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Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture

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


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People believe a lot of things that we have little to no evidence for, like that vikings wore horned helmets or that you can see the Great Wall of China from space. One of the things I like to do on my blogs is bust commonly held myths that I think matter. For example, I get really annoyed when I hear someone say sharks don’t get cancer (I’ll save that rant for another day). From now onward, posts that attack conventionally believed untruths will fall under a series I’m going to call “Mythbusting 101.”

USDA OrganicTen years ago, Certified Organic didn’t exist in the United States. Yet in 2010, a mere eight years after USDA’s regulations officially went into effect, organic foods and beverages made $26.7 billion. In the past year or two, certified organic sales have jumped to about $52 billion worldwide despite the fact that organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods. More and more, people are shelling out their hard-earned cash for what they believe are the best foods available. Imagine, people say: you can improve your nutrition while helping save the planet from the evils of conventional agriculture – a complete win-win. And who wouldn’t buy organic, when it just sounds so good?

Here’s the thing: there are a lot of myths out there about organic foods, and a lot of propaganda supporting methods that are rarely understood. It’s like your mother used to say: just because everyone is jumping off a bridge doesn’t mean you should do it, too. Now, before I get yelled at too much, let me state unequivocally that I’m not saying organic farming is bad – far from it. There are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods. For example, the efforts of organic farmers to move away from monocultures, where crops are farmed in single-species plots, are fantastic; crop rotations and mixed planting are much better for the soil and environment. My goal in this post isn’t to bash organic farms, instead, it’s to bust the worst of the myths that surround them so that everyone can judge organic farming based on facts. In particular, there are four myths thrown around like they’re real that just drive me crazy.

Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides

When the Soil Association, a major organic accreditation body in the UK, asked consumers why they buy organic food, 95% of them said their top reason was to avoid pesticides. They, like many people, believe that organic farming involves little to no pesticide use. I hate to burst the bubble, but that’s simply not true. Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their crops. Confused?

So was I, when I first learned this from a guy I was dating. His family owns a farm in rural Ohio. He was grumbling about how everyone praised the local organic farms for being so environmentally-conscientious, even though they sprayed their crops with pesticides all the time while his family farm got no credit for being pesticide-free (they’re not organic because they use a non-organic herbicide once a year). I didn’t believe him at first, so I looked into it: turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971 1. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.

The sad truth is, factory farming is factory farming, whether its organic or conventional. Many large organic farms use pesticides liberally. They’re organic by certification, but you’d never know it if you saw their farming practices. As Michael Pollan, best-selling book author and organic supporter, said in an interview with Organic Gardening,

“They’re organic by the letter, not organic in spirit… if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off.”

What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is different than the current pesticides used by conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. It has been assumed for years that pesticides that occur naturally (in certain plants, for example) are somehow better for us and the environment than those that have been created by man. As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential – or serious – health risks.2

Take the example of Rotenone. Rotenone was widely used in the US as an organic pesticide for decades 3. Because it is natural in origin, occurring in the roots and stems of a small number of subtropical plants, it was considered “safe” as well as “organic“. However, research has shown that rotenone is highly dangerous because it kills by attacking mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of all living cells. Research found that exposure to rotenone caused Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats 4, and had the potential to kill many species, including humans. Rotenone’s use as a pesticide has already been discontinued in the US as of 2005 due to health concerns***, but shockingly, it’s still poured into our waters every year by fisheries management officials as a piscicide to remove unwanted fish species.

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

Just last year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union’s safety evaluation that is required by law 5. Among the chemicals failing the test was rotenone, as it had yet to be banned in Europe. Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foodstuffs produced in 2007 and tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels – and these are of pesticides that are not organic 6. Similarly, when Consumer Reports purchased a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides, they found traces of them in 25% of the organically-labeled foods, but between all of the organic and non-organic foods tested, only one sample of each exceeded the federal limits8.

Not only are organic pesticides not safe, they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry. Canadian scientists pitted ‘reduced-risk’ organic and synthetic pesticides against each other in controlling a problematic pest, the soybean aphid. They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like the aphid’s predators9. Of course, some organic pesticides may fare better than these ones did in similar head-to-head tests, but studies like this one reveal that the assumption that natural is better for the environment could be very dangerous.

Even if the organic food you’re eating is from a farm which uses little to no pesticides at all, there is another problem: getting rid of pesticides doesn’t mean your food is free from harmful things. Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens. One study, for example, found E. coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farms samples, but only 2% of conventional ones10. The same study also found Salmonella only in samples from organic farms, though at a low prevalence rate. The reason for the higher pathogen prevalence is likely due to the use of manure instead of artificial fertilizers, as many pathogens are spread through fecal contamination. Conventional farms often use manure, too, but they use irradiation and a full array of non-organic anti-microbial agents as well, and without those, organic foods run a higher risk of containing something that will make a person sick.

In the end, it really depends on exactly what methods are used by crop producers. Both organic and conventional farms vary widely in this respect. Some conventional farms use no pesticides. Some organic farms spray their crops twice a month. Of course, some conventional farms spray just as frequently, if not more so, and some organic farms use no pesticides whatsoever. To really know what you’re in for, it’s best if you know your source, and a great way to do that is to buy locally. Talk to the person behind the crop stand, and actually ask them what their methods are if you want to be sure of what you’re eating.

 

Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier

Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

Just recently, an independent research project in the UK systematically reviewed the 162 articles on organic versus non-organic crops published in peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008 11. These contained a total of 3558 comparisons of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced foods. They found absolutely no evidence for any differences in content of over 15 different nutrients including vitamin C, β-carotene, and calcium. There were some differences, though; conventional crops had higher nitrogen levels, while organic ones had higher phosphorus and acidity – none of which factor in much to nutritional quality. Further analysis of similar studies on livestock products like meat, dairy, and eggs also found few differences in nutritional content. Organic foods did, however, have higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats. So if anything, the organic livestock products were found to be worse for us (though, to be fair, barely).

“This is great news for consumers. It proves that the 98% of food we consume, which is produced by technologically advanced agriculture, is equally nutritious to the less than 2% derived from what is commonly referred to as the ‘organic’ market,” said Fredhelm Schmider, the Director General of the European Crop Protection Association said in a press release about the findings.12

Joseph D. Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, puts it even more strongly. “Any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money,” he writes in a comprehensive review of organic nutritional claims13.

Strong organic proponents also argue that organic food tastes better. In the same poll where 95% of UK organic consumers said they buy organic to avoid pesticides, over two-thirds of respondents said organic produce and meats taste better than non-organic ones. But when researchers had people put their mouths to the test, they found that people couldn’t tell the difference between the two in blind taste tests14, 18.

So, in short, organics are not better for us and we can’t tell the difference between them and non-organic foods. There may be many things that are good about organic farming, from increased biodiversity on farms to movement away from monocultures, but producing foods that are healthier and tastier simply isn’t one of them.

Myth #3: Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment

As an ecologist by training, this myth bothers me the most of all three. People seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not – at least the issue is not that cut and dry.

Yes, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do. As we speak, there are sweet potatoes are being engineered to be resistant to a virus that currently decimates the African harvest every year, which could feed millions in some of the poorest nations in the world15. Scientists have created carrots high in calcium to fight osteoperosis, and tomatoes high in antioxidants. Almost as important as what we can put into a plant is what we can take out; potatoes are being modified so that they do not produce high concentrations of toxic glycoalkaloids, and nuts are being engineered to lack the proteins which cause allergic reactions in most people. Perhaps even more amazingly, bananas are being engineered to produce vaccines against hepatitis B, allowing vaccination to occur where its otherwise too expensive or difficult to be administered. The benefits these plants could provide to human beings all over the planet are astronomical.

Yet organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy. For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals, like making food plants flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds. If the goal is protect the environment, why not incorporate the newest technologies which help us do so?

But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces16 (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!).

Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it17. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now. Unfortunately, what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of currently untouched habitats, thus plowing over the little wild habitat left for many threatened and endangered species.

Already, we have cleared more than 35% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, an area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystem and its inhabitants than agriculture. What will happen to what’s left of our planet’s wildlife habitats if we need to mow down another 20% or more of the world’s ice-free land to accommodate for organic methods?

The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for space is devastating. As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats altogether. That’s not to say that there’s no hope for organic farming; better technology could overcome the production gap, allowing organic methods to produce on par with conventional agriculture. If that does occur, then organic agriculture becomes a lot more ecologically sustainable. On the small scale, particularly in areas where food surpluses already occur, organic farming could be beneficial, but presuming it’s the end all be all of sustainable agriculture is a mistake.

Myth #4: It’s all or none

The point of this piece isn’t to vilify organic farming; it’s merely to point out that it’s not as black and white as it looks. Organic farming does have many potential upsides, and may indeed be the better way to go in the long run, but it really depends on technology and what we discover and learn in the future. Until organic farming can produce crops on par in terms of volume with conventional methods, it cannot be considered a viable option for the majority of the world. Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price and want to have it, but it’s not a panacea. You would improve your nutritional intake far more by eating a larger volume of fruits and vegetables than by eating organic ones instead of conventionally produced ones.

