These 5 organic farming facts might surprise you… and change what you put on your plate.
We’re plant and science geeks who spend far more of our time than the average person getting our hands in the soil and reading research literature on food systems and farming practices. As such, we often cringe when we read articles from (hopefully) well-intentioned reporters or hear comments from regular citizens regarding issues pertaining to conventional and organic agriculture.
Why? There are a lot of falsehoods, half-truths, and misperceptions that we see put forth on a regular basis. Have you experienced the same problem? If so, we’ve set out to create a handy resource for you to refer to if you want data-based assertions from credible sources pertaining to some of the claims you might hear or read about organic farming.
Before beginning, one caveat everyone should be aware of: not all conventional farms are exactly the same and not all organic farms are exactly the same. In fact, there can be drastic differences between two side-by-side organic farms growing the exact same type of crops in the exact same town. The same is true for conventional farms. Homogeneity does not exist in the farming world. Instead, think of each type of farm as operating on a spectrum from terrible to exceptional, depending on their soil fertility practices, till or no-till systems, types of pesticides used, crop rotations, etc.
However, despite these wide-ranging factors, the research shows that there are indeed substantial, quantifiable differences that exist between conventional and organic farms and the produce they grow.
Now, let’s dive in!
5 Organic Farming Facts You Should Know
1. Yes, there are substantial nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods.
Claim: Food is food. Whether it’s organic or conventional, makes no difference. Farming practices have no impact on the nutritional profile or health benefits of produce. It’s all in the genes.
Facts: Just as with any other living organism, environmental factors make a huge difference in the growth, health, and nutritional composition of plants. The same seed/plant grown in poor conditions is probably going to have a very different outcome than a seed/plant raised in good conditions. (The same is true for people, by the way.) The common saying is, “genes may load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.”
What does the research say about nutritional differences between conventional and organic produce? There are seemingly countless individual studies out there, but meta analyses that look at overall findings from hundreds of high quality studies in different locations and across crop types will provide the best, big picture overview.
Perhaps the most thorough meta analysis of macronutrient, micronutrient, heavy metals, and pesticide residues was conducted by Barański et al. and published in September 2014 in the British Journal of Medicine. Their analysis combined data from 343 peer-reviewed research studies to quantify any measurable differences between organic and conventional crops. Their findings are best summarized by the paper’s abstract:
“… statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods. Most importantly, the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods, with those of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins being an estimated 19 (95 % CI 5, 33) %, 69 (95 % CI 13, 125) %, 28 (95 % CI 12, 44) %, 26 (95 % CI 3, 48) %, 50 (95 % CI 28, 72) % and 51 (95 % CI 17, 86) % higher, respectively. Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies. Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd. Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g. minerals and vitamins) compounds. There is evidence that higher antioxidant concentrations and lower Cd concentrations are linked to specific agronomic practices (e.g. non-use of mineral N and P fertilisers, respectively) prescribed in organic farming systems. In conclusion, organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons.”
But what about the 2012 Stanford study? Didn’t that meta analysis show that there are no differences between conventional and organic foods? Not exactly. Aside from the vast criticisms that the study’s construct, thoroughness, conclusions, and potential conflicts of interest elicited from other scientists and food experts, the analysis still concluded that:
- organic foods provide a significantly lower risk of pesticide contamination;
- children who eat an organic diet have lower pesticide residues in their urine;
- organic meat provides a reduced risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria;
- organic dairy products have healthier fat profiles than non-organic dairy products.
Why did the Stanford study make so many news headlines claiming there was no substantial difference between conventional and organic products? Was this simply due to the fact that contrarian headlines get more clicks and sell more ads for online news outlets? (You’re more likely to click on a headline that reads: “Study claims broccoli is going to kill you” versus a headline such as “Another study finds broccoli is good for you”.)
Just one year prior to the Stanford study, another meta analysis by a team of scientists from Newcastle University comparing decades of research concluded that organic produce was more nutritious, contained higher concentrations of vitamin C, and much higher levels of phenols (plant-defense molecules that help shield people against diseases such as cancer and heart disease). The Newcastle meta analysis, like the British Journal of Medicine analysis, got virtually no media coverage by comparison.
2. Pesticides Approved For Use On Organic Farms Are Not Nearly As Dangerous As Pesticides Used On Conventional Farms
Claim: Organic farmers use pesticides too, so they’re just as bad as conventional farms.
