Organic: Fad or Future?

It is safe to say that the “Organic Craze” has firmly taken hold in the United States.  This is quite honestly to be expected, with misinformation about farming practices running rampant in the media and in the minds of American citizens.  Of course, the same trend has made itself evident in other countries, many of them European, but here we will focus on its manifestation in the U.S.A.  Several myths will be debunked, several arguments will be discussed, and certain industries revolving around organic agriculture will be examined.  First, however, it’s important that you, the readers, understand what it means to be “certified organic”.

Organic certification in the U.S.A. happens through the United States Department of Agriculture.  This is why you will often hear the term “USDA Certified Organic”.  The USDA defines organic production as “…a production system that…respond[s] to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity.”  This definition makes it sound as though it’s nothing more but ordinary eco-friendly farming, but in truth it’s much more than that.  In organic production, no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or miticides may be applied at any stage of the production process.  In addition, genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are not to be used.  This is not too difficult from year to year, but for land to become USDA certified these practices must be in place for at least three years.  If you want to learn more about this process, the USDA has released a Guide for Organic Crop Producers.

With this in mind, certain regulations can very widely from country to country..  This means that organic meat or produce that you buy in Mexico or Brazil will not be to the same standard as what’s marketed in the United States.  Many people have touted this as a reason to avoid organic food grown in foreign countries entirely, but in truth this is a bit of a misconception.  If an item is marketed as organic in the United States then it has been inspected by the USDA and determined to be up to U.S. organic standards.

For better or worse, organic production is a concept that has appealed to a number of consumers.  From the generally health-conscious to new parents worried about the food that they feed their children, organic meat and produce has found a niche in society.  Whether this has any bearing on the authenticity of claims made by organic growers or not, a large portion of this constituency overlaps with the portion of society that has little to no knowledge of conventional agriculture.  For a prime example of this, watch this video from late-night talk show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live”.

What is a GMO?

These people, though they tend to have very strong opinions on one of the mainstays of modern production agriculture, have evidently not been educated about it.  The truth is that GMO’s have been tested, examined, and studied extensively, and have been proven to be safe for public consumption.  In fact, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, a widely respected organization, just recently released a report that through extensive testing and research, they have “found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”  To many people, myself included, this means that the “GMO Debate” propagated by the organic industry is over.

GMO corn pic

The safety of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, on the other hand, is still up for debate.  This is a more difficult subject to broach than the issue of GMO crops, simply because less is known about it.  Currently, the main pesticides facing scrutiny from the organic community are pyrethroids, common pesticides derived from the chrysanthemum flower.  These forms of pesticides replaced another chemical family known as organophosphates, which, admittedly, have been found to be quite harmful and have thus been phased out.  While it would be impossible to state that claims that pyrethroids lead to an increased risk of certain diseases are unequivocally false, it can be said that the claims made about them by the organic industry are largely unsubstantiated.  This is because “…so far, there is little scientific data evaluating the potential threat to human health.”  As such, most of the claims made about them are speculation.

Mum flowder
The dreadful and terrible chrysanthemum, from which pyrethroids are derived.

After reading everything above, you might think that I am anti-organic.  To be completely honest, this is not true.  I am against fear-mongering and misinformation, but in the absence of those I wholeheartedly embrace the concept of organic farming.  This is not because I believe in any portion of the “philosophy” of organic production, but rather because I believe in the market opportunity that it presents.  In 2015 alone, the Organic Trade Association reports, the organic industry saw 4.2 billion dollars in sales.  This shows that there is a significant market for this type of product.  If there was not, consumers would overlook organic products in favor of the more reasonably priced conventionally produced food products.  Of course, in the absence of GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, and agricultural chemicals, production costs will be high as well.  As such, it should be viewed as a reasonable alternative to typical production ag instead of a way to make a few bucks off of uneducated consumers.

cost-of-organic-food
No hundred dollar tomatoes yet, but you get my point.

In conclusion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the organic food industry or the people that support it.  The problem is misinformation, fear mongering, and a lack of education. That is to say, in a better educated society, while I won’t say that a market for organic food wouldn’t exist, I will say that people would be a lot less afraid of conventionally grown food items.  After all, it’s important that we as a nation are able to trust our food source.  As we as a nation become more educated about modern farming practices, it’s very likely that this trust will grow.  Until then, however, organic food production will continue to be a viable market for the American farmer.

By: Tanner Mayberry
Photo credit to Google Images

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