organic vs. conventional foods – literature review

With environmental crises, health pitfalls and food shortages becoming common place in the modern world; several agricultural alternatives have been proposed as solutions. Apart from regulatory approaches to control application of chemicals in conventional farming practices; other two models of farming have gained ground. The first of these is a biotechnology oriented method to ensuring food sustainability through genetic modifications that promise better yields, higher disease and draught resistance, and improved efficiency (Azadi & Ho, 2010). Barriers to this approach have however been advanced on the basis of unpredictable risks to the environment; potential toxicity, carcinogenicity, and allergenicity; and an alteration to the nutritional integrity of foods (Azadi & Ho, 2010). Further, it has been argued that biotechnological approaches could lead to enormous unacceptable transfer of ownership and control of farming “from the farmers to seed companies and laboratories” (Shiva, 2001 as cited in Parrot & Marsden, 2002, p. 10).

With this resistance to the biotechnological approaches; a second agricultural approach to address the pitfalls in conventional farming has been in the calls to adopt organic farming practices. According to Parrot and Marsden, organic farming is embodied in the establishment and maximal “use of locally available natural resources to maintain and build soil fertility and to deter pests and diseases” (2002, p. 10). In this strategy human beings are considered part of an ecosystem whose equilibrium must be continually conserved to ensure survival of the entire system (Shi-ming & Sauerborn, 2006). Therefore to maintain such equilibrium use of chemicals for pest and disease control should be substituted with natural solutions such as crop rotation and intercropping; use of antagonistic plants; use of physical barriers such as pest traps; and use of biological controls such as insect predators (Parrot & Marsden, 2002). Further handpicking and manual weeding is preferred to use of machineries and herbicides (Parrot & Marsden, 2002). To maintain and improve soil fertility and animal productivity the organic farming principle is to replace synthetic fertilizers, feed additives and growth inducers with practices such as mixed livestock and arable farming; use of compost and green manure; and use of nitrogen fixing plants and deep-rooted plants to recover nutrients (Parrot & Marsden, 2002). From this evaluation environmental conservation concerns seem to be the main positives to promote consumption of organic foods.

Closely related to environmental concerns are the ethics of farming. In this respect it is worth of note that the era of “hunting and gathering” is not a feasible farming alternative in the modern day (Paarlberg, 2009). As such the ethical debate in the modern day concerns approaches towards productivity and consumption (Clarke, Cloke, Barnett & Malpass, 2008). While for organic farming productivity could be achieved without employing artificial technological and scientific advancements  (Parrot & Marsden, 2002) for conventional farming such are what have enabled increased productivity in agriculture (Paarlberg, 2009). On such aspects then the ethical perspectives have been advanced on such basis as environmental aspects (use or non use of chemicals, impact of practices on land, potential risk of advancements); employment perspectives (replacement of people with machinery, income increment to farmers, fair trade practices); livestock treatment in farms [confinement versus freelance as a way of adding value] (Clarke, et al., 2008; Paarlberg, 2009). With such a wide range aspects falling under the ethical spectrum not a single farming practice could escape ethical pitfalls hence relative and situational evaluations are what would determine the perception of ethically produced foods (Paarlberg, 2009). For instance while conventional methods could fall victim for its perceived adverse environmental impacts, organic farming could fall victim for taking farming out of the reach of many farmers hence curtailing incomes and inflating food prices thus affecting the quality of life of peasant farmers (Paarlberg, 2009).

Another issue that has generated more concern especially among economics has been the high prices of organic foods relative to   conventional ones. For instance it is advanced that high production costs involved in organic farming necessitate higher prices of the products to offset these costs (Clarke et al., 2008). By avoiding the use of chemicals and fertilizers organic farmers could incur more costs in transporting  alternatives such as compost and animal manure as well as increased costs of labor due to use of manual power for harvesting and crop tending processes (Parrot & Marsden, 2002). These costs then factor into the increased prices of products at the retail store. On the other hand however conventional farming could also incur expenses such as replacement of leached soils, environmental costs of use of pesticides (e.g. maintaining required standards of production and disposal) and providing appropriate health care for workers thus not also without its share of costs (Paarlberg, 2009). Arguments based on the production costs may thus fail to justify the high pricing of organic foods. Go to part 3 here.

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