Ignorance Isn’t Bliss – Organic Ag Research Needs a Boost

The Compelling Case for an Organic Check-off

For over a decade, including six years as Chief Scientist of The Organic Center, I have focused on new science from around the world on the impacts of organic farming on food safety, food nutritional quality, and agriculture’s environmental footprint.

For everyone who cares about food and health, important and encouraging insights have emerged. It is now clear that organic farming enhances the levels of several key nutrients in most types of food. Organic farming essentially eliminates the food safety and public-health risks associated with pesticides, and on livestock farms, risks arising from routine use of growth-promoting antibiotics and hormones. 

Those growing and making certified organic food avoid the use of most synthetic chemical food additives, irradiation, genetic engineering and animal cloning, and field applications of human sewage sludge.

In light of organic farming’s proven benefits and growing public concern about food safety and quality, you’d expect to see a flood of investment capital moving into the organic sector.  Sure, there’s growing interest among some investors and companies, but a huge flood new money has not materialized, at least not yet. Why the disconnect?

The messaging about organic food and farming from most commodity and industry organizations, many U.S. food companies (even some with growing, profitable organic brands), and the government mostly dwells on outdated, tired “talking points” circulated and recycled by critics of organic food and farming. Such commentaries ignore the results of dozens of high-quality studies reporting important benefits from organic farming and food manufacturing.

Battle lines have formed. Organic advocates point to management-based solutions that are possible through investments in organic farming research and infrastructure, and “conventional” ag advocates defend current practices and inputs, while casting doubts about the ability of organic farming to feed the world, improve public and animal health, or lighten agriculture’s environmental footprint.

Breaking the logjam by shifting the focus of research dollars

For the nation to move forward in enhancing food quality, we need to build and diversify our nation’s food and agriculture knowledge base.  A strong case can be made to shift a portion of public research dollars from propping up conventional agricultural systems, to investments in advanced, biologically-based systems that build health in and design problems out. But for the foreseeable future, we can at best hope for a shift in a few pennies on the public-research dollar.

What a shame. There are many novel, promising ways to improve public health and environmental quality through farming system innovation. But these will likely remain stuck in the innovation pipeline —proven and promising, but lacking the R+D energy and money to reach prime time.

The best way to break the logjam holding back ag system innovation – and the organic food sector – is to quantify the societal benefits that are now within reach, and in ways that get beyond “he said, she said.”

The science required to credibly contrast the performance of different farming systems and technology is complex and often costly, but teams around the world are breaking new ground and showing that modest changes in farming system design and management can deliver important pubic health and environmental benefits. 

Such system innovations are grounded in promoting soil health, using water and plant nutrients more efficiently, and promoting animal health. For example, cutting back on heavy nitrogen fertilizer applications reduces plant disease and insect pressure, and boosts the soil’s nutrients. On livestock farms, increasing access to forage-based feeds and reducing corn and soybean concentrates boosts levels of heart-healthy fats in milk and meat, and decreases levels of bad fats.

What is missing in the U.S. is a meaningful source of steady funding to support research on the performance of unconventional farming systems and technology. In the U.S., there is near-zero public support for hard-edged research comparing performance across farming systems, technologies, and policies. Europe recognized the need for such research two decades ago, and that is why EU scientists publish so many more studies than U.S. scientists comparing the performance of organic and conventional farming.  

Spurring innovation in ag through steady organic check-off funding

Some say ignorance is bliss, but not in this case. Failure to invest in carefully designed studies focused on farming system outcomes will perpetuate a status quo that almost no one embraces as the best we can do. That is why farmers, food companies, retailers, and everyone interested in improving public health through better food quality should support the GRO fund, the organic food and farming check-off program under development by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The organic check-off program would create a steady stream of private funding for organic research in this country. It is estimated the check-off would raise at least $30 million annually, with up to 75 percent of those funds going to badly needed research or research-related activities. 

Organic farmers and food companies don’t have all the answers, and never will. Solutions to many recurrent problems on organic farms that are compatible with organic principles just haven’t been found yet, and for good reason – little or no investment in organic farming research, technology, and infrastructure.

But if given a chance – and the proper funding — scientists and industry will deliver new insights, strategies, and technologies designed to work within organic farming systems, incrementally expanding the supply of organic food and lowering its costs.

Technical progress on organic farms also spills across the fence onto conventional farms. Indeed, organic farmers pioneered many of today’s innovative soil health and pest management strategies that are gaining traction in conventional agriculture.  

Expanding and diversifying agriculture’s knowledge base is good for everyone. The organic industry-led and financed GRO fund offers the best, near-term opportunity to prime the pump driving innovation focused on promoting soil health, the health of plants and animals, and the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Dr. Benbrook is an agricultural economist, and a recognized expert on agricultural systems and technology, policy, and regulation. Dr. Benbrook focuses on quantifying the public health and environmental impacts of farming system choices. He has developed a set of calculators that support a range of food quality and safety assessments, including quantifying the environmental footprint of farm operations. Linking these three major areas – nutritional quality, food safety and agriculture’s environmental footprint – is one of his long-term goals.  

For questions on the GRO program and the organic check-off, please contact Organic Trade Association. For other questions, please contact Dr. Benbrook, at charlesbenbrook@gmail.com.