Saturday, May 9, 2015

Organic vs conventional farming, not so different

The difference between conventional and organic agriculture increasingly seems more like the difference between Lutherans and Presbyterians than between Christianity and witchcraft.

Latest case in point: Organic farmers are asking federal regulators to approve 200 new chemicals for agricultural use, including some synthetics.

You could be forgiven if you believed organic farming means no synthetic chemicals are used. You’d also be wrong.

Even the EPA is confused on this issue. It asserts, “’Organically grown’ food is food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.”

But there is a long list of synthetic compounds, including pesticides, permitted by the federal government for use in organic agriculture. You can find the list on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the heading, “Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.” 


Farming, ultimately, is farming. And the line between “organic” and “conventional” is pretty misty.

Even Monsanto, everybody’s favorite whipping boy on chemical agriculture, gets the point: “A lot of ‘organic’ food is grown using conventional farming techniques. And a lot of ‘conventional’ crops benefit from agronomic practices developed by organic farmers.”

There are, for example, organic farmers who plow their fields, and conventional farmers who practice no-till farming. There are organic farmers who spray pesticides, and ones who practice aggressive Integrated Pest Management and avoid pesticides where possible. Same with conventional farming. 

Chlorine, which is not found naturally in its pure state, is permitted under the National Organic Program as an algaecide in post-harvest use. 

That doesn’t, however, mean it still isn’t controversial. “The search for acceptable alternatives should not be abandoned just because chlorine is on the National List,” said the National Organic Coalition in testimony to the National Organic Standards Board last week.

Ethylene gas is permitted in organic farming as a hormone. It’s produced by steam-cracking petroleum products. 

Various soap-based synthetic compounds are permitted for weed control.

Some of the differences are purely based on principle. Acetic acid (the bite in vinegar) is commonly produced either synthetically or by fermentation. (Surprised? Vinegar can be made from apples, but can also be made from natural gas.) If you want to be organic and use it for weed control, you can only use the stuff produced through fermentation.

National Public Radio a while back printed a report, “Organic Pesticides: Not an Oxymoron,”

The Washington Post last week published a piece on the National Organic Standards Board’s review of new chemicals for potential approval in organic farming. 

Which is to say once again, there’s nothing black and white about this stuff. Life is played out in shades of gray.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

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