Facts: Whether you drive an electric Prius or a V-8 Camaro, you’re still driving a car. Since all cars have environmental impacts, your Prius is just as bad as my Camaro. This argument doesn’t really make sense, does it? Well, the same is true of the pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides) used on conventional versus organic farms.
Take for example neonicotinoids. “Neonics” are a class of neuro-active insecticide frequently used on conventional farms. Thousands of peer-reviewed studies have also showed that they cause considerable harm to pollinators/insects, birds, and other vertebrate and invertebrate species–and they are likely playing a significant role in colony collapse disorder in honeybees.
Neonics and other similar types of synthetic pesticides are not permitted to be used on organic farms. Instead, an organic farmer is required by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) to have a holistic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan to control insects and pathogens. This plan will include things like soil fertility practices, crop rotation, intercropping, predatory insect introduction, and other design features that focus on enhancing the farm ecosystem so as to holistically manage pest and disease pressure (e.g. treat the upstream problem, not the downstream symptoms). Only after all other strategies have proven ineffective can an organic farmer use pesticides.
What pesticides are used on organic farms? Under NOP guidelines, organic farmers are only permitted to use certain approved pesticides, virtually all of which pose no broader threat to farm workers or the local ecosystem.
If anyone tries to tell you that plant-derived neem oil is as dangerous an insecticide as neonicotinoids, then you’re not dealing with a very knowledgeable or honest person. The same is true for anyone who claims that citrus oil (approved by the NOP for use on organic operations) is as dangerous an herbicide as glyphosate and assorted surfactants (used on virtually every conventional farm in the US).
Why does this matter? Even if you don’t care about the environmental impacts, here are two things to consider:
- Infants and children are most susceptible to pesticide exposure. As the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.”
- The true “socialized” costs that we all pay for pesticide use (human illnesses, diseases, and deaths; environmental damage, etc) far exceed the immediate privatized economic benefit of the conventional farmers who use them. A 2016 study by Guillemaud et al. looked at multiple decades of data when conducting a cost-benefit analysis of pesticide use. They found that the true costs of pesticide use have outreached their benefits in the US–starting as far back as the early 1990s–with a true usage cost in the range of $13.6 billion in 1992. (Given that pesticide use has dramatically increased since then, the true cost of pesticide use in the US today is likely exponentially higher.) Think about it like this: if you’re paying $5 in assorted “socialized” expenses so that a conventional farmer can get $1 in “privatized” financial gains, that’s not a great deal for you is it? Is conventional food truly cheaper than organic food just because it has a lower price tag at the store? The key to perpetuating this system is hiding the true costs from you–or pretending they don’t exist.
3. Soil On Organic Farms Contains & Maintains More Carbon and Can Help Fight Climate Change
Claim: Soil is soil. There’s no difference between soil on a conventional farm or an organic farm.
Facts: In October 2017, scientists at Northeastern University’s National Soil Project in partnership with The Organic Center published a rather interesting paper in the journal Advances in Agronomy. They took soil samples from hundreds of organic farms across the US and compared them to soil samples taken from comparable conventional farms. What did they find?
Soil on organic farms has:
- 13% higher soil organic matter (SOM), with a mean of 8.33% versus 7.37%;
- 15% higher fulvic acid (FA), with a mean of 0.65% versus 0.26%;
- 44% higher humic acid (HA), with a mean of 4.1% versus 2.85%;
- 26% higher mean humification/sequestration rate, 57.3 versus 45.6.
Translated from soil geek, this means: organic farms’ soils are far healthier than conventional farms’ soils (which is one of the primary reasons they produce more nutrient-dense plants). It also means that soils on organic farms are capable of storing more carbon for much longer periods of time than conventional farm soils.
If climate change is an issue you’re concerned about, choosing organic produce is a way to help get CO2 out of the air and locked up in the soil (aka “carbon sequestration“). Even if you don’t care about climate change, you should know that the better soil and farming practices typical of organic farms translates into cleaner air and water.
Additional recommended reading if you want to dive deeper on this topic: 5 facts you should know about synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and 5 amazing soil facts that will change the way you view the world.
4. Herbicide Use Has Increased With Genetically Engineered Crops and Yield Gains Have Been Equal To Or Below Non-GE Yield Gains
Claim: Genetically engineered crops (aka GE or GMO) used on conventional US farms have increased yields and decreased pesticide usage.
