A Critique of “The Truth About Organic Farming” by Christie Wilcox

I was reading an article at Yakaru’s excellent blog, Spirituality is No Excuse, when I stumbled into a discussion about organic farming with someone who commented there. Woody seemed – I thought – to lump together “organic fanatics” with “Ufology nuts” and other types of woo, and I, being a bit of a tree-hugger, saw an opportunity to look at organic agriculture more critically than I have before and challenge this. Woody was pretty cool about it. He suggested I read an article by Christie Wilcox at Nutrition Wonderland, supposedly busting some myths about organic food – that it’s any healthier or better for the environment than conventional food – and he said he’d do some research as well. This is the way all of us should approach knowledge, testing our current beliefs and understandings through critical thinking, research and discussion. I have changed my views on some big issues over the years doing this, but so far have remained in favour generally of organic principles and organic food, although I’m fairly sure there will be downsides and bad examples of organic practices.

Anyway, my reply to Woody’s reply was getting too long to be appropriate in Yakaru’s comments, so I decided to turn it into a blog post instead. I address here mainly Christie’s article, which provides a focus for my thoughts about organic and conventional farming generally.

A Critique of “The Truth About Organic Farming”
Christie Wilcox may be making a genuine attempt to bust some myths and present a balanced view, but I find little to commend in the text except by deliberately taking parts out of context. Here’s one such in the opening paragraphs: “For example, the efforts of organic farmers to move away from monocultures, where crops are farmed in single-species plots, are fantastic; crop rotations and mixed planting are much better for the soil and environment than conventional monocultures.” The article seems to be stuffed full of these commendations of organic practice, which she then seems to immediately undermine with irrational and false criticisms. While she says her purpose isn’t to attack organic farming, but to propose that the best features of organic and traditional farming could be combined, it doesn’t ring true to me.

In the first section, “Myth: Organic Foods Are Free From Pesticides And Harmful Chemicals”, Christie claims that some organic-certified farms may use pesticides and herbicides and methods that she describes as “factory farming”, the applied substances may not be as closely monitored as they should, and may be thought of incorrectly as harmless because they have a “natural” (organic) source. I accept that natural organic substances can be toxic (and many are used precisely because they are toxic), but as far as I understand, their use is closely monitored, as she herself gives examples of that regulation later. She doesn’t explain precisely what she means by “factory farming” as applied to organic farming, so I’m beginning to suspect moving of goalposts: she praised organic farming for “trying to move away” from monocultures, but she is now accusing some of them of “factory farming”, which seems to imply monocultures.

She says, “shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness”. If this is true, I am also shocked. I suspect it isn’t. A brief google hasn’t resulted in clarification. However, let’s not get distracted: this is a red herring. If it is true, it is a damning indictment of the government’s regulatory practice, not organic farming.

I fully accept the idea that “natural” things must be monitored and not just imagined to be safe (indeed I believe both the terms “natural” and “organic” are problematic), but liberally spraying crops with poisons, whether from biological sources or not, is not what organic farming should be about, so it’s more a political problem than an idealistic one. To put it another way, if such practices are common (as Christie seems to imply), then my position is that organic farming isn’t organic enough.

Christie criticises Rotenone, being one such organic pesticide (known to many as Derris powder), which was suspected of potentially causing Parkinson’s disease and other conditions, and has now been widely banned, but it seems to me that this undermines her earlier criticism. It shows that organic practices are monitored and regulation responds to research into health hazards – surely, a good thing.

Rotenone belongs to a group of chemicals about which Christie makes the strange, self-contradictory statement: “Just this year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union’s safety evaluation that is required by law”. Unless there are two different authorities referred to in this sentence, it would seem to translate to “the authorities are getting tougher on what they allow in organic farming this year” – again, surely a good thing.

Next, she says: “Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foods produced in 2007 that were tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels – and these are of pesticides that are not organic” (my emphasis). Again, maybe I’ve misunderstood, but this seems to imply that organic food is contaminated by synthetic chemicals, presumably spread from conventional farming! What else can it signify? Is she insinuating that organic farmers use synthetic chemicals in secret? Or does she imply that food is being mis-sold as organic when it’s not? Again, neither of the latter would constitute substantial criticism of organic farming per se, only of poor regulation. But I suspect Christie didn’t mean either of those things. I suspect Christie doesn’t quite know what she means. At any rate, she has a knack of providing evidence against her own case.

The problem with many synthetic pesticides is precisely what she seems to have indicated, but passed over without considering: they aren’t very biodegradable, so they spread around the environment causing long-term damage. They’re even in our organic food! Considering Rotenone again, although it is mildly toxic to humans (the World Health Organisation classifies it as moderately hazardous), it degrades in sunlight in a few days.

