Editor’s note — This article addresses some misconceptions about organic farming practices, using information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, researchers in the field and area producers.
Organic farming is the label for using simple, natural substances over synthetics, but implementing these practices is not so simple.
Farmers use organic practices for nearly any reason — to keep chemicals away from food, grow a better product or just to make an extra dollar. But at the root, going organic has a much greater purpose of improving and sustaining soil.
“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity,” reports Mary V. Gold of the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, which is part of the USDA. “It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
Defining “organic” as simply not using synthetic substances can be misleading — arsenic is a natural substance, but that doesn’t mean it can be used in organic production. Conversely, home gardeners can mix up a pesticide using dish soap, vinegar and salt, but that mix is not permitted in organic production either.
Instead, organic practices push farmers to learn more about their soil and what makes their operation tick so they can make smart decisions the first time.
For Jenny Goering’s family operation, conventional farming practices weren’t even an option on part of their land. The Goering family resides in rural Galva and manages both conventional and organic practices.
“We raise primarily dry land wheat in an area where irrigation isn’t accessible. Inputs are often too much for the dry climate to sustain. For us, organic fit really well because of the climate and soil conditions,” Goering said. “We can’t raise anything that’s very nutrient dependent. We’ve been raising dry land wheat organically for a long time, but we’ve gone through the paperwork and certified it for 10 years now. We haven’t had to change our practices at all and that was part of our desire as well.”
Though organic certification was a simpler choice for the Goering operation, other producers may not be able to make that decision. Steps toward gaining organic certifications are challenging, but the effort guarantees that USDA-certified organic products meet consistent standards.
“It definitely takes more paperwork, especially on a larger scale because we have to have a lot of inspections,” Goering said. “We’re inspected yearly by a third party. We have to put in our information and the inspector checks our books, our fields and equipment. Right now, the work has paid off. We found buyers and it’s been a good decision for our family.”
Since 1990, the market for organic food and other products has grown rapidly, reaching $63 billion worldwide in 2012. This demand has driven a similar increase in organically managed farmland, and as of 2011, approximately 91,000,000 acres worldwide were farmed organically, which is about 0.9 percent of farmland around the world, reports the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture.
As more producers take on organic practices, Goering has noticed that the attention to detail in soil health is paying off.
“The food we have in the grocery store is the healthiest it’s ever been, both for organic and conventional,” Goering said. “Consumers should realize that for some of us, it’s the same operation whether we were to sell it as organic or conventional because we want to produce the best product possible.”
The 2012 study “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review” published in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at the health benefits of organic produce.
Researcher Crystal Smith-Spangler at Stanford University School of Medicine, and her colleagues collected 200 peer-reviewed studies that examined differences between organic and conventional food, or the people who eat it. A few of these studies followed people’s eating habits and looked for evidence that the choice made a difference in their health, but the researchers found no clear benefits.
Most of the studies included research on the nutrients of the produce itself, as well as pesticides or bacteria present. The organic produce had less pesticide contamination, but researchers found that it might not matter — conventionally grown food did not exceed allowable limits of pesticide set by federal regulation. This makes sense to Goering because in her experience pesticides are expensive, so she wouldn’t intentionally overuse them.
“Technology has helped farmers reduce the need of pesticides, so they can target certain plants with the right chemicals,” Goering said. “I’ve had to be on special diets myself and sometimes the only way to get specialized products is to get organic because they cater to that, but my family doesn’t seek out organic at the grocery store. We have full faith in the farms.”
As for the product itself, nutritional quality varies enormously regardless of if it was raised organically or conventionally. Researchers found that one carrot could have two or three times more vitamin A than the carrot next to it due to influences like genetic makeup, when it was picked and the weather.
Instead, farmers consider what practices will benefit the hungry when choosing organic over conventional.
“There are still people in the world who don’t care if it’s treated or untreated, they just want something to eat,” Goering said. “Our job as farmers is to produce the best product we can to feed the most people.”
Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.