Amy Kaleita, an assistant professor of agricultural engineering at Iowa State University and a senior fellow in environmental studies with the Pacific Research Institute, writes in this commentary distributed by McClatchy Newspapers that public interest in the environment is increasing and the news is full of stories about food safety. Those developments have led many to push for a return to small organic farms.
Such farms do have certain advantages, and are committed to sustainable practices, but there is no guarantee that organic farms are better for the environment or food safety.
Organic farms ban the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizing inadvertent effects on other organisms. However, whether such avoidance makes organic production "better" for the environment is largely a matter of personal priorities.
For the most part, these chemicals, when used properly, don't pose any net threat to the environment. In fact, many objections to their use are philosophical in nature, rather than scientific. Further, the required soil conservation practices are not unique to organic production. Many traditional growers use the same practices, even though not required, because of the associated soil fertility and erosion mitigation benefits. And some types of organic food, such as poultry, require more energy to produce than their conventional counterparts. Production of organic milk requires more land input and generates more carbon dioxide emissions. Some may argue that organic production means more local food, thus cutting down the environmental impacts of the associated "food miles." But a recent study from the United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggests that for some foods, global production might have a smaller environmental footprint than local production. While global products are transported long distances, they are also produced and transported in very large quantities, creating positive economies of scale. Purely local food production also is limited to only those crops well-suited to being grown in the local environment. This means a considerably diminished variety of foods for most consumers, and many organic foods are still transported long distances for this very reason.
Nor is it true that organic foods are necessarily a safer and healthier option than conventionally grown food. In a recent analysis of government data on fruit, vegetables and meats, Consumer Reports found that foods such as asparagus and bananas, even when treated with pesticides, do not tend to contain detectable levels of pesticides anyway.
While the concept of any pesticides in or on our food sounds scary, the majority of conventional foods have no detectable pesticide residues. The FDA has repeatedly found that America's dietary intakes of these chemicals are well within international and Environmental Protection Agency standards. There is also the possibility of disease outbreaks from any food; the spinach responsible for last year's E. coli outbreak was grown on a small organic farm. A comprehensive 2002 review of scientific research found that with the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients.
Subsequent reports by the French Food Safety Agency and the Swedish National Food Administration also concluded that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. In a recent study at the University of California at Davis, organically grown tomatoes were observed to have more vitamin C, but no significant differences were found between conventional and organic bell peppers.
Surely, changes can be made to conventional food production systems to produce food that is friendlier to the environment, such as conversion from one or two crops in rotation to more diversified farming systems. And we should continue to investigate sustainable farming practices. But the public should understand that conversion to small organic farms will not necessarily have notable environmental and food-safety benefits.