The Great Organic Food Debate

I’m a big fan of eating organic. I think it is better for my family, and better-tasting.

Plus, I feel better knowing I’m ingesting food that’s got less of what I don’t want (pesticides, Genetically Modified Organisms and radiation), and more of what I do want (clean, nutrient-dense fuel).

Of course, I am fortunate to live here in the U.S., and specifically South Florida, where eating organic is easy. We are lucky to have several year-round farmer’s markets just a short drive away.

Beyond that, thanks to stores like Whole Foods Market (WFM) and The Fresh Market (TFM), eating organic and making healthy food choices is as easy a trip to the store.

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That is, provided you are willing to pay just a little bit extra for the privilege.

I consider myself as enjoying even greater fortune, as I’ve built it into my budget to absorb the extra cost of providing organic food for my family.

Many Americans, Europeans and others around the world are also fortunate enough to go organic. Yet I realize that the vast majority of the global population does not share this privilege.

In fact, in so much of the world, food of any sort is in short supply.

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It is in part the omnipresent reality of scarcity that has many food and agricultural experts debating whether organic farming methods could actually feed the world …

Or whether the yields from farming in this fashion are just too low to make a dent in food demand.

In a July 12 Wall Street Journal article, "Can Organic Food Feed the World," two experts present their respective arguments on this critical issue.

Arguing for the "Yes" camp is Catherine Badgley, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan.

According to Badgley:

Organic farming can … grow enough food for the world and provide robust economic returns. There are already millions of small and midsize organic farms world-wide. Sales of organic food and beverages grew fivefold between 1999 and 2013, according to the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL.

Badgley admits that when it comes to the all-import aspect of crop yields, organic farming does fall short of conventional farming methods:

Yields are the most contentious issue. When the same products are grown, organic yields are 8% to 19% lower on average than conventional-farming yields, depending on the cropping system, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.

But the gap in yields is not an obstacle to feeding the world. We currently grow far more food than is necessary. Only 43% of the cereal grains grown world-wide becomes food for people; 35% becomes livestock feed, and 10% goes to biofuels, high-fructose corn syrup and other processed products. One-third of food produced for human consumption, meanwhile, is wasted. By reducing waste and prioritizing crops as food, organic could feed the world even with lower yields.

While I’ve already admitted that I am a big organic food fan, I suspect Badgley’s view is a tad optimistic here. I also think her argument reveals an underlying bias against those who choose to eat livestock and/or high-fructose corn syrup.

Badgley then argues that organic farming is actually more-profitable than conventional farming, which implies farmers should consider this when they select their growing methods:

Organic foods may cost more than conventionally grown, but they’re more profitable for farmers when price premiums are charged. With premiums, the benefit/cost ratios are 20% to 24% higher than for the same foods produced by conventional methods, according to scientists from Washington State University.

Source: Organic Trade Association
Click here for a larger view.

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Arguing the "No" side of the issue is Steve Savage, a consultant for the agricultural industry who also writes about food and farming.

Savage says there are many reasons why strictly organic farming could never feed the world, and perhaps the biggest reason is the aforementioned lower yields:

Studies have shown that organic yields are lower than yields of conventional farming. Detailed survey data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service for 2011 shows that for organic farming to equal conventional farming’s production of 14 staple, human-focused food crops in the U.S., 14.5 million more acres would be required — an area roughly equal to all of the farmland in Indiana. Extrapolate that to the world, and it’s easy to see there is no possibility of an organic-only food supply.

Savage then takes on the argument that organic farming is more profitable than conventional farming:

An academic study by Washington State University that showed organic farming to be more profitable than conventional farming did not reflect many of the real conditions under which organic farms operate.

The study was based on small plots and failed to take into account many of the economic drivers that limit profitability of farms — such as the availability of labor, land leasing arrangements, as well as biological and market risks.

Finally, Savage concludes that strict organic farming stifles innovation, and that is the real key to growing more food for the world:

 … rules that circumscribe organic farming make it difficult or impossible for farmers to employ many cutting-edge, sustainable farming practices. These include minimum-tillage row-crop farming and delivery of just the right amount of fertilizers through drip irrigation.

If we want a sufficient and sustainable food-production system, we should encourage all of the best innovations. Using genetic engineering, a key pest-resistance gene could be moved from a wild version of a crop to a commercially useful version in as little as five years, depending on the species. To accomplish that through organically approved plant breeding might take decades.

While I again reiterate my personal preference for organic food, I completely see Savage’s point here on how the rules designating a food "Certified Organic" could have a stifling effect on growing that food on a larger scale.

To me, this debate is by no means settled. However, what I think is really important is that the issue of organic foods and the possibility of using these methods to help feed the world is an idea whose time has come.

The debate here is both food for thought, and I hope at some point, food for the entire world.

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What is your take on organic foods? Do you think organic farming is a trend whose time has come? Or, do you think it is more hype and marketing?

Send me your thoughts and let me know by leaving a comment on our website or by sending me an e-mail.

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U.S. stocks traded mixed Friday, as the Dow was slightly lower while the S&P 500 was slightly higher. The Nasdaq Composite was the big winner, surging nearly 1% and hitting another all-time intraday high.

•  Google (GOOGL) shares surged more than 16% to an all-time high, one day after the company reported scintillating Q2 earnings.

•  Oil futures fell to their lowest level since early April, as the U.S. oil-rig count fell last week fell after rising over the prior two weeks.

•  Gold futures sank for a seventh-straight session on Friday, falling to their lowest level in more than five years.

Good Luck and Happy Investing,

Brad Hoppmann

Publisher

Uncommon Wisdom Daily

P.S. In tomorrow morning’s health edition, I’ll give you an organic solution to help you start your day with more energy. Watch your inbox around 8:30 a.m. Eastern for my newest “healthy” idea.

Your thoughts on “The Great Organic Food Debate”

  1. ALL sweet potatoes are classified as GMOs. Neither man nor Monsanto had anything to do with it. Got a problem with that? You tell Him!

  2. I think the much bigger picture is how the farming world can change for the better by raising food through hyrdroponics. Vertical farming, I believe, is not only the wave of the future, but is so revolutionary that we should be considering it here in America. Land here is extensive, yes, and needed for grain production, corn and bean, potatoes, too. But fresh fruits, veggies, etc, can be raised locally by farmers for local stores, especially here in the Heartland. We need to start using this kind of farming to both save the soil, use less fuel in our tractors and make organic normal. I think more people could take up farming this way as a career, which makes tons of sense since several years ago, the age of the average farmer was 55. This is a big concern! Plus it might be good to have small businesses controlling our food sources as opposed to big businesses. I really hope this becomes a trend.

  3. To compare yields without considering the nutritional value of the food leaves an incomplete answer. Since I switched to eating healthy foods I find myself eating less food while feeling better. My guess is the organically grown foods are more nutrient dense. Also less of my energy is used eliminating chemicals that don’t belong in the first place.

  4. We could/should be using gamma radiation on some foods to kill harmful organisms found in any food crop – even organically grown ones. (Organic grown food is not necessarily safer to eat.) There would be no radiation residual and it would save lives. But ignorance and unfounded fear keeps us from using this life giving technology.
    Not all GMOs are created equal. Each need to be studied for their own merits. For example the vitamin A enriched rice (yellow rice) is a wonderful benefit throughout Asia.
    There is a lot of ideology in this debate. Where were you in during science class?

  5. The difference between organic farming and regular is regular farmers spray in the day time and organic spray at night. As far as production goes take the millions of acres out of CRP and put them back into production. It would save the government Millions if not billions and get those farmers of welfare which this program really is.

  6. Organic is a process definition not a content one. So stop fooling yourself that organic has a magical advantage. Better diets regardless of organic or not is the better approach.

    Stan

  7. You are looking organic and non-organic food. There is a better option – permaculture. That is the way to go for the future.

  8. Of course organics are the way to provide food and to save our soils and pollinators. Monocropping and conventional farming take a huge toll on the soil, and try to make up for it with heavy doses of fertilizer. Conventional farming, GMOs and pesticide and herbicide usage are causing untoward drops in pollinator populations. We cannot feed a healthy world with conventional crops–in fact, during drought, organics have proven to have higher yields than conventional.

    See: http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/

    If farmers care for their soil, compost deeply, and adopt organic methods with its lower toll on pollinators, in addition to ending or lessening food waste, the world can be fed through organic farming in a way that supports ecosystem and human health and well-being.