What bothers me most, however, is that both sides of the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution. Organic supporters tend to vilify new technologies, while conventional supporters insist that chemicals and massive production monocultures are the only way to go. This simply strikes me as absurd. Synthetic doesn’t necessarily mean bad for the environment. Just look at technological advances in creating biodegradable products; sometimes, we can use our knowledge and intelligence to create things that are both useful, cheap (enough) and ecologically responsible, as crazy as that idea may sound.

I also firmly believe that increasing the chemicals used in agriculture to support insanely over-harvested monocultures will never lead to ecological improvement. In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally.

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides. Guess what? You don’t. You can appreciate the upsides of rotating crops and how GMOs might improve output and nutrition. You, the wise and intelligent consumer, don’t have to buy into either side’s propaganda and polarize to one end or another. You can, instead, be somewhere along the spectrum, and encourage both ends to listen up and work together to improve our global food resources and act sustainably.

 

See more on this, in response to critiques: In the immortal words of Tom Petty: “I won’t back down”

More Mythbusting 101:
Sharks will cure cancer

*** Oh, it turns out Rotenone got re-approved for organic use in 2010. See for yourself.

Regarding the use of GMOs: perhaps Andy Revkin from The New York Times says it better.

Based on the responses, I just want to make this clear: this is NOT a comprehensive comparison of organic and conventional agriculture, nor is it intended to be. That post would be miles long and far more complex. My overall belief is that there shouldn’t be a dichotomy in the first place – there are a variety of methods and practices that a farmer can use, each with its pros and cons. The main point here is that something “organic” isn’t intrinsically better than something that isn’t, and that you have to approach all kinds of agriculture critically to achieve optimum sustainability.

Ok, and while I’m adding in notes: stop citing Bedgley et al. 2007 as evidence that organic farming produces equal yields: this study has been shown to be flawed (see my comments in the follow up post to this article), and was strongly critiqued (e.g. this response article).

 

ResearchBlogging.orgReferences

  1. National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, National Pesticide Use Database. Available from http://www.ncfap.org (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
  2. Gold, L., Slone, T., Stern, B., Manley, N., & Ames, B. (1992). Rodent carcinogens: setting priorities Science, 258 (5080), 261-265 DOI: 10.1126/science.1411524
  3. Rotenone: Resource Guide for Organic and Disease Management. Cornell University. Available at www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/resourceguide/mfs/11rotenone.php (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
  4. Caboni, P., Sherer, T., Zhang, N., Taylor, G., Na, H., Greenamyre, J., & Casida, J. (2004). Rotenone, Deguelin, Their Metabolites, and the Rat Model of Parkinson’s Disease Chemical Research in Toxicology, 17 (11), 1540-1548 DOI: 10.1021/tx049867r
  5. EFSA 2009. Pesticides used in organic farming: some pass and some fail safety authorization. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Available from: www.ecpa.eu (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
  6. Reasoned opinion of EFSA prepared by the Pesticides Unit (PRAPeR) on the 2007 Annual Report on Pesticide Residues. EFSA Scientific Report (2009) 305, 1-106
  7. Consumer Reports 1998. Organic produce. Consumer Reports 63(1), 12-18.
  8. FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (2000). Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring 1999. Available at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009)
  9. Bahlai, C., Xue, Y., McCreary, C., Schaafsma, A., & Hallett, R. (2010). Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans PLoS ONE, 5 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011250
  10. Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, & Diez-Gonzalez F (2004). Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of food protection, 67 (5), 894-900 PMID: 15151224
  11. Dangour, A., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. (2010). Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92 (1), 203-210 DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2010.29269
  12. EFSA 2009. Study finds no additional nutritional benefit in “organic” food. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Available from: www.ecpa.eu (Viewed Jul 2011)
  13. Rosen, J. (2010). A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 9 (3), 270-277 DOI: 10.1111/j.1541-4337.2010.00108.x
  14. Fillion, L., & Arazi, S. (2002). Does organic food taste better? A claim substantiation approach Nutrition & Food Science, 32 (4), 153-157 DOI: 10.1108/00346650210436262
  15. Qaim, M. The Economic Effects of Genetically Modified Orphan
    Commodities: Projections for Sweetpotato in Kenya. Agricultural Economist Center for Development Research (ZEF), No. 13-1999. PDF
  16. Mader, P. (2002). Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming Science, 296 (5573), 1694-1697 DOI: 10.1126/science.1071148
  17. Fedoroff, N. (1999). Plants and population: Is there time? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96 (11), 5903-5907 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.96.11.5903
  18. Basker, D. (2009). Comparison of taste quality between organically and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 7 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0889189300004641
Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

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





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  1. 1. mem from somerville 11:06 am 07/18/2011

    Excellent piece–but I hope you are wearing your asbestos pantsuit for the incoming hair-flambés. I go ’round and ’round on these issues all the time, it will be handy to have a quick link bookmarked for referencing them!

    I would add another myth: that it is more humane for animals. “The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards” was a very interesting look at the treatment of sick livestock. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/6330/the_cruel_irony_of_organic_standards Purity can go too far here too.

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  2. 2. Heteromeles 11:10 am 07/18/2011

    It’s hard to write an article like this and not come across as an industry shill. This certainly wasn’t long enough to give a proper overview of the subject.

    I agree that factory organic farms aren’t as good as fully organic ones, but when we get into issues of DDT and methyl bromide on conventional lands, that’s where you really need to start mythbusting. Yes, some low-pesticide/IPM regimes are better than factory organic, but when you (as a shopper) get a choice between “organic” and “conventional” (often from Mexico), there’s inadequate data to sort out which is better. At least with organic US peppers, I don’t have to worry about DDT.

    Note also that where I live, organic is three times more expensive primarily when you’re buying something out of season. In season, the costs are much more equivalent. The lesson here is to not buy peppers in January.

    As for genetic engineering, I dislike it because the ecologists have not gotten involved in the design phase, and most genetic engineering seems to be about pesticide resistance. Is it a good idea that farmers are dumping massive quantities of glyphosphate on their roundup ready crops? Probably not. I recently tried to find a definitive answer to how safe glyphosphate was, and there is none. It certainly causes birth defects in some cases and death to aquatic life in others, but the industry is also fighting hard to spin it as harmless in all cases. That’s not good.

    A bigger problem, though, is that when you introduce herbicide resistance genes into crops (such as wheat, sorghum, and rape/canola) the resistance genes readily go out into their weedy relatives at the edge of the field. Even when this does not happen, massive use of pesticides is simply speeding the evolution of pesticide resistant pests. As with Prohibition and arguably the war on drugs, the petrochemical war on pests will eventually be won by the pests. That’s why smart farmers, whatever their organic label, try to control pests by cultural practices, and to use pesticides in as precise a fashion as possible.

    Another example of bad genetic engineering is of someone who, like you, wanted to make food better in the developing world. Their goal was to get the cyanide out of sorghum. Sorghum, when stressed, can produce cyanide, and subclinical cyanide poisoning from eating sorghum is a problem in the Sahel, especially in children. Some kindly researcher created a cyanide-free sorghum to help these kids. What happened when they planted it? The grasshoppers ate the entire crop. Getting the natural insecticides out of plants is a bad maneuver, especially if your customers can’t replace those natural defenses with pesticides. With sorghum, finding ways to grow it so that it doesn’t get stressed is the primary way to keep it cyanide-free.

    A blog is too brief to be accurate on such a complex subject. This article is, in my opinion, misleading in its choice of examples, and counter-examples abound, as I noted here. While I agree with the general point that the organic label can be misleading, as another ecologist, I’d say this article provides more heat than light on the subject.

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  3. 3. geosteve 11:31 am 07/18/2011

    An enjoyable piece and many good points raised. On the relatively unimportant subject of taste, you write that “we can’t tell the difference between them and non-organic foods”. To support this you reference an article in Nutrition and Food Sciences. I expected this to be a wide ranging study, whereas in fact (according to the abstract) it looked at just two products; milk and orange juice. People couldn’t tell the difference between the former, but they could the latter. So to support your contention that people can’t tell the difference between organic and non-organic, you’ve chosen an article that looks at just two food stuffs, one of which people could discern a difference! The paper itself warns against making global claims like “organic tastes better”, advice you should probably heed in making the global claim that we can’t tell the difference between the two.

    Personally, I generally can’t tell much of a difference, although this may be because of my usual style of cooking – lots of sauces etc, not much “pure” flavour of the produce. The only thing I genuinely think I can distinguish between is organic vs battery farmed chicken.

    [CW: This one more to your liking? I've added it to the reference list: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=6356208 . The point is that the universal statement "organic tastes better" is false, and often, people can't even tell the difference.]

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  4. 4. jayseedub 1:35 pm 07/18/2011

    My only real gripe with GMOs have been on the “retail” side. Not the final retail consumer, but the farmers who buy their seed. When a company like Monsanto or ADM patent the genes of their crops and then go around suing people whose own crops have cross pollinated with GM crops, it makes these potentially useful crops very, very bad for business. Agribiz is a high profit margin business, farming isn’t. When you have a company planting 5 times more acreage of crops across the lane from you, and there’s a chance those crops are pollinating your crops, and there’s a potential lawsuit on your hands, it really makes it hard for what small farmers remain.

