@JoeInAtlanta: Is organic food better for the environment?
In short: No.
In long: Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
Okay, more seriously, organic farming is considerably worse for the environment than post-agricultural revolution farming. Why is this?
Well, the reason is fairly obvious: Organic farming sucks.
Why does organic food cost more? It is because organic farming techniques are highly inefficient. Losses are higher, yield per acre is lower - by 20 to 70%!
The primary cause of environmental damage from agriculture, contrary to popular belief, is not chemicals - it is habitat loss and deforestation. And as organic farming is 20-70% less efficient, that means, in other words, that you need 25% to more than three times as much land to produce the same amount of food. That means 25% to 3x times the environmental damage.
Worse still, organic farming does not mean pesticide free. So-called "organic pesticides" - including stuff like bt toxin and copper - are used by organic farmers, and are no better for the environment (and no less toxic) than synthetic pesticides. In reality, they're actually probably worse for the environment - they're less efficient, non-specific, and have to be applied more often. Indeed, GM crops, the least "natural" crops, also require less pesticide. In the case of bt-corn, it actually carries pesticide inside the plant, it will kill the bugs that eat it, but it won't kill random other bugs - and note for the paranoid that organic farmers use bt toxin as a pesticide. It is "all natural". So you aren't actually getting away from it. But a field using plants with bt toxin in them doesn't have to be sprayed by nearly as much pesticide.
Another big problem with organic farming is that it actually damages the soil more badly. The reason for this is that organic farmers have to till their soil more often as a means of controlling weeds. Tilling soil, as it turns out, damages it, and causes topsoil loss. This is a major historical cause of agricultural failure, and organic farmers have to do so more often than people using herbicides and other means of chemical pest control.
Regarding some other commentary:
@jhobel: The government does a lot better job of monitoring safety than people who don't believe in science, such as, say, the organic food movement. Chemophobia is bad, yo. It annoys me when people talk about chemicals like they are "bad" and natural things as if they are "good". Neither is true in any way; nightshade will kill you dead, and chemicals allow us to produce a lot more food and fight infections.
As for the "side effects" of GMOs: I'm sorry, but you are grossly misinformed. There are no side effects. Only crazy. Bt toxin was already used as a pesticide (by organic farmers, too), and putting it directly in the plant means that instead of spraying, the plant protects itself from pests - and moreover, because you don't have to spray, only bugs that actually eat the plant die. So random other bugs won't be affected, which is good! Plus you don't have the pesticide going into rivers or whatever.
Roundup resistance is literally harmless. It gives the plant resistance to a toxin. Unsurprisingly this has no possibility of hurting people.
Golden rice contains extra nutrition to help fight malnutrition. It is known to be more nutritious than normal rice, and the added protein is known to be harmless - we ingest it quite often anyway.
GMOs are harmless. In fact, they are quite throughly vetted for safety.
You know what isn't? All other food. We don't test conventionally bred food for safety, even though food contains known toxins. We just kind of shrug and say, "Eh, we'll live." And that's okay; it would be excessively expensive to test absolutely everything for safety.
Ironically, GMOs are probably the safest thing for you to eat. Some new breed of carrot could be toxic for all you know. And pest resistance is a long-sought after trait in conventional breeding, and that is very often achieved via toxins in the plant. So... yeah.
Incidentally, DDT is actually pretty harmless to humans. The problem with DDT is that it lingers in the environment and isn't particularly selective in what it kills in terms of insects, and it can bioaccumulate in some animals, which is not really great for them (though it mostly just messes with reproduction rather than making things drop dead). It is far more feared than is justified. Not to say that it isn't really great stuff (modern pesticides are generally better for the environment than DDT), but you could drink a cup of DDT and not die. There are many modern pesticides which are better for the environment which are far more acutely toxic - they don't really linger and break down faster, but you wouldn't want to drink them.
@oydave: GMOs actually reduce pesticide and herbicide use, not increase it, and also help with soil tillage and other issues.
Prior to GMOs, people would still use the herbicide... they'd just dump it all over the place before they planted anything. Now, you can use it more selectively, which is cheaper for the farmer (less waste) and better for the environment. Likewise, plants which include pesticides means you don't have to spray them - again, saving you the cost of the pesticide, the undesirable side effects of runoff, ect. You still DO use the chemicals, but you use them less often than you would need to otherwise.
Because organic farmers cannot use the most efficient tools for pest control, they must rely more heavily on tilling the soil to kill pests. Unfortunately, this results in topsoil loss.
Moreover, the biggest source of damage to the environment from agriculture isn't runoff, but habitat destruction. The more land you use to grow plants, the worse the damage to the environment. Organic farming, being inefficient on a per-acre basis, means they have to use more land to produce the same amount of food.
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