Organic Agriculture is Big Business, Too

Forbes recently published an article asking the (rehtorical, I assume) question, “Is Organic Agriculture Affluent Narcissim?”

My answer? Of course it is. I thought we all knew that.

I find myself in an interesting position these days. I consider myself rather neutral — I’m happy we’re all free to choose what we put in our mouths. I’m happy that, as farmers, you can choose the business case that makes the most sense for your farm and philosophy. But the longer I watch the organic vs. conventional debate get batted around on Facebook, Twitter and my living room, the more I’m pushed to start picking some fights — not because I’m confrontational, but because much of what gets bandied about is misinformed or just plain wrong.

Case in point: organic food is not more nutritious, nor does it necessarily carry less pesticide residue. The good news? Conventional food also doesn’t harbour excessive pesticide residue — and both types of produce should be washed before eating anyway. Unscented dishsoap removes anything you should worry about and it’s much cheaper than buying organic food.

Counterpoint: if environmental exposure is your concern, it’s true that organic agriculture uses fewer pesticides…but that’s not entirely accurate. Case in point: organic production still allows for pesticides, just of different formulation. The bigger issue? If you choose organic, ask if it’s been tested for pesticide residue  — the answer is at best maybe, but know that organic food is not held to a different yardstick. In Canada, maximum residue limits for all chemicals are the same for both conventional and organic foods. So, not to say that organic farmers are cheating (not at all), I’m only pointing out that there is no reason to believe pesticide residues are significantly different between systems. Moving on.

Case in point: (and this one gets me rather fired up) What different choices would you make if your family lived on half the money you have now? More so than food, living within our means means prioritizing. Those of us rich enough to think that “prioritizing” means choosing to keep a car longer than 5 years are very rich indeed. I’ve had more than a few conversations with stay-at-home moms who feel downright awful and guilty that they cannot afford to feed their children organic food. This, my friends, makes my blood boil. Health should absolutely be a priority, regardless of income level, but to look down our very rich noses and say that organic is BETTER, full stop, neglects to see one very important point — organic food is damn expensive and available only (in all pragmatic terms) to the rich. Organic food is a luxury good, end of story.

And, my last point, which builds on this last statement is that organic agriculture, food and products is big business, my friends. While the “health food store” may look quaint and “mom and pop” it is most certainly not. Loblaw’s recent announcement that they are opening a Whole Foods-like chain proves that point. Organic stores are rife with packages (hint: packaged foods are worse for you than fresh foods, so there’s a little clue on making some better choices, people), and behind each of those display shelves of “all-natural, free-range potatoes” (seriously, that phrase has been used) is big business.

I personally know several former organic producers. Yes, former. Why? All of them stated the financial case just didn’t exist — just like conventional agriculture, the farmers’ share of the work is inversely proportionate to their share of the margin. In short, large-scale organic agriculture still returns low margins to farmers. It’s retail that’s making all the money. Think about that.

Those who refute studies that prove organic food and conventional food is closer to equal than different based on the financial backing of “big ag” are forgetting one important point about their own pro-organic studies — they are backed by “big organic”. Anyone who forgets that point has on very glitzy, very expensive rose-coloured glasses indeed.

 

Lyndsey Smith

Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for RealAgriculture. A self-proclaimed agnerd, Lyndsey is passionate about all things farming but is especially thrilled by agronomy and livestock production.

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7 Comments

stevesavage

Well said Lyndsey. Another point about that packaged organic food at Whole Foods etc, many of the ingredients come from places like China and India. Even hard core organic supporters have their doubts about whether it is really grown under organic rules, but more importantly it may have been grown in heavy metal contaminated soil or watered with polluted water or it may have absorbed polluted air. Cheap “organic” grain, fruit-juice concentrates, frozen vegetables… further undermine the economics of North American organic farmers. This is not just a luxury food category, it is potentially dangerous as in the case of the Hepatitis A contaminated frozen pomogranate arls from Turkey sold at Costco.

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Lyndsey Smith

Fully, completely agree. It’s another column in and of itself, I think…choosing “organic” from China vs. conventional from Ontario — which is better for the environment & your health? For me, it’s an easy decisions. But not one everyone thinks about critically. Thanks for the comment!

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Ian

Lyndsey. I was a commercial grower for many years S was my father , supplying some 40 major chain stores with produce in eastern and central Ontario . I cannot possibly see how organic growers could grow with the same yields and same production costs ! But case in point I do believe that the levels on most organic or commercial grown are almost identical and your point of washing brings them equal . The chemical companies have stepped in the last several years and by using short lived chemicals and target chemicals our risk is less and less each year ! They. The organic growers have the public in most cases fooled ! Case in point ! Regards keep up the good work ! Ian.

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Rob Wallbridge

Hi Lyndsey, I’ll try not to pick too many fights, here, but some of your claims deserve a little fact-checking.

