When it comes to “green living” people tend to point to organic foods as the way to go. I’ve never really been a big supporter of organic foods. For one thing, the name always made me laugh; as if plants and animals from modern industrialized farming were made of something besides organic materials? It’s a connotation that non-organic foods were just that, NOT organic, and synthetic. Obviously that’s pretty absurd. But aside from that, I always thought of organic foods as an alternative, not necessarily always better one than typical food, but with various tradeoffs. To me, if you wanted to be conscious of the environment and act sustainably, it was more important to buy local than buy organic. So I came across this great article from Scientific America (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/) that really lays out the facts behind organic foods, and can help someone compare the tradeoffs associated with organic foods.
The author points out three key issues with organic foods, first being the use of pesticides. I think this is one of the biggest misconceptions about organic, and the reason I hear from most people about why they prefer organic foods. Truth is that organic farms do use pesticides, though they are often natural ones as opposed to synthetic ones. This is a good example of organic vs. modern not being an issue, but really coming down to individual farms. An organic farm might be using natural pesticides, but spraying more frequently and/or in high volumes. Additionally, just because a pesticide is natural it doesn’t mean it’s less toxic to you or the environment compared to synthetics. This illustrates why just being organic doesn’t make it better, and that you really have to check it out for yourself to see if it is better.
The first issues sort of leads into the second; the misconception that organic foods are better for you. This has always been something that I questioned. I had always believed that organics weren’t using pesticides, or at the very least not using modern ones that have become pretty successful at eliminating bacteria. So if you aren’t using these pesticides, you have a greater chance for contaminated foods right? Turns out that’s true, not in overwhelming numbers, but there is a greater instance of contamination among organic foods. Additionally, organic foods do not provide more nutrition than those from modern agriculture. So organics do not have the benefit of less pathogens, and they also don’t have added nutrients. Again this isn’t a knock on organics; it really just shows an even playing field between the two methods.
Lastly the author points out that organic farming is not better for the environment. This is really a land use issue. If organics have a lower yield than modern farming techniques we need to disturb and convert more land into farms to grow our food supply. The lower yield is due to both the different pesticide treatments used, which may be less effective and also organic farming not using genetically modified crops. While I understand why some people are hesitant to eat genetically modified crops, the truth is we’ve been doing it for centuries by planting and cross breading the strongest crops to make better ones. That this is now being done in a lab shouldn’t make a difference.
So while I don’t buy into the hype that many people do over organic food, I think the author paints a realistic picture about the differences between organic and modern farming practices. I’ve eaten organic food, and it’s all well and good, but I don’t think I would ever pay more for it. And if you were buying it thinking you were doing a big favor for the environment, you probably need to investigate more to see just what is going on at the farm. Individual farm practices really determine what the benefits of crops or livestock are which is again why buying locally is the best option. When buying locally you can ask the person at the produce stand what methods were used and weigh the benefits for yourself. Not to mention local farms mean less transportation of the food, which means less greenhouse gas emissions; always a good thing!