With further disregard for the implications of data, she says: “Similarly, when Consumer Reports purchased a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides, they found traces of them in 25% of the organically-labeled foods, but between all of the organic and non-organic foods tested, only one sample of each exceeded the federal limits.” Firstly, I would expect “traces of pesticides” to turn up in a random cup of sea water or gulp of fresh air – it means nothing (other than the forementioned general contamination of the global environment by synthetic compounds!) – and the 1 sample of each in 1000 pounds doesn’t say anything very much either. However, she continues, as if to conclude: “The scary truth is that you’re exposed to bad chemicals every day when you drink water out of a plastic bottle.” This isn’t logical; it’s actually scatterbrained. If I squint hard and try to make sense of it, it’s almost like she’s saying “synthetic poisons are everywhere, so let’s ignore the problem.” These data certainly don’t compare organic and conventional farming at all, but they implicate synthetic products again. I’m really not having to work very hard at a critique of conventional farming; she’s providing it herself.

She next makes another of her odd, almost throwaway, concessions about the benefits of organic farming: “those who do eat organic can take to heart that many smaller farms use few to no pesticides, and overall, organic foods do usually contain lower levels of pesticides than conventional foods.” Just pause there for a moment. Make sure you took that to heart: “organic foods do usually contain lower levels of pesticides“. But earlier, her argument against organics was that, since the chemicals were relatively ineffective, we have to spray them liberally. She implied that organic food is awash with unregulated dangerous chemicals.

The wording of her first “myth” is such that she has, unsurprisingly, made her case – organic food is not free of pesticides and harmful chemicals – but that appears to be a tall order in a world where contamination is widespread. She has established, however, that they contain less pesticides than conventionally farmed food, and the source appears to be, on the whole, synthetic.

Oblivious of a fainting sensation or a limp after shooting herself in the foot so spectacularly, she moves on to say that there are other dangers of organic produce: it has more pathogens like E. coli. Now, this may be true, but the organic philosophy is something of a paradigm shift involving a different approach to ecological issues, which she appears not to understand. As many a biologist will confirm (and she is one, so she should know), pathogens are part of our environment, a living, evolving part, and the more we attack those parts we don’t want, the more they evolve strategies to fight back. This is becoming a little better known in antibiotics use in humans, though few still are aware of the severity of it (I heard an expert recently on BBC Radio 4 saying that we probably won’t have to worry about global warming, as the superbugs will overwhelm us first). There is a connection between the antibiotics being pumped into farm animals as a matter of course (i.e. preemptively, not just when they’re sick), the over-use of antibiotics in humans and the sterilization of our environment, both domestic and industrial: they’re all old-paradigm, hammer-to-crack-nuts thinking. And our modern life with its contaminated food and epidemic outbreaks is this old paradigm back-firing on us.

True to type, Christie’s solution, after identifying the source of these pathogens as manure used in organic farming, is: “Conventional farms often use manure, too, but they use irradiation and a full array of anti-microbial agents”. There is something terribly wrong, I submit, when manure, used for about 10,000 years in farming, and present in our environment as long as there have been humans, is seen (indiscriminately) as a contamination risk and irradiated or otherwise treated to completely sterilize it! It is a valuable living community of biological agents, not just a collection of static compounds.

The fact that anti-biotic practices backfire, producing further problems, means that the alternative to developing organic practices, it seems to me, will be to rely more and more on such clinical techniques until we irradiate everything, sterilize everything, kill everything apart from our crops and us. I wonder if eventually we’ll try to get rid of the pesky little aliens that make up 90% of our own body cells too! The stupid thing is that ecosystems, given the chance and sensitively stewarded, tend to self-regulate and support the whole. Constantly violently disturbed, they tend to go increasingly out of whack.

Next, she deals with “Myth: Organic Foods Are More Nutritious”. However, she immediately switches from using the word “nutritious” to “healthy” as if these were synonymous. They aren’t: hemlock may be quite nutritious, but it isn’t healthy. Raw acorns are nutritious, but aren’t healthy until you leach the toxins out. She ignores her own earlier confession (which I’ll reverse and paraphrase to make a point): “conventionally-farmed foods usually contain more (synthetic) pesticides“!

On the supposed “Myth: Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment”, Christie’s irrationality and ignorance really shifts up a gear, especially as “an ecologist by training”. She makes what appears at first sight to be another of her casual concessions, but which actually doesn’t make sense, unless I have utterly misunderstood organic principles: “True, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been universally found to be ecologically damaging,” (my point being that organic farming doesn’t use “synthetic pesticides” at all, that is the point). She then repeats the previous argument that organics use chemicals too (yes, but presumably ones passed by organic regulatory bodies), and now adds a new complaint, that organic farms “refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”

The reluctance to endorse GMOs comes from a principle of respecting the interconnectedness of the ecological web, as well as recognising that we have messed about with Nature already in several ways, to our serious peril, and are now being led by unregulated and highly powerful multinational corporations into even more radical tampering with the world we live in – genetic engineering may be extremely dangerous, and we require more evidence of its safety before we blithely accept the patenting of seeds, for instance, or the release of unnatural organisms into the global ecosystem – is it so hard to understand? The idea that GMOs might eliminate pesticides is also pretty short-sighted for a trained ecologist, and – my little bit of research this afternoon informs me – woefully incorrect.

