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Jay MackDougal

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Organic Farming vs. Conventional Farming: Why do you favour one over the other?

I have a background in commercial agriculture - namely tree fruits, and more recentley vegetables and berries - and now work in pesticide research and integrated pest management programs. I'd like to know what people think of the organic vs conventional farming debate - this means what you believe the word "organic farming" entails, what you think the problems with either system are, what your opinions on pesticides are (organic and synthetic), and if you have ever heard of Integrated Pest Management (IPM for short). If you feel comfortable, I'd like to know if you have an agricultural background or not when you are sharing your opinions - this way we might be able to see where any divides might occur. I'd like to limit this to a debate/conversation that does not include GMOs (although I'm sure it'll come up, as it always seems to find a way into these sorts of conversations), as that is an entirely different topic. Let's hear some passion! But try not to attack others opinions, let's use this as a learning platform as it is meant to be!

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  • Feb 23 2012: I do not believe an agricultural system based on petrochemical inputs can last longer than an organic system.

    If you look at just calories, which can be myopic, we have almost as many overweight people as malnourished people in the world. This makes me think that we have an unbalanced world diet. We definitely have the means to regenerate soil and start growing food in very inhospitable places (reference: greening the desert http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sohI6vnWZmk), therefore we do not need an industrial machine to generate food at one spot and distribute it all over. We can have decentralized food production systems all over the world.

    Pesticides are needed because of pests, right? Pests arrive when there is something wrong with the system. There is a function for pests in the system. Nature is trying to tell us something. There are too many plants together. Nature's way of saying "no no no" is by sending pests to balance the ecosystem. Therefore, we need to diversify our crops to prevent pests from arriving. IPM is great though, but think about integrating IPM from the initial farm design.. what plants will attract the pest-killers that you are buying from the IPM store?

    Animal manure can become a contaminant if you do not know how to apply it. There are safe ways to transform it into excellent, safe, and healthy compost. Same thing with humanure (human feces).

    This topic is too large to cover everything, Jesse, but it's something that needs people's attentions. Thanks for starting it.

    For a study comparing organic and conventional, please see the 30-year-long comparison study by Rodale Institute (http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/fst30years).

    My background: Environmental Engineer, Peace Corps Sustainable Agriculture Trainer, Permaculture Designer, worked at an organic farm, worked with farming parents and children, started and maintained 2 urban gardens with chickens and no pesticides grew delicious carrots, tomatoes, peas, kale, strawberries, and more.
    • Feb 23 2012: I read through that study you supplied a link to - and I read it trying to keep an open mind. I personally would take what that study says with a grain of salt - it gave no scientific data at all, and relied on the reader to connect dots in their head that should not be connected. For examplem, the bolded part that states that synthetic fertilizers (Nitrogen in this case) leach into the soil quicker than manure based compounds is true. However, what they fail to mention is that manure releases these nutrients very slowly and over a long period of time, while synthetic is avaliable right there. So what's the problem?

      An example of why this is a problem comes from the Fraser Valley (BC, Canada) and the Abbotsford Aquifer (which is shared by northern Washington State). The organic cranberry growers here who reply on manure from the local dairy and poultry operations (recycling local waste, sounds great right?) have been asked to change to synthetic fertilizers because they are poisoning the aquifer - in fact it is at the upper limit of UN standards for safe water consumption now (forgive me, I could be wrong on this but I believe it's 10 ppm Nitrogen). This is because there are growing seasons when the crops will readily take up nutrients (such as N), and the amount of each nutrient varies as the crop stages change. But the manure keeps on releases Nitrogen and other chemical compounds into the soil, which then leaches into the aquifer, because the crops are not taking anything in.

      As far as till and no-till practices go, I have been led to believe that organic systems must usually till (especially to til in the manure), and this is very detremental to the soil - the microbial ecosystems do not have a chance to establish an equilibrium, which is very important to overall soil health. This study, however leads me to believe that they rely on no-till operations. So, I'm not sure what to think of that.
    • Feb 23 2012: Conventional doesn't mean petrochemicals - that's a specific family of chemicals. Some conventional chemicals are derived directly from natural sources.

      I totally agree with you on the part about setting up farming operations in areas where it's currently not supported, and believe that is an extemely important idea. But we have to remember that just because an area can grow one crop, does not mean it will support all - the prairies where wheat and canola are grown would not do well for tree fruits, for example. So, at least for the time being, there will be a need to ship different crops to different places if people are going to continue wanting a highly varied diet. Growing a crop does not just depend on the soil, but on a huge range of variables such as weather, altitude, water sources (some crops do not require as much, while others are water reliant), pests, etc.

