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Is there a point to buying organic?

  1. Nov 11, 2009 #1
    Over the past month, with the approaching date of the Copenhagen summit, several news and scientific articles have been prominently dedicated to various environmental issues, namely organic farming, the sustainability of keeping high levels of meat in our diets and its growth in developing countries, as well as the sustainability in general of feeding such a huge global population. There is of course also the question of developing alternative fuel sources for transport in the absence of oil security, and the controversial question of first generation biodiesels since they are all food crops whose environmental virtues have been thoroughly questioned.
    This was a feature on Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/dome...091110?pageNumber=1&virtualBrandChannel=11621 about GM crops vs organic farming.

    The general public of course takes a better view of the old man who kindly tends to his naturally growing farm that doesn't significantly suffer from pests and diseases, than the supposedly more commercially oriented and 'heartless' GM crops that increase yields and potentially make farms more profitable.

    The view that the scientific community seems to espouse is that organic farming, though nice in principle, is not sustainable beyond redeeming the conscience of the West's upper middle class.

    So then, organic farming is not actually so virtuous, since all it does is apply a model that is by nature small scale to cater to a niche and rich market. There was also the recent research that concluded there was virtually no nutritional difference between organic and the rest. Although intensive farming may have side-effects for the soil, the main culprit here is not greedy farmers or evil scientists performing wicked experiments in a lab, but the sheer size of the population. If we're to make food prices affordable to feed the world, we need these methods.

    I used to buy organic when it was on offer because I thought I might be doing something positive as a consumer with little difference to my wallet, but now I'm more reluctant to take such a simplistic view. Considering the above, is there really a point to buying organic, given the realities of the global scale social and economic conditions of both?
     
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  3. Nov 11, 2009 #2
    I buy organic, because its a healthy choice for me. Fruits like peaches and strawberry's, along with veggies like spinach and celery, contain more pesticides then I feel safe to consume. It also helps the small farmers, who would other wise be eaten up by the large conglomerate farming companies.

    At the farm market in Detroit, prices are better then the grocery stores. You tend to see a lot of lower income people taking advantage of that.

    The small organic farmer can often pick his crop and bring it to market in less then 12 hours. I will continue to support locally grown foods. It is actually really neat to sit around a old farm house and talk to people who have 5 generations of family invested in the land, they really have a lot to offer.
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2009
  4. Jan 29, 2010 #3

    turbo

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    I garden organically, using organically-grown seeds and NO chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There is a strong contingent of organic growers and farmers here in Maine, and we are under threat from the spread of GMO crops. Crops that are wind-pollinated or are pollinated by wide-ranging insects can be contaminated by GMO crops being grown nearby. That is not such a pressing problem for me, because I grow for consumption. It is a very serious problem for the consortium of organic farmers that supply FedCo Seeds with all of its organic seeds. They have to abide by some very stringent guidelines to retain their "organic" classification, and cross-pollination from GMO crops can ruin years and years of hard work.
     
  5. Jan 29, 2010 #4
    I volunteer with a non-profit, http://www.cityslickerfarms.org/" [Broken] helping urbanites grow food in the city.

    I grow as much of my own food as I can, and the rest I buy from local organic farmers or in bulk from one of my local natural grocers.
     
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  6. Feb 10, 2010 #5
    There are a some benefits with organic farming such as ecosystem diversity and soil and water quality. There are less benefits with greenhouse gases when calculated on a per unit food production basis and it could even be worse.

    http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/growing/organic/policy/research/pdf/env-impacts2.pdf [Broken]

    My own view is that it is more environmentally beneficial to reduce food waste which minimises the pressure to grow more food.

    http://www.entrans.co.uk/food shortage what food shortage.html

    Reducing cattle based meat is also environmentally beneficial
     
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  7. Feb 10, 2010 #6

    HallsofIvy

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    I agree with every thing you say but would point out that you cannot assume , just because you bought something from a small farmer at a farmer's market, that it was grown organically. And, unfortunately, the farmer telling you that he farms organically doesn't necessarily mean it is true or that he means the say thing by "organic" that you do.
     