Facts: We should start off by saying that we’re not rabidly anti-GMO, or anti- any other technology for that matter. We have friends that are doing fascinating genetic engineering research on such things as making the nearly-extinct American chestnut resistant to the imported blight that decimated it over the past century, using genes from blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts (cisgenics).
However, we do think that:
- The hype around GE crops have not matched the actual results. The lofty claims made over the past several decades about GMOs have often been woefully overblown relative to the actual results in the field, and there are often far more affordable, practical, and efficient ways to deal with the target problems than gene editing.
- The technology is still in its infancy. Given the complexity of living organisms and the dynamic environments in which organisms live and interact, we’re likely drastically underestimating the impacts that seemingly simple genetic tweaks have on other aspects of gene expression. Such tweaks can lead to unintended problems like metabolic and hormonal disruptions in the engineered plant, as seems to be the case in the underperformance of the highly touted golden rice. Similarly, even advanced and “precise” gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 can introduce hundreds of unintended mutations into the genomes of engineered organisms, as this 2017 study published in Nature Methods found. The study’s co-author, Stephen Tsang, MD, PhD, said: “We feel it’s critical that the scientific community consider the potential hazards of all off-target mutations caused by CRISPR, including single nucleotide mutations and mutations in non-coding regions of the genome.” (Dr. Tsang is the Laszlo T. Bito Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and associate professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University Medical Center and in Columbia’s Institute of Genomic Medicine and the Institute of Human Nutrition.)
- The vast majority of GMOs currently in use are designed to be used with, and resistant to, specific pesticides. Is genetically engineered RoundUp Ready corn “bad or good”? Is it “safe”? If you took the corn and grew it without pesticides on a biodiverse organic farm, probably so. However, that’s not what the technology is designed for, nor can you legally purchase the seeds for that purpose. They’re a patented technology bundle: seeds + pesticide. The plants are engineered so as not to die when RoundUp herbicide is sprayed on the field (as mentioned earlier, RoundUp/glyphosate is not allowed to be used on organic farms). The actual corn grown isn’t even used to feed humans, it’s primarily used to feed animals on CAFOs. A fraction is also used to make ethanol fuel and high fructose corn syrup to feed our deadly and expensive sugar addiction. When looking at the entire life cycle and intended application of this specific technology–not just the plants’ genes in isolation–is the technology “good” or “safe”? We’d argue that the answer is no, especially considering there are viable, proven alternatives already on the market. Viewed holistically, this reality also applies to the vast majority of genetically engineered plants currently in farm fields around the US.
After three decades of use, have GE crops proven their benefits? Have the pros outweighed the cons? Surely, we must be seeing a massive boost in crop production and a reduction in pesticide use thanks to these amazing new technologies, right? Wrong.
A thorough analysis of the data conducted in 2016 by the New York Times as reported in two articles, Broken Promises of Genetically Modified Crops and Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, found that:
“…the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields — food per acre — when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany. Also, a recent National Academy of Sciences report found that “there was little evidence” that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops.
At the same time, herbicide use has increased in the United States, even as major crops like corn, soybeans and cotton have been converted to modified varieties. And the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides.”
In short, despite decades of hype, genetically engineered crops used in the US have resulted in an increase in overall herbicide use and a modest decline in insecticide and fungicide use that has not kept pace with usage declines in other peer countries not using GE tech. Meanwhile, yield gain increases have generally been less than or equal to those seen in other advanced countries that have not embraced GE technology.
5. Organic farming CAN feed the world.
Claim: Organic farming can not feed the world.
Facts: People on anabolic steroids do indeed put on more muscle mass than people not taking steroids. Does this mean we should take steroids in order to be healthier and more muscular? Of course not. The same basic logic applies to our agricultural system.
We fully acknowledge that the likelihood of the world completely switching to organic farming at any point in the near future is somewhere between slim and none. Rather, our hope is that best practices from organic growing systems (polyculture plant systems, organic IPM systems, no-till, etc) will be mainstreamed by conventional farmers, even if their operations don’t become fully organic or certified.
Regardless, this section is intended to dismantle the myth that organic agriculture can not feed the world if such a global shift were to happen. Let’s start with the basics: it’s often claimed that we’ll have to double food production to feed the 9+ billion people projected to be on earth by 2050.
