This article explores the question of whether or not organic-certified foods are really better, in the slightly more objective senses of being better for the environment, and better for human health, than non-organic foods. In order to explore and answer this question, we delve a bit into the history of organic farming, and the history of human agriculture in general.
Organic vs. traditionally produced:
The field of organic chemistry, with its synthetic chemicals, is a modern invention. For thousands of years, humans practiced agriculture, relying solely on naturally occurring chemicals in the environment around them. People used manure and compost for fertilizers, and found natural methods of pest control, such as plant-based herbicides, the use of cover crops and buffer areas, to stop the spread of pests and provide habitat for predators that would control insect populations. People used open-pollinated crops, and saved the seeds each year, thus allowing their crops to adapt to changing conditions, including a changing backdrop of pests. None of these operations were “organic certified”, yet all of them would have fit the modern definition of organic farming.
Along comes synthetic chemicals:
Synthetic chemicals allowed people to move away from traditional farming methods, which were based on ecological principles. When using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, produced in factors, many using petroleum inputs and energy-intensive processes, farmers were able to produce greater crop yields while temporarily ignoring the ecology of the farm.
But these chemicals come with a cost. Earlier generations of chemicals, such as DDT, posed serious risks to the environment, driving some species, such as the Bald Eagle, the symbol of the United States of America, nearly to extinction, leading many of these chemicals to be banned. A number of chemicals also pose problems to human health, contributing to cancer risk as well as other diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Leukemia, and many other sinister, chronic diseases.
Organic certification sets out to solve some of these problems. The idea is simple: a farmer follows a set of rules, which involves refraining from the use of certain chemical inputs for a number of years, and then the farmer’s crops will be able to bear the organic label, thus fetching a higher price in the marketplace. Shoppers can look for the label, and feel peace of mind knowing that synthetic chemicals were not used in the production of their food. Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not this simple. The organic certification process is costly and complex, and can be burdensome for farmers to comply with, because of its extensive record-keeping requirements that go far above and beyond what a farmer would normally need to do in order to run a productive farming operation. The effect of this additional burden is that organic certification is more easily accessible to large-scale factory farming than it is to a small farmer with diversified crops.
Industrialized, organic factory farming vs. small-scale traditional production:
It is possible for a factory farm to comply with the letter of the organic certification rules, while ignoring the spirit of them. A factory farm may practice widespread monoculture, the growth of the same crop over a large spatial scale. They may use pesticides and fertilizers allowed in the organic system, but apply them industrially like conventional (non-organic) agriculture would.
On the other hand, a small-scale farmer, farming by traditional methods, by definition will be farming organically. But many of these farmers may choose not to go the route of organic certification because of the prohibitive costs of certification and the associated record-keeping burden. When choosing between these two setups, there is no doubt that the small farmer with diversified crops, using traditional methods is going to have a more positive impact on the environment. Yet at the store, it is the factory-farmed food that will bear the organic label.
In summary: is organic really better?
My answer to the question “Is organic really better?” is: not necessarily. Organic certification is a good idea, and all other things being equal, it is better for health and for the environment to purchase organic products. However, the organic label is not a guarantee that food has been produced in an environmentally sound manner. Many small farmers opt to avoid organic certification because it is prohibitively costly, and large-scale farms unfortunately are better able to afford this certification. It is best to balance your choice to buy organic products with a choice to buy from small farms, farming by traditional farming methods, whenever possible.