Conventional *AND* Organic (Celebrating Diversity in Agriculture)

Hello everyone, welcome to my blog about conventional and organic food.

The video below is of a TEDx talk that I gave in February of 2016. The theme of the TED event was “Fueling Human Existence” and the title of my talk was “Celebrating Diversity in Agriculture.” There are some missing powerpoint slides in the YouTube video, so I included a summary below to help make sense of parts of what I say. This video will serve as an introduction to my thoughts on conventional and organic (found below the summary of the TED talk). Thanks for watching and reading!

Summary:

Agriculture fuels human existence. Without agriculture, we could not survive.

The story of agriculture is that of diversity. There are millions of farmers all over the world growing an incredibly diverse amount of crops, plants, and animals in all sorts of climates, soils, and cultures. These farms can be large, small, conventional, organic, etc.

One farm is not like another. Just because one farm does something one way, does not mean that all farms do it that way or need to do it that way. It all depends on what is best for a particular farm in that particular location.

Farmers are experts in their particular field. Most have been trained since they were children in how to farm. Colleges, universities, and agricultural organizations offer tremendous amounts of research and conventions, workshops, and expos to help farmers farm as efficiently and sustainably as possible. However, an expert in one type of farming isn’t always an expert in another type of farming.

Family farm operations still make up the vast majority of farms in the U.S. and around the world. While large agricultural corporations and business are a big part of food production, family farmers are at the root of the equation, and are made up of some of the most honest, value-driven, hard working people you will ever meet. We should be able to trust these families.

Technologies like GMOs, Pesticides, No-Till/Cover Crops, Precision Farming, Intensive Livestock Farming, and Organic Farming are all valuable tools that can help us solve some of the problems we have in the world today. However, they are often met with skepticism, criticism, and resistance both from people and from other farmers. Many of these criticisms are misguided. (Please read the blog below for more on this!)

-We do need to question new technology and keep people, government, and corporations in check, but we need to stop the fighting between farmers and misguided attacks on different types of farming practices.

-Instead of fighting to get rid of each other’s farming practices, we should be fighting to change the real problems we face: 1) Difficulty of Farming 2) Hunger 3) Waste 4) Environmental Impact

We need to support and improve all methods of agriculture! (Conventional, Organic, Urban, Vertical, Greenhouse, etc.) If we took all the time, money, and effort spent debating which method of farming is better and invested it into making each method better, we would make a lot more progress in fighting the real problems we face.

We live in a diverse world with diverse types of people and we need diverse types of farming. It doesn’t make sense to limit farming to one type of practice (Ex. conventional OR organic). To exclude or alienate the others. One type of farmer can’t feed the world. One type of crop can’t feed the world. Just as it is better for a farmer to rotate between several different crops instead of planting one crop over and over again, it is better for agriculture to utilize all of its methods instead of just one. Diversity is the answer.

Be thankful for the remarkable food system we have.

Make sure to get information about your food from experts, not random people who post online. An expert in organic farming would be an organic farmer, an expert in conventional farming would be a conventional farmer. An expert in biotechnology would be a geneticist, an expert in pesticides would be a chemist. And so on and so forth.

-Fighting, conflict, accusations, fear, propaganda, and misinformation are not what will fuel human existence in the future. Human existence will be fueled by supporting one another and working together to find diverse solutions for diverse methods of food production in a diverse world.

My Opinion of Conventional and Organic

The conversation about food these days is filled with misconstrued, biased, agenda-driven information. While I don’t think my opinion is perfect or 100% right, I have tried to form it in a way that is as accurate and fact driven as possible. You don’t have to agree with all I have to say! Please feel free to leave a polite, respectful comment below.

From what I’ve heard in person and seen on the internet, the general opinions people have of organic and conventional food seem to fit in one of the following categories (paraphrased).

