Published on March 25th, 2006 | by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg1
Pennsylvania Organic Debate
So I’ve been on a bit of an organic agriculture binge lately, but it’s just so much fun to see this important issue receiving attention. Today, I came across a response to a column from central Pennsylvania’s Centre Daily Times dealing with organics and their economic and environmental impacts. In the first column, Penn State soil management professor Sjoerd W. Duiker tries to make the case that chemically-intensive farming is actually more sustainable than organic practices:
Health promises of organic food remain elusive, whereas it has significant environmental challenges, including its reliance on intensive tillage and organic nutrient sources. The need to expand cropland means less natural habitat, and rising food costs present a problem for the world’s urban poor.
These issues need to be seriously considered before we become too enamored with organic.
In response, Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, takes Professor Duiker to task for ignoring details like the use of genetically-modified seeds and providing misinformation on land use:
The real tragedy in agriculture today is that so much university research everywhere is geared toward using more “new and improved” chemicals and other synthetic inputs instead of better understanding and use of the natural systems that have been inherent in creation all along….
Fortunately for us in Pennsylvania, we have the folks at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, who have been doing just this kind of research for decades. They have found that, in side-by-side trials with organic and conventional systems, organic systems over the long haul are equal or superior to the conventional approach in average yields and farm profitability. More importantly, they have found the products coming out of the organic systems to be consistently better in terms of nutritional profile, that is, food quality.
Is there widespread consensus on these points? Not exactly. But a slow trickle of diverse and generally underfunded research is emerging across the country and from other countries that would indicate there really is something to the potential of so-called “natural” systems.
As a transplant to this region five years ago, it has been a profound disappointment to find so little research of this kind being conducted in the context of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Perhaps the college leaders will finally heed the shortsighted musings of one member of the faculty, and the voices of so many people crying in the wilderness of our farming communities, to the effect that the status quo in agriculture is no longer sufficient as a vision for the future.
A fascinating read! If anything’s clear, it’s that we’re dealing with very complex issues. I do, however, tend to agree that supporters of modern agriculture tend to simplify organic practices. Those of us who support organic agriculture always have to make sure we’re keeping a critical eye on our own practices, but it’s hard to understand how industrial agriculture could be justified in terms of sustainability. And I think Snyder’s generally correct in his assertion that colleges of agriculture tend to stick with industrial processes; I’m sure this is due, in no small part, to much of their outside funding coming from Big Agra…