Before that, let me – a mere layman with a little background knowledge of evolutionary principles – consider the consequences of using a pest-resistant crop. What can we expect to happen? The bugs that did eat our crops are going to have their populations massively reduced (rather as they do when we kill them with sprays, but mostly just when they munch our food). The “stressed” (in evolutionary terms) bugs now living in nearby habitats – on the adjacent weeds, etc. – will evolve faster, natural mutants will make attempts to re-invade the crop, and they are likely eventually to succeed. So pesticide-resistant super-bugs will probably invade our crops later, at a time when we’re even more dependent on the new monoculture (just as antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs” invade our bodies). Presenting GM as somehow environmentally friendly because they kill pests in a more convenient or systemic manner is disingenuous and naive.

“Pests” are part of an ecological web that we now understand is vital to maintain, and if we have problems to contend with from parts of it, we should do so as sensitively and lightly as possible to minimize the selective pressure towards developing resistant strains. It’s arguable that nature is always in a constant state of attack and defence, but our modern methods have tended to force this to the point of an arms race.

Christie describes the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and its products in organic agriculture as an example of organic hypocrisy, since we’re supposedly happy to use it as an application, but against its toxic function being genetically engineered into crops. However, Jim Deacon of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh, whilst ackowledging some positives, said of this range of GMOs, “there is also a ‘downside’, because the target insects are perpetually exposed to toxins and this creates a very strong selection pressure for the development of resistance to the toxins.”

As I mentioned earlier in the discussion, it seems likely that colony collapse disorder in bees (CCD) is related to pesticide use. But that wikipedia article also contains this irony: “Virtually all of the genetically engineered Bt corn grown in the U.S. is treated with neonicoticoids and a 2012 study found high levels of clothianidin in pneumatic planter exhaust [carrier material such as talc, seed residue and other dust particles]. In the study, it was found that the insecticide was present in the soil of unplanted fields nearby those planted with Bt corn and on dandelions growing near those fields.” So not only is Christie’s claim false (that using GMOs avoids the use of chemicals), but the example she used, genetically engineered Bt crops, are treated with toxins now implicated in contributing to CCD. Here is a very sobering demonstration that genetically modifying crops neither protects them from pests nor is safe for the environment. Honey bees are vital for food production by pollinating most of our food crops globally; CCD is a very serious global danger. This has prompted tighter controls and review by the EFSA earlier this year (2013). Bayer Cropscience, one of those multinationals I mentioned, has been invited to explain discrepancies in their reported research data.

As well as additional selection pressure on the target pest, I have read that secondary pests often move on to a GM crop, potentially removing any benefit. It really does seem that we can’t beat Nature; maybe we should try to join it.

Christie goes on, “But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that it’s far less productive. Organic farming yields only around 80% the amount of conventional methods…” For a start, that’s hardly far less productive, and I would suggest that it may be due more to a lack of commitment to organic farming’s full potential, which may require major changes in food types grown and technologies such as permaculture. It may also ignore land exhaustion in conventional farming, which can lead to dust bowls with zero productivity, as these deserts are then unlikely to figure in productivity studies!

The article I am criticising was posted at Nutrition Wonderland in 2007, but I have seen almost the identical argument from Christie in the New York Times in 2012 (where she is described as a Ph.D. student in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Hawaii). Her much shorter piece is now entitled more unequivocally, The Ecological Case Against Organics, but since it is essentially the same argument, it increases my doubt about the balance of her earlier one. Anyway, I mention it because she repeats this point about organic farming being only 80% as productive, only this time she provides a link to the source of the 80% figure. The abstract of the article is quite illuminating:

An understanding of agroecosystems is key to determining effective farming systems. Here we report results from a 21-year study of agronomic and ecological performance of biodynamic, bioorganic, and conventional farming systems in Central Europe. We found crop yields to be 20% lower in the organic systems, although input of fertilizer and energy was reduced by 34 to 53% and pesticide input by 97%. Enhanced soil fertility and higher biodiversity found in organic plots may render these systems less dependent on external inputs. (my emphasis)

Her main argument of the whole piece, however, is one that fell out of favour a long time ago, of the starving millions: “Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now.” Starvation is, of course, a global scandal, but it is not because we don’t have enough food to go round, just as poverty isn’t due to a lack of global wealth. As Greenpeace puts it, “We are told that GE crops will help feed the world’s poor but according to the United Nations, we are already producing one and a half times the amount of food needed to provide everyone in the world with an adequate and nutritious diet.”

