Organic Agriculture in Perspective

"Organic" or "natural" food can be a legitimate life-style choice for those who are well off enough to afford it. But there are many misconceptions in the public's mind about what the label "organic" really means, such as the widespread belief that organic farmers don't use pesticides (they do), or that organic food is somehow safer than conventionally-farmed food (it's not).

The ultimate issue, however, is how we face the challenge of doubling food production in this century, and what part organic farming's comparatively low yields can or cannot play in meeting that challenge. The following are some key facts about organic farming.


Organic agriculture is 40 percent less productive...

  • Experts agree that in order to feed an expanding world population with rising living standards we will have to grow twice as much food by 2050.
  • Organic agriculture, on the other hand, produces 40 percent less consumable food on average than modern agriculture. You can't grow twice as much by being 40 percent LESS productive.


Europe must import food in order to feed itself...

  • Europe is an example of an advanced economy that has banned GM traits and increasingly restricted the use of crop protection products.  As a result, the EU, with some of the best soil and most favorable climate conditions on earth, is now a net importer of food.
  • In fact, every year, Europe imports "virtual land" (the amount of land in other nations necessary to make up for their shortfall) the size of Germany.


Organic agriculture is less than 1% of the U.S. agricultural economy....

  • While the organic food lobby says that organic agriculture is one of the fastest growing agriculture sectors, that's because it is starting from a very small baseline.
  • According to USDA, only 0.7 percent of U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of U.S. pasture were certified organic in 2008.
  • According to the Organic Trade Association, organics accounted for 3.7 percent of food and beverage sales in 2009. The difference is probably attributable to the higher price of organic food and the concentration in fruits, vegetables and specialty crops.


Organic farmers use pesticides too...

  • The label "organic" doesn't necessarily mean pesticide free, it simply means that the food has been grown with pesticides, either synthetic or "natural," that have been specifically listed on the USDA's "National List."
  • Some of the pesticides approved for organic farming are known to be carcinogenic and toxic at high levels. Many are also harmful to fish, bees and other wildlife.
  • Copper sulfate, one of the pesticides most widely used by organic farmers, is classified as "Highly Toxic" by the EPA. Vineyard workers exposed to copper sulfate for three to five years have developed kidney disease. Copper itself is a heavy metal that is broadly toxic and bio-accumulates in animal and human tissue. It is toxic to bees and highly toxic to fish.
  • Pyrethrins, which are also used by organic growers, are considered to be "natural" in the sense that they are derived from the African chrysanthemum. But they are hardly benign. Pyrethrins are chemical nerve toxins that are "Restricted Use Pesticides" according to the EPA, which has also classified them as a "likely human carcinogen." Pyrethrins are toxic to aquatic life.
  • Sulphur, heavily used by organic farmers, is a contact poison. Its toxicity to humans and animal life is relatively low, but it is used in such massive quantities that it is has become a source of some concern.
  • Sabadilla, which is extracted from the South American lily, is an alkaloid toxin that works by disrupting nerve cells and causing paralysis. Small amounts may cause headache, nausea and vomiting. Large doses may result in cardiac or respiratory failure.  It is effective against many insects, including bees.


Organic food is not necessarily safer...

  • While the dangers of food-borne illness in advanced societies are relatively low in historical terms, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are hospitalized every year because of contamination and about 5,000 die.
  • Organic produce is much more likely to carry food borne bacteria because of organic farmers' reliance on animal manure for fertilizer. Conventional farmers tend not to use animal manure on crops directly eaten by people, such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Organic foods are also more likely to be contaminated with fungal toxins which can cause liver and kidney diseases, esophageal cancer and birth defects.
  • A 2004 study at the University of Minnesota found that organic produce was six times more likely to be contaminated with generic E. coli than conventionally-grown produce.  While they also found Salmonella in some organic produce, they found none in the conventionally-grown vegetables.


Organic foods are not more nutritious...

  • According to the USDA, there are no grounds to claim organic food is more nutritious or safer than conventionally grown foods.
  • An extensive study at the University of Copenhagen found that organic food was no more nutritious than food grown with pesticides and chemicals.


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