What is Organic Food, Really? Exposing The Agriculture Myths

A small-scale, sustenance farmer

Just what the heck is organic food, anyway? When a particular product is certified organic, does that mean the same thing that we imagine it to mean — that the food was raised without pesticides, was grown responsibly and in a non-destructive manner? Well…. maybe not. In a can-o’-worms-openin’ article for Scientific American, Christie Wilcox delves into some of the myths behind organic standards in the US.

Is organic food really all that it claims to be?

Even after reading the article (which at first glance reads like a lobbyist push for industrial agriculture), the answers are not clear, and that is the most unfortunate truth about the organic vs. conventional debate. In the article, Wilcox claims that organic food is no healthier than conventional food, it is not better for the envioronment, nor do organic farms use pesticides.

I do not doubt there is a huge lack of clarity about the issue, that there is no simple answer to the question, and that there is some truth in Wilcox’s claims. But I propose an alternative angle to the overwhelming “debate” that is organic vs. conventional.

The Small Scale Farming Alternative

Perhaps the issue is better viewed as whether or not food that is produced on a small-scale is “better” than those same foods produced on a huge industrial scale. For example, there is no doubt that I can oversee my vegetable garden in a much more responsible, respectful, and ecological way than a gigantic farm can. I can give my plants individual care, I can carefully control what I choose to use in my garden, and ultimately, I can actually manage a garden as an individual and adapt as needed.

This leads me to believe that there is some scale at which agriculture ceases to be effective, responsible, and healthy (for both the farmer and the folks consuming the products of the farm). When a farm crosses a certain threshold (some unknown acreage), the human connection to the products of the farm is lost. Does a farmer responsible for thousands (or even hundreds) of acres feel a close connection to his/her operation? Do the crops receive the same attention that a gardener can garnish upon his/her vegetable plot? I doubt it.

I do believe that the more connected an individual feels to his/her food production, the more responsibly it will be raised. (The economic piece complicates the issue, no doubt, but I still believe that this is true.) What is that scale? I don’t know in exact scientific terms (and I rather not think in those terms anyway), but perhaps it’s when a farm can be managed by actual humans with an actual connection to the land that is most crucial to blazing a trail towards truly sustainable agriculture, healthy land, and safe and healthy food.

Image credit: flickr via ITA Image Library

  1. Thomas Hager

    This reminds me of comments I’ve heard about the passing away of individual craftsmen with the advent of the industrial revolution. We can lament the loss of artistry, but benefit from an increase in efficiency. There is little doubt that smallholder farmers are likely to be more connected to their land than industrial farmers. But that begs the larger question: What system or combination of systems is required to feed the additional 2-3 billion people joining us in the next few decades?

  2. ziggy

    There has to be some decline in population at some point, in some form, whether “good” or “bad”. It’s not rare to say that the carrying capacity of the planet is far being exceeded.

    Not to speak doom, a population decrease has to happen at some point in order for some kind of balance to be achieved.

  3. Steve Savage

    You don’t need to just speculate about whether a large scale farmer can be connected to the crop. You can meet these people. I’ve sat down with many farmers who grow 5-15,000 acres of row crops. Their “office” is the kitchen table and they are totally devoted to taking good care of their farm and crops.

  4. Richard

    I echo Steve’s experience. I know farmers who farm thousands of acres in Northern California and they are up every morning before dawn readying their equipment and workers for another day in the fields. They take pride in their work, use the most modern production methods available (GPS, precision ag, IPM), and are quick to point out what they do to protect the environment. Since it is impossible to feed billions solely by organic, it’s comforting to known that these “farmers” have a passion and clear understanding of the responsibilities they have.

    1. Dustin

      I’m a small scale organic farmer in Watsonville, CA. I have personally seen the difference in the ways food is grown between organic and conventional. When a skull and cross bones sign is placed next to a lettuce or strawberry field, I can say with certainty organic is better. Nutrition aside, do you want yours with or without poison? What about GMOs? Not in organic. Regardless of whether or not you want to believe the lies against organic feeding the world is up to you, but come to Watsonville, CA and look up Lake Side Organics and tell me organic can’t feed the world. Monsanto’s lies must stop. Use your common sense.

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