    And just as shady as suing someone who didn’t willfully or knowingly plant your patented crops, is rendering seeds sterile. It sounds great from the marketing side, but if you consider how many traditional farms worldwide are subsistence, these terminator seeds end up being incredibly expensive. They require the farm that planted them to sell off the crops they’d just raised to buy more seed, with nothing left over for the farmers. And chances are if a family in a given village or town bought those seeds and planted them, a lot of other families did the same. Meaning when they did sell their crops, it was done at rock bottom prices. Chances are the people buying were the same seed company or a sister company that was also owned by the seed company.

    Worse still are those terminator seeds that don’t just render seeds from the current crop grown sterile, but terminator seeds that make it next to impossible to grow any other type of crop on that same tract of land. Which really slaves farmers to monocultures developed and dictated by seed companies.

    Maybe if there were greater controls placed on the corporations marketing these GM crops where small farmers weren’t getting sued in the US and Canada, not to mention in impoverished subsistence farmers in Africa and Asia; maybe if terminators seeds weren’t being marketed and priced to keep these same farmers dependent on seed companies; and maybe if the GMs produced the crop yields promised, like those sweet potatoes that didn’t really produce what was promised, GM crops would be less embattled. As it is, because of both the legal wrangling and the less than promised marketing of seed and parent companies, GM crops don’t make sense for small farmers all over the world. You’re pretty much promised a year’s worth of crops, that have to be sold at extremely low prices because everyone else has to sell them.

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  5. 5. mem from somerville 1:46 pm 07/18/2011

    @jayseedub: There are no terminator seeds. That’s another major myth in this arena.

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  6. 6. chiral 2:00 pm 07/18/2011

    I’m learning how to farm organically right now in the US. The students get to make all the decisions regarding what pesticides, etc are put on this little bit of land. I was a bit shocked when the teachers (local organic farmers, who work about 30 acres of land) offered to dust rotenone on some plants that were being destroyed by earwigs.

    This sort of indiscriminate use of strong (but organic, as if it mattered) pesticides and the oddly conflicting strong homeopathy undercurrent in the organic movement always make me wish there was a better standard. Something that was more interested in science, specifically ecology, minimizing petroleum use and increasing yields without killing the land. I’ve been on small, local, conventional farms and the only reason things grow on that land at all are the fertilizers, whereas at this organic farm we have only used a little compost in the potatoes and squash. Legumes are grown on a sizable portion of the land, the crops are rotated from year to year, and local compost applied when needed. I’m sure there’s a happy balance in there somewhere, but no one seems to be doing it.

    As a bit of an aside, GMO seems to be a bit of a non-starter with many farmers in the US for several reasons. There is the idea (true or not, I don’t know) that consumers won’t buy GMO if they know that’s what they’re buying. There’s also a strong fear that they’ll end up beholden to the GMO seed manufacturer one way or another. Monsanto didn’t do the industry any favors with all the lawsuits it filed and most farmers I know won’t go near GMO in part because of the business practices of the GMO developers. Of course, there’s the whole fear of the unknown thing going on, as well. I’ve heard a few (but not too many) farmers talk about the loss of biodiversity in our food crops as a negative as well, but of course it doesn’t take GMO to achieve that.

    I think if we really want to be serious about sustainable food, we’ve got to be willing to look to a lot of different places for solutions and evaluate them scientifically. I’ve encountered serious resistance to that idea on both organic and conventional farms.

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  7. 7. KevinEMcCluney 2:17 pm 07/18/2011

    You make some good points, especially about eating from a local farm where you know the farmer, however, I think there are a few things you have not considered and thus have perpetuated a few myths yourself.

    Myth #1: Organic foods use so many pesticides that they do not make a difference in the health of consumers. In fact, one recent study has shown a significant difference in the organophosphate pesticide content of the urine of children who did, or did not eat organic foods (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1241395/). Another study, found that higher organophosphate content of urine was associated with an increased incidence of ADHD (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/125/6/e1270.abstract). No, these are not controlled, randomized trials, but I think it is sufficient evidence to be cautious about making the health claim that you do here.

    Myth #2: Conventional and organic farms have the same distribution of effects on biodiversity and important ecosystem functions. Although you make a point that many organic farms use ecologically destructive practices, you have not convinced me that organic farms, as a whole, are equally ecologically destructive to conventional farms, as a whole. It should not be surprising that we can find examples of destructive and benign farming practices in both organic and conventional agriculture. What matters to me is whether or not the distribution of farming practices differs. I have not found a study that exactly answers that question, but this is the best I have found: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2005.01005.x/full

    Myth #3: Organic farming produces low yields and this makes it harder to feed the world. A recent study has not found lower yields using organic practices in all regions of the world: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1091304
    Notably, developing countries can gain higher yields with organic than conventional practices, exactly the places with the most malnourished people. According to this study, organic practices could feed the world on the same amount of land. Additionally, the difficulty in feeding the world is not currently due to the amount of food production, but in getting that food to the people who need it. Another thing to note is the many organic farms produce multiple products from the same land and so yields of single crops can be misleading. Also, from an input-efficiency perspective, many organic farms may win out in terms of yields.

    {CW: On your last point – that study has been ripped apart for poor methodology, which is why I didn’t mention it in the post. See the published response by Alex Avery titled “‘Organic abundance’ report: fatally flawed”: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1599476&fulltextType=XX&fileId=S1742170507002189 ]

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  8. 8. jayseedub 2:36 pm 07/18/2011

    @mem from somerville : Ever try producing sunflower seeds? All the seed from Monsanto and Syngento can’t be used to produce more sunflowers. This was a real problem for some of the restaurants in the Napa Valley when they started their own restaurant gardens or worked with local farms for the same. My previous employer ended up turning to UC Davis for a line on a supplier on the West Coast that wasn’t Monsanto or Syngento.

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  9. 9. mem from somerville 2:51 pm 07/18/2011

    @jayseedub: That’s still not a terminator. Nice try though.

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  10. 10. KevinEMcCluney 3:43 pm 07/18/2011

    @CW, thanks for pointing that out about the flaws in that study. Certainly a difficult problem. I couldn’t find any other studies that had tried to do a similar analysis, but do it correctly. The Mader study you cite does mention that the 20% reduction in yields for organic agriculture was accompanied by much less requirement for inputs. It also shows that there are differences between crops, with clover showing very little difference in yield, grain only a slight decrease, but potatoes a large decrease. It only looks at these three crops. We don’t know if yields are different in other crops, not from this study anyway. When I looked into this a long time ago, I remember a lot of variability with crop type. Of course other specific practices will also have a big effect on yield. I think it is important to note that the added inputs for conventional agriculture can be costly and this could make things difficult, especially in developing countries, where labor is still relatively cheap and can substitute for some of the conventional inputs. You mention several times that conventional vs organic is not cut and dry. I think the same is true here, contrary to what is stated in your post. Trying to feed the world is a difficult problem, but I don’t think organic agriculture is worsening that problem. In my opinion, more likely culprits are geopolitical obstacles, global increases in meat consumption, and overpopulation.

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  11. 11. Carlos Solrac 6:12 pm 07/18/2011

    Intelligent and imaginative people can write in favor or against anything. Intelligent, imaginative and wise people chose to write in favor of mainstream ideas and practices. And against alternative ideas and practices. In Italy, were organic food is mainstream, intelligent, imaginative and wise people write in favor of organic food.

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  12. 12. Benbrook 8:31 pm 07/18/2011

    This is a clever piece that makes several valid points, but the author CW goes over the line on many points. She sets up straw men that are mostly divorced from reality, and then takes great pains (and pleasure) in tearing them up. The flow of misinformation is also much greater than one would expect in a Scientific America blog.

    Myth 1 – Organic Farmers Don’t Use Pesticides.

    CW is correct, organic farmers are allowed to apply a small number of pesticides derived from nature, such as microbial insecticides, copper fungicides, and botanical insecticides derived mostly from flowers. In short, products based on nature’s pesticide toolkit.

    Organic farmers cannot apply, and do not apply the hundreds of synthetic pesticides that pose risks to people, especially farmworkers and infants and children, as well as non-target organisms (e.g., the birds and bees, fish, your neighbor’s cat or rose bushes). While most pesticide applications pose little if any harm to people or the environment, some do, and science is gradually developing the tools and data to prove it.

    In terms of managing pests, organic farmers strive to prevent pest problems through the design and management of their farming systems. They are mostly successful, which is why they use far, far less pesticides than their conventional farming neighbors.

    Minimizing synthetic, toxic pesticide use, risk, and environmental damage is the most significant, proven benefit of organic farming. Some argue that the risks of contemporary pesticides are so small that no effort should be made to further reduce them. A lot of people disagree, and there is a ton of science on their side.

    Myth 2 – Organic foods are healthier.

    It is ridiculous to say science has found no evidence of greater nutrient density in organic food, compared to conventionally grown foods. There are over 50 studies published in high-quality peer reviewed publications reporting such findings dozens of foods.

    It is true that organic farming – indeed all systems of farming – cannot guarantee that every crop will be more nutritious, because so many variables come into play in determining nutrient content. But the body of published literature shows that levels of Vitamin C and antioxidants, in particular, are higher in organically grown fruits and vegetables, compared to conventionally grown crops, about two-thirds of the time. In most other cases, there are no differences, and only occasionally does a conventionally grown crop contain higher levels of Vitamin C and antioxidants when grown in the same area, harvested at the same time, using the same plant genetics.

    Myth 3 – Organic farming is better for the environment.

