A few months ago I received an email criticizing the organic movement and forwarded it to my good friend Tom Manley. Tom runs Homestead Organics, which distributes organic crops and teaches farmers how to convert their regular fields to organic ones. He is one of the most intelligent speakers on organics I have heard and I wanted to hear his response.
Here it is…
The Value of Organic Agriculture
I came across yet again another argument against organic agriculture that repeats the same confusions, generalizations and misconceptions about organic production. Although the article is a year old, it is an example of pervading opinions that need clarification.
Is organic food a cure to all environmental hazards? Let’s be clear. We live in a dangerous world with a multitude of natural and man-made toxins in the air, everyday materials and in the food, which if consumed at high levels, can hurt us. Organic food does not claim to address this broad challenge, which would take nothing short of a miracle. Organic agriculture takes the practical and reasonable step of eliminating synthetic chemicals in food production and favouring extensive soil management for the benefit of the farmer, the environment, the animals and the consumer.
Is organic food safer? Canada has one of the safest food systems in the world. Good hygiene and food safety practices produce safe food, whether organic or conventional. E-coli is a food safety matter, tightly controlled by government regulations applicable to all producers and processors, which is over and above the scope of organic standards.
What about all that dangerous manure? It is the most absurd criticism to be concerned about manure going on organic fields. All manure goes on fields that produce food of one type or another. As organic farming is about 2% of agriculture, then 98% of farm animals are conventional and their manure goes on conventional farm fields. The difference is that conventional manure typically goes on the field raw with all its pathogens. Organic standards require that manure be composted to neutralize the pathogens and stabilize the nutrients, and/or applied with a long lead time prior to harvest.
Do organic farmers still use pesticides? Let’s get the definitions straight. Any pest-controlling tool is considered a pesticide. Organic production favours natural, harmless pesticides like vinegar, hydrogen peroxyde, essential oils and diatomaceous earth. Accusing organic farmers of still using pesticides is misleading. Some of the more dangerous natural pesticides like BT are tightly controlled in the standards and used in very limited situations. The organic standards eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that add an undesirable level and persistence of toxicity in our environment and food.
Is organic food pure? Organic standards pertain to production methods, not the quality or purity of the end product. This is the only reasonable approach as we cannot control the contaminants from the environment around us. Secondly, the measurement of a purity level would open the door to low scale use of synthetic pesticides that could slip under the threshold.
But antagonists say that conventional food contains pesticides below the allowed limits! That is the whole point. Organic enthusiasts point to past experience that tells us that these thresholds are still too high. Some compounds considered to be safe are often later found to be unsafe (asbestos, lead in gasoline, smoking, DDT, etc). Organic agriculture takes a long term precautionary approach vis-à-vis synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
There are many more details that could be written, but this short list suffices to make the point.