Social media offers insights on organic farming

Social media can sometimes provide a colossal opportunity to fritter away time that could better be used to accomplish a bit of work. It can suck you into a swirling vortex of mindless chatter, rumor-mongering and political back and forth that solves nothing, enlightens no one and produces no intellectual illumination.

It can be a black hole from which escape seems both impossible and undesired. One enters at one’s own risk. Travelers beware.

On the other hand, it can, occasionally, perhaps even often, offer unexpected insights that give us new perspectives on many and diverse subjects. I’ve picked up some writing tips, for instance. I’ve discovered new sources for trout flies—but that would come under the topic of frittering, I suppose. I’ve kept abreast of agricultural calamities and bounties across the country and have even been able to communicate with individual farmer/friends about how they are faring during drought, flood or favorable weather.

One of the latest pearls of wisdom I picked up from social media provided some new insight on what has become an unnecessary conflict between conventional and organic agriculture. My friend Daren Williams, executive director, communications at National Cattlemen's Beef Association, recently posted a link to a Scientific American blog by Christie Wilcox that debunks many of the myths surrounding organic agriculture.

Specifically, the article deals with the assumptions that organic farmers use no pesticides, that organic products are more nutritious and taste better, organic farming is more sustainable and that organic and conventional agriculture must be mutually exclusive.

Wilcox shows that none of those assumptions can be substantiated. Research studies support the article’s contention that organic is not necessarily healthier, safer, greener or tastier than conventional produce.

As I’ve said before, I have no bone to pick with organic agriculture. It’s a good idea for some producers. Markets exist for organic products and producers may get more per pound for organic than they can for conventionally-grown items.

I interviewed a peanut farmer once who said he could get about twice as much per ton for organic peanuts as he did for those he grew conventionally (using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers). But they were harder to grow, required more labor—weeds were especially hard to deal with—and yields were lower. But he had a market that offered him a better profit margin than he could get with just conventional production. It was a good option for him.

But organic is not the answer to meeting the needs of a rapidly growing population. If organic were economically feasible for large-scale agriculture, farmers would have adopted it. If organic agriculture could produce quantities of food and fiber equal to what farmers can make using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, more folks would be interested.

And organic is not greener. Producing enough food and fiber to meet demand would require significantly more land to produce what farmers grow now. So, we’d have to cut more trees, drain more wetlands, break out more grasslands to accomplish what we do more efficiently by using judicious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Note: judicious use.

Another point Wilcox made is that organic agriculture’s refusal to consider transgenic varieties smacks of hypocrisy since bacillus thuringiensis is one of the natural pesticides approved for organic use. GMO simply puts Bt into the plant, genetically, instead of spraying it on top.

The thing that impressed me most, however, was that the article was not from one of us, the ag media, but from a scientific magazine. We make these points all the time and often feel like we’re tossing out lifelines to folks already in the boat.

It’s refreshing to see someone else make these points. And it’s also good to know that social media can do more than show me where to find the best buy on # 14 olive wooly buggers.


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