There has been a flush of misinformation going around lately about organic versus conventional food choices and farming. Just recently an article was published in the Statesman Journal entitled, “Dissecting Organic, what it means, plus pros, cons.”
I saw this article on Facebook and was pretty astonished at how much misinformation went into the article. Considering here in Oregon we grow over 280 different crops, many of which are the foods that we all love to eat, I really hoped for some type of farmer input. But unfortunately the article was written all about how farmers farm, without any farmers input to speak of. So first of all I would like to invite this author out to our farm, it might be too late for the article, but after seeing what we are up to, and what many farmers conventional or organic do, I think it would provide a different tone for any future publications. I went through the article and found 5 points that I think were a misrepresentation of both the conventional and organic farmers.
Claim 1: “Organic farmers also use natural fertilizers, rotate crops or use mulch to manage weeds, and they do not use pesticides.”
My biggest frustration here is that she is claiming that organic farms don’t use pesticides. When they actually do. Many times at higher rates because they are less efficient that our synthetic ones. It might actually be interesting to note that Bt, which is the insecticide that is produced by GMO corn is also allowed under organic standards to be sprayed on the top of organic crops. You can find the list of approved organic pesticides here. The other things she mentions, natural fertilizers (also used by some conventional farmers…especially ones near daries and waste plants that have it available), rotation of crop (constantly done on our farm), using mulch to manage weeds (not done as much but is used mostly in our hazelnut orchards).
Claim 2: (Nutritional difference) The answer is not 100 percent certain, though several studies have been performed, and more are in progress.
This one is true, there isn’t a total consensus on the nutritional difference. You can find study after study that claims one is better than the other, or they are not at all different. For example there was one from Stanford in 2012, claiming little nutritional difference. It is interesting though, because at the end of every article it seems, no matter what they have found in their specific “study” they all seem to have consensus on the fact that in the end if you eat more fruits and vegetables, and wash them before you eat them, you are doing more for your health than making any other decision. There is a really cool website, Safe Fruits and Veggies that actually gives you a calculator to see how many servings of a specific food (if the food is at its highest residues the USDA allows) you would have to consume to have any effect. For example, a woman could consume 10,877 servings of lettuce in one day without any effect even if the lettuce has the highest residues. That is pretty amazing and puts a lot into perspective. Let’s all remember that anything, even oxygen and water can be toxic at certain levels.
Claim 3: …the use of fast-growth fertilizers in conventional growing means that plants spend more of their energy on getting as large as possible, while less energy is allocated to building nutrients.
I have never heard this claim before. But I would go back to my explanation for claim 2 here. I will say however that I have not ever heard of a “fast growth” fertilizer. Maybe it’s used in other crops that I don’t grow, but I would be curious to see what she is talking about here. I will say that the food crops we grow have to fit into a specific size, larger isn’t better. Actually if our peas or green beans get too big, we are docked on our price.
Claim 4. Organic growers, however, utilize tactics such as predator insects, insect traps, beneficial microorganisms and careful crop selection (disease-resistant varieties) to control crop-damaging pests.
This is true, but again, so do conventional farmers. It is written as if the use of these methods is solely done by organic farmers, and that just isn’t true. We also use the same tactics to utilize thresholds in our crops. On our farm we have used insect traps, pheromone traps, and beneficial insects as well. We also have planted disease resistant crops and continue to try to find new ways to do more with less. And I know that you will find this to be something that all farmers have done for centuries! The days of spraying just because it feels good, or you love to spend the money, well, those days never were!
Claim 5. Organic farming practices keep the environment in mind. They are designed to protect the environment by conserving water and soil quality and reducing pollution.
I believe that all farmers keep the environment in mind. We all work to conserve water, keep our soil quality up, all while reducing pollution. I would even bet that many conventional farmers have a smaller carbon footprint per acre than some organic farms considering all the tillage they have to do to keep up with the weeds, not to mention how many times they go over their fields with pesticides that aren’t as effective. Fuel is fuel. And for organic growers it takes more fuel to get the same nutrients, the same results, as it does conventional. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but all types of farming practices have their give and take. No matter what kind of farm you have, pests and weeds come along for the ride and they have to be managed.
All farmers take care of the land and are some of the biggest environmentalists, I would dare say many were environmentalists before environmentalist was cool. Treating the land well doesn’t just make us feel good, it pays dividends year after year. Our soil gives back what we put in, this knowledge has been in our blood since we were born into this life and later chose it because the passion we have for farming can’t be denied.
Just a few examples would be our crop rotation that allows us to give the soil a break from the same crop over and over again. We use no till and minimum tillage practices when we can to also allow beetles and worms to continue working hard for us under the soil surface. This also reduces our carbon footprint, saves us money in fuel, and decreases tractor wear and tear. When we do work the ground we do it with as little compaction as possible, because it’s good for soil structure and our plants don’t want to grow in compacted soil that isn’t healthy. We mulch around hazelnut trees when they are small to conserve water through the summer. We plant cover crop in areas with high water washing through to save our topsoil. We have a state of the art irrigation system that allows us to get the exact amount of water where we need it in a timely manner. Really the list goes on and on. And these are things that all farmers do, because I’ll say it again, if we don’t treat our land well it won’t treat us well, and that puts a farmer out of business very quickly.
Even after all of these claims, here is the biggest frustration that I have, this nurse, who I am sure if very competent in her field, wrote this article without any sources and any input from farmers!! Yet people from across this state are reading her words and taking it at face value. In my opinion there is no excuse for putting an article out there for the public to see without any input from the people that actually do the work. I would be extremely skeptical if I read an article about nursing that was written by a farmer, without any input from someone in the actual field. While the urban and rural divide may be getting larger in the sense of understanding of what the other is doing, physically we have never been more close neighbors than before, especially in the Willamette Valley here in Oregon. I really hope that this article prompted more people to ask questions, to reach out to farmers, instead to just reach for the organic blueberries in the grocery store without any hesitation.
I have said it before and I will say it again. I don’t mean to be down playing the value of organic agriculture is having in Oregon. It’s a viable and growing market that does well for our state and many of our state’s farmers. But let’s not try to hurt the conventional farmers just to increase the market share of organic farmers. There is room for all types of agriculture in this state, because we have a lot of mouths to feed, and we as consumers have more choices than ever as to what we feed to our families. Let’s try to reach more for fruits and veggies rather than french fries and milkshakes. That in the end would do more for the health of our families than any amount of organic versus conventional decision.