Conventional vs. Organic Farming

By Dawn M. Swidorski

A recent study showed that 56% of Americans don’t know what organically grown means and are reluctant to pay more money for organically grown produce. We’re going to set the facts straight about organic vs. conventional (non-organic) farming and produce.

At the core of organic farming is the idea of developing a sustainable agriculture. The United States suffered the ill effects of destructive farming practices during the 1930’s. During that era millions of tons of farm land in the prairie states literally dried up and blew away due to drought, lack of crop rotation and poor agricultural practices. Even after this devastating event, late 20th Century agricultural practices were modeled after an industrial approach. Coupled with favorable government subsidies, food became abundant and cheap in the United States and we in fact, became the “bread basket” of the world.

KIDD - gardenBut farms aren’t factories — they are biological systems that are impacted by weather and ecology. The emphasis on high production methods and the “industrial model” has resulted in the degradation of quality of the soil, water and in fact contributed to the loss of biodiversity through monoculture production. The industrial model has led to practices that are heavy on fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and irrigation. This focus has driven more acres of production into the hands of fewer farmers, further exacerbating the problem and destroying both the family farm and rural communities in the process.

Sustainability in agriculture is also tied to broader issues of the global economy, declining petroleum reserves, and domestic food security. Sustainable agriculture can be thought of in terms of a method that produces adequate if not abundant food supplies without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment.

As a result farmers, environmentalists and agricultural scientists have been searching for better ways to farm, a search that continues today. These approaches are called many names including natural, organic, low-input, alternative, regenerative, holistic, Biodynamic, bio-intensive, and biological farming systems.

What makes these approaches similar is that these farmers, now numbering in the tens of thousands, share a vision of farming that promotes biodiversity, recycles plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, conserves and protects water and petroleum, uses minimum tillage, and integrates crop and livestock enterprises on the farm.

An underlying element of sustainable farming includes a profit for the farm and a good quality of life. Sustainable farming practices, by their very nature, are more appropriate to smaller, family-scale farms. These farms, often find their best niches in local markets, often selling directly to consumers.

While a farm may practice sustainable farming techniques it doesn’t mean that they necessarily provide organic food. It is important to remember that fruit and vegetables are either organically grown or they aren’t. There is no middle ground here, which is not true of packaged foods – but more on that later.

How to Tell if a Fruit or Vegetable is From a Conventional or Organic Farm

The chances are excellent that if a food is organically grown, the store selling it will let consumers know. However there is another way to tell. We’re all familiar with the little stickers that are on our fresh fruits and vegetables. That little sticker has the PLU (product look-up code) printed on it. If a vegetable or fruit is grown organically the code begins with the number 9 which is an easy way to tell a product is organic if signage or packaging doesn’t.

A food grown organically has to adhere to very strict principles established by the Federal government. The 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and the USDA organic standards established in 2002 govern the rules which regulate the production of organic foods.

The grown organically seal on produce tells you that this grower has jumped through a lot of hoops to bring this product to you in that form.

Essentially it means that all of the food producers are held to the standards set by the National Organic Program regardless of the region of the country or type of crop being grown. It means that the farmer can verify that the food was produced under those standards. It also means that the grower and his farm (and records) has been inspected by an individual that works for a state agency or private agency that is accredited by the USDA to undertake these inspections. It also means that the farmer has paid (sometimes heavily) for the ability to deliver organic produce to the marketplace.

The long list of rules includes: no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers. No genetically modified foods or seeds. Produce may not be treated with irradiation and no fertilizers made from sewage sludge are allowed. Nor can the farm use any of those methods in the 3 years prior to certification. There are a number of other rules as well but these represent the core of the organic practice.

Is organic food better for you?

This is one area where there seems to be some disagreement. Part of that disagreement comes from the USDA itself which finds it essentially serving two masters: conventional farmers and organic farmers.

Agribusiness which produces much of what appears on the American dining table will certainly tell you that organic food isn’t better for you. They claim that organic farming is unreliable, threatens food security and is an environmental disaster, dangerous to wildlife and potentially damaging to the health of the consumer.

Let me state firmly that this is pure unadulterated HOG WASH.

Studies show that organic farms are just as profitable as conventional farms. They produce a slightly smaller yield but do not endanger supply. They use less energy than conventional farms and they leave the soil and water healthier because pesticides and fertilizers are not entering the water system.

That doesn’t even begin to address the potential cumulative effects of eating pesticides and herbicides for years. The truth of the matter is they just don’t know what the long term impact is – so why risk it?

The bottom line is that organic produce is certainly better for the planet. Considering that we’re a part of that planetary ecosystem, in my way of thinking it follows that it is better.

There is a caveat to organic produce. Just because it is organic doesn’t mean that it’s local. So again, if you’re looking to fully participate in the sustainable agriculture practice. Buy seasonally and locally and the best way to do this is at your local farmer’s market.