Conventional vs Organic vs GE

I constantly find myself in awkward positions (socially) where – as someone who sees the value of genetic engineering in agriculture production – I am automatically assumed to be anti-organic and, in some cases, something akin to the devil. It seems to most that you are either a fan of GMOs or organic – “You can’t be both!”

Well, I am here to tell you different. You CAN be a fan and supporter of GMOs and GM crops and also appreciate the value of organic and make an effort to support your local growers – whether they adopt conventional, organic or other approaches in their production methods.

Genetically modified crop varieties offer ways for our producers to produce high quality crop varieties on less land with less chemicals.  This is better for the environment. And if you think that growing ‘organic’ means that there is NO use of chemicals in production practices, you would be mistaken.  In the article: “Nature’s Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming” (see attached), Alex Avery of The Center for Global Food Issues reminds us that the primary fungicides used in organic growing methods are copper and sulphate, and often in massive amounts when compared with synthetic fungicides.


– Image/source: fungicide rates by A. Avery

Organics standards (they are improving, by the way) allow for ‘natural’ fungicides and other chemicals to be used on crops in the production process.  According to Rebecca Hallet, PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph “…in some cases these organic pesticides can have higher environmental impacts than synthetic pesticides often because they have to be used in large doses…” (“Organic Pesticides Not Always ‘Greener’ Choice, Study Finds” Science Daily, June 23, 2010).  Related to this, the American Agri-Women compiled a report that addresses the errors and omissions – exposes the myths – presented in the documentary “Food Inc” (by the way, this is a ‘must read’ in order to develop a balanced perspective and make informed opinions on how our food is developed):

Organic fruit and vegetable growers use insecticides and fungicides that are approved for organic growers. These are inorganic substances (such as copper and sulfur), microbes and toxic plant extracts. They are all registered as pesticides by the EPA and pass the same regulatory safety tests as do the synthetic chemicals used by non-organic growers. However, since the inorganic substances, microbes and toxic plant extracts are not as effective as synthetic chemicals, organic growers spray more often than non-organic growers and use a greater tonnage of pesticides per acre than do non-organic farmers.” (

Remember: “natural” doesn’t mean “non-toxic” and because MORE passes of this ‘natural’ product are required in order to deal with pests, weeds, disease, etc. in organic production, MORE ‘natural’ product is required.  You do the math.

Genetically modified crops aren’t of the devil either (or me, for that matter).  If you have problems with monopolization of global markets or anti-corporate sentiments, please eliminate that from the equation.  At least for the next few minutes.

Genetic engineering or modification is the direct human manipulation of genetic matter in (this case) a plant.  It involves the use of recombinant DNA techniques to improve the phenotypic or genetic characteristics of a given plant in order improve nutritional factors, or enhance productivity or make it resistant to certain herbicides.  It sounds scientifically scary but its not.  It’s essentially the process of doing what nature has always done, only faster, more efficiently and in a much, much more precise manner.

So, here’s the goods, folks. Genetically engineered crops outperform conventional crops and here is some supporting evidence: yields from genetically engineered crops are 36% better for corn and 12% better for soy beans. Since 1997, the reduction in pesticide use resulting from adoption of genetically engineered crops is estimated at 790 million pounds, or 8.8%, and herbicide reduction in soybeans alone at 161 million pounds, or 4.6% (Elliot Entis, “Genetically engineered crops are more environmentally friendly than organic ones” The Boston Globe, April 11, 2010). In the report I mentioned earlier, the American Agri-Women state that “…in the U.S, the quantity of pesticides used by farmers has decreased by four percent since 1990 while crop output increased by 15 percent, which indicates a reduction in the intensity of pesticide use due to the introduction of synthetic chemicals that are more specifically-targeted to particular pests…” (

These figures, quotes and statements are significant, particularly when you take into consideration the implications of our rapidly growing global population and its effect on food security.

What about nutrition, you ask?  Well, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (“Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review” Dangour et al, July 2009) concluded that there was more nitrogen in conventional crops but more phosphorus in organic crops, but could find “…no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.”  Hmmm.  How about that?  Then there are price considerations.  You can pay as much as 50% more for organic produce or products! Oy.

Up until about two years ago, the organics market in Canada was not even regulated (I did mention that things were improving in that area…). You didn’t know what ‘organic’ meant in Saskatchewan vs what it meant in PEI; let alone what it meant amongst individual organic growers within close proximity of one another.  Let’s face it, the organic movement has evolved into this largely romantic ideal, the product of the combined efforts of good marketing and strategic anti-conventional and anti-GE production campaigns.

Do I buy organic?  Sure, I do.  Do I buy products made through conventional or GE methods.  Hell, yeah. But I buy based on the product’s merits as a consumable. Quality of product matters. Price is definitely a factor. And I do try to make an effort to support my local grower. It’s all about balance.

Finally, I draw this quote from the work of a young journalist, Ashleigh Mattern* (The Sheaf, University of Saskatchewan) who examined this whole organic vs GMO vs conventional production thing. I think that she hit the nail on the head with this one:

“The process of bringing organic food to your table is every bit as complicated as it is for conventional [or other] foods. The best way to feel better about your food choices is to learn about agriculture and how the food gets from the farm to your local grocery store, not by simply assuming organic food as the better choice.” 



* “Is Organic Food Better for You? A Critical Look at Organic Claims”, Ashleigh Mattern, The Sheaf: Univ. of Saskatchewan Student Newspaper, July 13, 2010. Full text at

4 thoughts on “Conventional vs Organic vs GE

  1. Thank you, Dr. Cami Ryan. This is very helpful. What I see of organic production is my cousin-in-law’s fields, and they are very poor. My widowed mother-in-law (his landlord) has no income from her farm, but feels sorry for her nephew-in-law and lets him continue. Each year I take pictures to document how bad it is. As I stood in his “soybean” mostly weeds and insects field this year – the thought I had was “the organic emperor has no clothes.” I am looking forward to hearing Alex Avery speak at the American Agri-Women convention this month.

  2. Hi! Thanks for the comment. “The organic emperor has no clothes…” is apropos here. Nicely said. @Women4Ag The organic approach, although commendable in its ideal, lacks sustainability. Sorry to hear about how things are going with the cousin-in-law’s ops. cami

  3. I read the piece by Alex Avery some time ago, and enjoyed it. I was afraid that some people would say that he was just making this up, so I found the actual USDA standards for organic food related to synthetic substances. I thought you might be interested in seeing this.…: the link breaks, you may try just going to the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations and searching for: § 205.601 Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.

Leave a Reply