and what is synthetic. The details of what is or is not allowed are not determined by science-based regulation, but by a political process driven by advocacy and ideology. A change in the rules can result in major gaps in production and disruptions to consumer supply.
One example is the debate over the use of soil or non-soil growing media (e.g., rock wool, coco husks, etc.) Many high-tech greenhouse growers grow organic produce in non-soil media with a drip irrigation system that includes organic fertilizers. Eliminating their ability to be certified as organic would result in reduced year-round supply of product to consumers, while favoring growers who use lower-tech methods of production. Thus, organic growers who enable a more consistent supply with the use of technology are putting extraordinary effort into defending the science that supports their methods.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than 40 million people in the United States get sick and a few thousand die from foodborne illnesses each year – and nearly half of those illnesses are acquired from pathogens in fresh produce. Because there is no “kill-step” to eliminate pathogens in the processing of fresh fruits and vegetables, growers must take extreme caution to prevent contamination and cross-contamination. For organic growers, this challenge is larger because non-synthetic fertilizer options often include composted animal manure, which can be a source of contamination. Some of the biggest suppliers of organic produce are utilizing research and science-based solutions to ensure a safe organic food supply. These include the use of advanced genetic tools to identify, trace back and eliminate sources of contamination. The result is fewer and more focused food recalls so consumer confidence in produce is not shaken and, most importantly, fewer consumers get sick or die.
Inaccurate information on pesticides
You may be wondering…but what about pesticides? Aren’t conventionally grown crops full of them, and organic crops grown without them? No. The distinction between organic and conventional vis-à-vis pesticides is not that one uses them and the other does not; both organic and conventional farming use them. The distinction is about what kinds are used.
Conventional farmers are allowed to apply a combination of natural and synthetic pesticides in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeling requirements. Organic farmers are allowed to use the natural chemicals and those synthetics that have been approved under the National Organic Program, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Not surprisingly, there is considerable overlap in the pesticides used by the two cropping programs, as this excellent article shows.
You might be surprised to know that many organic producers are part of a coalition to address propaganda from the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen report. The Alliance for Food and Farming puts out science and risk-based information about pesticide residues on produce. Their website even provides a calculator for consumers to understand the worst-case risks they face from pesticide residues—based on the science of toxicology. Why would organic growers do such a thing? Well that brings us to the next point.
Organic marketing that scares the public away from a healthy diet
Using the scientific method, Britt Burton-Freeman of the Illinois Institute of Technology led a team of investigators to study the impacts of different organic marketing messages. The result? Marketing messages that promote organic produce by disparaging conventional produce are bad for public health – specifically for poor and working class people. When presented with disparaging messages, people in these categories generally respond by simply eating less produce. Positive, accurate marketing messages were shown to increase public confidence in both organic and conventional produce.
While organic farmers face a unique set of challenges, in many ways their methods are not that different from conventional farmers. For example, molecular breeding methods based on genome sequence data let both organic and conventional breeders identify and combine new gene combinations to enhance nutrition or provide better defenses against plant pests. Both organic and conventional farmers are using microbial seed treatments (probiotics for plants) to improve soil health or protect against insect damage. Many organic farming practices, such as the use of cover crops, crop rotation, and plastic mulch to help manage weeds and reduce erosion, are being adopted by conventional farmers. And precision ag tools—such as satellite imagery, drones, in-field sensors, GPS controlled tractors and even robotic lettuce thinners – are being extensively adopted by both organic and conventional producers. The biggest difference between them is that conventional farmers are able to use all of the best tools that science has to offer, which enables them to produce more crops on less land – and is ultimately better for the environment.
As to what do I buy personally? Given the choice, I buy conventional. Now…I’m not fanatic about it…I won’t turn up my nose at an organic vegetable side on a restaurant menu or ask the waiter to hold the free-range chicken. I know that both conventional and organic foods are safe and I am proud of the fact that we have a safe supply of affordable food. I’m also glad people do have a choice. That’s the American, free enterprise way. If you choose organic produce, just understand that the increasing supply, quality and safety of those options don’t come from a rejection of modern agriculture, but from growers who embrace the process in the face of the challenges posed by organic rules.
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