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The True Benefits of Organic Farming

Mar. 7, 2014

By Ralph Loglisci, Interim Director of Communications

Recently, organic agriculture has been under attack, of sorts, by folks who claim its benefits are a bit overblown. In my humble opinion, writers such as Slate’s Melinda Wenner Moyer, make a mistake by taking a very siloed look at organics and judging it based on findings in one narrow area. They miss the entire point of the organic system, which takes an ecological or holistic approach to agriculture. You can’t focus on one part without taking into account another. Moyer’s claim that feeding kids organic fruits and vegetables does little to limit their pesticide exposure, may or may not be accurate, but one thing is certain, the overall impact of her story did little to enlighten her readers on the true benefits of organic agriculture.

I’m not going to take the time to debunk, point-by-point Moyer’s "Organic Shmorganic" piece, there’s already plenty of solid responses that do a great job, such as Kristin Wartman’s Huffington Post piece. Instead, I’d rather focus on the many benefits of organic agriculture and what organic farmers can teach their conventional brothers and sisters.

Early last month, I was invited to an Organic Valley event in Washington D.C., which celebrated a recently published peer-reviewed study that found organic milk is healthier than conventional milk. The Washington State University study, which was partially funded by Organic Valley, found that milk from Organic Valley cows, which are all raised on pasture, contain significantly higher amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

The lead researcher, Dr. Charles Benbrook, says this finding is a big deal, simply because dairy is such a big part of the average American diet. He said most of us get at least 3 servings of dairy a day. Benbrook said he was very pleased to report that, “consumers who have been seeking out organic dairy have been getting this nutritional advantage.”

Despite the health benefits of organic milk, George Siemon, a founding farmer and CEIEIO of Organic Valley, points out that, “It’s not just about organics, it’s about farming practices that make a difference.” Siemon said conventional producers can learn and take advantage of these findings. He says, “It’s really about the benefits of dried forage and the pasture diet on animals. It makes a big difference in the animals wellbeing and products. So, a lot of these practices are adaptable by all forms of agriculture.”

Organic Valley says it is the nations’ largest cooperative of organic farmers. I met one of those farmers at the event. George Teague, is a 5th generation North Carolina farmer who owns and operates Reedy Fork Organic Farm. Teague said he joined the cooperative in 2005 when he decided to convert his conventional dairy to organic. I asked what’s the biggest difference he’s notice since he converted. He said the cows are much healthier. He said they’ve been so healthy, “The vet[erinarian] hasn’t been over to the farm in over a year now.” To be honest, I expected to hear that answer, but I didn’t expect to hear that he is feeling much healthier since the farm converted. Now that his cows only eat grass Teague no longer needs to grow corn feed. He said, "When we planted a lot of corn, we would spray pesticides on our corn. And I said at the end of every season of planting corn I always wondered how many years I took off my life this time, because that night I’d be up all night coughing. You know your body is telling you something when you are coughing all night long."

I was lucky enough to catch up with Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary of the USDA, and recently named executive director of the George Washington University’s Sustainability Institute. Merrigan had served as a consultant to Organic Valley, and was at the event to talk about organic research. I asked Merrigan what she thought about the recent attacks on organic and claims that the benefits of organic are negligible. She had a lot to say:

"So, one of the things that we know about organic is that we have under invested in research at the federal level in organic agriculture. That’s changing and this new farm bill has increased investment in organic in a new of areas and we are very excited about that. But it is hard to say definitively that ‘oh organic is not different’ when you haven’t even done the research. So, we are going to see more and more studies like this that document the environmental and human health benefits of these production systems.”

I have a deep respect and admiration for Dr. Merrigan. She has a PhD from MIT in urban and environmental planning and a master’s in public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin. She was also a professor at Tuft’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program before she accepted the deputy secretary position at the USDA. Her knowledge about sustainable agriculture and research is second to none. I asked if she thought organic or sustainable agriculture would ever become conventional in her lifetime. She said:

“Everyone is going to have to become more sustainable. There is no choice. Whether it is climate change, water scarcity, soil health… there are so many pressures."

"Is everyone going to go organic? I think we are going to see an increasing number of people going organic, but I always have said that organic farmers are research pioneers. You think of some so-called traditional practices now, like rotational grazing - that was birthed out of the organic farming movement. So, there are a lot things that organic farmers are doing that are being keenly watched by their conventional neighbors. Some of them are adopted, maybe they don’t go whole hog, but there’s a lot of intelligence being gathered by organic farmers across the country."

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