  1. I buy whatever is the cheapest or best tasting and don’t really know or care about the difference between organic and conventional.
  1. I buy only organic (or non-GMO, dairy free, vegan, cage-free, free range, etc.) because the alternative (conventional) is filled with toxic things that might kill me like pesticides and GMOs. I buy organic to support the small farmers and not support Big Ag Corporations. Conventional farmers use terrible practices that harm the environment and abuse animals but organic farmers are held to a higher standard and aren’t hurting the environment or animals. I just want farming and food to be like it used to be for my grandparents.
  1. I never buy organic because it is a waste of money. Organic marketing is a scam. Organic farming can’t feed the world. Organic farmers are just taking advantage of higher premiums. They don’t produce as much per acre and their crops often fail.

ALL THREE OF THESE OPINIONS ARE MISGUIDED!!! While there is a bit of truth in each one, all three of these have many misconceptions and inaccurate statements. I will try to address each of these.

Let’s start really quick with #1. I understand the idea of purchasing the cheapest food you can as I know many people must spend as little as they can to fit their budget. However, you should care about your food! Don’t be a lazy consumer. Learn about where and how each type of food is grown and the people who grow it. Learn about nutrition from credible sources. Farmers are always happy to explain why they do what they do and many will even offer tours of their farm! Don’t just rely on marketing schemes to determine your buying choices. Visit farms! Talk to farmers! Educate yourself.

Okay, now my thoughts on the never ending debate between organic and conventional.

I Support Organic

I believe the organic food movement is a good thing because it is waking people up from being lazy consumers like described above. People who are part of this movement care about their food! And they are trying to make a difference through their purchases. That’s great! And I am not going to ask those of you who buy organic to stop. It is your freedom and your choice and if that is what you believe is best for you then please, continue to make those purchases.

I believe organic food is healthy and nutritious and that organic farming is a very viable way of growing food. Every organic farmer I have met is doing the best they can to grow food in a different way than most do. I greatly respect organic farmers because a lot of times it is far more difficult to grow crops organically (although you do get paid more). They have made great strides in developing tools to grow crops using natural substances in more environmentally friendly ways. They use heirloom seeds and protect and promote genetic biodiversity. They find ways to raise animals in better conditions. What’s really neat is that many of these developments have spilled over into conventional farming as well! Organic farming has actually affected conventional farming is a very positive way. It’s challenged the conventional way of doing things and has helped a lot of people start to think outside the box when it comes to food production.

I Also Support Conventional

However, when it comes to sustainability, practicality, and overall efficiency, I do not believe organic food production is the solution all by itself. However, it is part of the solution! As mentioned in my TED talk above, it’s going to take a diverse set of solutions to feed the world sustainably. One of the biggest arguments against organic is that it “cannot feed the world.” I honestly believe we could feed the world with small, organic, free range, non-GMO farms. But it wouldn’t be efficient or practical because all of these methods require more input for less output than conventional. It would require most of the population working in food production again. It would raise the cost of all of our food. Many people (especially those on lower incomes) would be far worse off if we made a complete transition to only organic food. That doesn’t make sense!

Large, conventional farms could feed the world by themselves as well. The advancements being made in conventional agriculture are astounding. Technology such as GMOs, pesticides, precision farming, and intensive livestock farming allows farmers to produce far more food with far less resources! That is a huge part of sustainability.

However, I do not think feeding the world with only conventional farming would be as friendly to the environment, to local communities, or to biodiversity by itself as it would be and is with the inclusion of organic farming. That’s where I believe organic has its place. We need local farmers markets. We need small farms in rural communities. We need farmers who save seeds, build healthy soil, and protect biodiversity. All of these things can be found in a balance between conventional and organic. As mentioned in the TED talk, we need diverse farms, diverse farmers, diverse areas of expertise, diverse approaches, and diverse solutions to diverse problems.

