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Using the claim, evidence and reasoning model, students will compare and contrast organic vs conventionally produced foods to discover the differences and similarities of each farm production style.
conventional farming: a system of farming practices that may include the use of genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical and biological inputs
genetically modified organism (GMO): an organism whose genetic material has been modified or altered, especially through genetic engineering techniques
organic: a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods
Many questions can arise as consumers walk through the produce section of their local supermarket. In one hand, they have a conventionally grown Granny Smith apple. In the other hand, they have an apple labeled as "organic." Both apples are firm, shiny, and green. Both provide vitamins and fiber, and both are free of fat, sodium and cholesterol. The conventionally grown apple costs less and is a proven family favorite. But the organic apple has a label that says "USDA Organic." Does that mean it’s better? Safer? More nutritious? What are the differences between organic and conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables?
The word "organic" on a food label refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat.4 The green and white "USDA Organic" seal can be used on foods grown or produced within the parameters of the National Organic Program. The USDA Organic program is federally regulated. Organic labels can be used under the following circumstances:
Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers use limited types of herbicides or pesticides,6 many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may hand weed vegetables to control weeds in lieu of a synthetic herbicide. As a result, you may end up paying more for these vegetables.
Organic foods are not safer than conventionally-farmed foods. They meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods.5 Synthetic pesticides approved for use on both conventional and organic crops undergo the same rigorous scientific evaluation by U.S. EPA. The agency evaluates scientific data on the pesticide to ensure that when used according to label directions, the product will not harm people, non-target species or the environment.4 The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however, organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.
If a food is not labeled "organic" it was likely produced using conventional farming practices. Conventional farms have fewer restrictions and can employ technological innovations to improve crop quality and decrease loss due to pests, weeds, and disease. Conventional farms may use genetically modified seed, synthetic pesticides/herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
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Listen to the NPR broadcast, Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron. Discuss student thoughts and the impact of the "organic" label.
Assign student groups to create a multimedia presentation (stop motion video, video, prezi, etc.) about a specific crop. Students should highlight the growth of the plant from start to finish and highlight the differences between conventional and organic production of their crop.
Visit the Common Ground website to meet a Colorado farmer that grows both organic and conventional crops. After watching the video, reflect on her statement about learning from the organic farming process to improve the conventional farming practice. Discuss how both farming methods are valuable.
Compare and contrast the environmental impact of organic vs conventional farming.
Have students explore some of their favorite fruits and vegetables using the interactive Pesticide Residue Calculator. Following the prompts on the website, students can read about pesticide residues found on produce, select their age category and then click on numerous fruits and vegetables to discover how many servings of that particular fruit or vegetable must be consumed in one day to experience a negative response.
Discuss and research best practices for washing fresh produce.
Discuss the negative impact specific labels and marketing could have on overall consumption of fruits and vegetables. Whether organic or conventional, a healthy diet should consist of a variety of fruits and vegetables.
This lesson was adapted using materials prepared as part of the Syngenta STEM Summer Fellowship Program.
Andrea Gardner, Janina Szymanowski, and Kari Brown
National Center for Agricultural Literacy and Syngenta STEM Summer Fellowship Program