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Organic Illusions

Monday, October 1, 2012

We don’t have enough land and we can’t afford the opportunity costs of a return to a romantic version of agriculture. But we can afford a food system that provides lots of choices.

Michael Pollan, 2008: But on the other hand, there is this trend towards organic foods, which restore [sic] a lot of … nutrients partly by nourishing the soil with organic matter and partly by using older varieties that are often more nutritious.

Michael Pollan, 2012: I think we're kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it's more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it's more environmentally sustainable. That's the stronger and easier case to make.

A recent study by a group of scientists at Stanford University found that the nutritional benefits of organic food have, to say the least, been oversold. Apres moi, le deluge. A furor has erupted.

In our modern-day version of holy wars, we’ve replaced debates about gnosticism and Manichaeism with arguments about the virtues of locally grown versus sustainable versus organic. As with all wars over doctrine, the rhetoric has been fierce.

An online petition organized in opposition to the Stanford study seeks to drum the authors of the study out of the academic community, although one gets the impression that professional defenestration is insufficient. Perhaps people who commit food heresy could be sentenced to spend eternity in a Big Mac–filled purgatory? Stanford University and the authors have been accused of being in bed with food producer Cargill, and all the bishops of the foodie orthodoxy have responded by disagreeing and, in many instances, changing the subject.

The British version of the Food and Drug Administration commissioned a study in 2009 with results strikingly similar to Stanford’s. This is not surprising to most farmers, who have to deal with what is, rather than what someone might wish.

The Unreality of the Organic Narrative

Perhaps farmers aren’t changing to organic production because conventional yields continue to increase, rather than decrease, as the organic narrative would demand.

Plants and animals aren’t the least bit interested in the story the farmer has to tell. They don’t care about his sense of social justice, the size of his farm, or the business model that he has chosen. Plants don’t respond by growing better if the farmer is local, and pigs don’t care much about the methods used in the production of their daily ration. If those inputs that animals and plants require to grow are present, plants and animals respond in pretty similar ways. That means that when organic and/or conventional farmers provide the environment necessary for growth, plants and animals respond. It would be a shock if this did not occur, and it shouldn’t really be a story at all.

Except that it is. The organic farming narrative depends upon the belief that conventional farming sacrifices the present for the future, that the chemicals and fertilizers applied by conventional farmers poison the soil, and that this careless use of the unnatural will infect the things we eat and the productivity of our farms and ranches. So, when a study finds no differences in nutritional value after 70 years of hybrid seeds, 60 years of chemical fertilizers, a half-century of synthetic pesticide application, and almost two decades of genetically modified seed, it’s a real problem for the narrative of the organic industry.

Organic backers often trumpet the fact that the organic market is growing quickly, which it is, albeit from a very small base. But if organic production builds the soil and increases yield, and if conventional production destroys the soil and reduces yield, then why haven’t I and other farmers switched production methods?

Despite the growth in organic food sales, they only constitute 4 percent of the dollar value of all foods sold; and since organic foods often cost twice what conventionally grown foods do, the quantity of organic sales constitutes considerably less than 4 percent of the total market.

Perhaps farmers aren’t changing to organic production because conventional yields continue to increase, rather than decrease, as the organic narrative would demand. Yes, this summer’s drought, which hammered the production of both organic and conventional foods, has led to a decrease in yields, but it’s worth noting that this year’s disappointing corn yield would have been a record yield just 20 years ago. The worst drought in nearly a century, and a national corn yield that would have been a record in 1993!

The Stanford study found that organic foods were considerably less likely than conventional foods to have pesticide residues, although organic foods were higher in e. coli.

Conventional foods have slightly more nitrogen and organic foods have more phosphorous. We all have plenty of both phosphorous and nitrogen in our diets. Two of the hundreds of studies surveyed for the Stanford meta-analysis showed that organic milk and chicken have more omega-3 fatty acids. Any familiarity at all with the legion of books damning conventional farming would lead one to believe that there are hundreds of studies covering the very important omega-3 fatty acid, which as far as I can tell improves strength, health, virility, sex lives, and length off the tee. I mean, this is very important stuff. Pick out a prominent food critic, combine his name with omega-3 fatty acid, and Google. Your computer will groan in protest.

