organic food, organic farming
Richard Drew/AP

Is Organic Overrated?

November 15, 2009 10:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Organic farming isn’t a perfect practice free of chemicals or questionable animal treatment. Some believe that getting to know your local farmers may be the healthiest strategy.

Farming’s Gray Area

In the United States, where factory and conventional farming are often vilified and all things organic are lauded, experts say the whole story is more complicated. Getting the facts straight from the farmer’s mouth may be the best way to take responsibility for what you eat.

In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons discusses the “huge gray area” in farmers’ use of chemicals and pesticides, and addresses what it means to be a responsible farmer. Although many consumers insist on buying food that has been organically grown, there are other issues to take into account, such as whether the item is in season, has been grown locally or tastes good. Parsons says he considers all of those factors more important than whether something is organic.

The bottom line is, an organic farmer can still be “a bad farmer” and a “good farmer” might “still use chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers,” Parsons suggests. Neglecting to consider this information erodes “the real mission of supporting small farmers who grow wonderful food,” he writes.

Background: Agriculture’s myriad impacts

It’s difficult not to be skeptical of conventional farming, particularly when films like Food, Inc. depict the worst aspects of the industry. But some organic farmers may be just as guilty.

Qwidget is loading...
In an article for Slate, James E. McWilliams writes that “consumers must be careful not to immediately assume that every alternative to factory farming is as ‘all natural’ or humane as its advocates will inevitably declare.”

McWilliams focuses on Jamon Iberico de bellota pigs, which are used for an expensive “cured Spanish ham.” To accommodate their free-range lifestyle, the pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings (a practice also done on almost all U.S. free-range pig farms), and are castrated or spayed without anesthetic. But, asks McWilliams, “Does free-range farming justify the mutilation that's often required to keep pigs outdoors?”

In addition to consumers’ concerns about their personal health and animal welfare, farming practices in the U.S. can also have implications for rural areas and potentially other countries. Global warming is another related issue.

In the Chicago Tribune, former Sen. George McGovern and Marshall Matz, both of whom serve on the World Food Program’s board of directors, discuss why supporting “agricultural biotechnology and commercial agriculture” is necessary. They iterate that organic agricultural methods do not yield enough food for the rapidly growing world population. Organic labels carry an allure, but McGovern and Matz insist that there are other, more pressing agricultural concerns to focus on, apart from “ideological debate,” such as “to feed ourselves and those around the globe who lack America’s productive resources.”

In an article for U.K. newspaper The Independent, doctor and science writer Rob Johnston seems to agree. According to Johnston, “organic foods are an indulgence the world can’t afford.”

Johnston also cites a study sponsored by the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that showed that certain organic products contributed more to global warming and took up more land than conventional products. The article goes on to dispel seven organic myths, including: “Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous.”

Opinion & Analysis: The experts on organic vs. conventional

Lou Bendrick of Grist conferred with Jeff Gillman, associate professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, about conventional and organic foods. Gillman warned that organic farmers “can use environmentally insensitive organic pesticides irresponsibly” if they so choose. When he shops for food at superstores like Wal-Mart, Gillman buys conventional products, including produce. He explained that organic apple farmers, for example, typically use organic pesticides that must usually be applied “more frequently than the synthetics,” which can be more harmful to the environment.

But Bendrick also talked to Charles Benbrook, a chief scientist at the Organic Center who visits organic farms across the country. Benbrook said most organic farmers do not overuse organic pesticides simply because of their high cost.

The best way for consumers to make a decision on what to buy seems to be to follow Bendrick’s lead. He writes that after hearing what the experts had to say, “I’m more committed than ever to buying sustainable and local produce from growers I can look straight in the eye.”

Related Topic: How farming in America is changing

Author Lisa M. Hamilton captures much of what ails and drives the agriculture industry in America in her latest book "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness." The book of narrative nonfiction profiles three farmers in Texas, New Mexico and North Dakota, revealing insights into plant-breeding methods and the influence of climate change. Their stories are interwoven with historical anecdotes "exploring how farmers have been pushed to the margins of agriculture and how that has led to the broken food system we grapple with today," according to her Web site.

In September, New York City bookstore McNally Jackson Books hosted Hamilton and a panel of farmers and experts for a discussion of "The Changing Role of American Farmers." At one point, Hamilton said deciding to buy all organic or all local food is taking the easy way out. To be a truly responsible eater, she said, requires researching individual products, and learning about the purveyors and farmers who produce them.

Reference: USDA organic definitions and regulations

The USDA's National Organic Program "regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.” Find information on labeling for consumers, organic farming production and monitoring, and export and import of organic products.

The USDA’s information page on organic production explains what it means to be organic, including the production systems and practices involved.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines