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14 April, 2015

The Natural Debate

Posted in : farming, food, GMO, groceries, investigative, journalism, Monsanto, organic, pesticide, Report, RITJourno, study, Uncategorized on by : Jeanette Schramm

Today’s post is an investigative piece I wrote for another class. It is about the GMO and organic food debate that rages on just about every social media and news outlet known to man.

I present to you the facts; pros and cons to both sides of the argument. Feel free to comment and discuss below the article, and ask any questions you may have, and I will do my best to provide you with answers.

Without any further ado, I present to you: “The Natural Debate.”



Walk into any grocery store and you are likely to see signs for organic products and non-organic products. Aside from a discrepancy in price, what makes “organic” food different from “non-organic” food, and is one any better or worse for you than the other?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the government definition of “organic agriculture” is as follows: “Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use.”


While organic crops may not use synthetic pesticides, they do use organic pesticides, some of which may be more harmful than synthetic pesticides. Additionally, synthetic versions of many organic products, including natural remedies, are as good as if not better than the original, organic version.

According to a study done by students at Berkeley, organic pesticides are often less effective than their synthetic counterparts. “A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a ‘soft’ synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone-pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan.”

A 2012 study done by the National Institute of Health found that, while there was little evidence strongly supporting the claim that organic foods were significantly more nutritious than conventional foods, the study did state that the “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic -resistant bacteria.”

Another downside of organic farming is its impact on the environment. Organic crops are more likely to experience crop failure than conventional crops because they are not treated as effectively with fungicides or pesticides or because the strain of crop is susceptible to certain pests or diseases.

To guarantee a similar yield of organic crops as conventional crops, organic farmers must plant more crops. According to a report in Science Daily, organic crop yields are 25% lower than conventional yields. To accommodate for these lower yields, more land must be cleared and prepared for farming. Around 80% of deforestation worldwide is driven by agriculture; a process which threatens natural biodiversity in ecosystems such as rainforests.

A method of control that is a happy medium would be biocontrol. Biocontrol involves the introduction of a predator to the pests in a farm area, instead of pesticides. While introducing a new species can pose some risks, if done properly, adhering to the right precautions, biocontrol has been proven to be effective. It is an organic, non-GMO option that can potentially have a lesser effect on the environment than pesticides.

If organic farming has such a negative impact on the environment, why do farmers choose it over conventional farming?

Nathan Arrowsmith, an Industrial Engineering student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, comes from a family of organic farmers. While he has no preference between organic and non-organic products, his family grows organic corn because it is more profitable than growing conventional crops.

“People are willing to pay more for [it]. In truth, many ‘organic’ crops require higher quantities of pesticides and herbicides than ‘non-organic’ crops,” Arrowsmith said. “The ‘organic’ pesticides and herbicides used are less effective than their ‘non-organic’ counterparts and non-GMO cultivars are frequently more fragile.”

According to produce price data from the USDA, organic food, be it dairy products, produce, or meat, costs an average of twice as much as its conventional counterparts. The data ranges from 1999 to 2015, and the price difference is consistent.


What about Genetically Modified Organisms?

Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been altering foods to make them more desirable in taste, appearance, texture, nutritional value, or biological defenses from pestilence. Before bioengineering was the field we know it to be today, these genetic modifications were accomplished through selective breeding, where individuals with desirable traits are bred, so that those traits are present in future generations.

Today, while selective breeding is still used, many instances regarding produce involve bioengineering and biotechnology.

The process of creating recombinant genes and introducing them to new hosts is fairly simple and does not harm the organism. By introducing genetic “keys” from different organisms to other hosts, the breed can be improved.

How does this apply to produce, you ask? Joseph Porsella, an Environmental Science student at the Rochester Institute of Technology explains one perspective.

“When it comes to plants, there is also the benefit of lowering the amount of space needed to produce our crops,” he said.

If we can produce the “perfect organisms,” why don’t we? This may be the ultimate flaw in the pro-GMO argument, according to Porsella.

“I’m talking about conserving biodiversity. As we become more capable of creating ‘perfect’ phenotypes for each species, it would become a no-brainer to create only those phenotypes, but doing so will greatly diminish the gene pool for that species.” Porsella explains that low genetic diversity within a species provides a major obstacle when it comes to the survival of that species as a whole. He gives the example of genetically modified pigs, which are bred to be “perfect” in some sense.

If the pigs are bred to be “perfectly resistant” to a certain virus and the virus adapts, you end up losing an entire line of pigs because of the lack of genetic diversity, resulting in a lower yield. His suggested solution to avoiding these genetic mishaps is by creating “not-quite-perfect-but-improved” organisms, rather than “perfect” ones.


Is one type of food better or worse for you than the other? Not really. Whatever your dietary choices are, it is important to know the pros and cons of both sides of the argument, and to make sure your facts come from reliable sources. My personal recommendation? Eat what you think tastes good, be it a wild apple or a grapple.

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