What's What? A Lesson in Ag: Organic, Conventional and Biotech

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

More people are interested in agriculture and farming than ever, and many are seeking to buy and eat locally grown food and specialty products.  While this provides a great opportunity for local growers, the terms describing our food and it’s production are still easily and often mis-used.   Here’s the quick and dirty on what you need to know on your locally grown food journey! 


Simply stated, organic is a term that tells you about the production of the crop.  In organic production, inputs (such as fertilizers, pest control, and additives) are not allowed to be synthetic in origin. 


Conventional farming is also a method, and it can use inputs of synthetic or natural origin. 


Biotech is a term used to describe how an organism has been modified to produce a desired outcome. Often the term is used to indicate manipulation of the organism’s genetic code, but another simple example of biotechnology is the process of fermentation, which results in yeast and is part of the production of alcoholic beverages.   Biotech does not refer to a type of production, as in the production of bioengineered crops like corn or soybeans.  In the case of biotech crops, they are usually grown using conventional farming methods, but they could be grown using organic methods.

Other common misperceptions about organic and conventional farming methods is that organic is pesticide free and low impact on the environment, while conventional agriculture makes use of many pesticides and is not good for the environment. The reality is that pesticides are used in organic agriculture, and unless good agricultural practices are in use, neither method is better for the environment than the other. Many conventional AND organic farms use no-till practices, cover crops, and integrated pest management methods to control pests with little to no spraying. However in Hawai‘i, we do not have a winter freezer to combat pests and we are unfortunately welcoming new pests to our state all the time. Pesticide free produce here is very difficult to come by.

If you are seeking out locally grown produce, it’s best to speak directly to the farmer to ask about the methods used in production of the food you are eating from their farm.  If their product is labeled organic, it doesn’t mean that no pesticides were used on it. It does mean they were likely not synthetic products. Remember, locally grown produce has traveled less distance to get to your plate, and you may even know the family that produced it! 
So when in doubt, choose local first, and support farmers in Hawai‘i!