    Of course it is, since it is based on building soil quality via soil carbon sequestration, uses multi-crop rotations to break pest cycles and promote biodiversity, and does not depend on a steady stream of toxic chemicals to bring a crop to harvest.

    It is true that most organic fields produce marginally lower yields, but they also usually produce more crops and human and animal food per acre. Organic farmers make much fuller use of the solar energy and rain falling on their fields by growing cover crops in the spring and fall. Plus, as R+D investments are made in organic systems and technology, yields will rise incrementally.

    Myth 4 – It’s all or none.

    Some people believe passionately that organic farming holds the key to progress toward global food security, while others feel just as strongly that genetically engineered (GE) crops and biotech are the only path forward. This is a hugely important debate going on around the world. The outcome will determine how billions of public and private dollars are invested over the next decade in trying to reduce the number of people facing acute and chronic malnutrition.

    In this debate, one side or the other must be right, because the core principles behind organic farming and today’s GE crops are as different as night and day. Mixing them in some sort of hybrid systems makes no sense. A large body of studies, and most ag scientists not working for the pesticide or biotech industries believe that improving soil quality and better management of farming systems in accord with agroecological principles has the potential to increase yields and human foodstuffs produced per hectare by 50% to 200%, while biotech and genetic improvement, by itself, might do so by 10% to 15%.

    The tools of biotech and new methods of transgenic crop improvement have a bright future serving all of agriculture, but this potential will remain largely unfulfilled as long as private companies in business to sell pesticides and crop protection technologies control how and why biotechnology is used in the real world.

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  13. 13. Michael Bulger 8:37 pm 07/18/2011

    As a graduate student in Food Studies at NYU, I would like to clarify some of the facts pertaining to this article. If I may do so simply, I will appreciate your forgiveness for my lack of depth in explanation. Much of my points may be better understood by reading the National Research Councils “Toward Sustainable Agriculture in the 21st Century”. (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12832)

    I will also borrow from my comments on another website.

    Myth #1: It should be noted that NRC reports: Baker et al. (2002) found organic produce had pesticide residues at levels “about one-third that of conventionally produced fruits and vegetables”. They were also “less likely to contain multiple pesticide residues.” Pesticide residue on produce grown without pesticides occurs as a result of drift from nearby fields.

    I would surmise that the common perception of organic agriculture being pesticide-free most likely derives from the utilization of biological, environmental, and manual controls as primary control methods in organic farming.

    Wilcox’s use of the UMN study on microbial contamination is faulty. This study explicitly states in its closing sentence: “These results suggest a geographical effect, but because of the limited nature of this study they should not be extrapolated to other regions.”

    The study did not separate certified from non-certified organic farms (important as manure handling is regulated under certification), and both were more likely to grow easily contaminated crops such as leafy greens when compared to the conventional farms in the study. (Here the old saying, “Comparing apples to oranges,” might be modified to substitute a ground vegetable for oranges.)

    From UMN: “This made the results confusing, and the study has been misrepresented in the media as proving that organic vegetables are more contaminated than conventional vegetables. In fact, the study provided some evidence that certified organic methods reduce the chance of contamination of leafy greens:…”

    http://www.misa.umn.edu/Search_and_Ask/FAQ/OrganicVegetableSafety/index.htm

    UMN concludes that “Organically grown vegetables are no more likely to be contaminated than conventional vegetables.”

    Myth #2: Wilcox states that there is no evidence that supports organic foods being more nutritious. True, many other factors affect nutritional quality and there is no set rule as to which system produces more nutritious food. Still, to state there is no evidence is to ignore some evidence that certain organic crops have better nutrient profiles than their conventional counterparts. (see Benbrook et al., 2008 as cited by NRC). I would also press Wilcox to identify the difference between naturally occurring trans fat and industrial trans fat and the scientific research examining their effects of health.

    Myth #3: Wilcox cites studies demonstrating lower yields. Generally organic farming does produce lower yields. The yields can be dramatically lower when you include poorly managed “organic” farms (“organic” in the sense that they don’t use synthetic inputs) that lack access to technology for weeding, sowing, and harvesting, and that don’t return organic matter or nutrients to the soil. Do people really think this is what they are purchasing at the grocery store? I don’t think so..

    In actuality, yield depends heavily on management. A poorly managed conventional farm will be outperformed by a well-managed organic farm, and vice versa. The NRC reports that, “Many studies have shown that with the right conditions and management, low-input and organic systems can have yields, productivity, and economic returns that are comparable to conventional systems (Liebman et al, 2008; Posner et al., 2008).”

    Further, to say that organic agriculture is incapable of providing adequate production to feed the growing population is to make a statement that runs contrary to scientific research (Bedgley et al., 2007; Stanhill, 1990). Organic farming is particularly appealing where economic and physical access to inputs are limited (as often is the case in the developing world).

    Wilcox writes, “The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for space is devastating.”

    This is about as misinformed a statement as any in this article.

    Myth #4 (It’s All or None): Wilcox is pretty much right on this one. Technology and organic certification are not exclusive. Wilcox would do well to explore her own limits in viewing this debate as she has demonstrated a limited and unrefined view with a passion and conviction unsuited for her simplistic and often wrong interpretation of organic and conventional agriculture.

    I look forward to seeing Wilcox’s contributions in the future and hope that she will spend additional time exploring a larger portion of the existing research.

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  14. 14. Kaleberg 12:10 am 07/19/2011

    We live in an agricultural area, so we talk to and buy from our local farmers. Most of them are not certified organic. It takes a lot of work to get certified, and it doesn’t always guarantee the right things. We generally consider food to come in two main categories – industrial and small scale. Industrial agriculture is sort of a miracle. When Wall Street Journal can run an article pointing out that rich people (in China) are fatter than poor people, and that this fact is newsworthy, you realize that we have made major progress towards feeding everyone. Industrial food can be organic or inorganic, and we generally choose whichever tastes better, is available, or costs less. To be honest, we usually notice little difference in taste.

    Small scale agriculture, which may actually involve rather large farms, is more focused on producing higher quality food. For us, this means it tastes better. The organic heirloom tomatoes at the supermarket taste nothing like the local tomatoes at the farmers’ market. (Not that we’ll be getting local tomatoes this year what with the temperatures in the low to mid-60s and the Starbucks having long lines of people buying hot chocolate to watch the July 4th fireworks.)

    On the plus side, we have amazing crucifers. Our area produces most of the nation’s broccoli, kale, and brussels sprout seeds, and the locally grown versions are head and shoulders better than anything else we have tasted. To us, that’s what it’s all about, the taste and supporting local farmers. Ten years ago, there were just one or two farmers selling retail in the area. Now there are maybe two dozen so we can get vegetables like Swiss chard, Ozette potatoes, lacinato kale, carrots, and beets, as well as beef, lamb, pork, eggs, and now and then stewing hens. Even some of the local fishermen now sell at the farmers’ market.

    Are they more earth friendly? Maybe yes, maybe no. Is the food more nutritious? Possibly, but we’re eating a few Brazil nuts now and then for the selenium as our local soil has little. Are we enjoying our food more? You bet we are.

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  15. 15. MBendzela 7:53 am 07/19/2011

    Ms. Wilcox, congratulations on getting this message out. I remember the first essay you wrote about this subject for Nutrition Wonderland.

    The problems with “organics” go even deeper. Here’s just a few issues I discovered when a) working at an “organic” farm and b)researching possible “organic” certification for a farm venture in Maine I’m involved in.

    1. “Organic” is an absurd term. It conflicts directly with the biological and chemical definitions of the word. “Organics” advocates will counter that the word “organic” has several meanings depending on discipline (such as in the sense of “inherent” or “fundamental”). The problem is that “organic” farmers deal with biology and chemistry, and when their definition conflicts with science it leads to the following absurdities:

    Carbaryl, and chemically-organic substance, is declared non-organic and is not allowed for use on “organic” farms.

    Copper sulfate, an inorganic compound, is declared “organic” and is allowed for use on “organic” farms.

    Pyrethrum, a chemically-organic, expensive pesticide imported from Kenya, is declared “organic” and allowed for use even though it is broad-spectrum and decimates bee populations.

    Tobacco dust, a perfectly natural, locally-grown, chemically-organic pesticide is deemed “non-organic” and is not allowed on “organic” farms.

    Go figure.

    2. The National Organic Program rules on substances is put like this:

    “The NOP Standards allow all non-synthetics, unless they are listed as prohibited and prohibits all synthetics, unless they are listed as accepted.”

    A moment’s contemplation will reveal what a sarcasm of logic this is.

    It says that “non-synthetic” (“natural”) substances are permitted, unless they’re not. And it says that “synthetic” (human-made) substances are prohibited, unless they’re not.

    So what’s the objective standard, then? Nothing. Things are declared “organic” by fiat, not logic.

    3. The “organics” movement sits cheek-by-jowl with the homeopathic cult. Here’s a list of recommended treatments for bovine mastitis according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association:

    “-garlic internally 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice per day
    -Dilute garlic tincture in vulva
    -2 oz. raw apple cider vinegar daily internally
    -tea of 1oz/qt water ginger, goldenseal, Echinacea, clove
    grated garlic, juniper berries, celery seed, dandelion root, and leaves, thyme, pine needles cayenne pepper,
    cinnamon, allspice and clove, bring to boil then steep 3-4 hours

    -Homeopathic remedies (Bryonia, Phytolacca, Hepar
    sulph, Aconite, Urtica urens, mastitis nosode).”

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

    I would submit that there is nothing wrong with conventional veterinary care for animals.

    The acceptance of homeopathy by the “organics” people at least has the semblance of consistency: This mind-set might explain why they have such irrational fears of minute quantities of “pesticides” on food.

    Let’s not forget, too, that 99.99% of the pesticides we ingest are manufactured by the plants themselves:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/87/19/7777.full.pdf

    I’m pretty much through with the ‘organics’ movement. Our farm has decided against certification.

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  16. 16. all4kindness2all 8:06 am 07/19/2011

    Excellent post! Look forward to more of your myth-busting.

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  17. 17. WesleyM 12:11 pm 07/19/2011

    Christie, there are no words to express how much I love this article. I’m a third-year law student, and last year I wrote an article for my law school’s environmental law and policy journal regarding genetically modified food regulations and policies. It is mind-boggling how anti-science some organic proponents are. As a friend of mine put it, the organic industry is largely pseudoscience and marketing. I think I’ve had to tell every single organic proponent I know that organic farmers use pesticides.

    That does not mean that organic practices are all pointless; some of them are very useful for sustainable agriculture. But for the best result, they need to be combined with crops that are cheaper, more efficient, and healthier for humans and the environment, and that can be achieved through GMOs.

    Another common misconception is that we don’t already eat GMOs all the time. On the contrary, the 2009 numbers I used in my study show that the vast majority of our soybeans and sugar beets (some 70% and 95% respectively) are already genetically engineered in some way, and most processed foods contain some GE components. I have yet to hear of any crisis.

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  18. 18. bluecanary 2:14 pm 07/19/2011

    I find it distressing that a publication like Scientific American would allow something so poorly written to be published. The commentary itself purports to want people to make decisions based on facts, but then goes on to badly misrepresent the issue. It reads as if Ms. Wilcox knew exactly what she wanted to say ahead of time and then found research to support it, couching it in lip service to “both sides have merit.”

    It is very true that the organic label can be meaningless in some cases, and that both conventional and organic methods have their places. But many of the statements made here are disingenuous at best.

    First of all, the blanket statement that organic farming produces lower yields is false. In some cases, it is true, especially in the short-term. But as soil quality is exhausted, organic can produce as well or better than conventional with fewer inputs.

    Secondly, the statement “Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it17. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now” is flabbergasting. Are you really suggesting that the reason people go hungry is because we don’t produce enough food? We produce plenty of food in this world, but instead of feeding it to the hungry, we feed it to animals, to ethanol, to the dumpster. The USDA estimates that 70% of US grain production is fed to livestock. The UN FAO estimates that the world wastes 1.3 billion tons of food a year.

    As far as GMOs, to say that people are against them because of some kind of reactionary fear is unfair. There is a huge difference between spraying Bt on corn and growing corn whose genes have been tweaked to contain Bt. GMO pollen doesn’t discriminate against heirloom or GMO, and contamination of non-GMO plants is common. A robust, diversified food system is essential to deal with climate disruptions, new diseases, pests, etc. GM crops threaten that biodiversity and put us at risk.

    Furthermore, the unscrupulous methods of firms like Monsanto cause a lot of suspicion and distaste for GMOs. What I have seen in third-world countries growing sterile GMO crops amounts to indentured servitude. I will fully admit that while I normally try to keep a rational, level head in any discussion, this particular issue fires me up.

    Others have already addressed some of the other concerns I have with this article, so I won’t repeat them. This is an important issue that deserves a thorough, balanced and fact-based study. I sincerely hope that SA finds someone capable of conducting it.

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  19. 19. WesleyM 4:12 pm 07/19/2011

    It is very true that the organic label can be meaningless in some cases, and that both conventional and organic methods have their places.

    In some cases? Try every organic mass-farming industry — basically, everything “organic” you find in the store. 99% of people who buy organic at the grocery store would be shocked to find out that pesticides are used in their food — and in higher quantities than on conventional crops.

    First of all, the blanket statement that organic farming produces lower yields is false. In some cases, it is true, especially in the short-term. But as soil quality is exhausted, organic can produce as well or better than conventional with fewer inputs.

    This is not a support for organic foods themselves, but for certain common organic farming practices, which Christie said were good things. Again, I marvel at the “in some cases” mitigating qualifier.

    A robust, diversified food system is essential to deal with climate disruptions, new diseases, pests, etc. GM crops threaten that biodiversity and put us at risk.

    Only if left so unregulated that every company in the world used the exact same strain for every crop. This issue only requires concern and oversight into the future; it does not attack the benefit of GM crops or their current use.

    There is a huge difference between spraying Bt on corn and growing corn whose genes have been tweaked to contain Bt.

    Correct — the latter is probably healthier (according to studies in China I researched for a law journal article on GMO regulation). Contamination can also be contained with proper safeguards and procedures, and could be further minimized in the future with new technology.

    Your vast understatements in this area demonstrate that you are far more biased than the author. I did agree with one thing, however:

    Secondly, the statement “Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it17. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now” is flabbergasting. Are you really suggesting that the reason people go hungry is because we don’t produce enough food?

    I agree that world hunger is more or less irrelevant to this issue as of now. However, it should be pointed out the potential for GM crops to be grown more efficiently, more cheaply, and in more environments would be of some help.

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  20. 20. DebbieLB 5:38 pm 07/19/2011

    Thank you for your unbiased analysis. I appreciate the clarifications you made. I am also concerned that “Organic” food may be imported from various countries that do not have the requirements that we have…for example, I know of a local fruit canning company that imports organic apples from China because there are not enough in the US. What controls are in place to verify that those meet the same specifications that US organics do? NONE!

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  21. 21. all4kindness2all 5:52 pm 07/19/2011

    Awesome summary statement: “The main point here is that something “organic” isn’t intrinsically better than something that isn’t, and that you have to approach all kinds of agriculture critically to achieve optimum sustainability.”

    I love your voice of reason holding firm.

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  22. 22. Michael Bulger 6:55 pm 07/19/2011

    “What controls are in place to verify that those meet the same specifications that US organics do? NONE!”

    In order to be sold as “Organic” in the US, imported foods must be verified to meet US Organic standards by an accredited certifying body.

    I was not familiar with Scientific American prior to this article and the ensuing comments. I must say I am disappointed that so little supporting research had been done by the author and commenters. Please see my above comment if interested in the subject.

    Good day.

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  23. 23. mrbadhabits 9:20 pm 07/19/2011

    shall we start a different list, as in “truths about organic food”? here’s my entry:
    1. when asked in surveys why they don’t eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, the most common reason given is that people can’t afford them. we’re talking “factory farmed” fruit and vegetables here, not the stuff grown locally by right-thinking organic type folks who simply crush the bugs between two flat rocks. in fact, there are more important things wrong about americans’ diets than a few picograms of some pesticide in an apple. worry about the macronutrients, as in too much fat, salt, and heavy loads of high glycemic carbs.

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  24. 24. Lou Jost 10:01 am 07/20/2011

    I agree with much of your article, but you have also made some unfair or incomplete statements. I’ll just mention the one that bothers me most as an ecologist–your very favorable comments on GMO crops. You leave out the ecological problems that could occur if some of the new genes escape and become common in the ecosystem. For example, if Bt spreads into wild relatives of crops, it could cause local or global extinctions of some insect species, and shift the ecological balance of natural ecosystems towards those plant species (now fitter because they have the Bt gene). Frost resistance genes are another example of genes which could spread and cause enormous damage to arctic ecosystems, with rippling consequences for birds and mammals as well as plants. These effects would not be limited to the areas where the crops were planted, but would quickly spread over vast areas, if the genes conferred important selective advantages on these gene-pirates.
    Against this, we have to weigh the positive benefits of GMO food, which increase production per hectare and therefore reduce the pressure on wild land. The positives and negatives are difficult to weight—they are apples and oranges. For now, I tend to see the potential for non-local, runaway changes in ecosystems as outweighing the local benefit of higher yield. Once the cat is out of the bag, there would be nothing anyone could do to keep frost-resistant weeds from taking over some natural ecosystems over a wide area. In contrast, the incremental increase in land needed to grow the same amount of food without genetically engineered crops would only damage wild lands locally.
    There are no easy choices, contrary to the impression your article gives with respect to genetically modified crops.

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  25. 25. OrganicTrade 1:59 pm 07/20/2011

    Although this article professes to clarify a number of myths about organic, it actually perpetuates them.

    Here are the facts:
    •Organic standards prohibit the use of toxic and persistent pesticides.

    •While rotenone is allowed in organic production, its use is strictly regulated. In organic farming, botanical pesticides must be used in conjunction with a pest management program and cannot be the primary method of pest control. The least toxic botanicals must be used in the least ecologically disruptive way possible. All items allowed under the National Organic Program must be reviewed every five years to take into consideration new safety data and availability of alternatives. It is also worth noting that rotenone is allowed for use in conventional agriculture. However, unlike in organic agriculture, the use of rotenone in conventional agriculture is not subject to strict regulations.

    •All food, whether conventionally or organically produced, is susceptible to E. coli. That is why strong food safety regulations and practices are critical. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control acknowledge there is no evidence to indicate that organic products are more likely to be contaminated by E. coli.

    •Restrictions on manure use are stricter for organic production than in any other agricultural production systems.

    •There is mounting evidence that organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains may offer more of some nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and less exposure to nitrates and pesticide residues than their counterparts grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. See http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/nutrition.html for a list of studies affirming these findings.

    •Research has shown that organic yields are equal or greater than their conventional counterparts, and that organic farming organic offers a sustainable solution that addresses the world’s hunger problems and the long-term health of the planet. A United Nations report—Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa—released in October 2008 found organic farming offers African and other developing countries the most hope for feeding their people. Findings by the U.N. Environment Programme showed that organic practices raise yields, improve the soil, and boost the income of developing countries’ small farmers. Similarly, the Long-term Agro-ecological Research (LTAR) initiative at Iowa State University’s Neely-Kinyon Farm found yields equal or greater than conventional counterparts for organic corn, soybeans and oats.

    •GMOs are currently not labeled or tracked in our food supply, making it impossible to conduct long-term studies on the link between GMOs and human health problems. However, because we also do not have information conclusively proving that GMOs are safe, it impossible to rule out the possibility that GMOs may indeed cause health problems.

    •Mounting evidence also illustrates that the use of GMOs has negative implications the health of the planet. GMOs lead to the growth of “superweeds” the increased use of toxic and persistent pesticides, and reduced biodiversity that puts our food security at risk. For more information, visit http://www.organicitsworthit.org/quick/gmos-101.

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  26. 26. foodandfarming 7:31 pm 07/20/2011

    This is an excellent post! It provided a great deal of information in the form of examples and opened a dialog for further discussion – as is clearly shown in the number and length of the comments posted here. At the end of the day, I am baffled by many of the assertions made about farming – whether conventional or organic. Since I represent an organization of farmers who produce both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables, we often struggle to communicate that both are exceedingly safe. The fact is, the lines which separate the two are becoming increasingly narrow. Both conventional and organic produce farmers absolutely must care for and nurture the soil, both regularly practice crop rotation, both monitor pests and utilize beneficial insects for control and both use pesticides as sparingly as possible. Most importantly, they both must follow very strict regulations for how and which pesticides can be applied.
    Of course there are differences between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables. But no research has conclusively found one is better than the other. Consumers should buy both with confidence and make their selection based on quality, availability, flavor and cost at the time of purchase – just like they do with any other consumer good. This constant need to “scare” people about one form of farming over another is not conducive to increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Here is where the science is indisputable – people should be eating more fruits and vegetables for good health. If everyone were to eat the recommended number of produce servings (which the USDA now defines as “half your plate”), neither conventional nor organic farming could supply enough! But if they did, we’d all be a lot healthier.
    For more information on the topic of pesticide residues, please visit our website at http://www.safefruitsandveggies.com. We plan to repost this important piece on our site. Thank you, Christie!

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  27. 27. feedtheworld 7:43 am 07/21/2011

    Organic agriculture has a major flaw. There is only so much organic fertilizer available, and not enough to maintain current food production, let alone future food needs. Plants remove nutrients from the soil and you have to replace them. To get the best yields you need to supplement organic nutrients with mineral fertilizers – something restricted in organic agriculture. By refusing the benefits of nitrogen fertilizer produced by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, organic agriculture wastes valuable productive land growing nitrogen fixing crops. Yields and crop quality are damaged by not applying correct amounts of mineral phosphate and potash. Integrated nutrient management looks to optimise crop production in a sustainable way using both organic and mineral nutrients. Organic agriculture is grossly wasteful of the scarcest resource of all – good agricultural land.
    Studies that show massively increased yields in Africa using organic methods are always on depleted soils and do not test what happens when you have an integrated approach using both organic and mineral fertilizers. Organic agriculture is farming with one hand tied behind your back.

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  28. 28. hkibak 9:00 am 07/21/2011

    Dear Christie, I’ll bet you already have that asbestos suit since you have chosen a career in science. I’ll reveal my bias/background right away: I’m a former family farmer with a Bachelors in Agronomy from UC Davis, then a research assistant at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and later, after a PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology, a professor teaching biochemistry at Cal State.

    Since you are studying Cell and Molecular Biology here is a recent book by my Post-Doctoral advisor at Stanford, “Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution” by Scott Gilbert and David Epel, 2009, that I highly recommend. I think it will change your perspective on this issue.

    I am sure your post is well-intentioned and makes some good points, but every paragraph contains a major misunderstanding that undermine your argument. The main difference between the hundreds of registered pesticides and the handful of “organic” ones is their persistence and/or toxicity. In your example of the copper and sulfur fungicides versus the synthetic fungicides and their rates of application per acre, copper is applied as a salt and is relatively non-toxic to humans. Therefore it washes away easily and doesn’t accumulate in fat as most synthetic pesticides do. Sulfur is already present in the environment in relatively high amounts and is essentially non-toxic to humans.

    You are also shocked by the lack of reporting on “organic” pesticides. The actual volume usage of pesticides is not recorded for conventional growers either. Only RESTRICTED pesticide use has to be reported. Restricted pesticides are those the government has determined pose a significant hazard either to farmworkers or the environment if used incorrectly. They must be applied by licensed pest control operators. The reason some non-restricted pesticide use shows up on the books is that Pest Control Operators have to report ALL the pesticides they apply, and farmers often find it more convenient to hire a PCO to do their non-restricted materials as well.

    Now, I’m not an organic nut, and I eat lots of non-organic food each day. But the danger of synthetic pesticides to our society, especially children is significant. And yes, Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.

    PS:
    Here is an additional long-term study of pesticides and their effects on children being conducted by UC Berkeley in the Salinas Valley of California. It’s not a happy story http://cerch.org/research-programs/chamacos/

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  29. 29. Jayacti 12:56 pm 07/21/2011

    Shame on you Christie Wilcox! Any true ecologist knows that GMO is destroying our world, any farmer will tell you that GMO seeds are very expensive and not effective anymore as new weeds are now resistant to the round up.

    Let’s not even talk about that GMO was never tested except for once in the seventies and was not peer reviewed. This mass experiment continues.

    Your article is completely misleading and it’s a clear attack on organic farming. Scientific American has probably too many articles favoring GMO and it’s appalling. It is the way to start losing credibility and ruin a name upon a lot of people rely on for information.
    The Rodale institute proves the opposite of what you say about organic farming producing less yield per acre. They have done a study that still runs for more than 30 years. The pesticides used in organic farming are about five versus hundreds of the conventional agriculture. The days of rotenone are long gone, pests can be managed successfully with beneficial insects,toads, birds, a very wide diversity of plants, row covers, etc. It’s called biological control, simple in its concept and very effective as demonstrated for years.

    So, what do you do? Take on a ghost of the past and bring it back on to diminish all of the organic agriculture?
    There have been cases of salmonella were traced back to peanut butter giant commercial factories and E.coli did not start in the organic farm but as usual MSM misleads the world with lies.

    Science is the Rodale Institute, facts are proven by great organic farmers that produce more food than you could imagine, I’ve seen first hand and with no pesticides whatsoever! I’ve seen farms running on solar power and without using animal compost as a fertilizer but relying on biodiversity and permaculture. I’ve seen gardens that looked like everything except food crops or vegetable farms and indeed produce so much food, with little labor as to feed thousands and all self sustaining.

    Surely organic agriculture needs to be improved and it isn’t perfect but do not dare to make it sound like it doesn’t work because of a few producers that acted irresponsibly, and take on that to stain the art and science of the ORGANIC agriculture.

    Get your facts straight because I am this close to think you are a corporate shill and this article is pitiful for its ignorance and lack of true information.

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  30. 30. CuriousConsumer 1:28 pm 07/21/2011

    Thank you for this very interesting and enlightening article. This also provides me with an opportunity to inquire about some questions that I have had about organic farming practices. First, I understand that farmers must go through a certification process prior to their farm being labeled organic. But is there a verification or auditing process following certification to ensure that they are indeed continuing to follow the organic standards over time? Also, I recently read a Scripps Howard News Service story about compost manure teas as a fertilizer and pest control tool. While this story focused largely on how to use these in gardens, it made reference to the use of this practice by larger organic farmers as well. This practice concerns me greatly from a food safety standpoint. Is the application of manure teas really allowed? Finally, one comment was posted about the use of pesticides in organics and the stringent standards they must follow. While the comment mentioned various requirements made prior to an application, it did not mention what stringent standards were followed during application to protect workers and others. And, are there any mechanisms to verify compliance with pesticide use standards?

    From reading the comments, there is a wealth of knowledge out there among the readership which is why I’m posing these questions in this forum. I happily consume both organic and conventional (depending on price) and I am also interested to learn more about the food I’m consuming.

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  31. 31. elleguia 5:52 pm 07/21/2011

    I was troubled if not saddened by this broad and sweeping bust on organic farming. While stating references is of course procedure I strongly believe there was not adequate research to make the broad claims against oraginic farming, as the author did so.

    It is clear that the author is not familiar enough with agriculture to tackle this issue. While bringing some interesting points to light on ‘organic pesticides’ I would have to argue that ALL of the organic farmers I know have adopted sound environmental and indeed a very cautious and limited approach to any use of organic pesticides and fertilisers. In fact, they are ALL using beneficial insects to keep insect populations under control and natural mulches that improve soil structure.

    As with most farming practice there is much debate on the best methods. I believe organic farmers are trying to produce, while undoing some of the damage conventional agriculture has done to the earth. Those that are spraying chemicals liberally are not really organic farmers, at least morally speaking. Once you have made a vegetable toxic it is not ‘organic’ any longer.

    Finally, an article about how we are led to believe the beef could actually be good for us and how it is actually NOT the most extravagent waste of land/water/resources would be great…Perhaps if we had not dedicated 3,459.8 million hectares to beef and dairy industry and removed such an incomprehensible amount for trees for grazing, we would have more land for photosynthetic material. “The Myth of the Low Carb Diet”…. that would be a good one.

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  32. 32. MBendzela 6:16 pm 07/21/2011

    Organic Trade said:

    “Here are the facts:
    •Organic standards prohibit the use of toxic and persistent pesticides.

    •While rotenone is allowed in organic production, its use is strictly regulated.”

    His first two items directly, and hysterically, conflict with one another. This is why I don’t value much of what the “organics” people say anymore.

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  33. 33. IncredibleMouse 6:30 pm 07/21/2011

    Thanks for all of these conflicting and enlightened arguments. I feel smarter, far more confused, and without any solid ground to base any decisions. Thanks and have a pleasant day! :)

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  34. 34. daedalus2u 7:10 pm 07/21/2011

    Good article. The idea that organic farming can feed the whole world is simply completely wrong. There isn’t enough fixed nitrogen without using synthetic ammonia as fertilizer which organic farming forbids. Most of the nitrogen in the manure they are using came from synthetic ammonia applied as fertilizer to the conventional crops that were fed to the animals that produced the manure. Without conventional farming using synthetic fertilizers, there would not be manure of sufficient fertilizer value to fertilize organic farms.

    Organic farms are allowed to use any kind of manure, even chicken manure that has arsenic in it from the chicken producers that feed arsenic to chickens.

    What is ironic is that plants can’t absorb organic nitrogen. The organic nitrogen has to be broken down into ammonia or oxidized to nitrate before plants can absorb it. Plants don’t need anything organic. All they need is minerals, water, light and air. Plants can synthesize every organic compound they need from the CO2 in air.

    The issue of wildlife habitat is why I actively try to avoid organic foods. The yield penalty for organic isn’t worth it to me because it means more destruction of wildlife habitat. Conventional farming and organic farming both effectively completely destroy wildlife habitat. Neither type of agricultural land has more than a tiny fraction of the biodiversity of wild land. Wildlife needs wildlife habitat which is wild land.

    Organic farming is a pseudoscience cult. They are not science based, they are fear-of-science based. There is no logical or scientific or rational reason for not allowing synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic ammonia and nitrate are identical to “natural” ammonia and nitrate which are allowed. Synthetic nitrates are actually superior to the natural nitrates because the synthetics don’t have perchlorate in them.

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  35. 35. elleguia 7:26 pm 07/21/2011

    In reference to daedalus2u. You say ‘Organic farms are allowed to use any kind of manure, even chicken manure that has arsenic in it from the chicken producers that feed arsenic to chickens’ I would like to know where you got this information? In Australia, this is not the case. Animal manure use on organic crops is very limited and in some cases not even applied, and I believe you will find this is the case in other countries as well.

    As to your comment about avoiding organic foods and wildlife habitat…I am still laughing! Very funny indeed.

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  36. 36. J4zonian 7:29 pm 07/21/2011

    Myths 2,3: Wrong, and wrong. I hope to have more time to answer in detail later, but don’t believe everything you read. One example cited by people who have argued these points with me before (didn’t have time to check here, sorry) one study compared modern chemical crop yields to organic yields going back to the 1940s, and concluded chemical ag produces more. Well, duh. And if you only count stoned hippie 60s dropouts as organic farmers it comes out that way, too.

    I will agree that the USDA certification is at best, flawed, and more honestly, completely corrupted by corporate interests, who lobbied hard to weaken and essentially negate what started out as a great idea and ended as a PR device akin to simply lying in the ingredients list.

    Organic farming, especially organic permaculture, when done by people following the spirit rather than manipulating and avoiding the letter, is at least as productive and is healthier than ‘chemically’-grown food–healthier for eaters, farm workers, land, rivers, oceans and planet. The fact that pesticide residues are all-pervasive–not just in crops but in soil, water, air, trees, and bodies, babies and breast milk, is a reason to do MORE organic ag, not less. the fact that it takes a long time to rebuild soil and flush such poisons out of an ecosystem is a reason to start sooner, not put it off til forced to do it. And with Peak Oil, Climate Catastrophe and the larger ecological-social and political crisis, that’s very good news because oil-dependent, pesticided agriculture will end soon. As part of a wide array of wise solutions (solar, wind, reforestation, simpler lives, biomimicry in industry, etc.) local organic permaculture is one of the crucial solutions to those crises.

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  37. 37. enj1958 9:52 pm 07/21/2011

    I agree with feedtheworld. Maintenance of soil nutrients is the major limitation with organic farming, particularly in areas with limited access to livestock manure. Many organically farmed soils in the Northern Great Plains are severely deficient in phosphorus.

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  38. 38. HonestOrganic 10:03 pm 07/21/2011

    It is difficult for people who are not actually involved in farming to really understand these issues. Those who support organic farming have not been able to reliably prove actual merit in the product and therefore have had to utilize a campaign of denigrating conventional (not-organic) agriculture. The most common myth is that conventional produce is laden with toxic pesticides and that organic farmers don’t use pesticides at all. This is a clever word game being played. Crop pests and diseases will occur, and no amount of biological, beneficial, crop rotation, floating row covers, decoys, or other organic remedies will change this essential fact of farming. Crop pests and diseases are killed using pesticides. The organic growers have a multitude of so-called natural “materials” available to use. These are used for killing pests. They are pesticides. They are toxic. If they were not toxic pesticides, they would not have any effectiveness and would not be used. The word games are such that if it is a natural substance, they don’t call this a pesticide. In their minds only synthetic substances are pesticides. Again, word games aside, if it kills insects, it is a toxic pesticide. In addition, organic rules also allow synthetic chemicals and antibiotics. Most people don’t know that the organic apple and pear growers utilize Streptomycin and Tetracycline in order to grow their organic apples. Without these, the organic apple industry would be decimated.

    Modern conventional agriculture has resulted in the safest, most reliable supply of healthy produce in our history. The quality of life and length of life has increased as a result. We no longer have to spend most every waking moment working on the farm to produce enough food to eat. Most of those writing these posts are farming with their keyboards, and have no actual farming experience.

    Regarding Organic Certification; there is an application to fill out. It includes some forms that make up the growers intended Organic System Plan. After a fee is paid, there is a cursory visual inspection and certification is granted. Thereafter, there is an annual review of some paperwork. There are by the way no requirements for food safety or for any kind of sanitation in the organic rules. The agencies who do the certification are private companies working for the government. They are in the business of certifying farms for profit. If they do not certify, they go out of business. It is a major conflict of interest.

    Most of the organic faithful would be shocked to learn about a major scandal that was recently exposed. It was found that a majority of the organic farms in the western United States were using spiked organic fertilizer on their crops. The fertilizer company had been adding synthetic nitrogen to their liquid fertilizer product for several years and the farmers got great yields. Once the fraud was exposed, the certifiying agencies did not enforce the rules in order to protect the organic buying consumer. Instead they allowed the farmers to keep right on using the USDA Certified Organic label. The National Organic Program rules clearly state that if farmland is contaminated with synthetic fertilizer, a mandatory three year waiting period must be met until a crop can be certified organic. The certification agencies blamed the fertilizer company and refused to decertify the farms. That would have put these agencies out of business. This is a clear cut violation of the organic rules and in essence, it means that most of the certified organic produce is really not organically grown at all. Certified Organic is a meaningless term.

    With regards to the so-called stringent organic rules for manure, there is no one to verify or enforce these rules. No one is checking to see what is being done at any farm.

    Certified Organic is based on the honor system. There is no testing or verification other than a cursory review of paperwork once every year by an agency that makes money by allowing these farms to pass the review.

    Conventional farms must post notices in the fields and produce a record for every pesticide they apply in detail for each and every application, with quantity used, rates, crops, and locations every month for the Department of Agriculture. The National Organic Program has no such requirement and the use of many organic pesticides go unreported.

    Organic farms are far less productive. Much of the produce is substandard quality due to a lack of fertilizer, weed competition, damage caused by insects and disease, and never even makes it to market.

    With the lack of oversight combined with lots of profit to be made due to higher prices, there is a tremendous amount of fraud with very little enforcement of the rules. If it claims to be organic, or pesticide free, most likely it is not and there is no verification that it is.

    The irony is that most people who buy organic do not want to know the truth. They would rather not spoil their idea that they are doing the right thing for their family and the environment. It is much easier and feels better for them to buy into the whole organic myth.

    I am a Certified Organic farmer.

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  39. 39. Last Ocean Blue 5:24 am 07/22/2011

    The first organic vegetables I ever bought were carrots. This was in 1974. They were dismal! Spongy, bitter, and a curious pink colour.

