Why I Buy Organic - by Tony Pizouli
Most people have had some experience with organic food. In the first world, we expect it to be certified and labelled as such, but many people forget that until the 20th century all food would have qualified as organic. Even now, in much of the world where people grow their own food or big agribusiness does not reign, much food is still produced without the inputs that make food fall under the terribly inappropriately named category of “conventional”.
It is also important to understand what organic food is not. It is not more nutritious in and of itself, though the lack of synthetic pesticides makes it easier to eat what you choose to be eating, and nothing else. The criteria above are also not responsible for making your food any tastier. When the food tastes better it is because the values of many organic farmers lead them to supply markets close to home with seasonally appropriate food. Monsanto’s industrial supply chain doesn’t lend itself to providing you with a tomato that would make your Italian grandmother weep for joy.
If it’s not healthier or tastier, why bother with organic food? There is a strong movement encouraging everyone to become more aware of where food comes from and how it is produced. When one does this, the conclusion is unavoidable: organic farming is sustainable farming, and “conventional” agriculture is a dead end road. The latter is driven by the use of chemical fertilizers derived from petroleum. Everyone knows that oil is a finite resource, yet not so many acknowledge that the increasing price of synthetic fertilizer and its eventual scarcity will increase food prices and be a large part of the looming issue of food security. Industrial farming generally plants vast tracts of the same crops year after year, which depletes the soil of nutrients and leaves the land in terrible condition, requiring ever-increasing amounts of inputs, furthering the terrible problem stated above. The energy demands of irrigated farming are immense (think of the Okanagan and much of California, which incidentally is already having serious water problems), and that energy crisis is another topic altogether.
Our society views this system as “normal”, while organic methods seem to many people to have certain drawbacks: smaller yields in a given year, and increased prices. The shift in perspective that all should consider is this: that organic methods, yields, and prices are “normal”, and that so-called “conventional” methods are the exception. On the positive side, we have higher yields in a given year, and lower prices. But on the negative side we also have unsustainable inputs, long-term damage to farmland, and most importantly, huge externalities. Externalities are consequences created by a process, but not accounted for in the finances of its operation or sale. For example, runoff from rain on a conventional farm might move pesticides into an aquifer, damaging a water supply for people and animals. Reversing that damage is an expensive and difficult task, but the company does not pay for it, nor do they pass the cost on to consumers. Prices are low, profits are high, and externalities are huge. In organic farming, generally consisting of smaller operations, the externalities are far fewer. Staying with the example of runoff, a field fertilized with manure might end up increasing the E. coli in nearby water. The scale of this is one important difference, and another is the fact that naturally occurring E. coli has been getting into water supplies since bacteria started helping animals digest their food, while nature has no mechanism to cope with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Unequal subsidies also factor into the difference in price. Generally speaking, conventional agriculture is subsidized by governments and organic farming is not (this is a gross oversimplification). The point of all this is that we should realize that when we buy organic food we are paying its true cost, reflecting what went into it. The money we might save by purchasing conventional food is the cost of externalities and unsustainable farming methods. We’re not saving money, we’re stealing it from future generations.
Finally, we are faced with the great humanitarian dilemma. With so many mouths to feed in the world, should we not be squeezing every last kilogram of yield from every hectare of farmland? If chemical fertilizers and conventional methods can help stave off famine and starvation, would it not be immoral to support organic farming? In this matter I agree with most, but not all, organic dogma. When the oil runs out, where will “conventional” farming leave us? Land debased
by those methods will be barren without fertilizer, and a great food crisis will define an age. Sustainable, organic farming methods will provide a reliable, steady supply of food that will not take us beyond our planet’s carrying capacity.
The one major point about which I disagree with organic farming is the issue of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. No GMO can be called organic. But humans have been altering the genes of their crops since the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. By breeding the best plants together and selecting for certain traits, yields, hardiness, and ease of cultivation have all been increased, and all plants we now eat have been sculpted by human intentions. Organic dogma says that furthering these aims with modern technology is unacceptable.
Now, I don’t mean to say that GMOs should be planted without proper testing. Governmental scientific agencies should check the work of the seeds’ creators, and regulate the industry responsibly. GMOs are a reality of science and agriculture, and I believe we should responsibly embrace their possibilities. Dr. Norman Borlaug was a
pioneer in this, and I suggest further reading about his legacy to enrich your understanding of the problems of feeding the world. Dr. Borlaug did say that the current rate of population growth is unsustainable, no matter what your speculation about the carrying capacity of the earth, and on this I agree with him. This is a challenging subject to address, and here I will state only that I believe that the key to this is education, especially educating young women around the world.
In today’s marketplace I believe that organic food is the best option available. In the middle and long terms, I think that the best hope that we have for a world of secure and accessible food rests on the following three pillars: organic farming methods, GMOs, and reduced population growth.