In 2010, organic food sales surpassed $26.7 billion in the United States, $52 billion worldwide. That growth has occurred even as organic items continue to incur price premiums of 100% or more.
So what drives people to pay the price that organic demands? According to a newly published and thoroughly detailed article in Scientific American this week, it’s because they’re misinformed about the benefits organically grown foods provide.
And that’s coming from one Christie Wilcox, a science writer and University of Hawaii graduate student in cell and molecular biology who blogs at “Science Sushi”(Real science. Served raw).Far from being a hater, Wilcox admits that organic farming has its place and may even offer advantages over conventional food production.
“Organic farming does have many potential upsides and may indeed be the better way to go in the long run,”she wrote,“but it really depends on technology and what we discover and learn in the future.”
Wilcox further noted that “there are some definite upsides” from organic farming, including efforts to diversify away from monocultures with more aggressive crop rotations and on-farm production diversity and are much better for the soil and environment.
“My goal isn’t to bash organic farms, instead, it’s to bust the worst of the myths that surround them so that everyone can judge organic farming based on facts,” she wrote.
Her article was partly a response to a widely quoted yet scientifically controversial 2007 review, “Organic agriculture and the global food supply.” Conducted by a group of University of Michigan researchers who compared the yields of organic versus conventional or low-intensive food production, the study used a model by it was estimated that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current global population—and even“a potentially larger population”—without increasing the world’s agricultural land base.
The Michigan group’s has since been subjected to withering criticism for its alleged lack of rigor in the methodology and for exaggerating organic farming’s ability to feed theadditional three to four billion people expected to be alive on the planet in the next half century.
That is perhaps the single most damaging criticism leveled against the concept—and, it should be noted, the marketing strategy—of organic farming: For all its benefits, however exaggerated they might be, organic methods cannot feed a world where hundreds of millions of people already face daily food shortages and hunger and we’re already approaching the limits of such vital resources as land, water and energy.
Inside the hype
Wilcox argued that the real reason organic farming isn’t “greener” than conventional food production is that organic farms only produce about 80% of what similar-sized conventional farms. “While [organic methods] might be better for local environments on a small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones,” she concluded, citing a 2002 study in the journal Science.
It’s relatively easy to deflate some of the hype with which organic growers and marketers have surrounded themselves, such as that organic farming doesn’t require pesticides (organic farmers liberally use pesticides that occur “naturally” in certain plants), or that organic foods are nutritionally superior (a claim that has been thoroughly debunked).
And on the matter of genetic engineered crops, the real source of the enmity between organic and conventional camps, biotechnology has not yet delivered as promised the benefits of increases nutrition, reduced chemical use and significantly higher yields, the science is so new that any condemnation of GMOs is shortsighted and premature.
In fact, the organic industry would do well to consider the potential of genetic engineering to maintain its competitiveness, while conventional producers and growers could learn a lesson from the stewardship that the majority of organic farmers not only preach but practice.
Wilcox concludes her insightful and extremely well-written critique with a memorable observation: “Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price, but it’s not a panacea.”
Personally, I support organic growers and producers—and I do purchase organic foods—for another reason not previously mentioned, and that’s this: Given the current state of U.S. food production—everything from a system of targeted government subsidies to a dependence on commodity exports (including beef, pork and chicken) to a top-heavy downstream marketplace—there’s no way small farmers can remain competitive on limited acreage unless they can market a specialty crop that commands a premium price.
If we lose the agricultural land base and the human capital they represent, our national food security could be compromised.
That alone is reason enough for me to (at least occasionally) go organic.
› To review the Scientific American article, log onto http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator