If you listen to many of the current debates over agriculture and food, you believe there are only two sides: those who support “organic” farming, and those who support “conventional” farming—with no common ground between them.
But the fact is, a lot of “organic” food is grown using conventional farming techniques. And a lot of “conventional” crops benefit from agronomic practices developed by organic farmers. When you dig down, the reality is more complicated—and more promising—than you might expect.
The difference between organic and “organic”
By the most traditional definition of the term, almost all food is organic. According to Webster’s Dictionary, organic simply means: “of, relating to, or derived from living organisms.”
When you see the word “organic” on food labels in the grocery store, it has a different meaning. It means food has been grown without the aid of synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and was produced without the use of genetically modified organisms or chemical food additives.
Is there a real difference?
The only honest answer is: It depends. Clearly, if you specifically want your food to be grown without certain pesticides, technologies or additives, you may prefer “organic” varieties.
However, the overwhelming scientific evidence shows there are no significant differences between “organic” and “conventional” crops in terms of taste, nutrition and safety.
The problem with choosing “sides”
The biggest problem with the debate over “organic” and “conventional” crops is that it suggests there are only two ways to grow food: a “good” way and a “bad” way. The reality is far different.
Some vegetables that are labeled “organic” are grown on big farms, thousands of miles away from your grocery store. If you care about eating local, which is better: an “organic” head of lettuce grown in, say, California, or a non-“organic” head of lettuce grown 50 miles from your home?
Perhaps the most important question is: What’s the best way to feed a growing world, while simultaneously reducing the amount of land, water and energy required? To truly address the challenges we face, multiple approaches are needed.
The USDA describes conventional farming systems as conventional farming systems vary from farm to farm and from country to country. However, they share many characteristics: rapid technological innovation; large capital investments in order to apply production and management technology; large-scale farms; single crops/row crops grown continuously over many seasons; uniform high-yield hybrid crops; extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy inputs; high labor efficiency; and dependency on agribusiness.”
The following recent studies provide information on the benefits of biotechnology:
PG Economics, GM Crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2009
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) Report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011
Field to Market Report, Environmental and Socioeconomic Indicators for Measuring Outcomes of On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States
UK Food Standards Agency Review: Comparison of composition of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature