Is Organic Food the Answer?

The journalist Marc Gunther recently posted a thoughtful article discussing public perceptions of the role of organic agriculture in a future sustainable food system.

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He found that many consumers believe that there are only two ways to produce food:

“The first can be described, depending upon who’s talking, as big, fast, modern, conventional, industrial, intensive, chemical, genetically-modified, processed and global. It’s the system that delivers most of the food that most Americans eat.”

“The second is described as organic, sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural, agro-ecological and slow. It’s driving the growth of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as Whole Foods, and it’s increasingly being taken seriously by big companies like Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s.”

But farming practices are not so black and white in the U. S. and around the world.

The USDA’s National Organic Program Standards do not require that a farm be family- owned, local or small-scale. Take Earthbound farm for example. This 30,000 acre certified organic mega-farm sells boxes of processed, packaged greens to distant locales. Earthbound is big, fast, modern, industrial, intensive…and certified organic. Is that necessarily negative? I don’t think so. They have an impressive operation and produce wonderful greens. However one drawback to their operation is that the convenient packaging, which reduces time spent on washing and spinning, also generates millions of plastic containers each year.

Not only are some of the most successful organic farms gigantic and global, but so are some of the enormous corporations that buy organic food (Whole Foods, Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s).

Some local strawberry producers provide an opposite example. Down the road from us is a family farm of less than 2 acres. They grow local strawberries continuously from year to year, without crop rotation, and every couple of years, tarp their field and apply chemical fumigants. These strawberries are local, small-scale, family owned…and chemically intensive. We don’t buy their strawberries, we grow our own.

Another monkey wrench to the two-ag view is the genetically engineered papaya. As I have blogged about before, GE papaya exemplifies a sustainable, small-scale, non-corporate approach to plant breeding in Hawaii.

Weeds are a major limitation of crop production globally, as they compete for nutrients and sunlight. These weeds also are a problem for forage growers because they can be toxic to animals. One method to control weeds is to spray herbicides that kill them. Some newer herbicides, such as the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup), are considered nontoxic (class IV). The use of genetically engineered herbicide Round up Ready tolerant alfalfa reduces the use of herbicides that are more toxic. This is one of the reason genetically engineered alfalfa is attractive to dairy farmers: it reduces their cost, reduces harm to farmworkers and makes the feed safer for animals.

Comparing organic and conventional tillage practices is also not straight forward. While crop rotation and adding organic matter help organic growers reduce erosion, most organic growers also till the field each season, which degrades soil structure and contributes to erosion. Conventional farmers of herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean, are able to use low-till and no-till agriculture, which leaves the topsoil intact and protects it from being removed by wind or rain. Such no-till methods improve water quality and reduce soil erosion. Also, because tractor tilling is minimized, less fuel is consumed and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

These are just a few examples point to the complexities of farming practices. There is no single solution. For peer-reviewed, science-based information on this and other GE crops, please see this recent review.

Gunther writes,

“I’m skeptical in particular of the claim that organic agriculture is as productive or more productive than farming methods that use synthetic chemicals and genetically-modified foods. Partly that’s because most farmers have embraced modern ag. Less than 1% of US farmland is farmed organically. If farmers could improve their yields by giving up chemicals and genetically modified seeds, why wouldn’t they?”

With 80-95% of all sugar beets, corn, soy and cotton in the US, grown from genetically engineered seed, many farmers have clearly made their choice. The reason is that GE crops can be more profitable due to reduced input costs (fewer insecticides and reduced tillage). Other benefits include massive reductions in insecticides in the environment (Qaim and Zilberman 2003; Huang et al. 2005), improved soil quality and reduced erosion (Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability and National Research Council 2010), enhanced health benefits to farmers and families as a result of re-duced exposure to harsh chemicals (Huang et al. 2002, 2005), economic benefits to local communities (Qaim et al. 2010), enhanced biodiversity of beneficial insects (Cattaneo et al. 2006), and reduction in the number of pest outbreaks on neighboring farms growing nongenetically engineered crops (Hutchison et al. 2010). Genetically engineered crops have also dramatically increased crop yields– ca. 30% in some farming communities in developing countries (Qaim et al. 2010).

