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.