I Do Not Support Fear Marketing and False Accusations

While I do support organic farming and organic farmers, I do not support the marketing strategies the organic industry employs. The reason most people buy organic food is because they believe it is “better” than conventional food. The organic marketing schemes take full advantage of this concept, and try to convince consumers that conventional farming is destructive to the environment, toxic to their health, unfriendly to animals, and bad for small farmers. In reality, conventional farming is far from those things. Conventional farmers (like organic farmers) are a community of honest, hard working, value-based people who are raising food in the method they think is best on their particular farm. Every conventional farmer feeds their family with the same food they grow. I will link some of the blogs I have written about conventional farming here:

Organic marketers also perpetuate a lot of myths about organic food itself. Many people who buy organic food do not realize a lot of the following:

  • Organic doesn’t necessarily have to do with nutrition or health. An organic apple is the same nutritionally as a conventional one grown in a similar environment. The same goes with GMO and non-GMO. A fruit is a fruit, a vegetable is a vegetable, a grain is a grain.
  • Organic doesn’t necessarily have to do with safety either. Organic farmers still use pesticides, they just have to be natural chemicals and not synthetic (man-made) mixes of chemicals. Many times these natural chemicals used in organic farming are much more toxic than the man-made versions used in conventional farming. It is true that pesticide residues in organic food are typically lower than conventional food. However, it would take eating hundreds of servings every day for these residues to ever reach a harmful level. Harmful pathogens, on the other hand, are generally more present in organic food as organic farmers are limited to only using animal waste for fertilizer instead of synthetic (man-made) fertilizer.
  • Unless you buy local (farmers markets) or know exactly where your food is coming from, buying organic food does not necessarily mean you are supporting the small farmer and the small business. The organic industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Whole Foods profits over $14 billion a year. There are CEOs, presidents, and industry reps in the organic industry that are making a ton of money from sales of organic foods.
  • Organic farming is not always better on the environment. There are huge organic farms (many located overseas) that hire cheap labor to grow organic food. Often times, forests and marshes are being cleared to do this. Because organic farming produces less food per acre and per animal, one could say it impacts the environment more per unit of product.

There are pros and cons about both conventional and organic. There are people in both industries unfairly accusing one another of being a fraud. There are issues in both that need fixing. One is not better than the other, and people should stop saying that. As I’ve said before, we need to work together to better both of them!

Should I buy conventional or organic food?

The way I’ve always looked at conventional and organic is like the way I look at different brands of cars:

  • There are luxury cars and there are economy cars. Sports cars and family cars. Cars that cost more and cars that cost less. Should everyone buy a Lamborghini? Should everyone drive a beat up 20-year-old Honda? No. It all depends on what they need for their situation in life and what they enjoy. In the same way, there should be different types of food available for people to consume. If people want to pay more for organic they should be able to. And in the same way, no way should be forced to pay more for organic food. There should be multiple options.
  • Driving a luxury car does not make you “better” than another person who drives a cheap car. Eating organic food does not make you “better” than someone who eats conventional food. There are rich people who drive economy cars and people in debt who drive luxury vehicles. There are going to be rich people who don’t want to buy organic and poor people who want to save up to buy organic food. It’s a preference and it shouldn’t be a decision we judge others negatively for.
  • Both cars should take you from point A to B. Both types of food should give you safe, healthy nutrition. I truly believe that both conventional and organic foods are safe and healthy. However, luxury cars have things go wrong with them. So can economy cars. There are farmers (both conventional and organic) who are going to abuse pesticides, abuse the environment, and abuse animals. We don’t live in a perfect world and we will always have these things happening. But we need to do our best to stop them.
  • If you put oil in the gas tank of a luxury vehicle it’s not going to run right. Same thing with an economy car. You can eat only organic, but if your diet consists of organic energy drinks and organic donuts, you’ll still be unhealthy. You can also eat only conventional foods and be completely healthy.

Living a healthy lifestyle comes from eating balanced portions of healthy food, getting enough exercise, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress. It does not come from eating organic or conventional food. I’m not going to tell you which type of food to purchase. That is your freedom of choice as an American consumer. I think both options are great and I am thankful that our food supply is so bountiful that we have options. Many people in the world are starving today and would do anything for food. They wouldn’t care the least bit if it were organic or not. The lesson to be learned is that if you have plenty of food to eat each day you should not complain, you should be thankful!

It’s sad to me to think that so many consumers are complaining about food when they have it in abundance. And the people who don’t have food could have it if we just improved all of our methods instead of fighting about which ones are better! Let’s stop the fighting, the false accusations, the spreading of fear and misinformation. Let’s start uniting to fight the real problems we are facing today. Let’s feed the world!

 

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