Exploring the Myths of Organic vs. Conventional

Farmer Gene

Scientific American’s “Science Sushi” blog looks at common myths around organic and mainstream agriculture.  Blogger Christie Wilcox says upfront that there are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods.  But organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods, and people are shelling out their hard-earned cash for what they believe are the best foods available. So Wilcox looks at organic’s four most common myths and includes scientific cites for her claims:

Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides
Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides. There are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the U.S. Organic Standards.  Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use.  Organic pesticides are not all safe.  In fact, some  might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.

Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier
Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

Myth #3: Organic Farming Is Better for the Environment
People seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not.  Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy.

For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways.

But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones.

Myth #4: It’s all or none
In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally.

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12 Responses to Exploring the Myths of Organic vs. Conventional

  1. Niraj K. Yadav says:

    Nice breakdown – I was especially surprised to see the widespread use of Bt toxin having seen first hand the adamant stance against GMOs using the Bt gene in the crops myself. That really does smack of hyprocrisy, doesn’t it?

  2. LVMuzychka says:

    Re myth #1 – “In fact, some might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.”
    If that is true , what is the research to back up such a suggetion?
    Where I have a choice between quality organic food and quality non-organics I choose the former. It is my attempt to support the organic farmer. I am too old to worry about health benefits either way.

    • SteveM says:

      Re myth #1. Quite a few organic certified pesticides and fungicides are well known to be toxic because they are relatively non-specific by nature. Pyrethrins (derived from Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium), Sabadilla (ground seeds of the sabadilla lily) and Rotenone (derived from the roots of tropical legumes) are all highly toxic to bees, with toxicity levels that would prevent a non-organic pesticide being approved for use. The use of horticultural oil basically involves drenching crops in highly refined petroleum to suffocate insects and organic wines are routinely sprayed with ‘Bordeaux mixture’ which is essentially concentrated copper sulphate, known to be highly toxic to fish, livestock and earthworms. Historically copper sulphate was also used on banana plantations but it fell out of favour as many of the workers died from poisoning. Most of the information on this stuff can be found in the HDRA Encyclopedia Of Organic Gardening by Pears, Pauline, et al. which is published by Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London, 2005.

    • Steve Savage says:

      You can look up the MSDS information for Organic fungicides like copper sulfate, copper hydroxide etc. They have acute toxicity thresholds 30-50 times lower than most modern synthetic fungicides. Copper is particularly harmful to aquatic organisms. It is also highly persistent in the environment since it is an element that cannot break down into harmless materials. see:

      http://redgreenandblue.org/2010/09/27/an-unlikely-pair-heavy-metal-and-organic-produce/

    • Kaspa Hine says:

      … and the reason for your support is?

  3. K. McIver says:

    This article is disappointingly slanted and superficial and does not acknowledge obvious facts. For example there is a fundemental difference between applying a protein (BT toxin) to a crop versus releasing a gene (BT toxin gene) into an out-breeding plant like corn. Also if you have any familiarity at all with the environmental science field, you know that a fair number of pesticides have a direct and proven link to destruction of wildlife and human health problems. This type of article is not objective, scientific or informative and does not belong on a website that claims to be such.

  4. Robert Honeyman says:

    GMO: I would rather not injest poisons if I can avoid it. It would be interesting to compare ppm of pesticide in GMO with pesticide built in vs washed normal vs washed organic. I’m guessing the conventional and organic will show a lower concentration. I’m also guessing that comparing with unwashed will show a higher concentration.

    There are many problems with GMO.

    1. We didn’t know what DDT was going to do to the environment when released. Insufficient studies. Same with GMO.
    2. GMO creates a potential economic stranglehold on worldwide farming. Think of the infrastructure changes just in terms of pesticides. If pesticides are no longer used, prices will climb as production decreases. GMO could acquire monopolistic power in the feedstock industry.
    3. Imagine that we begin to find that GMO causes serious health issues 30 years out. a. the monopolies will suppress any negative data (and the apologizers will brand the opposition anti-business); b. GMO will drop prices (assuming continuation of Reagonomics, G-d forbid) to make it uneconomic to bring back the infrastructure required to farm without GMO; c. our hubris will have once again given us a major spanking because, what’s the big deal? It’s just seed that’s been made better in the lab.

