Final Draft Arguing Cause Belina

Conventional and Organic Agriculture

Have you ever been in a grocery store and seen organic food products? Most of us have and a growing number of us are checking out and buying these products because of the alleged health benefits. There has been a lot of debate recently over organic foods and if they are actually better for us than conventionally grown foods. This debate is also raging when it comes to sustainability and which farming practice - organic or conventional - is safer for the environment and our communities. "Organic food products are the fastest growing segment of the food industry," and, with a growing number of buyers, some have been lead to believe that the entire world should convert to organic products ("US Organic Food Market Increases"). Organic food products have a higher markup compared to other products because they require higher labor inputs to grow and require a different set of knowledge to complete this task (Pimentel, Hepperly, Hanson). Brian Palmer, an editor of the Washington Post, cites a report out of Standford University that compares the environmental impacts of the conventional style of farming. These impacts include: Chemical runoff into our water supply, soil health and greenhouse gas emissions. There has been reports of river delta ecosystems being wiped out because of chemical runoff due to conventional agriculture (Biello). I believe that we should be concerned about our health and continue to produce more organic food products because of health, environmental and economical reasons, but we cannot afford to completely switch to organic agriculture. Study after study shows that the world is not able to be sustained by organic agriculture at this time.

There is no doubt that the organic foods sector of the food industry is the largest growing segment, but there have been surveys done to see if people actually know what makes organic "organic." A survey conducted by the Organic Consumers Association found that

Eighty-one percent know that for a food or beverage to be organic, the ingredients must be grown without use of added hormones, chemical pesticides and fertilizers; 73 percent know that organic ingredients are grown using environmentally friendly practices; and 67 percent know that organic foods cannot contain preservatives.

Even though the sample size of this survey was small, only 1000 adults, people are still beginning to realize what it takes to be labeled as organic. The population has taken it upon themselves to understand why organic products are better for them. There are many different reasons why someone would choose to start buying more organically grown foods and products. One of the most commonly stated reasons is that it is better for your health (Buffy). In general, it can be argued that consuming added hormones, chemical pesticides and fertilizers is harmful to the health of human beings. The list of chemicals that are sprayed on conventionally grown foods goes on and on, and some have even been so harmful that their use has been outlawed by the United States. In 1972, the EPA banned the use of the pesticide known as DDT because there was "growing public and user concern over adverse environmental side effects" (EPA). Though some herbicides and pesticides are not as widely used as DDT, they may have some similar effects on the environment and on the health of people consuming the food that these chemicals are sprayed on. This should be concerning for the general population. There are some other statistics that are related to the health of the population about the levels of trace minerals found in conventional produce compared to organic produce. These stats have shown that the "levels of trace minerals in conventional produce have fallen by up to 76% since 1940…In contrast, organic products are on average 25% more nutrient dense than their conventional counterparts, according to a comprehensive recent review of 97 studies" (Buffy). This means that the odds of consuming more nutrient dense foods are higher and this may lead to a healthier eating life. The cleanliness of these foods, however, may not have that much of a difference. A study conducted by Stanford University found that when it came to bacterial contamination and produce,

there was not a statistically significant difference in the rate of E. coli contamination — 7 percent for organic, 6 percent for conventional — but the review noted that only five of the studies they reviewed directly compared this type of contamination. When the authors removed one study that looked only at lettuce, the meta-analysis showed that organic produce had a 5 percent greater risk for contamination (Bottemiller).

These results should be interpreted with caution and the organic consumer should be aware of these findings. Organic produce are more likely to contain more nutrients, but they are not guaranteed to be less contaminated or cleaner.

