Blog#20: Organic vs. Conventional: What Are the Differences?
The “Organic” label indicates that a food or other product has been produced using approved agricultural methods that conserve and recycle natural resources, promote ecological balance, and protect biodiversity. It uses techniques such as crop rotation, composting, green manure, and biological pest control. Genetic engineering (GMO’s), synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and sewage sludge are not used in organic farming. However, certain pesticides, called biopesticides are allowed when necessary. These biopesticides, used in small quantities, often decompose quickly, and tend to be much less harmful than conventional pesticides because they affect only the target pest and closely related organisms. This is in contrast with broad-spectrum conventional pesticides, which can affect not only the target pest, but also birds, insects, and even mammals.
Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Within the U.S. there are several regulating and enforcing agencies in addition to the USDA, such as Oregon Tilth. Based on the stringent and costly process of becoming a certified organic farm, and the significant number of farms which lose their certification each year, it appears that these agencies do a reasonably good job. Of course if you want to be absolutely certain that the produce you consume is grown organically, you will have to grow it yourself or rely on someone whom you totally trust to grow your food.
Most conventional farmers use sewage sludge, broad-spectrum pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), synthetic fertilizers, and irradiation. Our soil has been progressively more depleted by continuous planting and harvesting without times of rest, i.e., a fallow year after several years of farming. Nutrients which crops pull from the soil in order to grow are not fully replaced by chemical fertilizers, which usually only contain a few valuable minerals.
Sewage sludge is what it sounds like: biosolids left over after sewage is treated and processed. Sewage sludge contains some valuable nutrients; unfortunately, it also often contains heavy metals, including cadmium and lead, dangerous synthetic organic compounds including toluene, chlorobenzene, and dioxins, highly toxic pesticides, traces of medications, including cabamazepine (an anti-seizure drug) and broad spectrum antibiotics, and dangerous microorganisms, such as staph, strep, C diff, E coli, and salmonella.
Irradiation is a process of exposing food to high doses of gamma rays, x-rays, or electron beams. It can kill both harmful and beneficial bacteria, but not viruses. It kills fruit flies and other pests, and prolongs the shelf life of foods. The long term health consequences of eating irradiated foods are still unknown; however, irradiation has been shown to change the molecular structure of foods and create known carcinogens. Additionally, some animals which were fed irradiated foods died prematurely, and suffered nutritional deficiencies, mutations, still births, and organ damage. Irradiated foods are labeled.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a lesser-known approach to controlling pests. Growers who are aware of the potential for pest infestation follow a four-tiered approach. The four steps include:
1 Action thresholds – before taking any action, IPM first sets a point at which pest populations or environmental conditions indicate that pest control action must be taken.
2 Monitoring and identifying pests – since some organisms are not harmful and may even be beneficial, monitoring and identification removes the possibility that pesticides will be used when they are not really needed, or that the wrong type of pesticide will be used.
3 Prevention – as a first line of defense, IPM programs manage crops to prevent pests from becoming a threat. This may involve using methods such as crop rotation, selecting pest-resistant varieties, and planting pest-free rootstock.
4 Control – when pest control is required, IPM programs evaluate control methods for both effectiveness and risk. Effective, less risky controls are chosen first, such as highly targeted chemicals, like pheromones, to disrupt pest mating, or mechanical control, such as trapping or weeding. If these less risky controls are not working, additional methods may be used, such as targeted spraying of pesticides. Broadcast spraying of non-specific pesticides would be a last resort.
I highly recommend that you check out the website and new film called “Symphony of the Soil” http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/ This documentary clearly and beautifully shows the dilemma conventional farming faces and the promise organic farming holds.
This blog’s offer: call me for a nutritional consult if you have a specific health challenge that you think might respond to an organic diet and I will help you plan a dietary program.