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Can organic and conventional farming coexist?

July 17, 2018

Crops growing in a field

When consumers debate agricultural issues, three firm camps emerge: those who buy conventionally produced food, those who avoid genetically engineered foods, and those who eat only organic foods. During session 052, “Embracing Agricultural Coexistence: Organic, Conventional, and Biotechnology,” on Tuesday, July 17, speakers explained why there is room in the agricultural field for all three farming practices. 

Annette Maggi of Annette Maggi & Associates Inc. believes in agricultural coexistence, but she is quite annoyed with activists and consumers who believe that organic production is superior to other farming practices. She is particularly concerned about oft cited myths such as organic produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce and that organic farming is better for the planet. Organic is not a way to produce healthier, more nutritious foods, she said; rather, it is a description for a farming methodology prescribing natural inputs. And contrary to popular belief, Maggi pointed out, organic farmers use pesticides; the pesticides must be natural and not synthetic.  

Genetic manipulation of plants has been occurring for many, many years, Maggi said. Biotechnology (a form of genetic engineering) simply allows scientists to produce genetic changes in plants much faster and more precisely, she noted, pointing out that even classical plant breeding has also become more scientific, with machines performing crosses rather than humans. Maggi said that biotechnology has increased yield significantly and produces better crop yield than organic farming, and traits from biotechnology techniques takes seven to 10 years to get regulatory approval. While those opposing genetically engineered plants may see this time period as not long enough, Maggi questions whether it is too long because in that time, crops at risk of disease or other pestilence can be wiped out. For example, citrus greening is a disease that causes citrus fruits to prematurely drop from the tree. It is a fast-growing problem in Florida and other citrus-growing states, causing farmers to abandon citrus farming. One remedy would be the insertion of a spinach gene into the DNA of the citrus tree, but because of the regulatory process, the fix will likely not be available for another seven to 10 years. Agricultural coexistence is a global issue, a hunger issue, and a sustainability issue, Maggie said. 

Jennie Schmidt of Schmidt Farms said that her family’s farm, which used to grow only organic produce, has moved away from the silo approach to farming. The Schmidt family farm now employs synergistic farming, which Schmidt described as using the best practices from all farming systems to maximize value per acreproducing safe, high-quality foods while preserving and improving the soil. Schmidt revealed that the top pollutant in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay is sediment, which comes from intensive plowing, soil turnover, or other soil-disturbing practices—all of which are characteristic of organic farming. Plowing and hoeing do not increase soil health, but no-till and cover crops preserve the health of soils, Schmidt said. Crop rotation, no-till, cover crop, green manure, fertilizers (naturally derived for organic), and pesticides are practices that can be used in conventional, biotechnology, and organic farming.  

Apparently, the input of time and amount of fuel consumption are exorbitant for organic farming, which is why the Schmidt family farm decided to switch to synergistic farming. Schmidt said that the cost comparison of different production methods is as follows: organic > conventional > biotechnology. The Schmidt family farm is now certified as an agricultural conservation steward and is proof that coexistence of agricultural farming practices is possible.