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Is Organic Agriculture a Myth, or a Viable Reality?

Organic vs Conventional Agriculture

Please forgive me for the long piece. But as someone with a lot of knowledge about pesticides and their use, and organic, new and novel farming techniques, I found this article by Scientific American to be an appalling hit piece against non-conventional agriculture. It’s so laden with misdirection, half truths and outright lies that I feel the need to address it directly.

The ‘myths’ that the author presents are already very much on the minds of people concerned about the future of our food system, but the way they are used here is highly deceptive, and twists what could be a thoughtful criticism of the industrialization of organic agriculture into a broad and baseless attack upon non-conventional agriculture as a whole. Allow me a moment, and let me demonstrate how these myths, though grounded in truth, are distorted into slanderous lies by the author. But, before I even get to the myths, a few statements in the opening paragraph deserve some scrutiny.

“In the past year or two, certified organic sales have jumped to about $52 billion worldwide despite the fact that organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods. More and more, people are shelling out their hard-earned cash for what they believe are the best foods available.”

This statement sets up the central premise of the article: that if you spend your money on organic food you are a fool who is being ripped off. But at its core is a lie.

Indeed, if you go to a supermarket, and buy organic food from the veggie section, you might pay up to three times more for foods which are labeled organic. You won’t necessarily, but you certainly could. However, if you go to a farmers market, enroll in a CSA, or grow the food yourself with your own sweat equity, you can actually pay less for food grown with organic methods than you would pay for some flawless but tasteless conventional veggie in the grocery.

If you grow it yourself, you end up spending a tiny fraction of what you would pay at the store. You can even grow heirloom varieties that taste great, and are great for you, but can’t be easily transported to the store regardless of whether they are grown conventionally or using organic methods. As a corollary example, if I go and buy batteries at a supermarket, or a photo shop, I might pay far more than I would pay if I bought equivalent batteries online, but that doesn’t mean I am a fool for buying batteries at all.

A huge misdirection is hardly a good way to start an article out, but it gets worse from there. Let’s address each of these ‘myths’ one by one.

Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides

“When the Soil Association, a major organic accreditation body in the UK, asked consumers why they buy organic food, 95% of them said their top reason was to avoid pesticides. They, like many people, believe that organic farming involves little to no pesticide use. I hate to burst the bubble, but that’s simply not true. Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their crops. Confused?..The top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.”

Notice the misdirection there? Just because 95% of people polled said that their top reason for buying organic was to avoid pesticides does not mean that 95% of people don’t know that pesticides of various sorts are used in organic agriculture.

A large portion of those people are probably buying organic to avoid specific pesticides, like the highly toxic insecticides widely used in conventional agriculture. The whole point of the organic standard (weak as it is, in some ways) was to restrict pesticides to those that had a very long track record, and are widely regarded to not damage the environment when used properly. Copper and Sulfur compounds, though less effective per pound (that is why more has to be used) work fairly well. Copper can be toxic in moderate doses, but Sulfur (though it is an irritant) isn’t bad at all with an LD50 of around 5 grams/kg. You’d have to be grabbing handfuls of the stuff and eating it to seriously hurt yourself.

Conventional fungicides are not that bad either, frankly, but conventional insecticides are often weird neurotoxins with a high acute toxicity, and that is what most people don’t want on their food. That whole paragraph was, at best, mendacious. There are some good points in this section about the futility of ‘letter of the law’ organic agriculture and the need to thoroughly test all pesticides, but the overall effect is one of sowing confusion with little in the way of facts to back it up.

The author tries to bolster their weak case by bringing up the example of Rotenone, but even here there is nothing to stand upon:

“Rotenone’s use as a pesticide has already been discontinued in the US as of 2005 due to health concerns, but shockingly, it’s still poured into our waters every year by fisheries management officials as a piscicide to remove unwanted fish species.”

Using the example of a pesticide that is natural, but has proven harmful and thus was removed from use hardly makes the case that organic food is a scary thing, covered with pesticides. If anything, it’s a good example of the system, for once, working as it should.

The inclusion of the anecdote about fisheries management is a bizarre non sequitur. The management of fisheries has absolutely nothing to do with organic agriculture standards. Another study which the author pointed to, that demonstrated that organic food sometimes makes it to market with off-standard pesticides coming along for the ride, does not support an attack upon organic agriculture either. It is as logical as saying that because some peanut butter has been contaminated with disease causing bacteria, you should avoid peanut butter as a whole. If you mess up, or lie, does it matter what label your product is being sold under? The producer is culpable in that case, not the organic certification or organic agriculture. Suggesting otherwise is deceitful.

“The point I’m driving home here is that just because something is natural doesn’t make it non-toxic or safe. Many bacteria, fungi and plants produce poisons, toxins and chemicals that you definitely wouldn’t want sprayed on your food.”

Since the organic standard seeks to find pesticides which are both natural and safe, and the example of Rotenone actually serves to prove this, this statement comes very close to being an outright lie. It seeks, at the least, to give someone an impression that is not true; that is, that the pesticides that are used in organic agriculture are unsafe and untested.

“Not only are organic pesticides not safe, they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry. Canadian scientists pitted ‘reduced-risk’ organic and synthetic pesticides against each other in controlling a problematic pest, the soybean aphid. They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like the aphid’s predators. Of course, some organic pesticides may fare better than these ones did in similar head-to-head tests, but studies like this one reveal that the assumption that natural is better for the environment could be very dangerous.”

Yes, perhaps organic pesticides are not effective if used in stupid, inappropriate ways. Good thing we have a process to figure out when and how we should use the tools available to us. It’s called science, and an example of science demonstrating how things should not be done does not prove that things are done that way generally, and further, it helps us to not make the same mistakes in the future. This study improved organic agriculture, and using it to bash organic agriculture is ironic at best.

“Even if the organic food you’re eating is from a farm which uses little to no pesticides at all, there is another problem: getting rid of pesticides doesn’t mean you’re food that is free from harmful things. Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens. One study, for example, found E. coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farms samples, but only 2% of conventional ones. The same study also found Salmonella only in samples from organic farms, though at a low prevalence rate. The reason for the higher pathogen prevalence is likely due to the use of manure instead of artificial fertilizers, as many pathogens are spread through fecal contamination. Conventional farms often use manure, too, but they use irradiation and a full array of non-organic anti-microbial agents as well, and without those, organic foods run a higher risk of containing something that will make a person sick.”

This statement is stunning in it’s apparent ignorance of recent history. The only big scare involving contamination coming from an organic farm in recent memory was the German E.coli scare involving an organic sprout farm, which turned out to not be the true source of the bacteria. However, we have recently had two massive outbreaks of salmonella which were firmly traced to a massive, industrial peanut butter factory where birds were crapping directly into the product, and an massive conventional egg farm that was treating its birds so poorly that bacteria were growing inside of the eggs themselves.

Sure organic farms have E.coli on some of their produce; it’s fertilized with manure. What is more important is that the E.coli not be a pathogenic variety, and livestock that are not pumped full of antibiotics are poor incubators for virulent, antibiotic resistant bacteria. And as far as using irradiation to sterilize manure, balderdash! The process is so expensive it’s only used on things like sushi in countries where it is regularly practiced, I’ve never once heard of it being used on manure in any commercial operation. Why bother, when you can just compost the manure until it’s own metabolic heat sterilizes itself, as mushroom growers do?

Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier

I won’t be pulling quotes from this part of the piece, because the case is pretty weak.

The studies that the author cites in this section only serve to show that the same plant, grown under different conditions, will be largely the same afterwards. This is because the crops which are being grown in these studies are the same ones that have been carefully bred for their ability to transport well, be picked by machines, and look pretty when ripened away from the bush. But if you compare heirloom varieties, such as those which were in broad usage in the 1950’s, with today’s produce, you find that the modern plants are significantly less nutritious. And very few to no heirloom varieties are grown in conventional agriculture. And the flavor of heirloom varieties is excellent. I dare say that if you put an old fashioned tomato on a plate next to a modern, truck ripened one, any one who couldn’t tell the difference would have to be suffering from a disorder of their sense of taste or smell.

Next>> Organic farming and the environment and a plea for a change in attitude.