Omega-3 fatty acids are important to organic food promoters because they appear in the milk of cows fed on pasture. When this first became a topic of conversation, several beef and dairy nutritionists pointed out that they could supplement commercial feed with the stuff, and increase the fatty acids’ presence in regular milk. There you have it: The argument over food in a nutshell. It’s not that we need omega-3 fatty acids, although as far as I can tell we do, but what’s important is how we get them. Happy cows grazing on rolling green hills on crystal clear fall afternoons? Now, that’s sure to make us healthy. Cows in long barns and loafing sheds with chemicals added to their diets? That’s never going to do! Those nutritionists are probably still shaking their heads at the lack of response to their suggestion—to them, it’s all the same.

But we are not having a debate over science, because that science is settled. We’re having a debate about processes, narratives, and good intentions, and maybe even about style. Or, to quote Marion Nestle, “The only reason for organics to be about nutrition is marketing.” Nestle meant the quote as a criticism of the Stanford study, but she was surely more frank than she intended.

Pesticides and Politics

The Stanford study found that organic foods were considerably less likely than conventional foods to have pesticide residues, although organic foods were higher in e. coli. Pesticide exposure is hard to understand and scary, but pesticides on food are typically found at levels thousands of times lower than harmful levels. E. coli, which comes from fecal matter, just kills people. Not hard to understand downside potential there.

The worst drought in nearly a century, and a national corn yield that would have been a record in 1993!

Most of these pesticide comparisons involved produce, and as the authors point out: “Produce studies, most of which were experimental field studies, may not reflect real-world organic practices.” Although this disclaimer is buried in an appendix, it raises questions. In an experimental environment, scientists are unlikely to be concerned about the appearance of produce. Farmers who actually have to sell what they raise, both conventional and organic, will apply pesticides to ensure that no blemishes are present. There is no guarantee that the organic produce you buy in the store is the same produce used to produce those test results. A better study would have compared organic and non-organic produce from stores, such as Whole Foods and Wal-Mart.

The study does not report the source of the pesticide residues on organic produce, although that would be extremely interesting. Organic foods are labeled as organic because producers certify that they’ve followed organic procedures. No testing is done to check the veracity of these claims. So, even if all procedures are followed, it’s possible that conventional pesticides are present—either from drift from neighboring conventionally farmed fields, or because the producer has been less than honest in his certification. When Britain offered to test organic produce, the organic industry declined to allow that testing.

Or, of course, the pesticides found on the organic produce could be the pesticides allowed in the production of organic foods. Yes, that’s right. Many pesticides, because they are natural in origin, are allowed in the production of organic foods. Included in the approved list for organic production are copper sulfate, for the treatment of fungus, and pyrethrum, a naturally occurring insecticide. There’s nothing natural about copper sulfate, but there are no natural substitutes, so the regulators allow it. However, not all natural pesticides are allowed: Both nicotine and arsenic are illegal in any kind of production in the United States. When it comes to arsenic, natural doesn’t really imply safety after all.

You can buy organically produced cigarettes, by the way. Totally natural: Surely they must be safe.

Studies show somewhere between a 20 and 50 percent decline in yield per acre from organic methods. So, is the environment better served by more land being used for farming, and less land left to nature?

Because natural pesticides are often less effective, they are used in higher amounts and more often. So, even if a naturally produced pesticide is less toxic than its synthetic counterpart, it may be applied at much higher rates than the comparable manmade chemical. For a pesticide to be effective, it must kill things. They’re nasty, and if you consume enough of any kind of pesticide, you can be harmed. It doesn’t matter much to the bug or the fungus if the pesticide is an extract from the neem tree and thereby legal for organic production, or if the insecticide is dreamed up in the labs of DuPont. It shouldn’t matter that much to you, either. The question is not so much whether the pesticide is produced naturally or synthetically, but rather how much you consume. And here the evidence is clear: None of the U.S. samples in the Stanford study, whether organic or conventional, contained enough residue to be harmful.

Critics of conventional farming talk about the dangers of exposure to more than one chemical, or “chemical cocktails.” The government agencies that regulate these things are aware of this controversy, and point out that combinations of chemicals aren’t more dangerous unless one of the chemicals is present at high enough rates to be biologically active—that is, to impact human body cells. It is the position of the critics that you just can’t trust the government on these issues, which may indeed be the case. But the question arises: How can you trust the same government to enforce organic rules or guarantee the safety of organic pesticides? Or to approve the pharmaceuticals you rely upon to cure your illnesses?

What about the Environment?

So, if the debate over nutrition has been largely settled, with no advantage to either side, and if pesticide residues, whether natural or not, aren’t likely to be harmful, surely there are environmental reasons for organic production? Undoubtedly so, but there are environmental costs as well.

Even if a naturally produced pesticide is less toxic than its synthetic counterpart, it may be applied at much higher rates than the comparable manmade chemical.

It takes fewer acres to produce the same quantity of food conventionally than it does organically. Studies show somewhere between a 20 and 50 percent decline in yield per acre from organic methods. So, is the environment better served by more land being used for farming, and less land left to nature? Conventional agriculture has given society both more food and more land, in the form of rainforests not farmed, the millions of acres in the United States which were once farmed and are now returning to the wild, or the 35 million acres taken from production in the last 30 years and planted to native grasses in the American Midwest and West. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that ending conventional production in the United States would require increasing the area tilled by more land than lies within California. If food demand nearly doubles over the next 50 years, as it’s predicted to do, there just isn’t enough arable land available to support a wholesale adoption of organic methods.

Critics of conventional production continue to talk about “peak oil” and our shortage of energy. Admittedly, conventional agriculture uses copious amounts of energy, particularly natural gas. But to listen to the critics of the Stanford study, it’s as if the recent increase in the natural gas supply never happened. We’re in the process of discovering and producing huge amounts of the stuff, and fracking has changed the supply picture for the foreseeable future. If there was ever an argument for organic production because of energy costs and availability, history has passed it by.

Labor of Love? Millions of Additional Hands

The land use case for conventional production is often made, but there is a more powerful argument for modern agriculture. Millions of additional hands would be needed to produce food on America’s farms without modern technology. In the many places around the world where organic farming is the norm, a large proportion of the population is involved in farming. Not because they choose to do so, but because they must. Weeds continue to grow, even in polycultures with holistic farming methods, and without pesticides, hand weeding is the only way to protect a crop.

Since the average age of U.S. farmers is nearing 60, most of us involved in agriculture remember “chopping cotton” or “walking beans,” and hand weeding is not a fond memory. Those of us who grew up with a hoe in our hand have absolutely no nostalgia for days gone by. People love to talk about traditional agriculture, but I’ve noticed that their willingness to embrace the land is often mostly metaphorical.

Those of us who grew up with a hoe in our hand have absolutely no nostalgia for days gone by.

With our present unemployment rate, this may be an opportunity. Maybe legions of Americans would jump at the opportunity to get closer to the land, one row at a time. But even if they did, there would be economic and environmental costs. People who are now working in other industries would have to leave them in order to provide the manpower necessary to replace technology in agriculture, and what they would have produced in those careers would figure into the cost of organic farming. These opportunity costs would be huge. Those new agriculturists would continue to consume, adding to the carbon load, using energy and creating waste, all of which would have to be included in any environmental accounting of the costs of organic agriculture. Any innovations that would have been, any lives saved by prospective doctors, or any plays written by prospective playwrights would be lost forever, replaced by the rhythmic thunking of a hoe striking wild sunflowers, as our new agriculturists save the world from the dangers of modern farming.

We don’t have enough land to turn our backs on the work of generations of agriculture scientists and “industrial” farmers, and we can’t afford the opportunity costs of a return to some romantic version of agriculture. We can, however, afford a food system that provides lots of choices. Is there a market for the food that organic, local, and “retail” farmers with a story can provide? Sure there is. We’re all richer when we have choices, and farmers catering to people who desire a voice in how their food is produced are filling a real need. Patronize your local farmers market because you want to encourage the farmers who sell their wares there, but remember that you aren’t necessarily improving the nutrition of your family. You should also remember that along with the environmental benefits to the food choices you make, there are environmental costs too.

Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer and a frequent contributor to THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Hurst also writes “Raining Nonsense during a Drought,” “The High High Cost of Low Low Rates,” and “And the Regulatory State Drones On.” Gilbert Ross says “Better Living Through Chemistry (If Permitted).” Jon Entine adds “Scientists Savage Study Purportedly Showing Health Dangers of Monsanto's Genetically Modified Corn” and contributes “Biotech: Is Organic GM the Answer?” 

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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