- Posted By: Brad Hanson
- Written by: repost from Scientific American blog
An article was posted a couple days ago on the Scientific American blog in which the author deconstructed what she saw as common myths about organic agriculture. I thought I'd repost Christie Wilcox's article here "Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture"
In her article, she tries to play myth buster on:
Myth #1: Organic Farms Don't Use Pesticides
Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier
Myth #3: Organic Farming is Better for the Environment
Mthy #4: It's All or None
The article (and a number of both informed and uninformed reponses) is available at this URL: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
In general, I thought the article was pretty well written and thought provoking. Judging by the growing list of comments following the blog post, it sure pushed a lot of people's buttons and generated strong reactions on both sides of the issue!
I appreciate the (mostly) civil debate about practices allow farmers to produce crops in economically viable and environmentally sustainable way possible and I also appreciate the fact that many of us have choices as to what sorts of foods and other agricultural products we purchase. I really enjoy this kind of debate - especially among those folks that have well-reasoned positions rather than a knee-jerk reaction one one end of the spectrum or another (actually, that pretty much sums up my feelings about politics too!).
From my perspective as a weed scientist, I would submit that many of our farming practices - organic or conventional - represent trade offs with regards to economics, environment, production efficiency, etc. Using less herbicides is good right? But is it better if that means we have to use multiple tillage operations to manage weeds (more diesel fuel use, carbon emissions, degradation in soil structure, soil erosion, dust emissions)? What if it means more hand weeding operations (labor costs, labor availability, immigration issues, worker health and safety)? Is it better for the environment if I eat organic food produced by cheap labor in another country and then shipped to me via refrigerated cargo ship?
In some high value cropping systems in California (say lettuce in the Salinas Valley), we use relatively few herbicides simply because there are few available and rely instead on tillage and labor to manage weeds in a fairly non-competitive crop. We make that work on the ~275,000 acres of lettuce grown in the US but is it feasible for a similar strategy to work on 90 million acres of US corn?
I think the myth that it has to be all or nothing is the biggest one that needs to be busted. Organic will work better for some crops than others and for some markets than others but it is difficult for me to imagine a completely organic agricultural system given our world population and expectations for low cost food and relatively few food producers. I think we should instead focus on practices that make the best use of technology and available tools to minimize human and environmental harm (from pesticides or alternative practices) and maintain production.
At a minimum, I hope the Scientific American blog post provides some food for thought - it did for me.