Organic farming becoming competitive

Of all the issues and worries preoccupying this nation one year after Sept. 11, food safety is not one of them. Given the great changes in the production and preparation of food that have occurred over the last several decades and the promise of even greater changes in the near future, this lack of attention could prove problematic. However, there are indications that Americans are beginning to apply greater attention to food safety issues: continued growth in the organic food market and other recent developments indicate that American consumers will increasingly have more access to clean and environmentally-friendly organic food. All Americans should welcome this trend.

Technological advances over the past 50 years have revolutionized food production and preparation. Improvements in chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and advances in precision farming fueled this “green revolution.” By widely disseminating these materials and knowledge throughout the world, global crop yields in the last 50 years have exploded. Recent advances in genetically modified organisms and meat irradiation have many dreaming of an indefinite extension of the green revolution.

Unfortunately, the negative externalities associated with these technological advances are threatening our health and environment. In the United States, 40 percent of all bodies of water do not meet water quality standards; years of unmitigated fertilizer and pesticide use in the United States greatly contributed to this degradation. Pesticide residue in the environment and on produce has been linked with cancer and other health problems. In addition, federal regulators have not provided adequate answers to questions regarding the effects of meat irradiation and genetically modified organisms on human health and the environment.

Given these food safety and environmental concerns, recent developments in organic food issues have been a welcome relief. Recent market statistics indicate the organic food market continues to grow. Further, last month the federal government implemented regulations for organic food labeling. Under the new code, farmers cannot use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified organisms when growing organic food. Farmers and meat processors must also adhere to certain conditions if they wish to sell meat as organic, including not irradiating the butchered meat. Federal guidelines for the production of safer and healthier organic foods will reduce the risk and uncertainty in the organic food market and undoubtedly encourage more farmers to adopt the organic method.

In addition, the long-held belief that organic farming is not as profitable as conventional farming – an assumption that many use to discredit organic farming – might prove to be false. Encouragingly, this may even be true if a sudden increase in organic food supply caused the organic food premium – the extra value attached to organic food because of its relative scarcity and perceived safety and environmental-friendliness as compared to conventional food – to fall. As reported in a paper co-authored by University professors Kent Olson and Paul Porter, and others, organic farming experiments in southern Minnesota have shown that even without an organic food premium, average net returns to organic farms on a four-year crop rotation were statistically equal to the return of traditionally-operated four-year crop rotation farms. This finding is significant; not only can we provide healthier foods for more Americans and an improved environment, we can also sustain livelihoods in rural America. Results like these make it imperative that American governments of all levels create education and risk-reduction programs that will encourage organic farming.

But in the end, the organic farming movement will only succeed if American farmers feel good about making the switch from traditional farming methods to organic methods. Farmers will not adopt organic farming methods en masse until they become more familiar with organic farming and feel the risks associated with it have been reduced to manageable levels. Farmers are turned away by heavy-handed demands by more strident environmentalists for drastic and sudden regulations on agricultural chemicals and genetically modified organisms. All farmers want to protect the land and provide their customers with safe food; calm and smart promotion of organic farming will help farmers best meet this goal. In order to bring more American farmers into organic farming, more developments like the recent organic food labeling regulation and studies that show organic food production can be just as profitable as traditional farming will be needed.