Global inequalities, poor distribution, wars, greed and malpractice are what cause the starvation and malnutrition, not lack of gross productivity. Even if her concern is for future population growth and higher demand, she is still ignoring completely our power to do something about the population side of the equation. But let’s see how far she stretches this straw-man argument. “…But what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of untouched habitats.” Wow, incredible! So the (wrong) cause, our desperate lack of food, will get worse if we switch to organic farming because it requires the destruction of “untouched” habitats! This is pure spin…”big agri” spin.

She concludes her myth-busting article (in bold), “As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats all together.” This is ridiculous, not to mention sickeningly cavalier. Not only is the destruction of key habitats (or any habitats) by organic farming a desperate, straw-man argument, re-defining organic principles to mean their opposite, but it ignores the much more serious destruction of habitats by conventional farming, and she has missed the most important and dreadful fact, that (largely synthetic) pesticide and fertilizer pollution is actually destroying environments right now! The blindness of her position is staggering to me. It reminds me of the smoker’s argument that if he stopped he’d probably be quite bad tempered, and stress is bad for us.

Christie Wilcox ends her piece trying to advocate a “middle ground” between organic and traditional farming (which may have some merit, but I wouldn’t trust her judgement on anything after this), and she does advocate using local produce to avoid transportation (which seems a no-brainer to me, but apparently, according to her own source, we can also reduce energy inputs by 34 to 53% in producing it). She argues, “Synthetic doesn’t necessarily mean bad for the environment,” which may literally be true, but misses the important point that synthetic does mean more likely to be potentially bad for the environment, since we have very little ability to predict the effects of introducing a new chemical or organism into it. Admittedly, extracting, concentrating and using one already present in new ways could also have unforseen effects.

She continues, “Just look at technological advances in creating biodegradable products; sometimes, we can use our knowledge and intelligence to create things that are both useful, cheap (enough) and ecologically responsible, as crazy as that idea may sound.” But surely, biodegradable products illustrate the organic principle! Characterising them as “technological advances” in an attempt to equate them with synthetics or genetic engineering is either a deliberate deception or accidentally very stupid. A paper bag is less efficient, less convenient, lower tech than a plastic one. To use paper instead of plastic we have to suffer a downside, we have to compromise: it is weak when wet and it tears, it degrades – that is the whole point! This is analogous to us going back to organic meat, fruit and veg, putting up with less than perfect, identical products that keep for suspicious lengths of time. The biodegradable option very often means a return to using an earlier product – we’ve had biodegradable bags literally for millennia (and biodegradable food; I must end soon, but I feel sure that further research would show a strong link between preservative qualities bred into foodstuffs, such as GM or “F1 hybrids”, and health risks).

The plea “we desperately need more food!” – which seems to be Christie’s main argument – comes from the same orthodox world view that says “We need to dig up more coal and find more oil!”, whilst ignoring global warming and the demand side of the equation. The organic movement is motivated by an awareness of the “limits to growth” (immeasurable but virtually certain to exist) and the realisation that we can’t respond indefinitely to increasing demand by ad hoc technological tweaks. These are, to use a favourite phrase of a friend of mine, just kicking the can down the road. They are, like our orthodox economics models, based on constantly stimulating growth or helplessly responding to its expectation, which is the same thing. Whether it’s cash or carbon or cabbages, at some point we have to balance the books – we have to say enough is enough – the world is a finite planet. Humans, like any organism, reproduce according to their abilities – it is how we got to over 7 billion in the first place, through the Agricultural Revolution and then the Industrial Revolution. We don’t have to go back to living in caves as hunter-gatherers, we just have to put the brakes on, or we are going to crash. Population growth isn’t an argument for GMOs or chemically-driven food production. The fact that we already have a planet contaminated by toxins and engineered organisms is an argument both for tackling population growth and respecting the global ecosystem.

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18 Responses to A Critique of “The Truth About Organic Farming” by Christie Wilcox

  1. Donald Telfer says:

    I hope there are still a few remote places in under-“developed” countries where they conduct organic subsistence farming, for want of knowledge of anything else, and live in small communities. I mean instead of living in cities, working in non-farm occupations and getting their food from supermarkets. It´s gradually increasingly depressing for me to go into a supermarket in Danmark. The Danish supermarkets have gone downhill further than their Australian counterparts (Danmark being closer to the homeland of Aldi). Just about all the small food supply shops in Coffs Harbour have been eliminated by competition from supermarkets. Once a week in Coffs Harbour (Australia) there is a market day where farmers sell direct to the public. Something similar happens in Flensburg (Germany). Both Flensburg and Coffs Harbour are regional / country towns. Evenso, some of the purportedly organic food in Flensburg is faked.

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Donald, your views are close to mine. It’s interesting to be reminded of that other aspect of all this at the consumer end, the destruction of local differences as global conglomerates take over. I don’t exactly want people to practise subsistence for want of any alternative, but the alternative we’ve got is pretty dire. The pendulum is swinging back again, but it’s slow. Local, low-tech, organic, etc., are still seen as weird, alternative, hippie choices, a sort of affectation rather than a response to living in an untenable global system of human inequality propping up bland, identical infrastructure and products, all because those with the most money can do that to us. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Donald Telfer says:

    In Danmark and Australia I financially support the mass-produced food producers, by way of buying their products because they are cheaper, and by way of being a shareholder in various agri-businesses and food processors (although Australian shareholders in Australian food businesses, including me, are being increasingly bought out by foreign interests like Glencore and Archer Daniels Midland, groan.)

    The organic or ecological sustainable food one can buy in western shops is generally rather more expensive than the non-ecological food, and hence I do not buy it on economic grounds. Uh oh.

    In reality in Australia or Danmark I am dependent on supermarkets. And I don´t like being dependent.

    On the other hand, I morally or ethically oppose the side-effects of mass food production. I would prefer to not have to shop for food at all. Hence hypocrisy on my part, but at least I am aware of it.

    Fundamentally I am oriented towards a low cost lifestyle (because I have a low income). So I am biased, or put it another way, the bias of most other western people (who receive a salary or social welfare payments) is at a tangent to my own bias.

    For people conducting subsistence agriculture I found I get to have my cake and eat it, because there is no point-of-sale transaction on one´s credit card when we dig up out of the ground or pick off trees what you are going to eat among yourselves. It´s free, or no cash is involved.

    There´s still a problem though, if your crops get hit by a Samoan hurricane they are destroyed, except the taro. But the hurricanes only happen on average about once every 20 years (historically, but perhaps the frequency has increased to once every 10 years since 1990).

  4. lettersquash says:

    Yes, I sometimes have pangs of “hypocrisy”, but it’s hard to say exactly what is hypocrisy and what is forced upon us, or exactly how much freedom and responsibility we have in our politics. I imagine that most of us do either try to make ethically-informed choices where we can. I do some of my shopping at a cheap supermarket a mile or so away (and like you, can’t afford organic produce), but I’m lucky enough to live near to one of the branches of a reasonably ethical “local supermarket”, the Co-operative. The British “co-op” is a proud tradition, being one of the first large organisations to share dividends with customers. They now have a bank, which I also use, with some of the most ethical and democratic policies out there.

    I generally do as much as I can (be bothered to!) in the way of recycling and upcycling, reducing and reusing, as well as minimizing the amount of unnecessary crap most people seem to buy to maintain their self-esteem, like a new mobile phone or tablet every 6 months – I have a Nokia someone gave me in about 2005, and only change my computer when one finally falls apart. I run as small a car as possible, etc. I have almost completely stopped buying any foodstuffs from more than a few hundred miles away, and that’s just an occasional bottle of French wine (I wouldn’t even get that, but it’s for the other half). Of course, I imagine a lot of the ingredients of my food have been shipped all over the planet before being combined into my Economy Brand whatever.

    The thing I’m most pleased about recently is starting an allotment garden where I and my partner grow lots of lovely fresh organic veg. It doesn’t quite last the whole year, and it doesn’t replace 100% of the shopping budget by any means, but it’s a big help and we love doing it. Thankfully, we have the resources and the time. Not everyone does.

  5. Donald Telfer says:

    The cheapest frozen potato chips sold in Australia come from either Holland or Germany. The cheapest (& perhaps all) canned peaches in Denmark come from Greece. Some of the oranges in Denmark come from the United States. And the bananas in Denmark tend to come from Colombia ?

    In villages in Samoa where there is no salaried employment (apart from teachers and church ministers) the locals catch fish in the lagoon to sell to anyone with the cash in order to raise money to buy canned food, including canned fish, (which lasts longer in the cans and does not need refrigeration) and to pay the church minister his salary. If there is no fish buyer they eat the fish instead of selling it. Samoans also use weedkillers and pesticides on their plantations, when they can afford it.

    I´d rather the Samoans left the lagoon fish alone and dispensed with the costly overheads of having a church building and minister in every village.

    I regret I do not grow any food at all (but at the same time I am both too lazy and too involved in other distractions to do it myself).

    Your mobile phone is 2 years older than mine, the one & only I use was sold to me secondhand in 2007. I hardly use it now, and mostly when I use it I use it as a computer, not as a phone…

    Nothing I write here is going to make much (or any ?) difference vis-a-vis ecological sustainability. It´s mildly frustrating.