  8. Feb 10, 2010 #7

    mgb_phys

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    You could argue that it is intensive farming that is not sustainable. In Europe it's estimated that >25% of crops are thrown away because they don't meet supermarket's cosmetic standards. Since the farm and supermarket have exclusive contracts the food is destroyed. A local farm will just sell you the misshapen but perfectly good vegatables. If you are going to destroy increasing amounts of food in order for your potato chips to all be the same size - somebody is going to go hungry.

    The research was a little suspect, it claimed there was no nutritional difference in food grown without pesticides and GM food grown with increased amounts of pesticide - IF you ignored the effect of the pesticide!

    Which is rather like claiming that jumping from a cliff is safe - if you ignore the effects of gravity.
     
  9. Feb 10, 2010 #8

    turbo

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    That's not so much of a problem in Maine, because our state has had a strong certification process for over 30 years. The farmers at the market know which of their competitors are certified and which are not, so it tends to keep things honest. I buy meat from a farm that is working toward certification, but has not yet actually been certified. The couple raises grass-fed Black Angus cattle, and most years, free-range chickens. They also grow cultivated strawberries using organic methods, and open their fields to the public, who pick their own berries and pay by the quart.
     
  10. Feb 10, 2010 #9
    By general take is:

    1) There is no convincing evidence that organic food is safer or more healthful than non-organic food, so there is no basis for buying it for that reason.

    2) There is convincing (but not complete, as I have seen significant counter-claims) evidence that organic farming has a lower negative impact on the local ecosystem, so buying organic might be somewhat helpful to the local environment.

    There are also some important facts to keep in mind.

    A) Plants produce natural pesticides, which are not necessarily any less deleterious than artificial pesticides.

    B) Organic standards have been watered down to the point where the organic label does not mean pesticide-free. It just means it was grown without certain pesticides, though it may contain significant amounts of pesticides due to runoff from nearby farms.

    C) Organic food production has been heavily industrialized. While organic food once mostly came from smaller, local farms, it very often is now produced on large farms using industrial farming methods and trucked long distances, so the locally-grown freshness that was once associated strongly with organic food is probably not anymore.

    D) Organic food takes a lot more energy per calorie to produce, which is why it is so much more expensive. It is pretty much a luxury product, which many people (especially outside the wealthy west) cannot afford.
     
  11. Feb 10, 2010 #10
    I've always thought that the healthier the soil, the healthier the food that grows in it. Isn't there an issue of mineral content as well?

    Anyways though, I had a class at San Jose State called environmental issues, and a whole chapter of my text book was dedicated to the damage that high input chemical farming is doing to our farmland. After so long, salts build up in the soil, and it becomes unusable. The soil can be fixed, but it is expensive, and at some point almost impossible. So if my teacher wasn't just a propaganda agent, there is a real good reason to shop organic. Organic soil is more sustainable in the long term by far, and according to my book, we are facing the possibility of major food crisis if we let irresponsible greedy farmers ruin too much soil.

    We used synthetic plant nutrients in our garden a few years ago, and ever since, the garden hasn't been too much success.

    Another issue is that even organic soil can be degraded of essential plant nutrients and minerals. Some plants degrade certain elements of the soil, and others replenish it when they die. If you have the right mix of plants, the the soil will be self fixing and much more sustainable.

    Also, I don't know if you have ever grown your own vegetables and fruit, but it is far better in taste then what you get at the store in my opinion. Fresher food is also more nutritious.

    One possible con of organic crops, is that they are often grown using cow manure which contains antibiotics, and apparently these antibiotics are easily absorbed by plants, and although it is a very low level we are exposed to from our vegetables it isn't ideal, as there is a slight potential for the risk of causing bacteria to evolve a resistance to antibiotics over time, theoretically.
     
