The Benefits and Challenges of Organic Farming
By Elise Watness
Labels such as ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’ allow consumers to make ethics-based decisions knowing standards have been set for certified products. But the organic certification label can mislead consumers to think they are always free of chemicals. To really know how their food is produced, consumers must get to know their farmer or grow it themselves.
Benefits of organic farming:
Organic is GMO-free.
By USDA standards, nothing organic is allowed to be grown with genetically modified seed. Food containing genetically engineered products are usually not labeled as such, so the organic label is important for consumers who are cautious about consuming these new types of food. Most genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to herbicide, so it is likely that these crops have been sprayed with glyphosate pesticides.
Organic home gardening is less expensive than using chemicals.
Applying pesticides is more work than most home gardeners want to embrace. By talking with neighbors and garden center professionals, the home grower should be able to identify crops and growing techniques that do not require pesticide applications. Organic has more meaning when it is practiced at home. Organic gardening at home tends to lead to a deeper understanding of the intent behind the organic label.
Organic growing is proven to be sustainable over long periods of time.
Organic principles work well when practiced over time. A good organic plan will not only yield a good harvest, but improve the land’s productivity for the next crop. Industrial agriculture is a relatively new practice with a checkered record on agricultural sustainability.
Food produced without chemicals is better for the environment and our health
Pesticides and fertilizer registered for organic production are usually derived from natural products and have a more limited impact on the environment. Neonicotinoid pesticides linked to the decline of honeybee populations are not allowed in organic production. Exposure to pesticides among agricultural workers should be of greater public concern. Workers around the world are still routinely exposed to toxic pesticides regardless of cautions printed on their labels. Despite FDA approval there are still too many unknowns about chronic health effects of consuming pesticides for them to be considered completely safe.
There’s pride in cooperating with nature.
There is beauty in a closed loop production system that does not rely heavily on outside inputs. It is a great challenge for farmers to develop a system that works within the constraints of their environment. The creativity required to develop such a system can be appreciated like a work of art.
Challenges of organic farming:
Mainstream consumers have standards for quality that are difficult for organic growers to meet
Lettuce with holes in it, or apples with a bit of scab are always passed over by shoppers, although nutrition and flavor quality might be excellent. Consumers have been trained to seek out food with Barbie-doll features. Organic growers have higher rates of unmarketable blemished product and that limits sales revenue.
Profitability is low because food prices are low and land is expensive
Most of the farmers I know have a day job to support the farming they do on nights and weekends. Despite increase exposure small farms have gained in recent years, the reality is that most are still not profitable businesses.
Farming organically on an industrial scale is difficult.
Many organic crops are grown in monocultures, like conventional crops, but use organically registered pesticides and fertilizers. It is common for organic growers to spray pesticides even more frequently than their conventional counterparts to keep up with insect and disease pressure. Organic methods are much more effective on a small scale than on the industrial level.
There are many conflicting ideas of what organic means.
Many consumers buy organic because it seems like the ethical choice. But how can big businesses (like Wal-Mart, General Mills, and Kellogg) grow organically, and be any better than the produce grown in your own town? Is organic really synonymous with pure? How do ethics of shopping for organics compare with shopping local, or fair-trade? Perhaps we’re ready for a new standard. How about farm-direct?
Organic certification is exclusive
Many small farmers don’t justify the expense for organic certification. Some use methods that are very well suited for their production and environment, but still don’t qualify for the organic label. If you shop at farmer’s markets, you can talk to the farmer about how the food was grown.
My analysis: Organic is progress. Buying from a farmer’s market or farm stand is better. Growing it yourself is best.