  6. Woody says:

    Thanks for looking this up, lettersquash, the discussion helps all of us and is interesting reading. My comment on the ‘Spirituality is no Excuse’ blog was on subject to Yakaru’s post (I admit that it is rare for me to be so close to subject when commenting). The post was about the many assertions, facts, figures etc. that we can still hear people say today in their most authoritive tone for which dispassionate study and controlled testing have already shown to be debunked or at least shown to be quite different to the claim being made.
    In agreeing with Yakaru’s frustration I offered some example subjects and for each some specifics that I am sick of hearing, such as the claim that organic farming produces more nutritious food or that the world & it’s people could survive on only organic farming.
    My other example subject was ufologists and their many dated claims that are made as if nothing else has been learned about our atmosphere or how humans interpret their perceptions since that exciting time.
    I meant – and thought I had included – no connection or throwing in baskets the two example subjects apart from both so often producing quite dated claims that can be frustrating for someone who has followed the evidence since then.
    Despite this possible misunderstanding, a piece of me is glad that you have examined the link I provided and given it a review. We may all have gained a better light in which to see the subject (even though we were originally commenting on rather different subjects.)
    You have been fair with me lettersquash, freely admitting when you may not yet have the knowledge to make real claims on a subject, and taken care not to offend. You can rant a little but which of us can’t.
    I have research to do, but not comments to re-write, and our definition of ‘organics’ has crossed and differed, maybe a lesson for us all.

  7. lettersquash says:

    Hi Woody, thanks for those bits of clarification, and welcome to the blog. I wondered if I should have qualified it a bit when I said that you “seemed to lump together…”. I had a moment’s emotional reaction to “organic fanatics” until I remembered that “fan” is short for “fanatic”, and I wouldn’t mind at all being called an “organics fan”, whereas “fanatic” can imply irrationality.

    I had never considered the questions of nutrition or global productivity from organic food very seriously at all, and I genuinely responded to that as a challenge for me – like a bit of a shock – Oh, yeah, I’m an organics fan, and I probably should look into it a bit! I should kick the idea around and see if the stuffing comes out, so I’m not supporting something irrationally, or wasting my time and money, or whatever.

    I haven’t had my mind changed, but I’ve learned a fair bit, for which I thank you. I’m getting fascinated by this now.

    I also see that you’re thinking along similar lines to me when you understand the differences as depending on definitions.

    I’m interested to know what you think now about those questions of whether organic food is more nutritious or can feed the world, if you’d like to discuss it. No sweat if you’ve moved on or said all you want to say on it.

  8. lettersquash says:

    @Donald – I’d rather the Samoans ate fresh fish!

    This kind of madness is everywhere – even on my allotment. I keep dispensing of “weeds” that compete with my “crops”, and telling the neighbours “Hey, did you know, these are edible? – Yeah, they make quite a nice vegetable, apparently.” And then I chuck them on the compost. I’ve not tasted them yet.

  9. Donald Telfer says:

    From memory, the canned fish (mackerel or herrings or the like in this case) are canned in Taiwan.
    After the 1990 hurricane the Italian government donated to Samoa about 2 or 3 shipping containers full (i.e. 24 ? or 36 ? cubic metres) of canned Italian sardines, as food aid. When the following hurricane hit in late 1991, I still had a small stockpile of Italian sardines which helped overcome the temporary food cooking problem for me until electricity and water supplies were restored where I lived a few days later.
    The interuption in electricity and water supply did not matter so much in those places where they still did not have electricity or piped water supplies to begin with.
    However if you lived in a town area you were crippled domestically by the lack of utilities until normal services were restored, which took weeks in many cases.
    My point is that people with an ecologically sustainable low technology rural lifestyle are less vulnerable to technical disasters than those living in cities or towns.
    The earth might also be a safer place to live if instead of producing food for 7 billion humans it only had to (comparatively inefficiently) produce food for 1 billion humans by organic farming. But it´s too late now, by about 6 billion humans.

    The fresh fish are presumably healthier food, but being a fish being eaten is bad for the health of the fish itself..

  10. Woody says:

    Cheers lettersquash. While my view on those subjects hasn’t changed, they are now for me a part of a larger more important subject: The future of this world and the place of our species in that future. You’ve convinced me to look deeper into it and as a result I will learn more than I knew. I used to say that organic farming is not the answer but now I say that it is at least a part of the answer.
    Thank you all for reading!

  11. Yakaru says:

    Sorry for being so late to the party. I was on holiday / had limited internet access when this was all going on. I also wanted to do a post on this topic too, but never got around to it….

    Good critique of the article, lettersquash.

    My main gripe with organic farming is that it’s based on an anti-scientific ideology. It still believes that chemistry is really divided up into organic and non-organic chemistry and harbors all kinds of vitalistic woo.

    It’s based on the naturalistic fallacy (the belief that “natural” is inherently good, “unnatural is inherently bad).

    That said, it could certainly conceivably have some good consequences. Organic farmers MAY be more likely to care about sustainable land use, etc.

    O found this article interesting, and although it makes somne similar criticisms as the Wilcox article. the author seems to me to be a little more objective (having sincerely tried) and less prepared than Wicox to make blanket condemnations. Ultimately though, he gives it a thumbs down.


