Greg Peterson is a farmer from Kansas and the oldest member of the internet sensation The Peterson Farm Brothers.
The conversation about the pros and cons of GMOs and organic is filled with misconstrued, biased, agenda-driven information. While I don’t think my opinion is perfect or 100% right, I have tried to form it in a way that is as accurate and fact driven as possible.
In April I gave a TEDx talk about why we need diversity in agriculture, which you can watch in the video below.
Here are the most common opinions I’ve heard in person and seen on the internet:
- I buy whatever is the cheapest or best tasting and don’t really know or care about the difference between organic and conventional.
- I buy only organic because the alternative (conventional) is filled with toxic things that might kill me like pesticides and GMOs.
- I buy organic to support the small farmers and not support Big Ag Corporations.
- Conventional farmers use terrible practices that harm the environment and abuse animals, but organic farmers are held to a higher standard and aren’t hurting the environment or animals.
- Organic marketing is a scam.
- Organic farmers are just taking advantage of higher premiums, and they don’t produce as much per acre and their crops often fail.
While there is a bit of truth in each one of these statements, all of them have misconceptions and inaccurate statements.
Let’s start with the first opinion: “I buy whatever is the cheapest or best tasting and don’t really know or care about the difference between organic and conventional.”
I understand the idea of purchasing the cheapest food you can, as I know many people must spend as little as they can to fit their budget. However, you should care about your food.
Don’t be a lazy consumer. Learn about where and how each type of food is grown and the people who grow it. Farmers are always happy to explain why they do what they do and many will even offer tours of their farm. Don’t just rely on marketing schemes to determine your buying choices. Visit farms. Talk to farmers. Educate yourself.
Benefits of Organic
I believe the organic food movement is a good thing because it is waking people up from being lazy consumers. People who are part of this movement care about their food. And, they are trying to make a difference through their purchases. That’s great!
Organic farming has actually affected conventional farming in a very positive way.
I believe organic food is healthy and nutritious and that organic farming is a viable method of growing food. Every organic farmer I have met is doing the best they can to grow food in a different way than most do. I greatly respect organic farmers because a lot of times it is far more difficult to grow crops organically (although you do get paid more).
Organic farmers have also made great strides in developing tools to grow crops using natural substances in more environmentally friendly ways. They use heirloom seeds and protect and promote genetic biodiversity. They find ways to raise animals in better conditions.
Organic farming has challenged the conventional way of doing things and has helped a lot of people start to think outside the box when it comes to food production.
Benefits of Conventional
However, when it comes to sustainability, practicality, and overall efficiency, I do not believe organic food production is the solution all by itself; however, it is part of the solution.
It’s going to take a diverse set of solutions to feed the world sustainably. One of the biggest arguments against organic is that it “cannot feed the world.”
I honestly believe we could feed the world with small, organic, free-range, non-GMO farms. But it wouldn’t be efficient or practical because all of these methods require more input for less output than conventional.
It would require most of the population working in food production again. It would raise the cost of all of our food. Many people (especially those on lower incomes) would be far worse off if we made a complete transition to only organic food. That doesn’t make sense!
Non-GMO farms would require most of the population working in food production again. It would raise the cost of all of our food.
Many people (especially those who have low incomes) would be far worse off if we made a complete transition to only organic food.
Efficiency of Conventional Farming
Large, conventional farms could feed the world by themselves as well. The advancements being made in conventional agriculture are astounding. GMOs, pesticides, precision farming and intensive livestock farming allow farmers to produce far more food with far less resources. That is a huge part of sustainability.
However, I do not think feeding the world with only conventional farming would be as friendly to the environment, to local communities, or to biodiversity by itself as it would be and is with the inclusion of organic farming. That’s where I believe organic has its place.
We need local farmers markets. We need small farms in rural communities. We need farmers who save seeds, build healthy soil, and protect biodiversity. We need diverse farms, diverse farmers, diverse areas of expertise, diverse approaches and diverse solutions to diverse problems.
All of these things can be found in a balance between conventional and organic.
Fear Marketing Strategies
While I do support organic farming and organic farmers, I do not support the marketing strategies the organic industry employs.
The reason most people buy organic food is because they believe it is “better” than conventional food. The organic marketing schemes take full advantage of this concept and try to convince consumers that conventional farming is destructive to the environment, toxic to their health, unfriendly to animals, and bad for small farmers.
In reality, conventional farming is far from those things. Conventional farmers (like organic farmers) are a community of honest, hard working, value-based people who are raising food in the method they think is best on their particular farm.
Every conventional farmer feeds their family with the same food they grow.
Organic marketers also perpetuate a lot of myths about organic food itself. Many people who buy organic food do not realize these important points.
First of all, organic doesn’t necessarily have to do with nutrition or health. An organic apple is the same nutritionally as a conventional one grown in a similar environment. The same goes with GMO and non-GMO.
Organic doesn’t necessarily have to do with safety either. Organic farmers still use pesticides, they just have to be natural chemicals and not synthetic (man-made) mixes of chemicals. Many times the natural chemicals used in organic farming are much more toxic than the man-made versions used in conventional farming. It is true that pesticide residues in organic food are typically lower than conventional food. However, it would take eating hundreds of servings every day for these residues to ever reach a harmful level. Organic food, on the other hand, often contains more harmful pathogens. Organic farmers are limited to only using animal waste for fertilizer instead of synthetic (man-made) fertilizer.
Unless you buy local (farmers markets) or know exactly where your food is coming from, buying organic food does not necessarily mean you are supporting the small farmer and the small business. The organic industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Whole Foods profits over $14 billion a year. There are CEOs, presidents, and industry reps in the organic industry that are making a ton of money from sales of organic foods.
Additionally, organic farming is not always better on the environment. There are huge organic farms (many located overseas) that hire cheap labor to grow organic food. Often times, these farms clear forests and marshes for this purpose. Because organic farming produces less food per acre and per animal, one could say it impacts the environment more per unit of product.
There are pros and cons about both conventional and organic. People in both industries unfairly accusing one another of being a fraud. Both types of farming have issues that need fixing. One is not better than the other, and people should stop saying that. As I’ve said before, we need to work together to better both of them.
You can read more of my in-depth articles about farming on my blog.