INSIDE ORGANIC: The Public Benefits of Organic Farming and Why They Matter: An Urgent Call to Action to Get This Important Story Told (Sept. 05)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · MOSES Broadcaster · September 2005


Organic farmers have a story to tell and need to work harder telling it.  The story is about the public benefits of organic farming and why they matter far beyond America’s organic farms.

Some have gotten the message and acted on it.  An Iowa County’s adoption of an organic conversion plan providing tax incentives for farmers transitioning from conventional to organic is an example.  It attracted national attention this summer because it’s the first time government officials at any level have acknowledged that organic farming provides rural community development benefits.  And it’s the first time a local government has acted to reward the farmers who provide these benefits.

This first-in-the-nation program, adopted by the elected board of supervisors in Woodbury County in northwest Iowa, establishes an organic advisory board that will decide which farms share in the $50,000 a year in property tax relief provided over the next five years.  It was proposed by county economic development director Rob Marqusee as a way to revitalize agriculture in the area surrounding Sioux City  by bringing back smaller, more profitable, and more labor-intensive farms.

This initiative points up the importance of pioneering organic farming research by economist Luanne Lohr of the University of Georgia, who has compared the characteristics of counties with and without organic farms.  This little-noticed research, based on data from more than 1,000 counties, clearly documents the economic and other benefits realized by counties with organic farms.

Lohr concluded that counties with organic farms have stronger farm economies and contribute more to local economies through total sales, net revenue, farm value, taxes paid, payroll, and purchases of farm inputs and repair and maintenance services.  They also have more committed farmers and give more support to rural development with higher percentages of resident full-time farmers, greater direct to consumer sales, more workers hired, and higher worker pay.

Overall, she reported, the findings of this study are surprising in the strength of support for the hypothesis that organic farming produces more benefits than conventional farming.  Nearly every indicator tested across the range of economic, social, and environmental benefits, she concluded, favors organic systems.

Surveys of organic farmers show they want educating consumers about organic farming’s benefits made a high priority.  The need to close this benefit information gap applies to policymakers and the media as well.  Most consumers, and organic farmers as well, are unaware that the official Washington line is that organic farming is no better than conventional farming and provides no public benefits.  Or that Congress accepted this biased position when it stripped all references to health, environmental, and social benefits from the Organic Foods Production Act before final passage in 1990.

Washington politicians, not surprisingly, are a lot slower getting the message than the Woodbury County supervisors.  Now, with farm bill listening sessions underway and think tanks cranking up in Washington, farmers and others in the organic community need to get with it in identifying the benefits of organic farming, making consumers and others who support an organic alternative more aware of these benefits, and conveying documented benefits information to those who write farm bills, appropriate funds for farm programs, and turn out media reports on farm policy.

It’s time for organic farmers and the organic community overall to press politicians to consider these benefits and authorize a fair level of support, at the very least, for organic farming. If organic farmers account for two percent of the production, for example, two percent of the funding authorized for research, extension, soil and water conservation, crop insurance, and other programs should be earmarked for the organic farming sector.  That would represent a fair share, still short of the higher levels needed to reward organic farmers for all the pubic benefits they provide.

Authorized support levels for organic farming in U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies are minuscule and annual appropriations based on these authorizations are even smaller.  Documented organic farming benefits provide a political rationale for substantial organic program fund increases at the Economic Research Service, Risk Management Agency, Foreign Agricultural Service, Agricultural Research Service, and other agencies.

This need to reward organic farmers for public benefits extends well beyond farm policy and farm bill authorizations.  Organic farming also offers benefits that can help policymakers deal with soaring energy prices, water pollution, global warming, mad cow disease, antibiotic resistance, pesticide-linked health problems, and other pressing national problems.

Although organic farming never comes up in global warming debates, for example, it can play a significant role in mitigating climate change impacts.  Since organic farming requires less fossil fuel energy, it adds a smaller amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  And the higher level of organic matter in soil managed organically sequesters carbon, reducing harmful atmospheric greenhouse gases.  A new report on the 22-year Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial shows that soil carbon sequestered in the organic systems increased up to 28 percent, equivalent to capturing well over a ton of carbon dioxide per acre from the atmosphere.