Another reason modern farmers don’t switch to organic is due to the complexity and cost of organic fertilizers. Compost and cover crops are the two main nutrient sources of organic growers. To grow corn, at least 10 tons/acre of compost would be required. The cost of compost varies, but this could easily be $120/acre, plus the costs of delivery and spreading. For a 2,000 acre farm the costs of using compost would be high, if it was available. If a farm is not located near a city or a livestock operation, compost may not be an option. Green manure, cover crops that fix nitrogen, are wonderful, but they take time during the year to grow and there are costs associated with buying and planting the seed. In many areas of the corn belt, cover crops would need to be grown instead of corn or soybeans, and yields of the food crops would be reduced. Some of this can be mitigated if the farmer used a rotation of corn, soybeans, a small grain, and alfalfa, where the alfalfa (harvested for hay), which also is a nitrogen fixing legume, takes the place of cover crop. This kind of rotation requires the corn-soybean grower to buy new equipment and develop new markets, another obstacle to changing to organic.

At a recent meeting of organic advocates, Gunther asked the attendees why they are against genetically engineered crops in light of the contributions of such crops to sustainable agriculture.

He received diverse answers to his query. Here is a smattering:

“Big seed companies the market and push farmers towards GM crops”.

Although many people feel comfortable buying their computers from Apple and their software from Microsoft, they still may not like large seed companies.This is partly because consolidation in the seed industry can be a problem for some growers. A few large corporations are controlling more and more of the seed used by conventional and organic farmers. Hybrid, non-hybrid, and genetically engineered crop seeds are increasingly being patented or protected through the Plant Variety Protection Act. While there are efforts within the organic community to reduce dependence on large seed companies, the challenges to produce high quality seed, containing the traits demanded by farmers and consumers in sufficient quantities for millions of acres, is immense.

” Because farmers, like the rest of us, are influenced by their peers, they have a reluctance to go against the grain.”

Farmers are influenced by other farmers for good reason: other farmers have the on-hands experience with a particular seed or farming practice and therefore are often in the best position to provide information on whether or not a particular new approach can benefit sustainable practices and enhance profit.

“The scientific evidence for the health benefits of organic is a matter of great debate.”

Actually, while you can still find ample debate on the blogs, the scientific evidence is clear: organically produced food is nutritionally equivalent to conventionally produced food.

When it comes to nutrition there are limits to what conventional plant breeding can offer. Because organic farming prohibits the use of genetically engineered seed, potential nutritional benefits provided by modern seed varieties will not be available to organic consumers. For example, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, daily consumption of a very modest amount of genetically engineered, Golden Rice – about a cup (or around 150 g uncooked weight) – could supply 50 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A for an adult.

“Because a large proportion of vitamin A-deficient children and their mothers reside in rice-consuming populations, particularly in Asia, Golden Rice should substantially reduce the prevalence and severity of vitamin A deficiency, and prevent at least hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of blindness every year,” says Alfred Sommer, professor and dean emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same as other rice, and they will be able to save seeds for replanting.

“it strikes me as entirely possible (albeit unproven) that chemical pesticides could do some of us some harm.”

A correction for Marc. There is ample scientific evidence that some pesticides (both organic pesticides and conventional) do cause harm the health of farmworkers.

Chronic exposure to rotenone, a certified organic pesticide, can cause damage to liver and kidney. Methyl bromide, widely used on strawberries for years, is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in farm workers. There are many other examples of harm to farmworker health. Pesticide residues on food are generally so small that the consumer is not affected.

For these reasons, reducing the use of agricultural chemicals is one of the important goals of sustainable agriculture. It is clear that organic practices have reduced pesticides on 1% of US cropland. It is also clear that GE crops like BT corn and cotton have reduced insecticide use on hundreds of millions of acres throughout the world [10% of the ~1.5 billion hectares (3.7 billion acres) of global cropland]. In 2010, 90% of the15.4 million growers of these crops were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

As every farmer knows, farming practices span a continuum. Each season, crop and location brings challenges.

Pitting farming practices against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. Without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.

Comments

  1. #1 Troy Truchon
    August 17, 2011

    @32, Mangelwurzel is edible. While it is grown commercially as fodder, it does make an appearance in backyard veggie patches now and again.

    Personally, I garden in what some would call an “organic” way, and often grow heirloom varieties, but that’s because I enjoy the diversity, and my personal labor is much cheaper than the hospital visit should I misapply a pesticide.

