Tyler, "chemicals" are used by factory farms precisely because the soil is all but sterile, having been totally depleted of any naturally occuring nutrients and the organisms called the micro-herd that make up healthy soil. That's one of the many problems with monoculture.
So, they have to pour fertilizer over everything so the crop can feed. But that also promotes the growth of weeds, so a herbicide is needed. And, to eliminate insects they need pesticides. And fungicides. And..... well, you get the picture. It's not so much increased production as being able to get production at all.
I don't know where you got those comparative figures, but they don't even come close. Among other things, chemicals have to be paid for by the grower. But those incredibly impressive pieces of special equipment used by the organics divisions come with all sorts of subsidies; meaning that you and I are bearing much of the fixed cost. Even if we were to accept your figures, however, the profit margin is way off. If the item is selling for $5, it represents mark-ups all along the way. The trucking company gets a piece, and the distributor(s), and the owner of the cold-storage warehouse, and the market itself.
There is a reason why Monsanto consistently refuses to reveal the profit levels of its organics divisions. Ever wonder what that reason could be?
As to health concerns. Intuitively, we all know that ingesting all those chemicals can't be good for us. But if you need a dramatic real-world example, don't forget that for 60 years we were told by big agriculture and the gubmint that DDT was safe. Uh, huh! Did it suddenly become unsafe in the 61st year? Or is that the first time an objective study was done?
Understand, please, that I am not arguing for or against either position. What I am arguing for is that people gather the facts before formulating an opinion, and if they're going to make comparisons that they compare like to like. In this case, the organic produce you buy in the supermarket and the organic produce you buy from a diverse, local grower, are not the same things. To believe so leads to opinions such as Ed's that "the whole thing is a shuck." What he fails to accept (this isn't the first time we've had this discussion) is that there isn't a whole thing. There is a thing with many parts, some almost the same, and others totally dissimilar.
If we're going to be talking about agriculture, and how food is produced and delivered, we must start with one premise: We, in America, have been trained for more than 125 years to expect food that is both plentiful and inexpensive. In order to continue that rubric (assuming that it's both worthwhile and possible) means making certain sacrifices. Among those is a loss of quality. Despite the skyrocketed cost of disel fuel, for instance, transportation remains the least expensive cost element in the food distribution system. But to take advantage of it means, far too often, tasteless, nutritionally lacking produce and animal proteins and foodstuffs that are lower quality than we've had in the past.
You're example about onions is germane. Why is it that onions, nowadays, are so low quality compared to the past? We bring them home from the store to find rotty layers, and green sprouts, and all sorts of similar problems. That's one of the penelties of the food distribution system. On the other hand, locally grown, organic onions, by the nature of the beast, don't have those problems. But the trade-off is both cost and availability.
Consider this: Once you trim away the bad parts, what is the actual cost of onions based on usable quantities? One difference between the food distribution system and locally grown is that with local farms, the grower bears the cost of spoilage. With the food distribution system, the consumer does. I'm talking direct costs, now. Ultimately the consumer pays either way; with higher prices for better quality from the local grower, or with a higher percentage of wastage with the regular distribution system.
We blythly talk about using famers markets, and locally grown, and true organics, and CSAs. But the fact is, if these were ever more than a small percentage of the food we consume the demand couldn't be met. There isn't enough land, close to the consumer, to accomplish what the locovores want, nor enough available organic materials to convert to non-chemical farming, etc. Not so long as we continue demanding cheap, plentiful food.
Add in the lack of oversight by the agencies responsible for it (now there's something Ed and I will never disagree on), and the rather ridiculous (and unpublicized) food definitions, and it's understandable why so many people are confused. And, as you've found, it isn't easy to research these questions. There are at least three apparently objective "scientific" groups that are fronts for Monsanto, for instance, and at least four that secretly represent organic and other alternative interests. In each case, their "findings" are suspect at best.
Edited by KYHeirloomer - 12/17/10 at 1:58pm