About a month ago, Brian de Palma published an op-ed article somewhere stating that research had shown that certified organically raised produce had no more food value than produce raised conventionally. I didn’t see the original article but it caused a furor in the organic community. Even as a non certified organic grower, I guess I would wonder how anybody arrives at a blanket statement like that and the criterion that he used to reach that conclusion. And of course, the big question in my mind (without having seen the article), what is and how broad is his definition of food value?
Being more concerned with the mundane business of cramming farming into increasingly shortening daylight hours and colder temperatures as well as the seasonal hurdle of Christmas shopping, I never looked the article up. And I fell asleep long before my curiosity arose to do so. But I caught a second article by de Palma in our local daily paper The Valley News, and I garnered some interesting facts from it that made me stop and think.
Leaving food value aside, he compared the energy consumption of organic farming practices vs conventional farming. I would have guessed conventional ag would have used less energy than organic ag. This supposition is born from the fact that there is a fair amount of mechanical cultivation in organic ag coupled with fallowing systems, flame weeding and, up to this point, very expensive fertilizers and soil amendments. Cultivation and organic amendments are areas in which we at Edgewater have some expertise, although in some crops we use herbicides to get some measure of control over the bad guys (weeds) and conventional fertilizers as well. But de Palma points out that the high use of BTUs in the production of conventional fertilizers and chemicals offsets the high cost of organic production. Upon thinking about it, I think he may be onto something. From a conventional production standpoint, we can see fossil fuel products have climbed astronomically the last five years for both organic and conventional farmers, we all use diesel fuel and grease. Conventional fertilizer has risen astronomically. I know that my cost of potash has gone up 300% in the past five years,. Part of this is demand (with China being a huge customer for US produced fertilizers), but it remains that the means of producing potash as well as conventional urea form nitrogen requires the use of fossil fuel. So my world gets jostled a little because not too many years ago it was, from a purely economic standpoint, cheaper to produce food through conventional means. I think that I may have been complacent in my illusion to that fact, but there certainly is a strong statement by de Palma in today’s economy to be otherwise.
At the end of our day this may just be another interesting factoid. Edgewater Farm really isn’t going to be moved by this other than better understanding the realities of farming in the 21st century. It wont be a paradigm shift for us because we have always straddled the line of organic farming and conventional farming. The objective is still to understand the systems that produce safe, healthy food in a sustainable way, and choose the correct path. And while traveling down that path we will continue to look forward and aft and keeping an ear to the ground to what others, like de Palma , have to say.