    Crop rotation, increased used of Legumes as living fertilizer, and having a little more diversity at the grocers are all good things, but they aren’t good for some magical organic reason, and why someone needs to wrap a banner around them I’ll never understand.

  2. #2 StanR
    July 23, 2011

    The scientific evidence is not clear, it’s severely lacking. We need more scientists and statisticians looking at the data and generating more of it, and less deciding the debate is over.

    Here’s another study to add to the meager pile:
    http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tandf/bfsn/2011/00000051/00000006/art00006#aff_1


    The aim of the present analysis was to evaluate the micronutrient content of plant foods produced by organic and conventional agricultural methods. Studies were identified from a search of electronic databases (1980-2007, inclusive) as well as manual searches. A total of 66 studies (describing 1440 micronutrient comparisons) were identified. Thirty-three studies (908 comparisons) satisfied the screening criteria which considered cultivar, harvesting, and soil conditions. In studies that satisfied the screening criteria, the absolute levels of micronutrients were higher in organic foods more often than in conventional foods (462 vs 364 comparisons, P = 0.002), and the total micronutrient content, expressed as a percent difference, was higher in organic (+ 5.7%, P < 0.001) as compared to conventionally grown produce. The micronutrient content of food groups was more frequently reported to be higher for organic vegetables and legumes compared to their conventional counterparts (vegetables, 267 vs 197, P < 0.001; legumes, 79 vs 46, P = 0.004). This trend was supported by a mean percent difference in micronutrient content favoring organic vegetables (+ 5.9%, P < 0.001) and legumes (+ 5.7%, P < 0.001). Further research is required to determine the effect of organic agricultural methods on a broader range of nutrients and their potential impact on health.

    html tags or no html tags, the inequality signs seem to screw up my quote, so you’ll have to just go to the source.

    Mike Bendzela, I’d like to thank you for your contributions and empathize. There are multitudes of clueless people working in every aspect of food. However, just as you say you were fooled by some of the organic movement’s claims, you can be fooled again about something else, and so can I, and so can we all. We should expect to be. Only one thing is clear to me: we need more transparency, more discussion, and more citizen science.

    To those ranting about contamination from manure: just as you are skeptical of claims by one camp, question your own claims. A period of time known as the “pre-harvest interval” is the cutoff for applying manure before harvesting, which is 120 days if soil particles can touch an edible part. Rant less, Google more.

  3. #3 Richard
    June 24, 2011

    I posit that organic farming cannot solely feed the world’s growing population. My source? According to crop experts Kirchman, Holger, Bergstrom and Lars, in the 2008 book “Organic Crop Production – Ambition and Limitations” – a scientific work that largely debunks utopian organic food claims, there would be a 40 percent reduction in global crop yields through large-scale conversion to organic agriculture. A 40 percent reduction in yield on a global scale is equivalent to the amount of crops required to feed 2.5 billion people – that’s with a “B.”
    While describing the worldwide benefits of conventional fertilizers, the experts summarize their findings with this observation: “It is obvious that worldwide adoption of organic agriculture would lead to massive famine and human death.” Put simply, you can starve much of the world population so we can feel good about using organic labels, or utilize environmentally safe and agronomically sound conventional systems that will feed the world. You choose.

  4. #4 Richard
    June 17, 2011

    You should ask the victims in Europe what they think about “organics.” Maybe how they would like a bunch of salad sprouts for dinner, teeming with E. coli bacteria spread by seriously pathogenic animal manures. I would take my chances any day with a little pesticide residue on my apple, than experience the pain and torment, and possibly death, cause by organically grown crops.

  5. #5 Prometheus
    June 16, 2011

    FreddyJ @#30

    “Money is the obvious motivation for the pro-pesticide crowd, it certainly does nothing good for our health.”

    Yield is the motivation for pesticides. Cartelism is motivated by money.

    The former keeps you from starving which does a great deal for your health.

    The latter increases as regulatory hostility to science based agriculture increases and draws a line in the sand between large scale vertically integrated producers and the “organic” gardeners lobbying for subsidy advantage based on mystical claims to elected urbane chowderheads.

    Whoever wins that war, the consumer loses.

    Tom McGuire@#29

    “….if pesticides are designed to kill living beings, and we humans are living beings closely related to all other living beings, then the logical conclusion is that pesticides can at the very least cause great harm to our health.”

    Try feeding your dog onions and chocolate. For that matter have a big bowl of locoweed the mule deer like it and all living things are brothers. What sickens our brothers sickens us so we shall thrive on their fodder and they on ours. I’m off to eat a bucket of Mangelwurzel and nightshade.

    Sorry, but you just had to use the words “logical conclusion” didn’t you.

  6. #6 Mr Woodworking
    June 14, 2011

    Mike B said -* What does it mean to be “disguised as organic”? Do unscrupulous conventional growers poke fake bug holes into the leaves? *-

    That would be so labor intensive, I hope you are just joking. I think it means, more or less, that they pawn it off as organic, when in fact it isn’t.

  7. #7 FreddyJ
    June 13, 2011

    Tom M… That’s a good comparison of the “goofy thinking” link between two groups that seem to have no common sense. Money is the obvious motivation for the pro-pesticide crowd, it certainly does nothing good for our health.

  8. #8 Tom McGuire
    June 2, 2011

    The pro-pesticide crowd is exactly like pro-uranium advocates back in the fifties who actually ingested the stuff in public displays of willful ignorance to show us all how “harmless” it is. Fact is, if pesticides are designed to kill living beings, and we humans are living beings closely related to all other living beings, then the logical conclusion is that pesticides can at the very least cause great harm to our health.

  9. #9 isaacschumann
    June 1, 2011

    Apparently the nih link above does not work, apologies. The address for the journal homepage is:

    http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/home.action

    The article is linked on the first page. Here is the citation from the article…

    Tanner CM, Kamel F, Ross GW, Hoppin JA, Goldman SM, et al. 2011 Rotenone, Paraquat, and Parkinson’s Disease. Environ Health Perspect 119(6): doi:10.1289/ehp.1002839

    Barrie, I agree with all three of your posts;)

  10. #10 Barrie
    May 31, 2011

    Our scarcest resource is land. By farming organicaly and not using mineral fertilizers in combination with organic nutrients, land is less productive than it could be. Sustainable intensification can optimise food production whilst maintaining the health and structure of the soil. Many organic farmers damage their soils as they are unable to maintain the correct nutrient balance due to the restrictions imposed by organic certification.

  11. #11 Mike Bendzela
    May 31, 2011

    seminar tables: “it’s so hard sometimes to pick out the food that’s organic from those that are just disguising as organic.”

    And yet advocates of “organic” claim that “organic” food is clearly superior to conventionally-grown foods. They say it is “safer, better-tasting, more nutritious.”

    So shouldn’t it be obvious which foods are “organic” and which are “disguised as organic”? Shouldn’t there be a test?

    What does it mean to be “disguised as organic”? Do unscrupulous conventional growers poke fake bug holes into the leaves?

  12. #12 seminar tables
    May 30, 2011

    This is an issue that’s very close to me. As someone who is turning to a healthier diet, it’s so hard sometimes to pick out the food that’s organic from those that are just disguising as organic.

  13. #13 isaacschumann
    May 30, 2011

    Paul Rogers,

    You are citing a “personal trainer” to counter a meta study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. To show how dangerous pesticides are to consumers, the author has to go back to 1986 to find an example of pesticide harm from the cdc. There is an outbreak of e. coli from an organic farm that has killed 11 people going on right now:

    http://www.npr.org/2011/05/30/136790964/german-death-toll-rises-in-europes-e-coli-outbreak

    Parkinsons disease has also been linked to rotenone, an organic pesticide, and the risk is to farm workers, not consumers. Both paraquat and rotenone are highly toxic, that is why their use is tightly regulated.

    http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002839

  14. #14 Mary
    May 30, 2011

    @Eden: yes, frequently anti-GMO activists misrepresent the numbers on that to make their case.

    And of course Golden Rice is only a part of other food security issues. There are numerous infrastructure issues in places with nutritional deficiencies. But I’m so surprised that people want to impose a lot of non-culturally appropriate remedies on some of the folks who would benefit from the rice–which is already a mainstay of their cultural eating habits.

  15. #15 Mike
    May 29, 2011

    Organic consumers and farmers need to be seen as food science denialists deserving of the same amount of respect as climate science denialists. these people have ideological reasons for rejecting science that does not fit their preconceived notions.

    One of the better examples of organic not being sustainable is in beef and dairy. Food science demialists are willing to pay a 100% – 200% premium for the opportunity to release 30% or more greenhouse gasses.

  16. #16 Mike Bendzela
    May 29, 2011

    Fanatics have destroyed a crop of GM potatoes!

    http://www.biofortified.org/2011/05/french-anti-science-vandals-invade-a-belgium-farm-and-destroy-crops/

    How clueless can people be?

    Back in my “organic” days, the farm I worked at had to pull out 500 tomato plants that were lost to late blight.

    I would love to have GM varieties of potatoes and tomatoes that were resistant to late blight!

  17. #17 Mike Bendzela
    May 29, 2011

    Of course, Paul, you’re going to cite the worst cases you can find to generalize against pesticides. That’s observational selection. You have drawn a conclusion about a whole category, “synthetic pesticides,” so you naturally scour the Internet for sources that support your bias.

    If it turns out that “combined exposure to ziram, maneb, and paraquat” really does “increase risk” of Parkinson’s, then you avoid “combined exposure to ziram,” etc. This says nothing about other pesticides and their risks. You cannot generalize against a class of substances–pesticides–in the same way you cannot generalize against “drugs.”

    You say, “the cumulative toxicity index (of all pesticies used) is many, many orders lower for organics, and to suggest that organic advocates are hypocritical in this regard is really very poor logic and comment.”

    The fact is, all pesticides are toxic at a certain dose, organic or synthetic. The thing about “organic” pesticides is they have lower action and so have to be reapplied more often. The net effect is a worse EIQ rating (environmental impact quotient) than conventional pesticides with higher actions that have to be applied less often.

    Source here: http://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/5203/1/FLS-139.pdf

    The higher the number, the worse the impact. In field tests, traditional pesticides regimes rate about 938 overall. IPM (integrated pest management) rate about 167.

    Organic: a whopping 1799!

  18. #18 Paul Rogers
    May 29, 2011

    Regarding pesticide toxicity, while some organic pesticides do have toxicity profiles similar to non-orgnic pesticides, the cumulative toxicity index (of all pesticies used) is many, many orders lower for organics, and to suggest that organic advocates are hypocritical in this regard is really very poor logic and comment.

    Second, the hazards of pesticides needs to be evaluated beyond acute toxicity (direct poisoning). Many fungicides and herbicides have low acute toxicity indexes (LD50) but are suspect when other adverse effects like cancer, neurological effects and reproductive hazards are evaluated over time.

    See this new study from California for example:

    Eur J Epidemiol. 2011 Apr 20. Parkinson’s disease risk from ambient exposure to pesticides. Wang A, Costello S, Cockburn M, Zhang X, Bronstein J, Ritz B.

    “At workplaces, combined exposure to ziram, maneb,
    and paraquat increased risk of Parkinson Disease three-fold and combined exposure to ziram and paraquat, excluding maneb exposure, was associated with a 80% increase in risk.”

    Look up the abstracts from the ‘US Agricultural Health’ Study and you will find many similar scientific studies.

  19. #19 Paul Rogers
    May 29, 2011

    This is a very clever article. Looks like it might be a fair analysis of organic production on the surface, but just another hatchet job.

    For example, the Dangour study of organic and conventional crops is biased and does not even stand up within its own statistical analysis, as others have noted as well. (Yes, I’ve been through it in detail.)

    See The Truth About Organic Food for a more reliable analysis.

    http://foodfithealth.com/blog/truth-organic-food/

  20. #20 Eden Balfour
    May 29, 2011

    Re: golden rice. I have heard a much larger number quoted as the amount needed to be ingested to provide enough daily Vitamin A. But primarily, I don’t like it as a solution because it doesn’t address the question of why there is a Vitamin A deficiency in the first place – which I have read attributed to a destruction of local smallholder polyagriculture and a shift to purchased staples of very limited variety.

  21. #21 isaacschumann
    May 29, 2011

    Thanks, Pamela, I completely agree. To be clear, I did not mean to criticize your choices for your kids, just a general observation.

    I was also glad to see that farmers will be able to replant the golden rice seeds you have been developing, I am particularly excited about the prospects for this trait. I think it is a great story that needs more telling! I am really baffled by peoples resistance to even such a clearly beneficial and harmless trait as increased nutrients in crops.

    Mike, I think the reason for these low numbers is effective regulation of farm pesticides. (such as requiring one to get a permit, such as you were required to on the organic farm you worked at) This probably explains the high incidence of accidents at private residences, where untrained people are handling concentrated chemicals. I’ve also noticed that I hear nothing from the organic community about the recent outbreak of e. coli in europe that has claimed now 10 lives. If it were an ‘industrial’ farm, we would have been treated to endless admonitions of the evils of conventional farming.

  22. #22 Gay Timmons
    May 29, 2011

    I read so many comments on genetic modification but I have yet to see any of you deal with the contamination/cross pollenization of non-engineered species and the potential loss of these genetics.

    From what i understand (which is limited) G-engineering is expensive and works on one species at a time. In most traditional farming, aren’t growers using collected seed that is highly adapted to the micro-climate of the region in which it is grown? Isn’t this lost when one species is engineered to be used across all environments?

    My concern is the potential value that normal evolution brings to any species, in a word, robustness and the ability to thrive. I just do not think that genetic engineering includes sufficient breadth of vision to include the necessary genetics to ensure survival.

    Please – how do scientist defend weakening any species by creating a situation where 90 some % of US corn is from 1 or 2 species? While one of the previous writers was worried by the evolved resistance of weeds to Round-Up, I am far more concerned by the implied weakness of this limited species model of agriculture. Not to mention the concern I have that 1 or 2 corporations control the access of American farmers literally to seed corn. Both of these issues deserve some profound discussion and thoughtful response from all sides.

  23. #23 Mike Bendzela
    May 28, 2011

    isaacschumann,

    My limited experience, and reading, tells me that the pesticides scare is mostly sound and fury. Compared to the effects of alcohol, pesticides barely even registers on the scale of horrific effects.

    I spent the morning looking for statistics until I had a headache. The Internet is so full of junk it’s hard for a lay person to know where to begin looking.

    A good source seems to be the National Pesticide Information Center.

    http://npic.orst.edu/

    In the US in 2009 there were exactly two deaths involving pesticides. More about that to follow.

    Hilariously, there were more “incidents” involving naphthalene (moth balls) than any other pesticide.

    Incidents involving the “organic” pesticides neem oil, pyrethrins, boric acid, capsaicin (hot pepper juice), garlic oil, and “putrescent whole egg solids” were also on the list.

    Of the 3,190 incidents reported, an overwhelming majority (2,929) were in the home or yard. Of the “definite” or “probable” categories, no other place comes even close to the home or yard for pesticides incidents.

    There were ZERO “definite” or “probable” pesticides incidents in schools, stores, or restaurants. There were only FOUR “definite” or “probable” cases classified as “agriculturally related.” As I suspected, well-trained agriculture workers don’t suffer the harm people think they do.

    As far as the “severity index goes”: of the 1886 cases looked at, only 20 rated “moderate,” “major,” or “death.” Of those 2 deaths I mentioned, 0 (zero) had a “definite” rating: that is, pesticides were not confirmed as the cause of death.

    The most shocking thing: the number of animal deaths (not wildlife, which is a separate category). Animals incidents were up 29%, most likely due to flea and tick pet products.

    There is nothing–nada–about consumers being harmed by pesticides in food. “Dangerous pesticides in food” is a great big lie promulgated by the “organics” crowd.

  24. #24 pam ronald
    May 28, 2011

    Isaak and Mike

    As far as I know the risk to the consumer is quite low. I have clarified that in my post. We care about the farmworkers, we dont buy the strawberries.

  25. #25 isaacschumann
    May 28, 2011

    Pamela and Mike,

    An excellent essay, Pamela, I also dislike the superficial dichotomy, the goal should be a more sustainable ag, period.

    In terms of pesticide harm, it is my understanding that there is a quite significant risk of pesticide injury on the farm, where concentrated chemicals may be encountered. However, the risk to the consumer is quite low, the vast majority of the pesticides we will consume every year are those naturally produced by the plants we are eating. Much of this information comes from Bruce Ames, I can provide the direct sources if you would like.

    I think it is a general misconception that pesticides are a major risk factor for consumers. (I cannot think of a single example; as opposed to say, microbial caused harm, which occurs all the time, i.e. right now: three dead and hundreds sick in germany from e.coli from organic greens from Spain) For farm workers, pesticide exposure is a very real danger, hence Mike’s need for certification despite his working on an organic farm. I would appreciate your thoughts, thanks.

  26. #26 Mary
    May 28, 2011

    @Gopiballava: that second piece you mention is a letter to the editor, not a peer-reviewed work. Anyone can write a letter to the editor.

    Let’s also wonder to ourselves if the head of “The Organic Center” might have some ulterior motive for finding issue with that paper….hmmmm?

  27. #27 Mnosey
    May 28, 2011

    @Gopiballava

    “Of course, a follow up paper disagrees:
    http://www.ajcn.org/content/90/6/1700.full

    Notice 2 of 3 authors have a conflict of interest.

    “CB is Chief Scientist at The Organic Center, a not-for-profit research and education organization focusing on organic food and farming. PKA has received research funding from The Organic Center. DRD is a retired university research scientist who declared no conflict of interest.”

  28. #28 Gopiballava
    May 28, 2011

    @Umlud:

    The author of this piece linked to a meta-analysis indicating no benefit:
    http://www.ajcn.org/content/early/2009/07/29/ajcn.2009.28041.abstract

    Of course, a follow up paper disagrees:
    http://www.ajcn.org/content/90/6/1700.full

    I haven’t read the paper you linked to, just the abstract, but it does seem a bit premature to be calculating life expectancy increases. Is that normal? My gut feeling is that it sounds more sensationalist than useful, but my gut is not calibrated for reading nutritional research papers.

  29. #29 pam ronald
    May 27, 2011

    #4. No problem with the question. Here are a few answers:

    We are not looking for “reconciliation” between GMOs and “organic” farming. We believe it is unlikely that the organic certification will change to include GE crops. Instead, we are working to demystify what organic farmers and geneticists really do and distinguish between fact and fiction when it comes to food and farming. We would like ALL ag to become more sustainable.

    I am glad you liked the writing about genetic engineering in our book. As for organic farming we try to make the point that there was a lot of mysticism that led to the idea of organic farming but that there is also more to it. Organic ag also includes some useful farming practices.

    The items you mention-planting by lunar cycles, vitalism, planting cows’ horns stuffed with compost around the farm to focus “cosmic rays, homeopathy–are not part of certified organic agriculture. Check out the USDA National organic standards. You wont see any of that in there.

    As for the labor. yes farming is labor intensive. Farmworkers are needed. Volunteers are welcomed on most farms.

    Yes organic farmers also use pesticides even use dangerous ones, like copper sulfate. Not all pesticides are toxic but some certainly are and that include methyl bromide sprayed on strawberries, which is why we dont buy the strawberries.

    I dont know the answer about how many people die from improper storage, but it is a lot. That too is a point we try to make. In the less developed world, many of the pesticides are not used safely.

    We also try to make the point that certified organic does not mean it is more sustainable than other kinds of ag. It depends on the farming practices, the crop, the farmer, the locale and many other factors. That is why we advocate an agriculture based on science-based evidence.

  30. #30 Umlud
    May 27, 2011

    One thing that I didn’t see really investigated above is looking at costs and benefits at another “level” out: public health.

    In a recent study, another benefit of organics is that they have a greater percentage of nutrients than “conventionally grown” crops: http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-05-fruit-vegetables.html

    If we also accept that costs to people (and cumulatively to countries and ever-outward), then why not look at benefits to health from organics (something that mores studies are showing) as well as the costs to health from some wastage from pesticide-and-herbicide agriculture.

  31. #31 Mike Bendzela
    May 27, 2011

    Pamela, I have to ask a question that you might find uncomfortable, but it needs to be asked:

    Would you be so concerned about a reconciliation between GMOs and “organic” farming if you weren’t married to an organic farmer?

    I have some experience in this area. I called myself an “organic” gardener for over twenty years, and I worked at an “organic” farm for four years. I have learned a lot in that time. My conclusion: “organic” farming is much ado about nothing.

    In your book “Tomorrow’s Table,” the writing about genetic engineering is splendid. As a newcomer to this area I had previously hewed, unthinkingly, to “organic” dogma that GMOs are unnatural and therefore “bad.” In the last few years I have since changed my mind. Your book was one of those I read after I got around to accepting that “genetic modification” wasn’t the abomination some true believers in “organics” had tried to convince me of.

    On the other hand, the writing about “organics” is pretty appalling. It is, in fact, dishonest. I know what “organics” is all about, having worked on such a farm and having investigated getting our own farm here in Maine “certified.” I opened the certification manuals and read them. I read up on the history of “organics” and read some criticism of the movement.

    Your book does not tell even half the story of what “organic” farming is. In the scant history you offer, you mention Rudolph Steiner but you don’t tell us what a mystic he was, nor do you tell us how deluded his modern-day followers are. They plant by lunar cycles. They believe in vitalism. The plant cows’ horns stuffed with compost around the farm to focus “cosmic rays.” How could you overlook this?

    Next, you don’t say a thing about how “organic” certification requires owners of livestock to eschew modern science-based medicine in favor of “homeopathy.” This is the case in Maine, anyway, where the certification manual advises against “routine use of allopathic veterinary medicine,” but lists dozens of “homeopathic” and “herbal remedies” for livestock, including “dilute garlic tincture” applied to the cow’s vulva.

    http://www.mofga.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=%2fUPCHbJs8G4%3d&tabid=133

    Another thing your book fails to address: All that labor your husband received at the university that he writes about–how much were they paid? “Organic” farming is unbelievably–obscenely–labor-intensive, and nowhere does your book spell out whether or not the students were compensated for their work.

    At the farm where I worked during the summer, a huge chunk of the “grunt work” was done by “volunteers” (I now view them as an army of the deluded). They weeded beds, spread mulch, hauled compost, cut brush, picked rocks, and even planted crops. If these volunteers had not materialized, there would be no “organic” farm, period.

    Finally, I found the writing about pesticides appallingly one-sided and dishonest. Many times you mention the “thousands” of people killed every year because of “pesticides,” and you state how you will not feed your children food that had “pesticides on them.” You clearly leave the impression that these “thousands” are dying from ingesting pesticides on their food.

    (Witness the statement in the article above: your neighbor “fumigates” their strawberry fields, so they are therefore “chemical intensive” and so you don’t buy from them.)

    I would like to know how many of these “thousands” who die from pesticides poisoning every year die from intentional ingestion–that is, suicides. How many are accidental ingestions by children who get hold of pesticides that were improperly stored by homeowners? How many of these “thousands” of deaths were the result of industrial or agricultural accidents?

    The anti-“chemical” bias in the “organics” movement is flaming hypocrisy. In order to work at the “organic” farm, I had to undergo training to apply pesticides. Yes, pesticides. Organic farmers use pesticides. They even use dangerous ones, like copper sulfate, which is worse than any synthetic fungicide I use here in my own orchard.

    Once I “came out” and began opposing the “organics” dogma, I figured the best thing I could do was learn about pesticides. I have since passed my exam to become a licensed private pesticides applicator in Maine. I have learned that pesticides are not the evil your book misleads us into believing.

    The “organic” food movement is a food purity cult, based on ignorance about toxicology and agricultural reality. It has nothing to do with this will o’ the wisp called “sustainability.” I am beginning to suspect that all the rhetoric about “sustainable agriculture” is a bunch of hooey.

    This doesn’t mean I believe “big industrial ag” is sustainable. Far from it.

    The more I learn, the less I believe. It is simply a cold reality that agriculture does three things simultaneously:

    It takes over land.

    It draws down non-renewable resources.

    It grows populations.

    The human species is in a trap. No amount of “organics” wishful thinking is going to give back land, create oil and natural gas, or reduce the population.

    Same goes for industrial agriculture.

  32. #32 Mary
    May 27, 2011

    @Leo: Resistance is a problem in all systems, it’s not specific to GMOs or Roundup. There are new strategies being developed all the time as farmers and scientists try to stay ahead of pests, fungi, and undesirable plants among their crops, while maintaining the yields needed to feed everyone.

  33. #33 Leo Buzalsky
    May 27, 2011

    There is one thing I did not see addressed here: what about the risks/problems of weeds evolving an immunity to Round Up? Does Round Up have to keep redesigning their product and their seeds to fight this?

  34. #34 Eric Baumholder
    May 27, 2011

    “Earthbound is big, fast, modern, industrial, intensive…” which means they’re going to get sued by the Cornucopia Institute any day now.

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