NEW YORK, 16 JUNE 2013
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that, despite the popularity of organic
foods, clothing and other products, organic agriculture is still only
practiced on a tiny percentage of land worldwide. Whats getting in the
Larry McFarlane, Boston, Massachusetts
Organic production may still represent only a small fraction of
agricultural sales in the U.S. and worldwide, but it as been growing
rapidly over the last two decades. According to the latest global census
of farming practices, the area of land certified as organic makes up less
than one percent of global agricultural land but it has grown more than
threefold since 1999, with upwards of 37 million hectares of land
worldwide now under organic cultivation. The Organic Trade Association
forecasts steady growth of nine percent or more annually for organic
agriculture in the foreseeable future.
But despite this growth, no one expects organic agriculture to top
conventional techniques any time soon. The biggest hurdle for organics is
the added cost of sustainable practices. "The cost of organic food is
higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more
closely reflects the true cost of growing the food," reports the Organic
Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). "The intensive management and labor
used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more
expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms."
However, there is evidence that if the indirect costs of conventional food
production such as the impact on public health of chemicals released
into our air and water were factored in, non-organic foods would cost
the same or as much as organic foods.
Other problems for organic foods include changing perceptions about
just how much healthier they are than non-organics. "Many devotees of
organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels
of pesticides," writes Henry I. Miller in Forbes. "But thats a poor
rationale: Non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue,
to be sure, but more than 99 percent of the time the levels were below the
permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators limits
that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced
by the Food and Drug Administration."
He adds that just because a farm is organic doesnt mean the food it
produces will be free of potentially toxic elements. While organic
standards may preclude the use of synthetic inputs, organic farms often
utilize so-called "natural" pesticides and what Miller calls
"pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer" that can also end up making
consumers sick and have been linked to cancers and other serious illnesses
(like their synthetic counterparts). Miller believes that as more
consumers become aware of these problems, the percentage of the
agriculture market taken up by organics will begin to shrink.
Another challenge facing the organic sector is a shortage of organic
raw materials such as grain, sugar and livestock feed. Without a steady
supply of these basics, organic farmers cant harvest enough products to
make their businesses viable. Meanwhile, competition from food marketed as
"locally grown" or "natural" is also cutting into organics slice of the
overall agriculture pie.
Organic agriculture is sure to keep growing for years to come. And even
if the health benefits of eating organic arent significant, the
environmental advantages of organic agriculture which are, of course,
also public health advantages make the practice well worth
CONTACTS: Organic Trade Association, www.ota.com; OFRF, www.ofrf.org.
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