The second most stated reason of why people are switching to organic foods is because it is better for the environment. All of the chemicals that are being sprayed on the crops could be eliminated if the world would become dependent on organic farming systems. A study conducted by David Pimentel, who works in the Department of Entomology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, at Cornell University, and other experts in the agricultural field drew many conclusions about this environmental impact difference between organic and conventional farming systems. The study was conducted for over 22 years and they found that soil organic matter (soil carbon) and nitrogen were higher in the organic farming systems, providing many benefits to the overall sustainability of organic agriculture. They also found that the high levels of soil organic matter helped conserve soil and water resources and proved beneficial during drought years. As for the labor and energy inputs, they found that fossil energy inputs for organic crop production were about 30% lower than for conventionally produced corn. Organic agriculture can also impact the economy substantially. Because organic foods frequently bring higher prices in the marketplace, the net economic return per ha (hectare, 1 acre = .4047 ha) is often equal to or higher than that of conventionally produced crops. This helps farmers combat the costs of extra labor input. Crop rotations and cover cropping typical of organic agriculture are one downfall of this system. A cover crop is a crop planted primarily to manage soil erosion, soil quality and pest problems. This method makes it more difficult for the farmers to make a profit because some of these cover crops do not fetch as much revenue at the market. Researchers at Canada's McGill University and the University of Minnesota published an article in the journal Nature comparing the productivity of organic and conventional farms. This particular study is known as meta-analysis (Palmer). The study found that, for some crops, "organic methods are nearly as productive as conventional farming" (Palmer). It was found that crops that use nitrogen more efficiently, such as legumes, perform better in organic systems. this is because organic farmers can't load up their fields with synthetic fertilizer (Palmer). These legumes, like beans, efficiently hold nitrogen making it unneeded to dump large amounts of nitrogen onto fields and have the runoff concentrate in rivers and streams. It is clear what we stand to gain economically and environmentally if we partially switch to organic agriculture.

I have been careful about avoiding the statement that every farmer should be using organic farming techniques, or that every person should buy organic produce. There is a reason that may not be evident to the everyday organic produce purchaser or even the average person in general. This problem is referred to as a crop yield gap and the basic idea is that there is a significant difference between organic yields and conventional yields. A study published in 2012 showed that "currently organic yields of individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields" (Ponti, Rijk, Van Ittersum). This 20% may not seem like much, but it could add up to a lot off food that may lead to a food shortage if it is neglected. Corn, beans and a plethora of other crops are measured in units of bushels. One bushel is accepted today as 56 pounds. According to Kent Thiesse, a writer for Corn and Soybean Digest, "2014 corn production is estimated at a record level of 14.4 billion bushels" in total U.S. corn production. Twenty percent of this number comes out to be a staggering 2.88 billion bushels of corn that are being missed out on if the entire U.S. was to farm organically. 3.91 billion bushels of soybeans are reported to be harvested in the year 2014 (Thiesse). A bushel of corn can, "sweeten 400 cans of soda, make 38 boxes of corn flakes or produce more than 2.5 gallons of ethanol" (Ag Facts). Trying to imagine 2.88 billion of these missing is almost unfathomable. Since legumes have been shown to have a lower difference in crop yield gap, this may not be as important of an issue as other crops. One bushel of soybeans is able to produce 11 lbs of soybean oil (U.S. and Wisconsin Soybean Facts). This equates to about 1.375 gallons that is able to be refined into biodiesel. More than one study found that these legumes, such as soybeans, scored higher than 80% of the conventional soybean yield (Ponti, Rijk, Van Ittersum). This is due to the fact that they are able to retain more soil nutrients. That means that less organic fertilizer needs to be used and there will be less chemical runoff into rivers and streams. We should be less worried about these yield gaps that are closer to 100% and focus on the task of trying to improve the crops with 60-80 percent differences between organic and conventional yields.

There are more and more people buying organic each day. It is the fastest growing sector in the food industry today. Although the organic produce at the market may not prove to be more clear of contaminants, they have been shown to contain more nutrients than conventionally grown crops. The use of these pesticides and other chemicals are harmful for our health and for the environment. Chemical runoff from fields can hurt, or even destroy, ecosystems and we should be mindful of these unintended consequences. Organic agriculture has been known to produce lower yields than their conventionally grown counterparts. This issue should be thought of as a global matter. The United States may not be in a food crisis, but other regions of the planet sure are. Is one extra bushel worth the potential destruction of a river delta? How about 3 billion bushels?

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