Hi guys, I've been lurking for a long time, finally signed up, and then here comes this forum topic where I have quite a bit I can share.
I farm organically for a living. My operation was first certified organic in 1999. So I've been at this a while and have first-hand knowledge. Clearly I have biases.
The term organic in the US is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture under the rules of the National Organic Program. All it means that the grower conforms to a certain set of production practices. Making general comparisons between conventional growing systems and organic growing systems, and drawing a conclusion that one is better than another feels like a false dichotomy and an oversimplification to me.
There are a lot of claims made for and against organic and conventional. Here's what I know.
Fertilizers and topsoil
Organic farming tends to increase soil organic matter and create more topsoil over time. Much of the fertility comes from growing "green manures" or crops that you grow just to turn in and feed the soil which in turn feeds next year's crops. Conventional farming uses chemical fertilizers which feed the crops directly and has the unintended consequence of killing off soil microorganisms and changing the structure of the soil,leading to topsoil loss through both erosion and soil collapse.
Both systems may use pesticides, but in organic systems you cannot use synthetic chemical pesticides. I don't know of any older pesticides that are allowed in organic production, if someone wants to give me an example of one I can look it up and see if it is allowed or prohibited. In organic we tend to use pesticides only as a last resort, and I know on my operation most years we use none on our produce. We use beneficial insects to eat the bad bugs, so using strong pesticides would be killing the good bugs I spent so much time, money, and effort on introducing and cultivating in my operation. When bugs get totally out of control, we spray horticultural oil, soap, plant extracts, beneficial fungi and/or bacteria. These are not very dangerous substances. Organic produce has been demonstrated to have fewer pesticide residues than conventional.
Organic farms use cultivation practices and mulches to prevent weeds. Conventional farms do that too, but they also use chemical selective herbicides. I believe these have been shown to be mutagens. Ever read about 5 legged frogs? The suspicion is minute doses from the adjuvants in conventional herbicides. Here we use vinegar.
When a conventional farm converts to organic, there are generally lower yields for a few years while the soil transitions back to an organic state. Once the soil organic matter is back up to a good level and the farmer is experienced in organic growing, studies have shown the yields are about the same in terms of salable pounds of produce per acre.
Hard to generalize here, but conventional farms use off-farm inputs of chemical fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, most notably methane. It takes a lot of energy manufacture and ship that around. Organic tends to create fertility on site through growing of cover crops turned into the soil. If the organic operation is importing lots of fertility, it might have higher energy costs only in the shipment of those fertilizers. As for the claim that organic ag releases a lot of methane, I don't understand how, please elucidate. Other than fertility, I would have to state that energy use would be a wash between the two.
Two places to look at it, as it leaves the farm and as it gets to your house. Leaving the farm the quality is a good as the farmer and what's happened to the produce once harvested. By the time it gets to your house, the quality is generally determined by the distribution and retail system and how the produce got treated there. I've seen some really sad looking organic produce at conventional supermarkets, and I've never thought that was the farmer's fault. If you want the freshest produce, get it direct from a farm if you can, or better yet grow it yourself if feasible. Barring that, if you want to buy organic, buy it from a store that moves a lot of it, so the freshness is there. Quality to me also includes taste. I know my organic tomatoes taste better, because when I go to the farmers market, customers tell me this every week. There are conventional tomatoes at the market at a lower price, and the people shopping for taste often choose mine and gladly pay more.
There are studies demonstrating much higher antioxidants in organic tomatoes compared to conventional. There was a recent review of all the nutritional studies comparing the two systems that concluded no difference in nutrition. This was quickly debunked for a number of reasons, that are not in my head at the moment, but I can find the reference if anyone's interested. There are studies showing that the nutrient density of conventional produce has dropped considerably in the last 60 years. Personally, I feel there are more a lot more trace elements in organic food, because they are added through the organic fertilizers and are not ingredients in conventional fertilizer.
In organic systems, we are inspected annually to ensure that we are improving the soil, providing habitat for beneficial organisms, and safeguarding the water. Since a lot of our fertilizers are not easily water soluble, we don't have the fertilizer runoffs that conventional ag has. There are huge dead zones where rivers flow into the ocean, caused by the runoff of pesticides and fertilizers from conventional ag.
Conventional ag can use genetically modified organisms, while organic farms cannot. Conventional corn, soy, canola, and cotton are almost exclusively genetically modified now. Some people feel GMO is safe, some feel otherwise, some haven't decided. Conventional beef is fed GMO corn.
The best food is food you know how it was produced and that is freshest. There is so much space along the spectrum between conventional and organic, Conventional can use lots of the organic techniques. Then there's biodynamic, certified naturally grown, etc etc.
The purpose of the organic seal is a shorthand so that when you're a consumer in a store, you know that some set of standards have been followed, and an independent agency has been on that farm checking for you. You may or may not agree with the standard, but that's what organic means.
If you shop at a real farmers market, you can just ask the farmer about his or her practices. In a supermarket setting, you have the organic seal telling you something, or little to no information at all. Would I rather eat a conventional apple from a grower I know or an organic apple from China? Easy, give me the local apple. In real life it's usually not some either/or proposition like that.
Sorry for the long post, and I only scratched the surface, but maybe this will help people understand organic a little better. There are people who have strong opinions about this topic, to be sure. Perhaps I am one of them!