    In addition, we need to support smaller, local farmers who replenish their soils, rotate their crops and add to biodiversity on their farm sites, to create local resiliency and reduce our dependency on fossil fuel transportation of our foods.

  9. Exactly what type of radiation do you want your food to have less of? Unless one lives downwind of a leaking nuclear power plant or government nuclear lab, the major radiation impacting growing crops is infrared, visible light and ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without those being present in a proper balance, crops won’t grow.

    I do understand your desire to eat clean, healthy, nutritious food, but please refrain from using words, like radiation, with what may be interpreted to be fear-mongering intent.

    Your presentation of a two-sided argument was well done and is appreciated.

  10. Brad … Organic has to do with planting and growing … nothing to do with harvesting, handling, cooling, storage, packaging, shipping, human contact, washing, shelf life, post-harvest adulteration (anti-sprouting spray, food dyes, or even clean hands), geographics (grown in inferior environment, harvest dating or a host of other factors you are omitting in your strict allegiance to the word “organic.” Organic doesn’t even include field toilets or running water to wash hands. All of these issues exist in farmer’s markets products, maybe moreso than at, say Costco! Please do some more personal investigation for your own edification.

  11. I will be commenting on this on my radio show today will post link when it is up. Lots to say here!

  12. Brad,

    Organic food raising is fine for developed countries. Please note that there is a lot of confusion surrounding what it takes to be organic in today’s markets. So the definition of organic needs to be clearly communicated in my opinion. Also for some in our society environmental concerns are important. I am now beginning to see articles like the following:
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10460-014-9543-1.

    I would like to see you write on GMO and all the issues surrounding GMO in our world as we try to feed the growing world populations.

  13. I eat organically as often as I can. I even grow some of my own food. Very fresh lettuces etc. which I can’t get organically. I don’t see any point in a debate. If the facts in the chart are true, Organic is the best (would LIKE to say “only”), way to go. It appears that GMO foods are very bad for us. Causing diminished, not to say, serious health problems. Why are we wasting grains that could feed the world’s starving on bio-fuels? While I know we need to cut down on our oil usage, it seems insane that we are manufacturing “food” out of oil, and fuel out of food.

  14. Organic food has less radiation? I assume you are also a nuclear specialist. You must also avoid flying and stay out of the sun.

  15. All of you forgot the billions of calories from corn that is used for gasoline. We could use that land for lots more organic food.

  16. Brad thanks for the refreshing articles, you are a breath of fresh air from a pleasantly unexpected direction.. Either way this debate may go its clear that evolution in both aspects is critical to our growth as a species. With that said I completely support the organic movement and have seen through the many farms I have visited that soil remediation is critical, being that much of our fertile soil has been washed away or sterilized in our learning process. I have had the opportunity to witness the natural farming practices of master cho from South Korea re-vitalize soil ravaged by commercial farming practices. Beneficial microbiology is the wave of the past/future that is nessecary to restore soil fertility which in turn is re-establishing a nutritious food web. Look into these practices put in place in South Korea, and throughout the world. I love acres USA magazine and I have a feeling you may appreciate it also. Thanks for your fresh approach!

  17. Give people information, and let them choose. Clearly mark all products as to whether they contain GMO ingredients or not, publish all research into the safety, or lack thereof, of the various pesticides. Don’t allow the use of patent laws to block researchers from independently checking out the safety and effects of agricultural chemicals, and then let people choose what they want to eat.

    One of my greatest objections to Monsanto, Dow, and the other so-called agricultural companies, is that they have spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to keep people from knowing these things, and fight at every turn to control all information about these products. If they are as harmless as they claim, what are they so desperate to hide?

  18. Read Merchants of

    Read “Merchants of Doubt”. Savage’s arguments are part and parcel taken from the lobby’s playbook to discredit legitimate science and arguments against progress in sustainability.

  19. Brad, Here’s an extensively researched article for those interested detailing the fear mongering and data skewing that leaders of the ANTI-GMO crowd use to mislead the public. As much as I share your preference for organic foods it’s time to sprinkle in some common sense to the polarizing debate about the benefits of GMO food. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/07/are_gmos_safe_yes_the_case_against_them_is_full_of_fraud_lies_and_errors.html

  20. I think taste should be a big part of this discussion. My husband called winter purchased tomatoes in NYS, little red rocks! I’m sure there are many senior citizens who remember what fresh veggies used to taste like. One cannot duplicate the old time taste unless one starts with saved seed that has not been adulterated.
    Know why Grandma’s pot roast dinner recipe doesn’t taste the same today?