Federal policymakers are paying more attention to the carbon sequestration issue. But despite evidence in the Rodale trials and elsewhere, the idea of rewarding farmers for sequestering carbon on organic farms is not in the policy mix.  The latest scheme is to line up federal contractors to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide through enormously expensive processes and sequester it by pumping it into depleted oil and gas fields or deep salty aquifers.

Natural gas prices aren’t riling consumers up like soaring gasoline prices at the pump.  But they are going up right along with gasoline prices and consumers will be clamoring for action when the heating season starts this winter.  The federal government’s knee-jerk response is subsidizing more offshore gas wells and importing huge amounts of natural gas liquefied under high pressure and delivered to U.S. ports at uncontrolled prices. Latest industry estimates of future deliveries run as high as 23 billion cubic feet a day.

There is little or no public awareness that natural gas is the feedstock for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and, as a result, this expensive fossil fuel is converted into an increasingly expensive conventional crop production input.  And no awareness that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is not allowed in organic farming because it made from fossil fuel, burns up soil organic matter, and is so poorly utilized by crops that as much as 90 percent of it is leached out or washed away.  Any acknowledgment by policymakers that organic farming provides a public benefit because it avoids using synthetic fertilizer made from natural gas?  None.

How about the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, located south of the Mississippi River Delta, that includes 5,500 square miles of water with so little summer oxygen it cannot support aquatic life?  Or smaller dead zones, also caused by nitrogen runoff, that are expanding in the once-pristine Chesapeake Bay and depleting  crab, oyster, and fish resources?  Again, expanding organic farming in the Mississippi River and Chesapeake watersheds would provide a significant dead zone alleviation benefit.

Increasing antibiotic resistance in animal production due to feed medicated with antibiotics and to the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter is a serious national problem that makes it increasingly difficult to treat some simple bacterial diseases.  And the increasing resistance of important bacterial pathogens results in high costs for research to develop new antibiotics for human applications.  But do policymakers ever cite the ban on antibiotics in organic livestock systems as a public benefit?  Again, another opportunity lost to tell the organic farming story.

We need to do much more to get these public benefits acknowledged by consumers and policymakers alike, as they are in European Union countries.  And as these European governments do, we need to begin rewarding organic farmers for providing the public with these benefits.  The European Union rewards include things like transition payments, dedicated organic research institutes, market expansion programs, and organic farming extension workers.

Unfortunately most U.S. media stories note simply that organic food is produced without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, ionizing radiation, and harmful processing additives.  Surveys show the “grown without pesticides” is the claim that turns most consumers on.   Organic farmers need to help the media define organic in terms of the wide range of environmental, animal protection, energy conservation, clean water, and other benefits rather than focusing on lists of what organic farmers avoid.  It’s also important to limit claims made about organic farming to those that can be documented.

This was emphasized recently by Marion Nestle, a respected New York University nutrition professor and author of the favorably reviewed “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.”  She reported in a recent business  publication that organic foods are no longer a fad and that they provide a long list of consumer benefits.  But she cautioned that the outlook for claiming some new special organic benefits, such as higher nutrition values, needs a lot more research and documentation.

“Are foods better because they are organic?”, she asks in winding up this article.  “Of course they are, but not primarily because of nutrition.  Their true value comes from what they do for workers in lower pesticide exposure, for soils in enrichment and conservation, for water supplies in less fertilizer runoff, for animals in protection against microbial diseases and mad cow disease, for fish in protection against contamination with organic hydrocarbons, and for other such environmental factors.”

This is the kind of positive message organic farmers need to stress in educating consumers and policymakers and the media. It’s the kind of message needed to mobilize public support for rewarding organic farmers for the public benefits provided.  And it’s the kind of message needed to challenge poorly-informed out-of-touch policymakers who still insist organic farming is merely another consumer choice, that it is no better than any other kind of farming, and that it provides no public benefits.

Organic farmers got the message about the public benefits of organic to the county supervisors in Woodbury County, Iowa.  It’s now time for all of us involved in the organic community to work a lot harder to get this message to Congress, to USDA and other agencies, to the media, and to consumers and environmentalists and others who are beneficiaries of these public benefits.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the September, 2005 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service