    Just for the record:
    – The best food I’ve EVER eaten: vegie burgers and salad from the original (since 1923) biodynamic farm in Dornach Switzerland.
    – Best (cow’s) milk ever I tasted; biodynamic milk from Yarra Glen near Melbourne.
    – Best fruit juice: Lloyd’s biodynamic grape juice in Australia.

  12. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru, no problem arriving fashionably late! I’m also fine with contrary views, of course. I am about as impressed by the article you linked to as the Wilcox one (i.e. not much), but I have been realising how much of the dispute seems to come down to definitions and characterisations of the word “organic”. On the one hand, it is seen as meaning related to carbon compounds, life chemistry as opposed to inorganic chemistry, and – often coupled with this – certification of organic farms. On the other, it is understood as an essentially ecologically sensitive agriculture, based on elevating certain principles, like protecting biodiversity, different cultures and traditional practices, relative to commercial measures like productivity. It’s fairly easy to rip the first to shreds, but it misses something important. Also, while I accept that scientific evidence is extremely important in politics, I strongly resist the idea that our politics should be based on it, especially when the baseline for benefit is taken to be productivity. But even if the science did take into account the wider ecological and social benefits and costs, weighing them up is a moral endeavour and should be based on democracy and discussion. I do not agree with Sam Harris that we can develop a morality based on science, since by definition, science is amoral. Certainly, if the narrow view of benefit continues as I see in many research papers, we might well find that the “best” agriculture on paper is something we do not want. To stretch the point, it could be to plough and irrigate the whole tropical region and sustain 25 billion humans living in the temperate regions. It might be feasible and chemically balanced. But it would be a dreadful world. In this sense, even “sustainability” isn’t adequate guidance. We might theoretically be able to sustain a hellish existence eating one genetically modified crop with everything else on the planet wiped out, with the “right” technologies.

  13. Yakaru says:

    It’s more than 20 years since I studied global agribusinesses in any depth, but i suspect not much has changed since then for the better. The problems with land theft and misuse by multinationals are issues that justify the strongest possible opposition. Objections to organic farming on the other hand are, as far as I’m concerned, something to chat about over a coffee… or on a blog post…

    …So my main objection is simply a theoretical one. Obviously any good practices that arise from an unsound theoretical basis should be recognised and kept, I’d even be willing to grant hypothetically that organic farming leads to 100% sound practice, but I’d still want to point the problems of an unsound theoretical basis.

    Above all, it means that the ideology cannot advance or be improved in accordance with advancements. Rather, every scientific advancement gets run through an ideological filter first.

    Real dangers can be ignored (for example, using insecticides that are deemed “organic” and therefore assumed to be safe) and unreal dangers can be exaggerated (eg., the classic woo mistake of believing “chemicals” to be toxic, rather than realising that its the dosage that’s important).

  14. lettersquash says:

    That’s really useful, yakaru, thanks. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. I agree that scientific evidence should not be “run through an ideological filter”, but ideology can do several very useful things. At least, it can help set a course to start with, which empirical evidence can modify. Secondly, related to the first, it can do this very important function of reminding us to take a bigger picture than scientific studies usually do, since their requirement to simplify and isolate conditions usually ends up with a particular criterion representing benefit (as I said, it’s very often productivity).

    This leads to a complementary kind of woo on the other side, perhaps even more dangerous because its proponents can claim Absolute Scientific Reality, which I would say accounts for a high proportion of the objections I’ve read, Wilcox and Mike Bendzela included. In particular, they ignore possibilities that involve moderating our global impact as a species – the knee-jerk, sciency-woo reaction to that is one of incomprehension or ridicule. Arguing that at some point the human race is going to have to slow the fuck down and use less, that we are almost certainly responsible for mass extinction and global warming, and hence that we should not base the value of a technology on how much more we can screw out of the Earth with it and to hell with tomorrow, is almost immediately and subconsciously equated with being a hippie weirdo. I know the argument that science is “too reductionistic” is dreadfully abused by hippie weirdos, but it is, unfortunately, in such areas, as blind as a deaf bat.

    I do agree, of course, that the woo of “chemicals are bad; organic insecticides are good” is a problem, and my main criticism of organic practice would probably have to be that it has devised its principles irrationally to some degree, and then it also finds loopholes to avoid its own principles. I have to admit I am guilty of this hypocrisy myself – or find it hard to avoid sometimes – when faced with an infestation in my vegetable crops. However, there are, I believe, very good principles and practices that can be used, and could be further developed. I just dosed caterpillars with garlic and mild soap solution with very good results and no poisoning of the allotments, for instance. Other options (more extreme, towards the “I-refuse-to-be-a-hypocrite” end) might include changing the crop next year, putting up with lower yields, better isolation of the cabbages from the butterflies, etc., etc. I am horrified to find things like copper sulphate sanctioned for widespread use, when it’s not even part of organic chemistry, and I’ve known it to be fairly highly toxic since I got my first chemistry set.

