Monday, March 15, 2010

Rethinking Organic

Recently, I read “Organic Inc.” by Samuel Fromartz. The book did two things, first it allowed me to understand the origins of organic food and how the concept of organic food has evolved with the regulation of the market and industry. The insight Mr. Fromartz provided to the organic food industry and farming made me rethink my position on organic food. Though traditionally, before the government stepped in to regulate the market, organic foods were grown under natural conditions (without the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides; and either not processed, or processed without the use of additives). Now, under standards adopted by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. (USDA) in 2000 and fully effective in 2002, organic food is food grown, raised and processed without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and antibiotics may not be used in raising organic foods, in addition, the use of irradiation, biotechnology, and sewer-sludge fertilizer is also banned. Food whose ingredients are at least 95% organic by weight may carry the "USDA ORGANIC" label; products containing only organic ingredients are labeled 100% organic.

However, under the government regulations the word "organic" refers strictly to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and raise organic meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. The USDA organic label means that the food was produced using organic methods sanctioned by the USDA. So far there has not been any hard evidence that organic food is more nutritious of better for you. Food health studies are exceedingly difficult to run long term. So to a large extent the health benefits of not eating fruits, vegetables and grains with pesticide residue and meat without antibiotics and feed grain or grass without pesticide residue has to be taken on faith.

In the past I have bought organic where I thought it mattered to protecting my family from exposure to chemicals. Like strawberries, lettuce, apples, vegetables especially root vegetables where the outside of the fruit and vegetable is eaten. Other than that, I tried to buy only American grown produce, vegetables, herbs, beans and grains (though occasionally I do buy a couple of bananas). In terms of meat, I purchase organic, grass fed and pastured beef, pork, lamb and free range chicken. We only eat wild caught fish. I started buying grass fed beef back in the day when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the highly gross details of that work that have resulted in me barely ever eating meat. However, my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from the first sustainable farm I inspected. In addition grass fed beef (and other animals) is lower in saturated fat and better for you. This was confirmed by Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat” and Professor of nutrition at NYU School of Public Health. I asked her at a lecture I attended and she said that grass fed beef was as low in saturated fat as chicken.

Organic crop land is less productive than conventional farm land. Organic farming also requires more labor to keep weeds down. The average corn crop yield per acre in organic farming is 17 percent lower than down in traditional farming. Results range between 5 percent for corn to 35 percent for rye. For potatoes, root vegetables and turnips, crop yields are on average 14 percent lower than in traditional farming. In various fruits the yield was reported to be around 20% per acre lower with organic. That reduction in yield is basically why organic food sells for a premium. This loss of yield is an expense of organic farming, though there is a cost savings in not utilizing chemicals and in having soil retain its fertility through organic techniques of crop rotation. The chemical pesticides add to the cost of the crops in conventional farming, and conventional farming requires more irrigation water than organic farming.

Not only does conventional farming utilize more water, but the pesticide runoff impacts both surface and groundwater. The true cost of water is not expressed in the irrigation water charges in many places and the cost of the pesticide impact to water is not yet known and only recently have we begun to think about that impact. These days I am buying American grown organic to do my tiny part to protect the health of the soil, surface and groundwaters at least in my “neighborhood.”

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