To start this topic, we must first ask ourselves what organic (or ecological) agriculture is? The truth is that the term is variable according to the regulatory and certifying agencies of each country, international food institutions, as well as various authors. Similarly, the permitted practices change in each of these systems, for example, in the form of fertilization, pest and weed control, hand cultivation, crop rotation, among others.
Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system that promotes and improves the health of the agroecosystem and, in particular, the biodiversity, the biological cycles, and the biological activity of the soil. It emphasizes the use of management practices preferring them over the use of inputs outside the farm, taking into account that regional conditions will require locally adapted systems.
This is achieved using, whenever possible, cultural, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to the use of synthetic materials, to fulfill each specific function within the system.
Currently, there is a social tendency to prefer foods obtained by organic farming methods, a preference associated with a kind of “fashion” for that romantic vision of going back to the old, to the “natural”, for instance, “tasty organic fruits from France.”
Despite the fact that these foods are much more expensive than conventional foods (due to the mode of production and the low supply), people buy them because they generally assume that “they are healthier, safer, more nutritious, are free of pesticides and are produced in a sustainable way.” However, when we analyze the scientific and agricultural research that has been carried out, it is observed that the reality is quite different.
Myth 1: “Organic crops do not use pesticides.”
Have you ever heard of “organic pesticides”? This is not an oxymoron, and contrary to what many people believe, in organic agriculture products such as pesticides and fungicides are used, only they are not of synthetic origin, but organic (or “natural” as some say). However, the toxicity of a chemical compound is not given by its origin, but by its chemical structure.
Several of these products used in organic agriculture usually require many applications due to their low effectiveness, as they can accumulate in the soil and eventually be poisonous to plants, nematodes, and other organisms.
Myth 2: “Organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods.”
The third meta-analysis was published in 2014 by researchers from various institutions in the British Journal of Nutrition, a work where 343 publications were reviewed, and it was concluded that organic crops “… on average have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of cadmium and a lower incidence of pesticide residues ”. As the conclusion was quite different from the one obtained in the two previous meta-analyses, in which no significant differences in nutritional value were found, various scientists independently reviewed the work and found some problems.
Myth 3: “Organic food is safer than conventional food.”
Organic foods are not necessarily safer than conventional foods. Evidence was previously shown that organic pesticides could have a negative impact on health and the environment.
In this sense, the various causes of death and poisoning caused by organic cultivation due to various outbreaks of dangerous microorganisms in various countries continue to be of concern. There have been serious cases in the US and Europe, where the serious epidemic caused by a strain of Escherichia coli O104: H4 in organic outbreaks in Germany in 2011 stands out. It ended with 3,950 intoxicated, 845 people with the hemolytic uremic syndrome, and 54 deaths. It is a risk that is run when manure and compost are used as fertilizer.
Myth 4: “Organic crops have the same or higher productivity than conventional ones.”
Organic agriculture, in general, has a much lower yield than conventional agriculture, for various reasons such as the widespread use of polyculture, biological control of pests and ineffective organic pesticides, high manual labor in the field, among others.
Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) have carried out extensive research on organic agriculture in Sweden, and the results show that it “would produce only half of the food obtained on the cultivated land area that has today,” and that financial support for organic farming (SEK 500 million) would be better used in conventional systems already adapted to the environment.
They also conclude that if 100 percent of Swedish agriculture were organic, the necessary arable land would have to be increased by another 1.7 million hectares, apart from the current one million hectares of agricultural land. Aside from lower yields, there would be greater pressure on the environment, more release of greenhouse gases, and food security would be jeopardized.