Environmental Defense has released a new publication, “A dozen fresh ideas for farm and food policy.” Many of its ideas have some degree of practicality — as its particular brand of environmentalism goes — such as the push to reward carbon sequestration in the soil and slowing urban sprawl.
But one idea clearly illustrates the difficulty that non-farmers have understanding how modern agriculture works. It states, “Farm and food policies should help farmers make the transition to organic food and fiber production to boost farm profitability, provide healthier food choices and help the environment.”
This stubborn fixation for all things organic just won’t go away will it? I have no choice but to submit three counterpoints:
No. 1 is the implication that conventional agriculture produces unhealthy food compared to organic agriculture. According to the American Dietetic Association, “Research shows that nutritionally, there is no evidence that organic produce is better or safer than conventionally grown produce. Organic foods differ from conventional foods only in the way they are grown and processed.”
In addition the association stresses that it doesn’t matter whether or not the fruits and vegetables you eat are organic or conventional, but simply that you eat them.
No. 2 is the assumption that conventional agriculture hurts the environment. This one is easy. It is farmers — the real environmentalists in action — who are driving the conservation bandwagon. New technologies like variable-rate application, genetic engineering and boll weevil eradication help farmers narrow the focus of their applications to specific sites in a field or to specific pests — a wise and efficient use of products.
New technology has increased average yield per acre in conventional agriculture, meaning less land is used to produce the same amount of food or fiber. Much of the land not used is converted to other uses, often for wildlife habitat.
No. 3 is the assertion that organic agriculture is more profitable. The implication here is that if all U.S. farmers went organic they would make more money. But somebody is overlooking a very important factor — the law of supply and demand controls price.
The reason organic is successful today is because it’s a niche market, with tightly controlled supplies, pre-production and pricing contracts and a handful of diehard consumers. Try expanding the organic model of production 10,000-fold and see what happens. It could get ugly, quick.
The Environmental Defense needs to do its homework before submitting another round of fresh ideas. Keep the focus on sustainability, not organic farming. Sustainable agriculture should feed and clothe the people, conserve our natural resources and make a profit for the producer. Wholesale changes in the structure of agriculture should not occur just because a handful of people feel good about organic.