Dear EarthTalk: I understand that, despite the popularity of organic foods, clothing and other products, organic agriculture is still only practiced on a tiny percentage of land worldwide. What’s getting in the way?
– Larry McFarlane, Boston, MA
Organic production may still represent only a small fraction of agricultural sales in the U.S. and worldwide, but it as been growing rapidly over the last two decades. According to the latest global census of farming practices, the area of land certified as organic makes up less than one percent of global agricultural land—but it has grown more than threefold since 1999, with upwards of 37 million hectares of land worldwide now under organic cultivation. The Organic Trade Association forecasts steady growth of nine percent or more annually for organic agriculture in the foreseeable future.
But despite this growth, no one expects organic agriculture to top conventional techniques any time soon. The biggest hurdle for organics is the added cost of sustainable practices. “The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food,” reports the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). “The intensive management and labor used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms.” However, there is evidence that if the indirect costs of conventional food production—such as the impact on public health of chemicals released into our air and water—were factored in, non-organic foods would cost the same or as much as organic foods.
Other problems for organic foods include changing perceptions about just how much healthier they are than non-organics. “Many devotees of organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides,” writes Henry I. Miller in Forbes. “But that’s a poor rationale: Non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, to be sure, but more than 99 percent of the time the levels were below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators—limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.”
He adds that just because a farm is organic doesn’t mean the food it produces will be free of potentially toxic elements. While organic standards may preclude the use of synthetic inputs, organic farms often utilize so-called “natural” pesticides and what Miller calls “pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer” that can also end up making consumers sick and have been linked to cancers and other serious illnesses (like their synthetic counterparts). Miller believes that as more consumers become aware of these problems, the percentage of the agriculture market taken up by organics will begin to shrink.
Another challenge facing the organic sector is a shortage of organic raw materials such as grain, sugar and livestock feed. Without a steady supply of these basics, organic farmers can’t harvest enough products to make their businesses viable. Meanwhile, competition from food marketed as “locally grown” or “natural” is also cutting into organic’s slice of the overall agriculture pie.
Organic agriculture is sure to keep growing for years to come. And even if the health benefits of eating organic aren’t significant, the environmental advantages of organic agriculture—which are, of course, also public health advantages—make the practice well worth supporting.