  12. Feb 11, 2010 #11

    turbo

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    Soil is a partner, not a resource. If you want to grow healthy tasty food, you need decent soil. There is a monster greenhouse complex not far from here (Backyard Farms) that grows tomatoes using hydroponics, but that kind of technology is not affordable nor well-adapted to the needs of average people.

    Our soils tend to have a high clay content, due to millenia of glaciation, so it can be necessary to add materials to improve the soil so that periods of wet and dry don't equate to mud and concrete. I've been slowly adding compost to my garden spot over the years, but have still had drainage problems when we get monsoon weather. I had to have some ground-work done last fall to establish a viable drain-field for my septic system, and when the work was winding down, I had the contractor haul in a 14-yard truckload of coarse sand and another load of old rotted cow manure. I spread those on my garden spot and tilled them in with my tractor. The resultant soil is very dark, well-lofted, and permeable. If we get half-decent weather this summer, I hope to be able to supply friends and family with ample food.

    As for soil depletion in the short term, it is a good idea to study companion cropping and crop rotation. Some crops (corn for instance) need a lot of nitrogen, and other crops (mostly legumes) fix nitrogen in the soil in the process of growing. The need for fertilization (either commercial or organic) can be alleviated by understanding the mechanisms behind the nutrient balance in your soil. Also, never underestimate the value of a well-rotted compost pile. No clean vegetable matter ever goes wasted here - it all goes to the pile to get rotted down by microorganisms and mixed and aerated by their wormy hosts.
     
  13. Feb 11, 2010 #12

    mgb_phys

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    Plants need tiny amounts of most minerals - not normally something to worry about.
    Most do need nitrogen from the soil, so you need to either grow a nitrogen fixer (peas) or dump animal manure on it.

    Not really due to the farming, there is land that is marginal for farming and takes a lot of effort to make it work at all - ie growing wheat next to the ocean.
    But wheat growing in the praries is pretty intensive and hasn't done much harm to the soil.

    That's generally the choice of variety. If you are growing tomatoes in Mexico to ship to Canada you need a variety that is tough and ripens slowly, taste comes second. If you grew the same variety in your window box it would taste the same
    The stuff you grow in your own garden you aren't concerned with yield so you grow a variety that tastes nice.

    Giving food animals antibiotics that aren't used in people (and so most human diseases aren't yet immune to) is totally crazy.
    But plants aren't where I would worry. Beef+antibiotics -> hamburger -> salmonella+trashcan is more of a problem.

    There is an excellent article looking at what you give to factory chickens and then how you transport them in open trucks on the road - it compares it to the best attempts to militarize bio-weapons like anthrax, the chickens are much more effective!

    The main down side of organic is that people have an idea "organic=good, pretty=good therefore organic=pretty" which means that supermarkets demand much higher cosmetic standards for organic food. Which means they can charge much higher prices, but it means a large proportion (upto 50%) is thrown away. Compare the organic vegatables in an upmarket supermarket with the ones at the local farmers market.

    In the better for you argument there are lies on both sides.
    Organic food isn't magically nutritiously better for you, in fact for some things like nuts which are stored for a long time it can be more dangerous. It also isn't necessarily better for the environment to grow fruit organically in a greenhouse in Canada than grow it in the tropics and ship it.

    Similarly GM food isn't in itself necessarily harmful - it's that it is GM'ed to allow you to use say, 10x as much pesticide. It's the 10x as much pesticide that you want to worry about.
     
  14. Feb 11, 2010 #13
    Here in California there is a certification process in order to earn the organic label. Here in Berkeley the Ecology Center screens all vendors and inspects their farms. Not all organic farmers are certified. I buy my avocados from a local grower. He is not certified organic, even though he uses organic practices. Getting certification is an expensive proposition and he just cannot afford it.

