A Path To Peace In The Food Wars
Robert T. Fraley
Could there be peace in the cornfield and the bean patch?
Could the partisanship and hostility between organic and conventional farming, the two main competing camps of today’s agriculture, be replaced by something smacking of collaboration?
It could. And it should.
The two camps already have much more in common than is usually recognized. And with openness to the other’s ideas, I believe, they can both do better in ways that will benefit not only their interests, but the interests of everyone else on the planet.
So let’s try to understand what the differences between these camps really are – and aren’t. And with the benefit of that analysis, let’s try to identify opportunities to work together, or at least borrow from each other, in constructive ways.
The key differences first:
Many conventional farmers use genetically modified seeds (GMOs) and use chemicals – synthetic fertilizers and pesticides – to improve their harvests. Organic farmers, by contrast, do not use GMO seeds, synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides.
Sharp distinctions, right? When you look more closely, maybe not so much:
Contrary to popular belief, for example, organic farmers do use chemicals. They just don’t typically use synthetic chemicals.
USDA manages the National Organic Program and selects what chemicals or substances may be used in organic farming. Non-synthetic materials are allowed unless otherwise prohibited. Synthetic substances must be reviewed and approved prior to use. The current list contains a selection of synthetic substances that farmers seeking the “Certified Organic” label can choose from to control insects, weeds and disease as well as clean irrigation equipment or eliminate pests that would otherwise consume harvested crops. In any case, to grow crops such as grapes, broccoli or lettuce, for example, organic growers typically use non-synthetic chemicals such as copper hydroxide, sulfur, gibberellic acid, and more.
Moreover, because many of these naturally derived chemicals are less effective than their synthetic counterparts, organic farmers often have to use more of them per acre than conventional farmers. In the organic-conventional matchup, this is actually one of the many, not well-known ironies. And of course, just because these pesticides for organic farming are typically non-synthetic doesn’t mean they don’t require EPA oversight to ensure safe use. As with pesticides for conventional agriculture, EPA approves a label for each product that spells out how much can be applied for specific crops and the appropriate timing of those applications.
So the point, again, is this: When it comes to chemical pesticides, the differences between organic and conventional farming are more nuanced than is generally understood.
What’s also clear is this: Differences between the two systems do not lead to differences in safety or nutrition. Both systems of crop production lead to safe and nutritious foods.
(Some organic partisans, I know, beg to differ. Readers seeking evidence for the safety of conventionally grown, genetically modified food, can refer to the views of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; explore the results of a European Commission study; and review the largest-ever review of studies on GMOs. Evidence of nutritional equality also is readily available, including in this 2009 paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and this 2012 paper from The Annals of Internal Medicine.)
We are a broad-based coalition representing the entire American agriculture food supply chain – from farm to fork. We are committed to increasing the public’s understanding about the science and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and advocating for science-based policies that keep food affordable for every American.