      Your comments about IPM are bang on - as far as I'm concerned. We definitely need to diversity our cropping systems and try to shy away from the monoculture farming - at the very least have blocks of different crops alternating side-by-side. This goes for both organic and conventional, however. IPM has been around since the early 70's, when the danger of pesticide overuse was first exposed, but it's taken this long to really bring it to the forfront. It's picking up steam as the responsible way of growing, so hopefully as new farms are established it will be the norm to use these techniques from the very start and plan accordingly. I know I am trying to!

      Some farms already have 'beetle banks' interspersed throughout their fields. These are areas set aside where the predatory beetles can overwinter and have a population base, which then radiates into the surrounding field as a natural pest-control.

      Thank you for your input! I am glad you have an informed view to back your opinion! Kind of a side note, but what is the Peace Corps Sustainable Agriculture Trainer job all about? Sounds interesting!
    • Feb 23 2012: I have to wonder that if that report is true - same or better yields, healthier soil, less expensive to grow - why wouldn't everyone grow organic? And also, if they are less expensive to grow... why does organic generally cost more in the store?

      Just a couple of thoughts I wanted to add.
      • Feb 24 2012: Hi Jesse,

        I'll try to answer from the bottom to the top..

        Everyone doesn't grow organic for many reasons. One of them is that it takes a while to build a healthy soil to meet the conventional cost-produce ratios, but once that occurs then you can become way more productive. Many small farmers and growers can't afford to give up producing less one or two years because they do not have enough money saved up to allow his/her family to go through the transition. Another one is that your market will change. You will be producing fewer things of many different crops, therefore you will also need to diversify your market. Many people do not know how to go about that, may be happy with their 1 purchaser and do not want to bother changing. Some times organic seeds are hard to find, and you are left with treated seeds that actually need pesticides and water. You also have partnerships between the government and agribusiness companies that advocate for conventional farming, and then you have farmers getting trained on conventional techniques, putting organic aside as an utopian model.

        Bettle banks sounds like an awesome idea! I have heard about owl boxes, iguana and lizard nests, and bees getting integrated into farms as well!

        In regards to the no till / low till / till ... my take on that is that if you are dealing with poor soil, you will need to till during the first time just to break up the soil, allow air pockets to be created, add composted manure, healthy soil, carboneous/dry materials, and water. After this, a microecosystem will form, reminiscent of a forest, where you will find many different types of microbes and bugs that will help to create a balanced soil. This soil should now be protected, because if you break it up, it will have to recreate itself once again. The different plant roots and bugs will play a role in shaping the soil beneath and around it so that it becomes healthier and healthier as time goes by.
      • Feb 24 2012: You should not apply straight manure. You need to allow it to be composted. You need to "dilute" it with other carbonaceous materials so that it does not impact that plants negatively and so it does not leach nitrates into the aquifers. There are several techniques that you can google, people and institutes post recipes, and you should make your decision based on what is around your local ecosystem.

        About setting up decentralized food production places.. we need to remember that at one time we did not have a global food production/distribution network as we do know. People got by, just fine, with what grew around them: meat and plants. They had, and some still do, very bioregional diets. We have all the technology in the world to grow food in greenhouses, to regulate temperatures very well. I am not pretending to say that we can grow everything, everywhere. What I want to say is that I believe we have the capacity to diversify our crops in various areas, with and without greenhouses.

        And in order to further the conversation of conventional vs organic, you need to find definitions for both. I do not think that USDA organic is necessarily better for the environment. It might be sometimes, but not others. There are "USDA organic" farms that are depleting aquifers because their crops need so much water. I would not consider this very holistic, yet they seem to be working within the limits to obtain the organic certification..

        At Peace Corps I work setting up trainings for Volunteers that will teach rural and indigenous community members low-tech and low-maintenance strategies to grow food locally in an economical and ecological manner. I get to visit different farms, volunteer communities, travel around Panama, and work on demonstration gardens. It's pretty fun and keeps things interesting!
        • Feb 27 2012: Organic is always better for the environment, always.
        • Feb 27 2012: Jorge I'll reply to you soon -

          Daniel, true organic would be better. But the certified organic food grown by commerical organic growers will not be - they spray just like conventional growers do... just different chemicals. PS, arsenic is an organic insectice.

          Please see this study:

          http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0011250
        • Feb 27 2012: Sorry, I meant insecticide, and just to clarify - arsenic isn't the insecticide being used in the study, it's just to provide an example of organic pesticide use

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