Most of us involved in agriculture know at least one person who views organic as the label that determines whether a food is healthy, sustainable, or impregnated with pesticides. Well that’s not necessarily the case. The organic certification does not prevent pesticide use, it merely restricts the pesticides used to more “natural” alternatives. This presents a problem: it presupposes all synthetic substances are more dangerous than natural ones.
I may not want to eat a bunch of artificial colors, but I’d take them over hemlock. Some of our organic pesticides aren’t perfect, but they’re wonderful tools for growers. An organic grower in southern New Hampshire told me they won’t grow tomatoes anymore without regular applications of copper sprays after the year when late blight decimated their crop. The problem with copper is it tends to stick around in the soil for quite a long time, building up heavy metals in soils or even groundwater if over applied
I’ve heard legitimate concerns with certain pesticides, like that glyphosate can negatively affect soil microbes, and in some cases even microbes in the gut of ruminants, so it stands to reason that there could be effects on human gut fauna as well. With medical science just learning the important of our own gut ecosystems it’s hard to know for sure, but is a synthetic fungicide in low doses in a regular rotation worse than regular copper sprays?
Our food system has many issues, but it’s also been able to feed more people with less farmers than ever. We are in what the Food and Agriculture Organization calls the “Golden Years of Food Security”. We do need to implement some changes to make our food systems more sustainable, but organic probably shouldn’t be the only system we rely on.
A quick example of a tough decision in agriculture is no-till. No-till typically uses a killed cover-crop to reduce weed pressures to substitute heavy tillage practices. Unfortunately, the most reliable way to implement no-till on a large scale is by using herbicides to effectively kill off the cover-crop. While more sustainable long-term than heavy tillage for soils, this practice is not permitted in organic agriculture for obvious reasons.
Those who have gone through the Farm to UNH program know that, though we follow most of the organic guidelines, we are not certified organic, in part because we can’t verify that all the ingredients in the compost we make are certified organic. Does that make us unsustainable? I don’t think so, but what do you think? Is organic the best designation available in determining the health or sustainability of our food? Should we utilize other regulated designations, work on improving organic, or is it fine the way it is? Let us know in the comments.
Images courtesy of transgenicsstudy.blogspot.com, vinepair.com, and fitnessreloaded.com