With respect to the much-touted, much-maligned Stanford study, it did actually find lower pesticide residues on organic produce, but they grossly underestimated the reduction in risk through poor statistical analysis. Furthermore, they also noted (but chose to downplay) significantly higher levels of omega-3s in organic dairy. Afterwards, they also noted that they had neglected to include a valid study demonstrating the health benefits of organic vs. non-organic strawberries.

Government data also consistently demonstrates lower levels of pesticide residues on organic produce. There’s also the study showing that children who consume an organic diet show an immediate and significant drop in pesticide metabolites in their urine. (And that’s independent medical research, not funded by “big organic”)

Now we can certainly debate whether or not these residue level differences pose a significant health risk to the average person (although there are suggestions in the scientific literature), but to state that there are “no differences” is simply not supported by the available evidence.

Attempting to center the debate around the health or environmental impacts of pesticides and their residues also ignores the myriad of other reasons people chose to purchase organic food, but that’s a whole other blog post…

As for your suggestion that organic food is a “luxury item”, I’d reply that it’s all a matter of priorities.The market research suggests the same: while a certain percentage of organic consumers are indeed well-off, there’s a significant chunk of the population (many of them new immigrants) who make an educated choice to forgo other “luxuries” or to make a little extra effort (like connecting directly with a farmer) in order to buy organic food. Our own family does it, and many of our friends do, too. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that people make that choice out of fear, and I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about not buying organic, but your suggestion that affording organic food is “impossible” for anyone but the wealthy simply isn’t true.

Organic farming definitely has its share of challenges, just like every agricultural production system. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts!

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Howard

Lyndsey,

I agree with some of your comments, especially regarding the China sourced product and the packaged product comment.

However, I would disagree with the comments about expensive and unaffordable. Generally, what makes most food expensive is convenience and packaging. As a category, locally grown organic fruit and vegetables are some of the best food values out there. Regarding pesticide residues, I think you are inaccurate on your comments on the Stanford study. Pesticides residues are lower. In our operation, we use none (0), so logically we are not concerned with MRL (max residue limits), and PHI (pre-harvest intervals).

If you would like to personally know an existing organic producer, who will state that the financial case does exist, I would be happy to show you around. Organics isn’t any easier or more difficult than conventional ag, just different. We employ more labor, use more green manure crops, more compost, but use no synthetic inputs. In short, we have voluntarily tied our hands and are not able to use certain tools, such as some new varieties of crops and synthetic chemical controls. This forces us to do things unconventionally, look for solutions that cannot be purchased, which long term is a good thing.

Howard

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Andrew

“Those who refute studies thatprove organic food and conventional food is closer to equal than different based on the financial backing of “big ag” are forgetting one important point
about their own pro-organic studies — they are backed by “big organic”. Anyone
who forgets that point has on very glitzy, very expensive rose-coloured glasses
indeed”….. Interesting statement considering GMO studies are funded by
bio-tech conglomerates like Monsanto among others. seems like a mute point.
this debate wouldn’t exist if unbiased studies were done but the fact is each
respective sides are doing studies to prove their side of the debate, hence why
we even have this debate. you can present data to prove just about any point
you like, as Rob pointed out with the Stanford study and how they presented
their information. A study based on previous studies, i find it hard to see
where the revelation was supposed to come from in this study.

to the point where organic farmers don’t make any more and the retailers make
all the money, this is only true in processing as is for all processing in Ontario.
the organic cash crop farmers i know, make far more per acre and achieve equal yields
to the county averages year after year. no they don’t win the yield challenge growing
300 bushel corn, but this isn’t the average and often this is what their yields
get compared to. growing 160 bushel corn in oxford county, within 6% of the
county average at a 2:1 premium and they’re not making more money? if that’s
the case, they likely shouldn’t even be farming then. Further, there approved
organic fertilizers are used by such a small percentage of organic farmers. Yes,
they are on the approved materials list (OMRI approved) which can be questioned
but that is a whole other debate. The vast majority of organic farmers use
green manures, cover crops, compost, manure and a diverse crop rotation for
fertility.

Hard to discredit one opinion based on biased research that’s being refuted by other biased research in my
opinion.

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Charlene

Thanks for writing this Lyndsey! Great viewpoint. I am also getting more and more vocal on this debate. Conventional ag has nothing to be ashamed of and to stay silent infers the other side is right. Not saying there aren’t improvements to be made. Being challenged keeps us researching and asking questions to make sure we’re doing the right stuff, not just what has always been done. I am proud to be involved in agriculture. Those who choose the organic route have a tough row to hoe sometimes as far as pests and diseases. Conventional isn’t always a picnic either. It is really great that we have choice in Canada, and I think that is the most important thing. We have one of the most fantastic and safest (and cheapest) food systems in the world and we are very lucky to have that.

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