The debate on the organic food issue has recently intensified with a number of studies coming out, like the Stanford study which reported that there was not much gain in nutrition from eating organic foods, or the one from Oxford University on the environmental impact of growing produce with organic methods. With each new announcement the discussion gets shriller and, to the layperson, quite bewildering, so here is an attempt to sort out some of the issues involved.
Health Impact: Nutritionally, it is pointed out that there is not much difference between conventional and organic food. Proponents of organic food argue that the heavy use of pesticides in conventional farms is dangerous for health. While conventional farmers are required by law to maintain pesticide use within levels deemed acceptable for human consumption, organic farmers too use pesticides and anything that is used to kill pests cannot be totally benign. The organic pesticide rotenone has been associated with certain health risks as well. Consider the case, then, of crops that have been genetically modified to resist pests thereby lowering pesticide use by huge quantities. I understand that “genetic modification” often makes us imagine something from a sci-fi film gone bad. But over the millennia, farmers have tried to cross breed plants to get a hardier or tastier variety and doing so at the genetic level is actually more precise. After all, the non-invasive procedures used in major surgery today are preferred by patients to the past techniques of making a big incision for every procedure. And while there is consensus on the need to reduce antibiotic use in the meat and poultry industry, the organic standards actually require that sick animals not be treated with antibiotics which is of some concern.
One point that gets lost in the cacophony is the potential for biofortification that we can use to combat malnutrition and improve other health outcomes. Rice that is fortified with Vitamin A would help people who suffer from this deficiency (and this is widespread in many areas of the world). We all know about the benefits of eating bananas? So should we try out some techniques to protect it from being wiped out by blight and disease? We can try, with conventional breeding programs as well as with genetic modification.
Environmental Impact: Organic food has been presented as good for us and, also, good for the planet. While it is true that organic farming practices do benefit the area they are grown in, they have a larger carbon footprint than conventional methods. Since more land is required to grow organic crops than the same quantity of conventional crops, more forest cover and open land has to be cleared for farming instead.
If one were to stick to an all-organic diet throughout the year, it would mean that organic lettuce in December, for example, would have to be shipped from overseas to the northern parts of the world, and the environmental impact of this would be huge. Eating conventional crops grown locally and in season is the greener option.
Organic farms do protect biodiversity but GM crops are not the devastating force they are often made out to be. In fact, a study has shown that they can actually promote the growth of secondary pests (which would have been the prey of primary pests) and add to biodiversity.
The biggest crisis looming over us today is the one posed by climate change. Even for those who do not believe in that term, the weird weather and crippling drought this past summer must be of concern. As the weather becomes unstable, our ability to produce food to feed the entire population of the planet is going to be affected. The effort to mitigate this by developing crops that are drought and flood resistant can be pursued by organic methods and biotechnology and it is critical that both are employed or food scarcity and rising prices will be a reality in the coming years. Also, conventional farming is able to achieve higher yields for grains, which are a part of staple diets worldwide, and opting for organic would further exacerbate grain shortages.
Economic Issues: The first thing that strikes anyone comparing the prices of conventional and organic produce at the grocery store is the big jump in prices of organic produce. Working on a median income budget, one is forced to pick a few items that we can buy from the organic section while settling for the conventional option for others. For a family, organic milk may be bought for the children alone because buying it for the whole family makes a gaping hole in the weekly food budget. A study found that buying an all-organic diet involves paying a 49% premium and the food share of the budget rises from 11 to 18%. These are not trivial numbers and younger families on starting incomes with small children and potential mothers might be greatly impacted by this. If this cost differential means that we forego buying or eating fruits and vegetables because they are not labeled organic, this involves a serious nutritional cost in terms of health outcomes for children in their growing years and also in maternal nutritional standards.
I am surprised when people say they will not buy conventional or GM foods because of their opposition to “Big Ag”. If the concentration of market power is a concern, there are other, legal, ways of dealing with it than throwing out options that would enable us to feed more people. By opting for a method of cultivation that has lower yields we are impacting our ability to feed all the people on the planet. The cost of yield forgone is also a cost, even though we do not see it listed on our check out receipt. And if is big corporations that one objects to, perhaps it is important to know which companies actually own the organic brands we see on the shelves: Kashi is owned by Kellogg, Horizon by Dean Foods (the J.M. Smucker Company), Honest Tea by Coca Cola, Naked Juice by Pepsi, Cascadian farms by general Mills, the list goes on.
And then are those who say that the only solution is to grow your own food. If you were to grow everything needed to feed a family of four, including grains and raising livestock, then that is pretty much all you could do. Farming is hard work and we need to respect those who grow our food. It is not about tending a community garden or backyard alone because that will not meet all the needs of a family. It is also less efficient on a social level. Conceptually, if everyone does what they are best at, we have the best food from farmers who know their work, good instruction from teachers who are trained for that, can build the best rocket designed by people who are skilled in that area and so on. If instead, everyone spent their time growing their food, we would have to live at a subsistence level.
We need a food system that is efficient, green and fair to its workers. To achieve this in the context of a population heading towards 9 billion and changing climatic conditions we need to exercise all options: use good farm practices like crop rotation, reduced tillage, planting perennials with seasonal crops, reducing pesticide and antibiotic use and also exploring the potential of new technology wherever it is possible. Organizations like the WHO and the National Academy of Sciences endorse the view that GM foods are safe for consumption. In Europe, where labeling already exists and which has seen some of the strongest opposition to GM, a recent report based on a decade long research effort also concluded that there is no negative health impact from GM foods.
Too often, we get overwhelmed by competing messages in the media, by the variety of policy challenges that political leaders seem ready to ignore and retreat from the discussion. This is not the time to do so, both for our families and for our planet. Partisan battles on this or that technique are a waste of crucial time; we need to make use of all the tools and knowledge we have to the benefit of our families and our planet.