    I would recommend, in the words of Ronald Reagan; "trust...but verify."
     
  15. Feb 11, 2010 #14
    No there was not recent research conducted that reached that conclusion. The study you are referring to was an assessment of various test results over the past 50 years, not new research. And the disturbing fact that was glossed over was the higher nitrogen content of conventionally grown food as opposed to naturally grown food. The study also focused on a narrow spectrum of the nutritional elements of the food.

    More recent research, field research, not a review of old research with a limited scope, has found a significant difference between organic and industrial crops. For instance, organic tomatoes have twice the amount of flavinoids of their industrial counterparts.
     
  16. Feb 11, 2010 #15
    I assume the "By general take" is a typo, and you meant "My general take."

    Convincing evidence is a subjective a term. I find the evidence to be convincing. We look at different evidence and even the same evidence from different perspectives and reach opposite conclusions.

    There is little doubt that organic is better. To grow organically you must build living soil. Conventional methods kill the life in the soil till it becomes becomes little more than dead earth to prop up the plants.
    I fail to see your point here? Deleterious to whom? And why would adding industrial pesticides to the mix be prefered?

    Could you cite examples of the specific chemical pesticides that are certified organic?

    You do understand that pesticides are applied directly to the plants, not absorbed through the roots. Pesticide runoff is not a problem for organic crops. Over spray on the other hand is.

    I agree. Mono-crop on an industrial scale is only slightly better then conventional agriculture. This is why farmers markets are preferred over grocery stores. A person can meet his farmer, visit the farm, etc.

    You have this exactly reversed. The energy input per calorie is about ~50% higher for conventional versus organic.
     
  17. Feb 11, 2010 #16

    Evo

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    That is simply due to low levels of nitrogen in the soil, something that has nothing to do with being certified "organic" anyone can reduce the amount of nitrogen in the soil and not be considered "organic".

    You don't know about systemic pesticides? These are usually applied to the soil and absorbed through the roots.

    http://www.plant-care.com/systemic-pesticides.html [Broken]
     
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  18. Feb 11, 2010 #17

    Astronuc

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    We buy organic, but we also grow berries and vegetables organically. We also belong to a local farm project which specializes in organically grown crops.
     
  19. Feb 11, 2010 #18
  20. Feb 11, 2010 #19

    turbo

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    You need not reduce the nitrogen content of the soil to accomplish this. When the weather cooperates, I have bumper crops of chilies and sweet peppers, even though conventional wisdom says that you should get better pepper crops in nitrogen-poor soil because high-nitrogen soils encourage leafing and inhibits flowering and fruiting. I believe the difference is that I am using organic gardening methods, and the nitrogen-rich compost and rotted manure that I add to the soil break down slowly and release nitrogen slowly and consistently. If I used chemical fertilizers, there would be a high nitrogen availability for a period of time, then it would have to be re-applied later. I have a fairly comprehensive soil-testing kit, and the levels of nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus all test at "good" or higher since I have gotten the soil in good shape a couple of years back. I have not had to adjust pH level for the last two years, either.

    It was expensive getting the organic content of the garden improved - peat and composted manure aren't cheap. Neither are bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, etc, but it took all these amendments and more to overcome the deficiencies in the soil. The previous owner limed heavily every year, and flogged everything along with Miracle-Gro, and the soil was badly depleted in essential nutrients.
     
  21. Feb 11, 2010 #20
    Exactly how does reduced nitrogen content in the soil increase flavinoids???

    And who (besides you) is suggesting that decreasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil is organic?

    Systemic pesticides can be applied to the soil, seed, or sprayed on the leaf. Unlike fertilizers though, they are not applied as liberally, and are less likely to create a runoff problem. I did not mean to suggest that it is never a problem, just that over spray is the major pesticide issue for organic growers, primarily because pesticides kill the beneficial fauna and flora that organic growers cultivate. My point is that pesticide runoff is a weak argument against buying organic.
     
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