  21. I am 74 and when growing up even with “DDT” many vegatables and fruits had bug stains on them. You would open a can of peas and occassionally see a worm in it.
    Based upon my life’s past experiences, it is difficult for me to believe organic foods are truly organic if there is no evidence of bug stainings or bites being thereon since pesticides are alledged not to be on todays organic foods.
    Also if a nearby field uses pesticides and wind blows thereon how can it be organic as defined?
    I have read, Whole Foods our “organic hero” has a salad bar in the stores that is not organic and rather ” expensive” and yet no sign is posted to that effect. If so the hypocrisy is worth investigating for the truth if organic is safer and better.

  22. of course the food conglomerates will tell u they are the way , as they GMO the ground to death , they do not care about your health but for their profit ! They are turning back yard gardens into an illegal thing and already have stopped front yard gardens. The politicians support this so they get contributions !
    The American diet is wrong , we need more vegetables , less grain , Check out the paleo diet !
    Did you know the meat you eat is causing more green house gas from the animals wrong diet ! methane is worse then carbon ! [stop farting cows !]

    second comment ,
    as solar gets more efficient & when we develop the right battery , less carbon from oil & gas ! Its coming !!
    Now we have to get ride of bureaucracy and politicians for a bright future for our children !
    Aquaponics is the future !

  23. ORGANIC MEANS YOU PAY MORE AT MARKET AND GET NO MORE NUTRITION THAN WITH NON ORGANIC .THEY TALK ABOUT RANGE CHICKEN.HAVE YOU EVER SEEN WHAT A CHICKEN WILL EAT—ANYTHING IT FINDS ON THE GROUND INCLUDING POOP.

  24. I consider organic food a very important part of good health. This is especially significant because of the marketing of GMO foods. My wife and I buy only organic foods. We are fortunate to have the Wegman’s grocery stores in our area. They have many organic selections. We also buy items online they don’t carry. In addition I raise a very large organic garden that provides most of our vegetables year round. Of course in the winter that means using vegetables we froze during the summer. Organic items do cost more, but I would rather pay for better food than get involved with the medical industry because of eating lower quality food.

  25. If you have access to a nice sized piece of land, and wish to garden it according to organic principles, you can grow at least a fair portion of healthier foods for you and your family. Use only organic (natural) fertilizer and pest controls, and fence it into the ground to keep out diggers like rabbits, high enough to stop the deer. Your yields may not be high, but you’ll enjoy what you reap, and get some good exercise, that may prove beneficial too.

  26. Love organic…….the way God made it. All the genetics of man made ideas
    and GMO’s and synthetics……add to more complications in health in time.
    It just is not worth it. Go natural, live better…..and healthier.
    (The general public has no idea how devastating pesticides, etc. are to
    their health and the many diseases that it causes from these chemicals
    on our foods). i.e. Medical journals have researched that Parkinson’s Disease
    has a primary cause of pesticides!!

    Thanks Brad

  27. My sister is strictly organic, vegan. I am a carnivore that eats all things, buy some organic and some not. Being an RN I think people should eat all food groups or God would not have given us teeth to chew meat. I think moderation is the key and cleanliness. I do read labels. I do avoid high fructose corn syrup. I do buy dairy that comes from cows that have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones and buy free range eggs . I only buy wild caught fish. I eat lots of veggies and fruits. I buy organic berries about half the time. Strawberries are the best to buy organic. Grow my own tomatoes, basil , leaf lettuce etc in earth boxes since I am not a big gardener and they grow great in those. I have currently invested in some stocks that are into the organic craze. I don’t think that organic can feed the world though. Just as solar and wind cannot solely replace gas. Takes too much land. And wind turbines kill many birds besides. I think its good that we have more choices though.

  28. I am surprised that you would speak so highly of Whole Foods. They have repeatedly been caught over pricing and putting incorrect weights on meat products. Paid fines and promised not to continue the practice only to be caught doing it again.

  29. Organic farming is not more profitable to farmers. Most of these folks, if not all, are just dedicated to producing the best food for human consumption……not making the big bucks like the producers of GMO corn, wheat and soybeans. How about those government subsidies?

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