Here are some statistics to chew on:
- Small farmers, not large industrial farms, currently feed the world. 70% of the food the world eats is currently grown by small farmers.
- US farmers do not feed the rest of the world. The majority of the exported commodity crops, meat, and dairy we produce go to other first world countries; only 8% goes to non-first world countries.
- Out of the 7+ billion people on the globe today: 2 billion are overweight or obese, and only 800 million are calorie-deficient.
- In the United States: 71% of our adult population is overweight or obese and 15% of households are food insecure.
Based on this data, can you spot the biggest single problem in the world and in the US? An overabundance of poor-quality, hyper-processed addictive junk foods (aka the “western diet“), which are causing epidemics of chronic illnesses and diseases ranging from obesity to diabetes to heart disease. And this type of diet is exactly what a field of GE soy or corn growing in Iowa is designed to provide.
If the rest of the world adopted the American diet: instead of 2 billion people being overweight or obese, over 5 billion people would be overweight or obese–and the number of calorie-deficient people would be virtually unchanged. Is this really the model we want to use to feed the world?
Also, consider this: as many studies have shown, we currently produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, and agricultural production the world over is increasing at a rate faster than our population growth. In short: the problem is not one of production.
What is the problem? Largely, it’s poverty, inequality, and a lack of knowledge and technology. Pretty much anywhere you go on earth, if you can afford to buy food, you can get food. Just as we can not solve the problem of third world transportation woes by producing more BMWs, we can’t solve the problems of hunger, malnutrition, and diet-related diseases by producing more soy, corn, and CAFO animals–that will only serve to create new, potentially worse problems.
So how do we actually go about feeding the world? As a global consortium of agricultural scientists and policy experts who studied this question found, the answer (on the production side) lies in investing in “agroecology.” Essentially, this means empowering small farmers throughout the world through education and access to proven farming practices that increase yields while minimizing ecological impacts (what we call “organic” production in the first world).
This also means leveling the playing field from an investment/policy standpoint. At present, industrial agriculture gets 80% of available subsidies and 90% of research funding. This means taxpayers (you) are paying to give an unfair market advantage to a food production model that can not possibly scale to produce healthy people or a healthy planet.
Closer to home, researchers at Washington State University published a study in 2016 that came to the same conclusions. Their meta analysis reviewed hundreds of published studies and 40 years of data, concluding that, “organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers.”
Other problems to address to feed the world
Without diving too deep, three other huge interrelated factors that must be addressed in order to truly feed the world today and in the coming century are:
- Reducing food waste. In the first world, 50% of the food we produce is thrown in the garbage by consumers. In the developing world, 50% of food produced never makes it to the consumer due to spoilage. Even though both problems technically fall under the category of “waste,” they are fundamentally different problems requiring different technological and cultural solution sets.
- Reducing animal protein consumption. People in the first world currently eat far more animal protein than is necessary or healthy. The negative ecological and human health impacts caused by producing and consuming low-quality CAFO animals are truly staggering. This pattern can not scale up as more countries around the globe develop. Transitioning to a primarily plant-based, organic diet is a fairly simple solution on paper, but getting widespread adoption is a challenge.
- Addressing “climate weirding.” (Maybe that’s a less politically-charged term than climate change.) A warmer climate means stronger, more frequent, more intense storms. It means more extreme weather events (extreme heat waves, extreme droughts, extreme floods, extreme forest fires, etc.). It means less nutrient-rich foods. It means more economic stress on farmers, especially in less developed parts of the world, which then leads to mass migrations into cities, which causes political upheavals that lead to refuge crises that trigger destabilizing events even in once-stable western democracies (butterfly effect). The one-two punch of clean energy and clean farming have the potential to reverse our present trajectory. Even if all the science on this issue is completely wrong, the worst case scenario is that we’ll end up with cleaner, safer living conditions, be healthier, and enjoy better quality food. What a tragedy!
We hope this article provides you with the information you need to better understand and respond to false or misleading claims about organic farming. In our opinion, this is one of the most important transitions the world needs to make moving forward. Just as we desperately need to transition to clean, renewable energy sources, so too do we need to transition to clean, regenerative agricultural models.
The risk? We accidentally end up growing a better world. Wouldn’t that be cool.