Solution Proposal 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. We should begin attempting to implement more organic practices into conventional farming systems. This would help create a more sustainable lifestyle by improving soil quality but the conventional farmers would not have to change their practices all at once.

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 reducing the need 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.

When it comes to the yields of certain crops, conventional practices produce more than organic practices. This problem is referred to as the crop yield gap and the basic idea is that there is a significant difference between organic yields and conventional yields for some crops. A study published in 2012 showed that "currently organic yields of individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields" (Ponti, Rijk, Van Ittersum). In other words, if a conventional yield of corn was 10 bushels/acre (this number is purely arbitrary and is not representative of an actual bushel/acre yield). The organic yield of this corn crop would most likely be at or below 8 bushels/acre. 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.

One of the most important crops within that threshold is corn. It has already been shown that the world cannot afford to live off of organic practices alone. It has also been shown that state-of-the-art conventional practices can be detrimental to the soil quality. This will make it harder and harder to produce the yields needed to sustain the population. We should attempt to find a way to implement organic practices into conventional farming systems. In turn, this would implement more sustainable farming practices while still keeping the impressive yields from conventional systems. A gentle, gradual switch from conventional to organic practices would be the most efficient way to conduct this solution.

In order for these incentives to be appealing enough for conventional farmers to abide by them, they need to first be put into place. This process starts in the House Committee on Agriculture ("Committee on Agriculture"). Along with other things, their jurisdiction covers all areas relating to crop insurance, soil conservation, and water conservation related to activities of the Department of Agriculture. They would need to work up a bill, particularly involving soil conservation efforts and other pesticide level specifications, that would be brought to a vote. The first option they could have is to create a bill that would increase proportions of crop insurance received by farmers. The federal crop insurance program "is designed to help agricultural producers mitigate unavoidable risks such as adverse weather, natural disasters, disease and insect infestation that directly affect the agriculture industry" ("Committee on Agriculture"). In the event of a disaster, this insurance helps farmers limit the loss of cash flow due to loss of yield. As an incentive program, if farmers were to implement more organic techniques in their practices, the percentage of crop insurance paid out would increase. Farmers generally do not collect crop insurance every year because there is not a catastrophe every year. This would be a minor blow to the cash paid out from the crop insurance program and would give farmers an incentive to try new techniques.

A second bill for the committee to consider would be looking at trade-able permits. Trade-able permits are proposed permits that are to be auctioned off for the right to pollute a certain amount. These explicitly spell out what is allowed, and if a farmer does not own a permit they cannot pollute. These would be useful for things like fertilizers and pesticides as pollutants. The permit system would be put into place by some sort of bill that the House Committee of Agriculture comes up with. The permits could allow for one ton of Atrazine, a common active ingredient found in pesticides (EPA). Over time, the number of these permits sold would shrink and there would be a possibility of a fine and loss of permits if the farmer did not comply. The permits could be bought and sold, or banked for future years.

This permit system would encourage a decline in pollution, without having a tough law passed that requires farmers to change their techniques completely to stop environmental destruction or they will pay the consequences. These "whole system changes" are useful in some regards, but they would not be for this situation. A whole system change would involve requiring farmers to change tactics but still hope for conventional-type yields. This is an idea that, if it did work, would be a breakthrough in the world of agriculture. This is just too big of a risk to take at this time. The world is not in dire straits as of now, so there is no reason to put the population at risk of having less than 80% yields. A slower rate of change is what is needed now. There is no sense in risking more losses than we need to.

The organic food sector is growing at a rapid rate and we should encourage more sustainable farming practices. Reducing the amount of pesticides and other chemicals layered onto crops would be beneficial to the health of consumers as well as the environment. This task can be completed by implementing organic practices into conventional farming systems. Whether it be through the federal crop insurance program or trade-able permits, the amount of chemicals raining down on our crops would be reduced. This would let the soil recover and become more fertile and help feed the population for generations.

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