For the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed that I like to use this column to dispel certain myths and encourage people to rethink unfounded biases regarding the food they eat. However, I am worried that people who may have very positive shopping habits, like buying organic food from truly sustainable farmers, have had their beliefs challenged and, as a result, have thought about resigning themselves to the status quo. They may be thinking, If not all organic farmers are sustainable, and not all organic food is significantly safer or better for my health, then what am I doing paying all this extra money?
I would like to think that conscientious food shoppers are a little too robust to be shaken by some hard-nosed fact-checking, but, nonetheless, Id like to provide a little reassurance to those in doubt. There are good reasons to support organic food and agriculture, and here are a couple of mine.
First, organic farming does place much less reliance on agrochemical inputs. Despite the few exceptions on the federal governments National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, organic farmers are roundly required to avoid use of things like synthetic pesticides and antibiotics; certain chemicals are permitted only as a last resort, but many organic growers refuse to use even those. Instead, organic farmers rely upon preventive measures to maintain the health and productivity of their farms, including complex crop and livestock rotations, mechanical control of weeds and insects, and varieties of plants and animals that are bred to be resistant to pest pressure with minimal intervention. Organic agriculture all but requires growers to respect, and to the maximum extent possible, replicate the diversity of nature to take advantage of her evolved defenses and inherent productivity.
Conventional agrochemicals have become prevalent partially due to the reduction of biological diversity in our agricultural landscape. Large, homogeneous monocultures have become a common response to the perceived need for efficiency in agriculture, but these fertile breeding grounds for pests and disease often force growers to resort to broad-spectrum controls, like sub-therapeutic antibiotics and synthetic pesticides. Such chemicals can eradicate both pests and beneficial organisms, eliminating organisms that may have pollinated crops, decomposed residues, or kept pests in check in the first place. Also, pesticides present pest populations with immense selective pressure; those few pests that have any sort of inherent ability to survive the poison reproduce abundantly, and may confer that advantage upon their offspring. Emergence of resistant pest populations encourages continuous development of new controls in a never-ending chemical treadmill.
Second, certified organic production is a tool that can help small- and medium-sized family farms stay on the landscape, and that is something I consider very important. Keeping a farm business viable continues to become more and more challenging; Illinois alone lost more than 6,000 farms in the five years between 1997 and 2002, and development pressure continues to push prime farmland out of production. The price premiums received for organic agricultural products can bring a significant boost to a farms bottom line. A large percentage of organic farmers are marketing their food directly to consumers, thus placing a larger fraction of the average grocery dollar in their pockets. Also, organic can help more people begin farming because growers producing high-value products like organic vegetables, herbs and flowers can do so on a smaller acreage with less equipment and infrastructure. Organic premiums are not going to save farmers that are bad managers because organic production is often even more management-intensive than conventional agriculture, but it may give good farmers a chance to survive in a tough market.
With respect to the 10,000-year history of agriculture, the agrochemical-intensive production system that today we commonly call conventional is still relatively young and experimental. It has proven to be incredibly productive, but it is hard to farm this intensively for long without over-exploiting our resources. I do personally believe farming that benefits the health of our land also benefits the health of people, but my beliefs come from sources both scientific and circumstantial. Organic farming regulations and systems of production continue to evolve and certainly are not perfect, but I believe they are a step in the right direction, rewarding those growers who are exceedingly diligent in protecting the environment, following the lead of natural systems, and preserving the integrity of their products.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue