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Myths: Busted—Clearing Up the Misunderstandings about Organic Farming

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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We at Scientific American welcome responses to our articles. A recent blog post by one of our network bloggers, Christie Wilcox—”Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture“—engendered much discussion online and we received several offers to write responses. This blog post by Jason Mark is the response we accepted. Of course, as our bloggers have editorial freedom, Christie Wilcox may also write her own response to the response. If she does so, I will add the link here…..Edit: Christie Wilcox has responded.

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When I saw that Scientific American was carrying a web story by a regular SciAm blogger determined to bust some of the “myths” surrounding organic farming, I was excited. I hoped the article would be something along the lines of Sam Fromartz’s excellent book Organic Inc., a skeptical look at how a well-intentioned effort to protect the environment has turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry. I was quickly disappointed. The article1, by a PhD candidate named Christie Wilcox, was compromised by a slew of elisions and exaggerations. If the intention was to myth-bust, mark this one a fail: The article spread new misconceptions about the methods of organic food production.

As the co-manager of an urban farm2 that uses organic practices, I was annoyed by the distortions in the article. So I’m pleased that the Scientific American editors have dedicated some space for a rebuttal. Here we go, then, point by point.

Busting Myth #1: Organic Farms and Pesticides.

Wilcox starts by explaining, accurately, that “organic farming … still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their [sic] crops.” She intends this to be something of a bombshell: the smoking gun in the form of a spray nozzle, as it were. But the shocker fell flat. To the better informed, this is no surprise at all. Yes, organic farmers (including this one) sometimes use sprays to control pests and diseases — sprays that are carefully reviewed to ensure that they do not pose a risk to public health or the environment.

The National Organic Standards Board — a group of 15 farmers, academics, and advocates — advises the Secretary of Agriculture on which substances can be used by organic-certified growers, and which cannot. Recommended substances are then reviewed by a technical panel that examines the scientific research on the substances and makes a final recommendation. The most thorough lists of allowed substances is maintained by the Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI), an Oregon-based independent non-profit.3 Any approved sprays must either be produced from a natural substance or, if they are synthetic, must be proven to “not have adverse effects on the environment” or “human health.”

Wilcox claims that organic farms “spray their crops with pesticides all the time.” What’s her source for this? “A guy [she] was dating.” In reality, the national organic standards require producers to use ecological methods for pest control — crop rotation, nutrient management, mechanical weeding — before using any spray tactics. And if an organic grower does decided to use a pesticide, the farmer must demonstrate (to their organic certifying agency) that they have exhausted every other means at their disposal.4 Most of the organic farmers I know (and I am friends with dozens) only spray reluctantly, and as a last resort.

(Wilcox’s ex-boyfriend anecdote betrays a confusion about the usage of the term “no spray” commonly used by farmers market vendors. Farmers who cannot afford the costs of the sometimes-onerous organic certification, but who are committed to best organic practices, will often use the term “no spray” at their stands, since they are prohibited by law from saying they are “organic.” This is a colloquial way of communicating that they don’t use synthetic chemicals, not a claim that nothing ever comes out of a spray nozzle on their farms. Imprecise language, maybe, but there it is.)

Which brings us to Wilcox’s next point. She writes: “Why the government isn’t keeping a watch on organic pesticide and fungicide is a damn good question.” Well, actually, the government is — through the highly detailed rules regarding organic certification. 5 Farmers hoping to be certified as organic must keep records covering the “production, harvesting, and handling” of their crops — and maintain those records (including receipts for purchases of any off-farm inputs like sprays) for at least five years. Organic growers also submit to an annual on-site inspection from an organic certifier. Yes, the certifiers are independent, non-government agencies, but the level of scrutiny is intense.

No, the government doesn’t record the use of non-synthetic pesticides on organic farms. And neither does it record the use of synthetic pesticides on individual industrial farms. A national law, FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), expressly forbids the EPA from requiring pesticide applicators to report how they use synthetic chemicals6. The only information the federal government collects on pesticide usage is at the aggregate level.

This reveals an unfortunate asymmetry in official recordkeeping. While the government collects national statistics on the spraying of synthetic chemicals, it doesn’t require any usage information from individual farmers; and while the government — via independent certifiers — demands detailed information regarding off-farm inputs used by organic-certified growers, it doesn’t compile that information into any kind of national, publicly available database. The easiest way to correct this inconsistency would be to require the same reporting from both organic and industrial farmers.

Still, given the demands of yearly on-site inspections, it’s fair to say that organic-certified farmers, ranchers, and processors are the most highly regulated sector of the US food system and consent to far more oversight than any industrial farmer. It would make more sense, then, to reverse Wilcox’s question: Why the government requires far less reporting on the production methods of industrial farmers than it does reporting from organic farmers is a damn good question. The burden of proof seems askew.

Wilcox’s real beef appears to be the popular assumption that substances approved for organic farms are safer because they are occur naturally. “Just because something is natural doesn’t make it non-toxic or safe.” Fair enough, I suppose. After all, oleanders and tobacco are natural — and also deadly. I myself occasionally use copper sprays on our farm’s dormant fruit trees during the winter as a fungicide. When I do so, I am careful to wear a bandana around my nose and mouth and make sure I am upwind. No doubt about it: copper, which has been shown to cause liver disease, is nasty stuff.7 (Copper appears on the list of organic approved substances because it’s not synthetic; the Romans pioneered its use in orchards.)

But then Wilcox goes a step too far: “Not only are organic pesticides not safe,” she writes, “they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.” Her evidence for this? A naturally occurring pesticide called Rotenone, which is now banned in the US. Plus one study about aphid control methods in Canada. To use an agricultural term, this is cherry-picking.

In claiming that organic pest controls may be worse than chemical ones, Wilcox perpetuates a false equivalency. She’s suggesting that naturally occurring pesticides pose the same risk as same as synthetic ones. The truth is, they’re don’t.

Just take a look at the EPA’s inventory of the most widely used pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. 8 The most commonly used insecticide in the United States is Chlorpyfiros. This is an organophostphate pesticide, part of a class of chemicals that, according to three recent independent studies9, can lower children’s IQ by an average of as much as seven points — enough to affect a child’s math and reading skills. The most commonly used fungicide is Chlorothalonil, which the EPA rates as “very highly toxic” to aquatic organisms and which the agency warns is used at levels of concern in potato and peanut production.10

Compare those to natural pesticides. The most commonly used naturally occurring insecticide is Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium found in soils.11 Bt is effective at killing boll weevils, cabbage loopers, and corn ear worms — and it’s not toxic to humans.12 Two of the other most common OMRI-approved insecticides are neem oil (derived from the seeds of the neem tree) and insecticidal soaps. The active ingredient in insecticidal soaps (which desiccate insects’ exoskeletons) is potassium salts — no danger to people there. Neem is so benign that it appears in some brands of toothpaste. I have yet to see any dental hygiene products containing Chlorpyfiros.

At one point in her essay, Wilcox writes: “What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used.” [Emphasis original.] Exactly. Synthetic pesticides are qualitatively different from natural ones, and it’s the differences that often make the danger. A good example is the distinction between natural pyrethrum and synthetic pyrethroids. Pyrethrum is a naturally occurring insecticide derived from the chrysanthemum; it has been used for at least 200 years. (Napoleon’s armies used it to control lice.) Both the natural compounds and the synthetic versions are moderately toxic to mammals and extremely toxic to aquatic life. Here’s the difference: synthetic pyrethoids have been engineered to be more stable and to resist photodegradation. Whereas phyrethrum will break down in as little as 12 hours, some pyrethoids will remain active for up to 30 days. Their artificial persistence means they are a greater risk to the environment. If the dosage makes the danger, synthetic pyrethoids are more dangerous because they last longer. They are more indiscriminate. What organic farmers see as a virtue — the poison doesn’t work very long naturally — industrial farmers view as a weakness.13

But, for me at least, this is the kicker: all of the top ten synthetic chemicals used in agricultural production are either soil fumigants or herbicides. Organic growers don’t use fumigants such as Dichloropropene (the sixth most commonly used pesticide nationally), a probable carcinogen. Nor, as a rule, do organic growers rely on Glyphosate (most common brand: Roundup) or Atrazine, both of which are endocrine disruptors linked to birth defects14. Instead, organic farmers control weeds with the hula hoe: a proven technology whose most serious impact on human health is the formation of burly calluses.

Are organic practices perfectly pristine? No. But are they preferable to synthetic chemicals? Certainly. Organic growers are, in general, better stewards of soil health, water quality, and public health than industrial farmers who are reliant on synthetic chemicals.

Busting Myth # 2: Organic Foods and Nutrition

According to Wilcox, “science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones.” Wrong. A number of studies have found intrinsic differences between crops produced organically and those produced industrially. Other studies have not. The fairest way to explain the situation would be to acknowledge that the evidence is mixed.

A 2007 study by researchers at University of California-Davis, for example, found that organic tomatoes had nearly twice as much flavonoids as industrial tomatoes.15 Flavonoids such as quercetin, kaempferol, and naringenin have been found to reduce cardiovascular disease. The UC-Davis study suggested that industrial tomatoes may have fewer of the metabolites because they are over-fertilized. When researchers at Washington State University compared organic strawberries and industrial ones, they found that the organic berries had significantly higher antioxidant activity (8.5 percent more), ascorbic acid (9.7percent more), and total phenolics (10.5 percent more) than industrial berries.16 Finally, a January 2011 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science found that milk from cows raised organically in the UK had higher levels of beneficial fatty acids.17 The study’s author, Gillian Butler, believes the difference between organic milk and non-organic milk has to do with whether cows are allowed to graze freely on grass.

In short, the jury is still out on the question of whether organic foods are more nutritious. Further research is needed to resolve the issue. To definitively say, as Wilcox does, that “organic foods are not better for us” just promulgates another myth.

Busting Myth #3: GMOs and Organic Crop Yields

In attempting to burst the bubble of her third “myth” — the claim that organic methods are better for the environment — Wilcox pursues two separate arguments: First, that genetically modified foods are an overall environmental good; and, second, that crops yields in organic systems can’t compete with industrial yields. Both of her arguments are flawed.

Pay special attention to Wilcox’s language. She writes that GMOs “might” reduce or eliminate the use of chemical pesticides; she trumpets the “potential” of GMOs to increase farm yields and increase crops’ nutrition value. As Tom Laskaway put it in a riposte at the environment news site Grist.org, this is where Wilcox goes from “science to science fiction.”18 None of the wonderful crop features she trumpets have actually made it to market. So far, genetically modified crops have failed to match many of the promises of their backers. That’s a big deal. If you’re going to praise something, it better work as you say.

Then Wilcox accuses organic proponents of “hypocrisy” for opposing the development of Bt-enhanced crops. According to Wilcox, it’s unreasonable for growers to apply Bt on their crops but oppose its insertion in the genome of plants. She writes: “Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution.”

This is a narrow interpretation of ecological thought. Yes, some self-identified ecologists support GMOs because they believe GM technologies can reduce the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Other self-identified ecologists oppose them. This just shows that ecology — like economics — is a science that allows for many different interpretations.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” John Muir famously wrote, in what is probably the most concise summation of ecological thinking. One of the main reasons that many ecologists have resisted GMO technology is because it’s reductive: it assumes that we can isolate a certain plant or animal trait and embed it in another plant or animal (even from a different kingdom) to get a certain outcome. Ecologists caution that we don’t yet understand all of the interconnections at a genetic level, and so it’s wiser (and safer) not to mess with them.

In her complaints against critics of GM technology, Wilcox once again slips into a false equivalency, suggesting that there’s no distinction between spraying Bt and placing it directly into the plant. I have to disagree. There are major differences — both in terms of direct and indirect environmental consequences — between applying an insecticide by hand and manipulating the genetic code of a plant to embed that insecticide in its very DNA. At the very least, there’s a difference of scale; if there weren’t, there would be little sense in doing the genetic manipulation in the first place.

On a more practical level, organic farmers have opposed Bt GMOS because they worry that its large-scale deployment could lead to Bt resistance among pests. This is a well-grounded fear. Just look at the history of Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton. Farmers in Missouri — the home base of Roundup manufacturer Monsanto — are beginning to report the appearance of glyphosate-resistant weeds.19 To help farmers cope with the new “super weeds,” Monsanto has launched a new herbicide, Warrant. So much for the claim that GMOs will reduce chemical use.

I thought Wilcox’s defense of GMOs on ecological grounds was especially odd given that twice earlier in the essay she acknowledges organic agriculture’s value in reducing crop monocultures. I will leave it to others to argue the concerns about GMOs’ possible impacts on human health or the risk of GMOs spreading into other crops. As a small farmer, my biggest worry about GMOs is how they lead almost inevitably to further concentration of food production: call this a concern of political ecology. The skills needed to genetically modify seeds are so specialized (and the investment required so immense) that only a handful of massive firms can take it on. Compare that to the thousands — or, globally, the millions — of seed dealers and seed savers who use traditional plant breeding techniques. GMOs are dangerous, I think, because they encourage a kind of monocropping of the global food system. They also contribute to real monocrops out in the fields: According to USDA figures20, 94 percent of soybeans and more than 70 percent of corn and cotton planted in the US contain the Roundup-resistant gene. This is the very antithesis of the biodiversity Wilcox says she values. (For more on the dangers of monocropping and the importance of biodiversity, see: Phytophthora infestans and the Irish potato famine.)

Speaking of biodiversity: Wilcox’s second claim is that organic agriculture “isn’t more green than conventional” because it can’t compete on crops yields, and therefore will require more land, which will cause more forest loss and habitat destruction. This is an echo of the canard that organic agriculture will never be able to feed the world. As with the science over the nutrition of organic foods, the evidence is more mixed that Wilcox admits.

Wilcox cites a single study to make her case that organic farms underperform industrial ones. As agriculture writer Tom Philpott has pointed out, Wilcox neglected to share with Scientific America readers that the study’s authors attributed the lower yields, in part, to the fact that “inputs of fertilizer and energy was reduced by 34 to 53%.”21 Given industrial agriculture’s complete reliance on fossil fuel inputs and the eventual depletion of fossil fuels, organic agriculture’s energy savings should be considered an environmental and food security asset.

More frustrating is that Wilcox completely ignored other studies that show organic methods competing with and excelling over industrial practices. The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has been conducting what it calls the “longest running, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture.” Its 27-year trial has shown that corn yields on organic plots are equivalent to the yields on non-organic plots.22 Perhaps most significant, the corn yields in the organic fields were 31 percent higher in years of moderate drought, probably because organically farmed soils are better at retaining water.

A recent report by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food confirmed some of the Rodale findings.23 The report, which studied farming methods in 57 countries, concluded that small farmers using ecological methods could double food production in 10 years. The study found that farmers currently using agro-ecology methods have increased their yields by an average of 80 percent and in some countries have boosted harvests by 116 percent.

Here’s the hitch: Agro-ecology, which is centered on building soils through compost, is very labor intensive. The challenge of feeding the world isn’t — as Wilcox assumes — a question of needing more land. Rather, we need more farmers using land more efficiently.

I’ll acknowledge that as a matter of public policy recruiting more farmers is going to be difficult. The global demographic trend is toward urbanization, not a return to the countryside. But it’s misleading to suggest, as Wilcox does, that organic methods cannot “rival the production output of conventional farming.” The emerging evidence doesn’t support Wilcox’s conclusion.

The most dangerous myth to be found in Wilcox’s essay is the idea that organic practices are incapable of producing enough food to feed the human population.

Busting Myth #4: You Don’t Have to Choose

Wilcox ends on a gentler, accommodationist note. “What bothers me most,” she writes, “is that both sides of the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution. … The biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides. Guess what? You don’t.”

No, I supposed you don’t have to choose between organic and industrial food. But here’s the great thing about the free market: you get to choose. At least three times a day you get to make a choice about what you want to put in your body.

For me, at least, the choice is clear. I want to eat food that I know doesn’t involve the use of chemicals that harm ecosystems and have been linked to human health impacts. I want to eat food that is GMO-free, if for no other reason than I don’t want to support the further concentration of the food system. I want to eat food that I believe is more nutritious (I’m waiting for the research to catch up), because as a farmer I know that healthy soils make for the healthiest plants.

Other people will make other choices, of course. But at the very least they should be well informed when making decisions. Unfortunately, Christie Wilcox’s article did more to spread myths than it did to dispel them.

———-

Notes:

[1] http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
[2] Since 2006, I have been a part-time co-manager at San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, a three-acre fruit and vegetable garden. While we practice ecological farming, what some call agro-ecology, we are not organic certified, as it does not make sense for a farm of our size. http://www.alemanyfarm.org.
[3] Lists of allowed substances can be downloaded here: http://www.omri.org/omri-lists.
[4] Reporter’s interview with Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador Program Director, Organic Materials Review Institute.
[5] The complete regulations, including requirements for reporting, can be found here
[6] An overview of FIFRA can be found here: http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/lfra.html. The language governing individual reporting is in section 11 (d).
[7] http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/carbaryl-dicrotophos/copper-sulfate-ext.html
[8] http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/pestsales/07pestsales/usage2007_2.htm#3_4 The most recent data available is from 2007. Perhaps the most interesting piece of this document is that it’s an “estimate.” As noted earlier, the government does not keep firm records on synthetic pesticide usage.
[9] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/from_the_fields_to_inner_city_pesticides_affect_childrens_iq/2404/
[10] www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/0097fact.pdf
[11] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060926072327.htm
[12] http://extoxnet.orst.edu/pips/bacillus.htm
[13] http://extoxnet.orst.edu/pips/pyrethri.htm and http://www.livingwithbugs.com/permethrin_pyrethrum.html
[14] For details on Atrazine, see Tyrone Hayes, et al: Atrazine-Induced Hermaphroditism at 0.1 ppb in American Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens): Laboratory and Field Evidence. For Glyphhosate, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19539684: Gasnier, et al, Glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic and endocrine disruptors in human cell lines.
[15] http://ltras.ucdavis.edu/res/nutrition
[16] http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012346
[17] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110116214603.htm
[18] http://www.grist.org/organic-food/2011-07-21-in-defense-of-organic
[19] http://www.stltoday.com/business/article_b503aada-7f4e-5ded-86d4-8eb0703ef7bb.html
[20] http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/biotechcrops/
[21] For the Philpott rebuttal, see: http://motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2011/07/organic-agriculture. For the original study, see: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/296/5573/1694
[22] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/fst
[23] http://www.srfood.org/index.php/en/component/content/article/1174-report-agroecology-and-the-right-to-food

Related at Scientific American:

- Christie Wilcox – Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture
- David Ropeik – Food Fight: why are we so passionate about what enters our bodies
- Marie-Claire Shanahan – Science Education and Changing People’s Minds: Writing to convince
- Bora Zivkovic – Blogs: face the conversation
- Christie Wilcox – In the immortal words of Tom Petty: “I won’t back down”
- Pamela Ronald – Genetically engineered crops – what, how and why
- Janet D. Stemwedel – Environmental impacts of what we eat: the difficulty of apples-to-apples comparisons.
- Erin Prosser – Nutritional Differences in Organic vs. Conventional Foods: and the Winner is…
- Katherine Harmon – Going Organic Cuts Poultry Farms’ “Superbug” Bacteria in Single Generation
- Bora Zivkovic – Books: Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma
And more at Passions of Food—Special Day at #SciAmBlogs.

Jason Mark About the Author: Jason Mark is editor of the environmental quarterly Earth Island Journal and a co-manager of San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, a three-acre fruit and vegetable garden that employs agro-ecology methods. Follow him on twitter: @writerfarmer. Follow on Twitter @writerfarmer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 29 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. mem from somerville 4:38 pm 08/14/2011

    Wow, so much error here. And so much organic cherry-picking. The irony crop is massive!

    So, apparently you aren’t familiar with this paper: Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0011250 . But that’s ok, it’s not easy to keep up with the literature. And if you are going to use the Romans as your support system–watch out for the little problem they had with lead, mmm-kay? Classic tactic there to rely on ancient wisdom.

    Another funny thing: just this week I happened to be looking up the potato famine. I keep hearing organic proponents talk about this as the classic case of monoculture gone awry. I really had trouble believing this because of what I knew about the history. So I found a document from the Irish government that refers to many, many varieties of potatoes in the late 1700s and beyond. http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/farmingsectors/crops/seedcertification/topspotatocentre/PotatoBook010610.pdf

    Further, it turns out that the source of the blight pathogen was…wait for it…organic bird guano from South America! http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/potato-blight-patric/ and I have scientific references for this too, but thought that might be more approachable for other readers.

    I’ll let others comment on the other pieces.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Southern Fried Scientist 8:04 am 08/15/2011

    This entire piece is based on the fallacious assumption that the line is drawn between organic and industrial farming practices. Even the author initially acknowledges that industrial organic farming is problematic, then goes on to completely ignore that fact throughout the rest of the piece. Wilcox’s final point, the you don’t have to choose between organic and non-organic, is far more significant than anything this article raises. It’s not about organic versus non-organic versus industrial, it’s about knowing where your food comes from and making informed environmental decisions. ‘Organic’ doesn’t always mean good for the environment.

    If you want to make the healthy, environmental choice, start with your local, small-scale farmers, then supplement what you can’t find locally with with whatever fad-food-branding you think is best.

    Link to this
  3. 3. JamesDavis 9:10 am 08/15/2011

    Could “Chlorothalonil” be the cause of these deadly allergies all our children seem to have to all peanuts products?

    The FDA should ban all GMO’s and go totally organic and not worry about providing food for the whole world. These other countries have just as much land as the U.S. and can grow their own food and support their own people, and if they cannot, then they should lessen their population where they can become self-supporting.

    Link to this
  4. 4. eco-steve 9:46 am 08/15/2011

    Water will be the first agricultural ressource to be depleted. So it will be the most efficient water-management systems which will survive when the Ogallala and other aquifers are pumped dry. One way to increase soil water retention is to add charcoal to it.
    See http://www.eprida.com For the moment no industrial farming is using biochar, probably out of sheer sloth.

    Link to this
  5. 5. GMKnow 12:19 pm 08/15/2011

    First, I’d like to give credit to the anti-organic antagonists. Their timing, if not the tenor of their remarks, is excellent.

    Regarding Mem from Somerville’s remark: Wow, so much error here. And so much organic cherry-picking. The irony crop is massive!

    I’m not quite sure what’s more ironic: the cited esoterica or the metaphor.

    Next, water? I’m assuming this is a drought-resistance play. Sure, water may be an issue whether via drought of flood. Regarding drought-resistant patented seed requiring a signed contract and yearly purchasing anew is not a solution, this solves what problem? Technology is not the answer when it hand-cuffs someone to one company and is predicated on a host of ancillary inputs (chemicals and machinery) to make the #Biotechnology work.

    Organic was what the world knew before the advent of chemicals and industrial process. Judging from the photos from the turn of the 20th century, leanness and fitness seemed to embody the imagine of how most Americans, and the early immigrants, looked. Our GMO-fed nation today, by comparison, isn’t looking too good. Diabetes, obesity, cancer and childhood illness are skyrocketing. Whether it’s something in the water or in our food, there’s no denying that these are two basic aspects to everyday life that we all have in common. Couple this with 15 years of GMOs in our food supply with no human health studies on the effects of mutant DNA on our DNA and Codex Alimentarius, recognized by our USDA as the governing standards body defining the maximum allowable levels of chemicals & pesticides in our food, and ask yourself: “What’s changed since we added chemicals and man-made patented DNA to our food supply? Is feeding the world what’s making us sick?

    Link to this
  6. 6. mem from somerville 12:51 pm 08/15/2011

    @GMKnow: yeah, immigrant photos are a great source of health information. I’m sure their journeys involved excellent nutrition, sleep, and sterile travel conditions. And nobody every got turned away for ill health, right? Strip off you sepia-toned Victoriana glasses and look at real health issues of the time, please.

    I love the food-your-grandmother-ate canard. Yeah, my grandmother ate the same food as the 50% of her siblings who died before adulthood.

    And who needs increased lifespans anyway….a few decades was good enough for Romans and our ancestors.

    Link to this
  7. 7. birdygrrl 1:29 pm 08/15/2011

    The author’s statement on FIFRA is incorrect: “…While the government collects national statistics on the spraying of synthetic chemicals, it doesn’t require any usage information from individual farmers;..”. From the USDA website http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/tpes.html#recordkeeping “USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service administers the Federal Pesticide Recordkeeping Program, which requires all certified private applicators to keep records of their use of federally restricted use pesticides for a period of 2 years.” http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateQ&navID=PesticideRecordkeepingProgram&rightNav1=PesticideRecordkeepingProgram&topNav=&leftNav=ScienceandLaboratories&page=PesticideRecordkeepingProgram&resultType=

    Link to this
  8. 8. hrfong 1:45 pm 08/15/2011

    A few errors here.

    “No, the government doesn’t record the use of non-synthetic pesticides on organic farms. And neither does it record the use of synthetic pesticides on individual industrial farms. A national law, FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), expressly forbids the EPA from requiring pesticide applicators to report how they use synthetic chemicals6. The only information the federal government collects on pesticide usage is at the aggregate level.”

    Ummm, that would be false, as least as far as California is concerned. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (a government agency, part of Cal/EPA) requires total use reporting of pesticides:

    Food and Ag Code:14011.5. Except as may be provided in regulations adopted by the director, a pesticide use report shall be submitted to the commissioner, on a form prescribed by the director, within seven days
    after each use of a restricted material.

    Also see “http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pur/purmain.htm”

    And it’s chlorpyrifos, not Chlorpyfiros.

    And concerning organic ag’s dangers (“… most serious impact on human health is the formation of burly calluses.”), one might note that hyperthermia, UV exposure, and ergonomic problems can haunt organic producers just as well as non-organic ones.

    Link to this
  9. 9. phoneyfarmer 1:59 pm 08/15/2011

    Seems we are debating two very different topics here: food safety and food sustainability. On the topic of food safety, the label “organic” is of little value. There are many other factors involved in food safety beside the grower’s philosophy. On the topic of sustainability, the label “organic” is a valuable, if imperfect, measure.

    Our current “conventional” farming methods are out of balance. We use mechanization to replace reductions in labor and fossil fuels to power the machines, feed the crops and kill the unwanted. The fruits of these labors are transported great distances, to feed the populace. After consumption, the nutrients are carelessly flushed into our waterways, eventually finding its way to our oceans. In short, we are releasing sequestered carbon deposits in order to transfer the fertility of our soils into the oceans. We have taken a closed nutrient cycle and turned it into an open, wasteful process which will, one day, collapse. The appropriate response, it seems to me, is to start closing the loop. Our steps in this direction will be halting, imperfect and will most likely include missteps. But the important point to make the effort.

    I would also like to mention another issue I see this the present debate as well as many others I see in SciAm. There is an aspect of “if you can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist” about the debate. We all must remember that a negative result does not disprove theory/argument; it merely fails to support the theory/argument. Obviously, at some point, reason must prevail. Look back through history; there are many examples of repeated negative results before the positive result is obtained. Our knowledge of the universe is incomplete. The true measure of wisdom to acknowledge this limitation.

    Link to this
  10. 10. rwstutler 4:19 pm 08/15/2011

    more advertising (propoganda) from the organic community, to justify higher prices and smaller yields. Facts are that the amount of farm land is not growing, and the amount of water available for farming is not increasing. Doing more with less is a necessity, and the organic trend is to do less with more, and to demand a higher price from the consumer for the effort.

    better farming and ranching practices are desireable. but that desired goal will not be achieved by marketing campaigns that are based on an either/or dichotomy, or by labeling one ‘side’ or the other as evil or bad. it will require more real government oversight (which is politicaly unpopular), hard science and ecological wisdom. better, sustainable, ecologicaly sound practices will not be acheived by marketing campaigns, by either side.

    Link to this
  11. 11. joevolcano 5:11 pm 08/15/2011

    @mem from somerville: Dude, none of your links actually conflict with this article: I totally agree that just cause something’s an old practice, doesn’t make it good, but this link: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0011250 only makes the argument that pesticides, regardless of origin and history, should be evaluated on a case by case basis, which doesn’t actually conflict with this article. He even mentions the dangers of specific organic pesticides, including copper spray.

    your second link (http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/farmingsectors/crops/seedcertification/topspotatocentre/PotatoBook010610.pdf) isn’t really even germane to this post, and it doesn’t even dispute the monoculture farming origin of the potato famine, in fact it directly references it! just search for famine and it’s right there in it, multiple times.

    finally, your third link (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/potato-blight-patric/) actually doesn’t even make a clear correlation between guano and the potato famine. and it’s not a scientifically reviewed piece. it’s a blog post about saint patrick’s day. as one commenter says and sums up: “So what is the thesis of this post? Is there a direct connection between the Peruvian guano and the blight that caused the potato famine? Or is it a brief history of bat shit, potatoes, immigration and the American commericialization of a once religious holiday and exportation of said holiday? I am confused.”

    Link to this
  12. 12. ssm1959 6:24 pm 08/15/2011

    IT is possible to agree with both articles because each author is cherry picking: just viewing the issue from opposing sides. Michael Poulan noted the same dichotomy in his books. It is not incorrect to observe that industrial food producers have convoluted the concept of organic food to fit with their model of production. This renders the meaning of the term essentially moot for the average american household. At the same time it is true that if you wish to put for the effort it is very possible to find high quality truly organic produce that squarely fills the defined bill of what Organic was supposed to mean when first envisioned.

    Bear in mind that 100 years ago we only had “organic” food and that worked out so well we developed the industrial methods used today. Remember there are very good reasons why we shifted away from strictly local food production. like all such changes this came with some unanticipated consequences which need to be dealt with. However expecting our food production system to shift back to a neo-colonial system is folly.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Dasein 11:50 pm 08/15/2011

    I find this debate disheartening. I purchase organic as often as possible(for me). Sustainability is important to me. However, I think this debate is provincial. We are only discussing agricultural practices in the wealthiest country in the world. We account for approximately 4% of the worlds population, and yet, we presume to speak for all others. If we, (the human race) are to feed 7 Billion people, we must find more efficient ways to produce food. Organic methods, as they stand today, will not suffice. India, China, et al, need genetically modified food sources.

    Link to this
  14. 14. mem from somerville 12:18 am 08/16/2011

    Sigh. @joevolcano has reading comprehension issues. Ok, I’ll type slowly….

    1) Our author cites the Romans. I point out there’s more recent literature he seems to have missed. To address the author’s claim here: “In claiming that organic pest controls may be worse than chemical ones, Wilcox perpetuates a false equivalency. She’s suggesting that naturally occurring pesticides pose the same risk as same as synthetic ones. The truth is, they’re don’t.” Ok–they don’t. They might be worse. You both missed that, apparently.

    2) The Irish government document describes a ridiculous number of varieties: “In 1785, Marshall complained of the indiscriminate raising of seedlings and described the varieties extant as ‘endless’.” And the subsequent list of many varieties pre-famine seems to have escaped you. I don’t know why. If you think “endless” varieties = monocropping, we aren’t using the same language. Please define your understanding of the term monocropping.

    3) As I said, I have the scientific literature. But I thought the Wired piece (with its associated reference) might be more valuable to general readers. But here’s the PubMed links for you in case you can’t find them yourself: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17360643
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11395772

    Please explore the Ristaino oeuvre in full. If you have any questions about the data, I can help you to understand it. Please let me help you. I’m qualified.

    Link to this
  15. 15. J4zonian 7:54 pm 08/16/2011

    Yes, thank you, Jason.

    When I saw the headline of Wilcox’s article I was skeptical; that yielded to increasing alarm, dismay, anger and disappointment as I read the article. Knowing it was full of myths itself, but not having the time to adequately research a systematic reply, I’m glad you have. Thank you.

    The trend toward urbanization is not primarily because people choose it; often they’re abandoning traditions, communities, families and land for uncertain futures or crushing poverty and death. They do it because they are being forced off their lands, in part by climate change, in part by policies of corporations and the governments owned by corporations (theirs and ours in both cases). The resurgence of organic farming and homesteading in the US is evidence that there would be no shortage of people willing to farm if technological, social and above all economic forces weren’t preventing it. Those are all changeable by us. Use of labor in a world of unemployment is not a problem, it is a solution.

    When one looks at the data in sufficient depth one discovers a sampling error, that studies typically use the “best” examples of chemical ag, (which are more typical, given the size of the institutions and the more industrial/global market-driven spread of techniques, etc.) and a more varied sample of organic ag, including many examples of new/transitional organic farms, older methods, emphasis on other goals, industrial organics, etc. that skew the data. The most promising methods—permaculture food forests, just as one example, are barely mentioned if at all. This is natural with a such a new technique so little used so far, but the promise of that in particular should be so compelling to a fair observer that it should be clear that not including it is a major omission that almost completely invalidates the results of studies without it. Enough evidence exists to compel attention. (studies of 3 Sisters agriculture by Jane Mt. Pleasant of Cornell, e.g.). Industrial organics are organic by official definition, but only because of the political power of corporations to warp and twist definitions and institutions to their own ends (about which, see next paragraph). When the 2 sides are organic and industrial, but organic IS industrial, the whole argument is moot. I’d like to see studies on best practices , studies comparing what organics can be and is becoming (as demonstrated by the best organic permaculture operating now) to what chemical ag is and is becoming (as demonstrated by its direction, away from any rational, ecological, humane, sustainable direction toward more destructive, short-term profitability).

    Of course we have to choose between organic and non. Industrial ag is done by the Monsantos and Cargills of the world who are marketly and psychologically bound to destroy competitors, especially philosophies that so clearly reveal the moral, ecological, economic and human bankruptcy of the industrial system. GMO’s effects are no accident, as there are no accidents. When an action has an effect (contamination of organic crops, e.g.) and is pursued anyway, a rule in psychology says that it is pursued not despite that effect but because of it. Otherwise, some other action would be pursued instead. Also, peak oil/peak everything and climate change demand immediate radical change in our food, fiber and material production systems, and by far the most—in fact, the only—helpful direction is toward local organic permaculture and reforestation of the world. Nitrogen fertilizer, phosphate rock, and water are just 3 of many resources which will soon be in short supply; organic permaculture is an answer to all of them.

    And Dasein, maybe you find this disheartening because you weren’t paying attention. We can feed the world with organic permaculture. We cannot feed the world with disappearing fossil fuels and the fertilizers we make from them and get and transport using them. GMOs are not about feeding the world; they are about making money for a few huge corporations. I can’t think of a single GMO plant that has actually been produced that has or will increase the food available to poor people. Can you?

    Link to this
  16. 16. GardenTherese 11:42 am 08/17/2011

    @mem from somerville stated:

    If you think “endless” varieties = monocropping, we aren’t using the same language. Please define your understanding of the term monocropping.

    No, mem, that’s not monocropping. That’s deflection on your part. This is monocropping:

    potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Years and years and years of potatoes in the same ground, with no rotation of other crops. Under those conditions, virtually all varieties become susceptible to infection.

    But you knew that. You’re qualified.

    A primary tenet of organic agriculture is crop rotation to replenish nutrients, reduce erosion and, when tilled under, add organic matter back to the soil. Oh, and to break the cycle of pests and diseases.

    You certainly sing from the ADM/Monsanto/Cargill songbook, mem. What’s your place in the choir?

    Link to this
  17. 17. joevolcano 4:19 pm 08/18/2011

    @mem from somerville: wow, i thought we were having a civil discussion, but you accuse me of having reading comprehension problems and of being an idiot. you’re just being plain rude when all i did was take the time to read your links and comment on them in discussion. i apologize. way to really convince me and others of your argument.

    first off, you can claim all you want to have the credits, which i never questioned, and you can cite all the article headlines you want to try and suppress discussion, but the fact remains that you addressed none of my points: A- i even said i agreed that claiming a pesticide is organic and therefore must be less toxic is illogical, however your link doesn’t actually conflict with this article. i think of course there is a greater discussion that could be had about the synthetic compounds and their exposure to human health and the environment, since many of them never existed before this last century, or at least in as great a volume, and frankly, we don’t know what kind of effects they will have.

    B- all i was pointing out was that the link you cited did not actually discuss the fallacy of mono-cropping either way. sorry, man, it didn’t say it. read it again, Mr. Supreme Read Comprehension. Us stupids can only understand words that are written. it was just a government manual that both acknowledged the great varieties of potatoes but DID NOT SPECIFICALLY SAY THAT THEY WERE USED during or before the famine. just because they exist doesn’t mean they were used on any large scale.

    C- once again, this one did not actually say that guano was connected, which was also echoed in other peoples comments on that same article. sorry, once again, i am too stupid to read words that are not on the page. further, you’re kind of missing the entire point yourself: potatoes are not a native species of ireland. they originated in south america and the guano connection also originated in south america… curious! i wonder if there could be a connection! taking non native species out of their environment and then there being a huge catastrophe from it is not in any way evidence for the inefficacy of organic farming.

    from and interview with terry gross and charles mann, a WIRED writer, and author of “1493″:

    GROSS: So let me see if I understand this correctly. The potato is originally from Peru…

    Mr. MANN: Yes.

    GROSS: …ends up in…

    Mr. MANN: And so are the potato pests.

    GROSS: Right. Ends up original – among other countries in Ireland. And then the potato pest, maybe it came in the form of guano that’s shipped to Europe, and then kills the potatoes.

    Mr. MANN: Right.

    GROSS: So you’ve got this kind of like complete, like, loop that’s closed…

    Mr. MANN: Right.

    GROSS: …in this post-Columbian environmental exchange, ecological exchange.

    Mr. MANN: Yeah. One of the things that happens is that when you bring species out of its home range, you very frequently, when you transport it, bring it to a place where it doesn’t have whatever predators and pests and so forth were keeping it down. And that’s why if you go to the American Southeast, you see kudzu, right? It’s like, you know, it’s like Christo went crazy and draped the entire Southeast…

    (Soundbite of laughter)

    Mr. MANN: …with this plant. And when I went to Japan for the first time, you see this little inoffensive thing on the sides of the road. And I said, what is that? And they said, that’s kudzu. And there’s something about this, you know, there’s this phenomenon called ecological release, so that when kudzu comes out of Japan and comes into the U.S. Southeast, it goes bananas. And this happens again and again. So the potatoes brought out of Peru come to Europe, and they just thrive. You know, they do fantastically well. And then, sooner or later, the pests follow and wipes them out.

    Link to this
  18. 18. MoxyCams 11:18 am 08/19/2011

    Both of the arguments presented by Ms. Wilcox and Mr. Mark make interesting points. Many statements are truthful and many, especially by Mr. Marks, are exaggerated or inaccurate.

    I find it interesting that Mr. Marks uses specific research to support his vast generalizations. A hand full of research projects conducted at varying sites under varying conditions does not support an all encompassing specious Anthroposophical farming theory and its extensive purported attributes.

    Many of the postings do a good job of correcting some of Mr. Marks inaccurate statements regarding pesticide regulation. Interestedly, Mr. Marks cites regulatory mechanisms to dispute safety as it relates to pesticides use. The evolution of the pesticide regulatory process has allowed scientists to discover the concerns related to pesticide safety. On the one hand we are to reject the use of conventional pesticides based on data generated by the extensive open process the EPA administers but on the other hand we are to accept non-governmental oversight by entities with mutual economic interests and no singular process that is publicly available. The fact is the organic system plan certifying companies are paid by the farm owners. Further, companies pay OMRI to have their products reviewed and listed. For those skeptical of this argument, just review the scandal in CA of the synthetic “organic” fertilizer a few years ago or the recently continued exceptions for antibiotic use for fire blight control in organic apples and pears. Where is the independent review here? Is the consuming public fulling informed? Millions of dollars are spent by Agri-Chemical companies to determine potential environmental and human health hazards. The same can not be said for organic “plant health products” that often skirt the regulatory definition of a pesticide or fertilizer and therefore do not have the required equivalent evaluations. Having worked on an organic farm while in graduate school, the concoctions sprayed on the crops was wide ranging and untested. Dangerous, I don’t know.

    Most worrisome about “organic” agriculture is the fact that those profiting from the industry have no requirement to document their claimed environmental, human health, or social benefits (if they even exist). The certification system is built on what you DO NOT DO, NOT document-able attributes “beyond the farm.” An entire “global brand” has been created and is supported by largely uninformed consumers who are not ecologists, toxicologists, agronomist, etc. Instead these are consumers looking for simple purchasing decision making factors for extremely complex issues. It is criminal an entire industry can exist on implied unfounded claims, unverifiable attributes, and no required performance metrics. The USDA’s own regulations do not allow organic producers to make claims about products often ascribed to the organic “brand” as a whole.

    Once farmers are paid for attributes beyond the value of the individual commodity sold and instead compensated for measurable ecosystem services(e.g. air purification, ground water recharge, wildlife enhancement) only then will agricultural sustainability be mutually profitable to the producer, consumer, and society. Until then “sustainability” and “organic” is just a trite marketing tool.

    Link to this
  19. 19. 8281regam 12:17 pm 08/19/2011

    Now, I understand this is a scientific publication and, as such, the online community must give appropriate deference to detail, but I can’t help feeling this particular debate (and virtually all debate regarding sustainability) is just mired in minutia.

    Industrial food production is heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Unless I am wrong, the general consensus is that this industry is unsustainable and a blight to the environment. Another form of production can help mitigate the environmental damage of food production, may help produce healthier food at equivalent production rates, and be sustainable with proper and efficient oversight.

    Our options seem fairly simple. Either continue investing in a system that many intelligent people believe will collapse, or start investing in alternatives that don’t rely on highly centralized and specialized chemical companies.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Wood Gas 3:04 am 08/20/2011

    The social aspects of this subject receive little consideration. Industrial agriculture can produce vast quantities of high fructose corn syrup and starch very cheaply. Soy can be processed into fuel, chemicals paints and tofu.

    Many smaller farms operated by families can most likely produce better food, better families and maintain a sustainable and dependable yield that is not dependent on a high energy infrastructure. Okay, we can’t go back to little house on the prairie, it never existed anyway. But people who are largely unemployable in the current economy could find meaning in there lives and a tradition as old as civilization could be continued. That, I think might be reason enough for organic agriculture to thrive.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Swiftright 11:58 pm 08/20/2011

    Reading mem from somerville’s post is like a tour de force in arguing fallacies.

    You can safely just ignore him. Or at least just don’t respond and starve the troll.

    Link to this
  22. 22. NerdyChristie 1:20 pm 09/14/2011

    Just a note: Rotenone was re-approved for use in organic farms in 2010, despite additional evidence of its link to Parkinson’s disease. See for yourself.

    Link to this
  23. 23. naturesownsolutions 11:57 am 02/6/2012

    well…Your home is your most important investment & your families health is your number one concern. That’s why we take it so seriously when it comes to your pest management program. If your looking for the facts, the solutions and the truth about pest control you’ve come to the right place. http://www.naturesownsolutions.com

    Link to this
  24. 24. eFarmer 12:36 pm 02/22/2012

    Hi,
    I first would like to say that I know I cannot add any informative information to this article. I have begun a small blog Organic vs Conventional. During my research, I came across this article and wanted to thank you for the information, and thank the commenter’s for the additions. This will help me, and my visitors become more informed about both methods of farming, and the misuse, or, misunderstandings about certifications.

    Thanks again for your work

    Link to this
  25. 25. supraorganics 9:25 am 08/17/2012

    I am from India and here it is a general consensus that the increase in the percentage of patients of diseases like cancer, stomach ailments and other health problems is due to the chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are harmful for our system. In the state of Punjab in India there is a village in which almost people have got cancer and it is believed it is due to the extreme use of fertilizers which contaminated their food. No one is willing to buy land their or even visit the place.
    supraorganics.com

    Link to this
  26. 26. organicamlapowder 4:04 am 01/18/2013

    Well as we know that pesticides are not used in organic farming but after reading this article I found that it’s not true. Thanks for this article.

    Link to this
  27. 27. tayloralameter 9:52 pm 02/14/2013

    I guess that these kinds of things can’t be decided like workers compensation in portland or. It is kind of crazy how intense people get over the matter. It seems like making the choice isn’t really worth the fuss.

    Link to this
  28. 28. The Power of Our Food Choices | ONews.US - Latest Breaking News 4:47 am 05/7/2014

    [...] studies variously prove or disprove that short-term organic and industrial food yields are similar, industrial agriculture cannot [...]

    Link to this
  29. 29. The Power of Our Food Choices : Modern Diseases 9:22 pm 05/7/2014

    [...] studies variously prove or disprove that short-term organic and industrial food yields are similar, industrial agriculture cannot [...]

    Link to this

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