    However, I’ve NEVER studied global agribusiness before this little part-time foray, and my chemistry isn’t too hot either! But I hate where we’re at now – scientists usually isolated in their technical fields, and the people who should bring it all together into policy are … well, politicians. I think there’s more dialogue between the two now, but I do hope there will be some scientific generalists in the gap, who can take the bigger picture and convey it to policy-makers. I’m fairly pessimistic, as all I see are attempts to stimulate economic growth at any cost. Corporate and state competition is misappropriating “science” to drive its capitalist, short-term goals (including land appropriation), and that can only end one, very unpleasant, way, IMO.

  15. Woody says:

    Even with an accurate, environmentally thoughtful, soberly planned model for a sustainable global ecosystem (of which few exist)will it all fall apart when faced with political, economic and territorial lines? I think this is what creates the most pessimism. Should we concentrate on the model itself? Since it cannot survive the inclusion of humankind? Maybe much greater levels of co-operation and peace need to be achieved before we could implement such a model successfully upon the world.

  16. lettersquash says:

    Thanks for your comment, Woody. I’d have responded earlier, but I don’t seem to be able to get onto wordpress as readily as I used to.

    I agree that global models of sustainable ecology are extremely problematic, and geopolitical issues are cause for great concern.

    There are two ways to think of global models – 1) analysis of the ecosystem across the globe, assessing resources, etc. and 2) actual globalisation of the food chain. The first is an essential part of science, and can inform policy intentions and international negotiations. Globalisation of the food chain comes with massive ecological cost in transportation of goods. It’s why I try to source most of my shopping locally, although I’m sure I could do a lot better (particularly if I read the small print on multi-ingredient products).

    I find it utterly incredible that here in Britain my local supermarket can stock packs of two sizeable basa fillets, skinless, boneless, breaded and in a plastic tray, for £1 (about 1.50 USD), considering that they have been farmed in Vietnam and then (presumably) flown half way round the world, when there is also presumably nothing stopping us farming these fish here, except somehow the economics of doing so aren’t competitive. If I start thinking about the oceans of wine and other luxuries transported all over the world, merely to satisfy consumer demand for unlimited choice, I can get pretty pissed off.

    I am somewhat pessimistic, because I see so much political inertia in environmental issues, but against that I do think we respond eventually to dangers and diminishing resources – it’s just a question of how much damage will be done from doing too little too late. Governments and corporations often find it more convenient and profitable to make things worse or continue with business as usual than improving the situation. And making a realistic assessment of long-term future scenarios is difficult, because of possible changes of extraordinary impact for good or ill, engineered or accidental, from gaining a free source of almost unlimited energy (eg. fusion) to a supervolcano eruption.

    One of the biggest reasons to be hopeful is the Internet and fast processing of “big data” generally, which is allowing us to see these things more clearly and motivating millions of ordinary citizens to take direct action in political campaigns. If we could actually get as far as properly instigating goods pricing taking account of the carbon footprints, for instance, we’d be making some significant progress, and I guess wine from Australia (here) would be the costly luxury it should be. If morons could also stop flying all over the world merely to have meetings (and sightsee on company time), that would help too.

    One of the biggest problems is that no country wants to instigate beneficial change unilaterally, as it would put it at a disadvantage globally. However, a combination of global negotiation (like if the eco summits start to have a bit more bite) and the economic advantage of local production (avoiding importing a product) might swing the balance – I don’t know, I’m no economist. If not, we’ll just have to wait until things get a whole lot scarier before we react.

  17. mysteriousgoat says:

    Hi usual suspect here,I am not fully convinced about the organic farming model. People need affordable food. its far better to have conventional farming with an emphasis on minimising animal cruelty and eating less meat . Organic veg does nottaste much different to ordinary veg. I see great virtues in farming milk, eggs and meat with a lot more respect for livstock but its impossible to provide the sheer quantity of eggs for example while providing a studio apartment with 1 acre of lush pecking fields per bird while ensuring that itsultimate sacrifice is made in a hospice while listening to the piano. We just have too many people who want to eat too much of the wrong stuff . Indeed it would make much more sense if 100% of people ate half as much meat as we do today rather than 10% stop eating meat and the other 90% eat 11% more . As always we must see the BIG PICTURE. incidentally on a related topic and what with the endless demand for more growth in teh eceonomy can I recommemnd the works of Professor Albert Bartlett on YouTube when he rips into the poorly understood Exponential Function that shows that endless growth is impossible and indeed undesirable. I do wish politicians would focus on quality of life instead of just imagining our needs can be met by the constant accumulation of material things .

  18. lettersquash says:

    Thanks for that, mysteriousgoat. I seriously lolled at the idea of a chicken’s “ultimate sacrifice made in a hospice while listening to the piano”.

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