    I’m not about to claim that GMO is less healthy than non-GMO. I don’t know. And the fact that I don’t know is a major reason I avoid it whenever possible (meaning, whenever I avoid highly processed food – i.e., most of the time).

  5. jytdog says:

    I appreciate advocacy for the biotech industry very much but this article is not helpful.

    About Myth 1: “”In fact, some might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.” This is terrible writing and boils down to hand-wavy scare tactics. Are one or more commonly used organic pesticides, used as per the instructions, “worse” than “the ones” commonly used according to their instructions by conventional ag? Which are worse and in what way?

    About Myth 2. Have you done a search on pubmed? I never had before today and found quite a few peer-reviewed articles showing that some organically produced food has more nutrients than conventionally produced food. On what basis are the broad statements in this myth-busting section made? Why say something that is so easily shot down and therefore discredits the whole effort?

    About Myth 3. The section says organic farming “might be better for local environments on the small scale”…. which directly contradicts the title. And what is this “concern” about Bt leaching into soil? It is a protein, for pete’s sake, and will degrade like any protein.. unlike small molecule pesticides that can and do persist and leach and become problems.

    I support BIO’s advocacy and education efforts and believe they are important; this article is counter-productive. Many people invested in the organics movement already believe that industry just lies all the time… why give them raw meat like this?

  6. One aspect not explored here is that more labor is generally required to tend an organic crop in the field than a comparable conventional or GM crop. Also, the risk of loss of large portions from pests makes organic agriculture riskier and more prone to crop insurance claims. There is good research now on the “halo effect” of Bt. crops that reduce the need for organic producers to use Bt. since the crops around them in their area are keeping pest populations relatively under control. Good work — keep those ideas flowing.
    Tom

  7. Puneet says:

    Nice breakdown in different myths. I have to accept that myth 2 about organic food and myth 3 about organic farming came out as shocks for me. And I understand that it is totally normal for a common thinker like me which have wrong delusions about these.

    Yes, there is a greater need for awaking people on what they think of things like organic foods and farming (as once I thought before reading it).

  8. tia says:

    One major problem with using insecticides that are a part of the genetic material rather than just sprayed on is that the human and animal bodies have a difficult time breaking down the insecticides. They end up in our blood, organs and even in the umbilical cords of the unborn. Since no long-term studies have been done on the damage this can cause, many do not want to be the guinea pigs and want a choice as to whether to ingest gmo’s or not. This is also true of ingesting genetic materials of animals and medicine that end up in our produce. When insecticides are sprayed on, atleast most can be washed off.

    If gmo seeds would stay only on the farms that want them, that would be fine. That is not the case and this one reason why organic and gmo’s can’t be near each other. The gmo seeds infiltrate the fields surrounding them and contaminate the crops.

    Organic foods are healthier for a couple of reasons. The soil has been better prepared resulting in higher nutritional value and will feed more people over the long-term than conventional according to the many long-term studies done. Check out the Rodale Institute for more info. Another reason is because the genetic material of organic is without a poison or two which the body hasn’t been able to break down for elimination.

    • Matt says:

      Really the soil has been better prepared Tia? This statement count not be more wrong. Check your facts. The soil is prepared in the same way, conventional or organic. Growers use the same fertilizers for the most part, it is just about how they are synthesized.

      It is not healthier, get real, toxic chemicals are still being sprayed on your food whether it conventional or organic. Its not the chemical that makes it toxic in the long run, its the levels and if anything Organic pesticides/fertilizers are way more unregulated than conventional. In the conventional world a pesticide must undergo years of trial and clinical study before it is even given a certification level. The minimum being 7 years. The nutritional value does not change, I argue it is worse in organic farming because the methods of production are not as efficient as conventional methods.

      GMO’s do not infiltrate fields and contaminate crops, another erroneous statement, Tia. Sure seeds from other fields and plots may be introduced from nearby fields, but there is no leaching of material from one crop to another. A GMO crop can not go up to another plant and change its genetic make up. This is a stupid statement.

      On another note, I argue that Organic farming is introduced to more chemicals than conventional. You have to spray twice as much pesticide for organic crops, using an organic pesticide/herbicide, to get the same desired effects as conventional farming.

      Source : IPS major

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