With each planting season, the debate continues to grow over how we produce our food: conventional farming vs. organic.
For years, food scientists, agricultural experts, activists and foodies have argued heatedly whether food grown organically is nutritionally superior to or safer than food grown in conventional farming systems.
After decades of research, there is no compelling evidence to conclude that conventionally produced and organic foods are significantly different in nutrient content or safety.
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However, this debate is the wrong one to be having.
Instead, debate and research should focus beyond the narrow questions of nutrient content and safety to the much broader question of impacts on the whole food chain, from farm to fork.
Financial, social, environmental and ecological impacts should all be considered, a point illustrated by contrasting the two systems.
Organic practices encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Natural fertilizers feed the plants, and crop rotation and mulch are used to control weeds. Integrated pest-management techniques are used to control bugs.
Conventional farming relies on heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to maximize yields and minimize weeds and pests. Economically, conventional farming benefits from highly efficient and integrated actions from seed to table, generally executed at optimal scale.
Today, the more than 21,000 certified organic operations in the U.S. are usually at an economic disadvantage vs. conventional farms due to their smaller scale and higher per-unit costs.
Food needs are expected to double globally by 2050. While conventional agricultural systems are expected to be able to feed a world population of 9 billion in 2050, there will likely be significant ecological, environmental and social consequences. Our goal should be to feed the world in a sustainable manner without any adverse side effects.
Millions of dollars over decades have been spent trying to prove that organic food is nutritionally superior to, and safer than, conventionally grown food. In contrast, pathetically little has been spent studying whole food-chain effects.
We have been investing time, money and passion in the wrong debate. For example, from an ecological standpoint, we should be as concerned about potential adverse effects on farmworkers’ health from ongoing exposure to fertilizers and powerful pesticides as we are about whether the food is more nutritious or not.
When the total food chain is considered, which method of farming is in fact superior, conventional or organic? Depending on the answer to this question, there are major implications for farm policy and agricultural resources globally.
The USDA is supportive of organic food with its respected organic certification program and the establishment of resources to help organic producers. Total U.S. retail sales of organic foods are about $40 billion and growing 10 to 12 percent annually, although organic is still only a small fraction of total food produced.
Despite the USDA’s enthusiastic support for organic food, the USDA makes no claims of any kind for organics or for any advantages over conventional farming methods. The reason? Absence of clear evidence for superiority on any meaningful aspect.
Encouragingly, there has been some work suggesting that diversified farming systems, which share much in common with organic, sustainable and agroecological management approaches, may be superior to conventional farming in terms of soil quality, nutrient management, biodiversity, water-holding capacity, control of weeds and pests, and resilience in the face of climate change.
We need much more evidence to get the USDA and international counterparts to take a position on organic’s potential superiority on whole system benefits, while there is still time. In short, we need the debate over organic vs. conventional farming to shift to a debate over whole system effects, and we need it to shift now.
Carl Johnson is a 2017 fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute and a former executive at Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup and Del Monte Foods. He is chairman of the board of Nautilus Inc. He can be contacted at email@example.com.