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GMOs and Organic farming

There must be a term for it, when you fear and reject a new solution because of imagined risk and keep to an older solution that you are certain is not safe. GMOs are a good way to produce more food, while reducing inputs such as pesticides. They also will help us adapt to climate change or other quick changes.  There are no confirmed cases of anybody getting sick from eating GMO foods, yet they are widely opposed.  Organically grown foods, however, kill hundreds of people each year and yet are presumed innocent even in the face of evidence.  This is one of those cases where our fear of new science leads us down a more familiar but less healthy path.  

Let’s talk a little about organic foods.  The line between “organic” and conventional is not bright.  Most food we eat is grown primarily in organic ways.   Farming is now and has always been mostly an organic enterprise.  It makes sense to rely on natural processes when possible.  It saves effort and money.  However, most soils are deficient in key nutrients and a plague of insects or fungus can attack even healthy crops.   In that case, it is smart to apply inorganic fertilizers or chemicals to kill the bugs.  The key is to deploy the appropriate tools in the appropriate amount at the appropriate time.  Reasonable people can differ about such things.   But it is foolish to limit the tools you can safely apply.  As we learn more about soils, water and ecological relationships, we have become better at applying both organic and inorganic methods in complementary ways.

The recent outbreak of hepatitis in certified organic berries is only the latest.  A few years ago in Germany forty-five people died and almost 4000 got sick from eating organically certified bean sprouts.   Neither inorganic nor organic foods are automatically healthy or unhealthy.   But it is clearly true that if we applied the same scrutiny to organic foods as we do to GMOs, we would effectively shut down the organic food industry.  

Supporting organic farms and eating locally are lifestyle choices that we can indulge in the U.S. because we are a rich country, but we could not support the current world population using organic methods alone, even if we cut down the forests and invade the natural regions as the less efficient organic production methods would require.  

I favor of organic farming methods.  There is sufficient demand for organic products, as some consumers are willing to pay higher prices.   I like the idea of smaller farms with lots of people close to the land.  We should, however, be practical.  And we need to be vigilant with our food supply.  Just because something is certified as 100% organic does not mean that it is healthy.

In pre-industrial times, all crops were grown organically.  At those times, food-borne diseases and parasites were so common as to be ubiquitous.   We have learned a lot since the middle ages, but the even more ancient statement “nothing too much” still applies.   A smart course is a moderate one.  Eating only organic food will not make you healthier nor would it be good for the environment if everyone did that.   On the other hand we have to be circumspect in our use of chemicals and GMOs.  But we should welcome their use when they improve health or environment.


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