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  40. 40. RichWa 10:47 am 07/22/2011

    Ms Wilcox, though your article is excellent there is one fallacy which invalidates it completely, and I believe, your references. “USDA Organic” is equated with “organic.” These are not the same. “USDA Organic” is simply a marketing term; that is why it is part of the USDA Agricultural Market Service (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP.) The NOP, which governs “USDA Organic” labeling is under the AMS for a reason; it’s goal is to increase agricultural sales, not promote organic farming. NOP cares only about pushing their products, not about improving the soil, the quality of the produce, or polluting the environment (eg. see NOP-5016)

    To use USDA Organic to compare organic farming and produce with conventional is meaningless as USDA Organic is not organic farming as we commonly think of it. Barbara Robinson of the AMS NOP said of what goes on with USDA Organic in 2009 “This is not necessarily what consumers believe, however.” The simple fact that you, and millions of other people believe that USDA Organic is organic does not make it true.

    Further, I would add, that the USDA AMS NOP has been captured by the industrialized farms such as Earthbound, Driscoll’s, and Grimmway. In fact, the USDA has permitted certification by at least two certifiers (CCFO and Oregon Tilth) of produce known to not meet the legal requirement for said certification. Most of the USDA Organic certified produce coming out of California was grown using synthetic fertilizers from 2000 till 2009. To use any foodstuffs, or soil, that is USDA Organic certified as basis for comparison with conventional is invalid as USDA Organic is not grown “organically.”

    For the record, here is a viable and accurate definition of what organic farming really is. When doing studies comparing organic with conventional this is an example of an accurate definition to be used. It is from The Canberra Organic Growers Society:
    “Organic Farming – is free of synthetic chemicals. Organic farming means produced in soils of enhanced biological activity, determined by the humus level, crumb structure and feeder root development, so that plants are fed through the soil ecosytem and not primarily through soluble fertilisers added to the soil. Organic farming relies strategies such as on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, mechanical cultivation, approved mineral-bearing rocks and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity, to supply plant nutrients and to control insects, weeds and other pests.”

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  41. 41. HonestOrganic 11:56 am 07/22/2011

    Making the claim organic farming is free of synthetic chemicals USDA Certified Organic or not makes no difference. No verification, no testing, no proof. It sounds great, in actual practice, but crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, etc. do not control insects or suppress pests to a degree necessary to maintain viable productivity. Again word games are used by saying organic farming is free of synthetic chemicals. The implication is that there are no pesticides. Natural substances can be some of the deadliest we know. Arsenic, Antrax, Botulism, Copper, etc. Natural pesticides are still pesticides.

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  42. 42. J4zonian 6:49 pm 07/22/2011

    “39. Last Ocean Blue 5:24 am 07/22/2011
    The first organic vegetables I ever bought were carrots. This was in 1974. They were dismal! Spongy, bitter, and a curious pink colour.”

    Thanks for your input, LOB.

    The last anti-organic corporate shill I argued with was an anti-science jerk, too. This was yesterday. He was dismal! Spongy-brained, bitter over the astounding growth of organics, and a curious pink color.

    What exactly is your point, LOB? That you’re so ossified you tried something 37 years ago and that’s how long it takes you to recover from the awful trauma and rethink your position on something that has been continually revolutionized since? Thanks, point made. Or that you’ve been eating organic food ever since and recognize the tremendous improvement made since then. Oops! Forgot to mention that.

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  43. 43. J4zonian 6:59 pm 07/22/2011

    Organic agriculture, especially local democratic organic permaculture, using food forests, homestead production, renewable energy and green jobs to create the infrastructure, is going to be one of the most crucial ways we avoid Climate Cataclysm. When done well, with that in mind, it is healthier for everyone involved including the planet; when done badly, as it is when filtered through corporate-owned government agencies, it is only a lot better than chemical agriculture. Room for improvement? Absolutely! Let’s get to it! And let’s get some more studies done fairly comparing the best of each specific tool so we can improve as rapidly as possible.

    The short life of oil-dependent, chemical ag is nearly over. What do you all have to suggest other than local, renewable, democratic organic permaculture?

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  44. 44. Vitis01 1:54 am 07/23/2011

    Local, renewable, democratic(?), organic permaculture is probably a great solution as long it is accompanied by a significant population reduction. In truth it would be the cause of such a reduction, which I am all for.

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  45. 45. trogdorprof 4:40 pm 07/23/2011

    Tom Laskway provides some important criticisms of this alleged “mythbusting” here: http://www.grist.org/organic-food/2011-07-21-in-defense-of-organic

    Ms. Wilcox seems to vastly oversimplify the scientific dialogue, especially regarding the ecological impact and even just the efficacy of genetically modified crops versus organic crops.

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  46. 46. daedalus2u 8:55 pm 07/24/2011

    Chicken manure has arsenic in it, and that doesn’t prevent it from being labeled as “organic”.

    http://www.livablefutureblog.com/2010/06/the-hidden-hazard-of-poultry-litter-pelletization

    “What is particularly upsetting about the marketing and sale of pelletized poultry manure is its labeling as “organic”, a term that conjures perceptions of safety. The organic certification found on pelletized poultry manure fertilizer, which is different in meaning from the more commonly recognized USDA Organic label, does not ensure that the product has been found not to contain concerning levels of arsenic. These concerns are heightened by the marketing of the product, which in some cases contains claims that the fertilizer is “safe for kids and pets,” and that, compared to chemical fertilizers, lawns fertilized with the product are safe for play immediately after application.”

    It isn’t scientists who are perpetuating these myths, it is the cultish “organic” farming advocates who have non-scientific ideas about soil chemistry, fertilizer utilization by plants and all manner of other things.

    In the US, all that matters is that it is “manure”. It doesn’t matter what the animals have been fed, GMO’s, antibiotics, synthetic fertilized crops, or even arsenic.

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  47. 47. Mu... 11:41 am 07/25/2011

    So it all comes down to three points:
    True organic farming produces great produce in quantities insufficient to produce the surpluses we use to feed the world.
    USDA organic is a marketing ploy when used on industrial farming.
    Modern farming can feed the world for now with the risks of GMO, superbugs etc.
    Sounds to me like all we need to do is let those 5 billions that depend on industrial farming to survive in destroyed ecosystems starve to death, and we can all happily live organic. But since we’re now using more corn for transportation fuel than for food or feed that might happen anyway. So someone with more philosophical training than me needs to work out who the good guys are in these scenarios, to me it sounds like no-win for everyone.

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  48. 48. GeorgeK 1:55 pm 07/25/2011

    Where to start with so many inaccuracies and cherry-picked facts.

    This is a libelous statement: …”organic foods run a higher risk of containing something that will make a person sick.”… SF should ask the author to remove this statement immediately.

    Creating Organic Myths: Organic Ag has been openly discussed for two decades. There are literally thousands of pages of transcripts from public meeting around the country from both the National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board. Nobody not even The Organic Trade Association (former board member) has ever stated that organic farmers don’t use pesticides. We say we don’t use petrochemical based pesticides. The author built a straw-man as the basis for the paper.

    …”Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question”…
    The answer to this damn good question is in the 1990 Organic Food Act. Organic farmers, handlers, processors and everyone in the chain-of-custody must meet all State, Federal & International farm and food safety laws and regulations. Organic is not exempt from any governmental regulatory body.

    Research is cherry picked at best: …”two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971 1″…. Micro-sprayers (they spray micro-particles of pesticides which drastically reduces the use of the materials) were introduce in the 1990′s so any spray data from 1971 is outdated.

    There are so many bad research references: …”Just recently, an independent research project in the UK systematically reviewed the 162 articles on organic versus non-organic crops published in peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008″…. This research was debunked long ago. There were no certified organic foods before the 1990′s; the researchers used their own definition of what organic was to fit their conclusions which was born out when it was revealed the researchers has financial ties to non-organic food companies. There was however a French study that only look at the difference between certified organic and non-organic food. Their finding are below.

    The real question is why Scientific American chose to publish a libelous paper with tainted researched?

    http://persianoad.wordpress.com/2009/09/19/french-study-says-organic-food-is-healthier/

    http://www.ota.com/organic/environment/environmental.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_Foods_Production_Act_of_1990

    http://www.organic-center.org/

    http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

    http://ofrf.org/

    http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOSB

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  49. 49. kammann 7:57 pm 07/25/2011

    a difficult topic, and lots of good comparisons, realistica and truly mythbusting.
    Here some references with a more organotransgenic mood, might be interesting to marry the two seemingly so contrasting management systems, as you suggest indirectltly too.
    Ammann, K. (2007)
    Reconciling Traditional Knowledge with Modern Agriculture: A Guide for Building Bridges. In Intellectual Property Management in Health and Agricultural Innovation a handbook of best practices, Chapter 16.7 (eds A. Krattiger, R.T.L. Mahoney, L. Nelsen, G.A. Thompson, A.B. Bennett, K. Satyanarayana, G.D. Graff, C. Fernandez & S.P. Kowalsky), pp. 1539-1559. MIHR, PIPRA, Oxford, U.K. and Davis, USA
    The general link to the http://www.ipHandbook.org. (as of September 2007) AND http://www.botanischergarten.ch/IP/Press-Release-ipHandbook-Online-20071101.pdf, AND the Flyer: http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Patents/ipHandbook-Flyer1.pdf AND chapter 16.7 http://www.botanischergarten.ch/TraditionalKnowledge/Ammann-Traditional-Biotech-2007.pdf free of copyrights AND the exported bibliography with the links: http://www.botanischergarten.ch/TraditionalKnowledge/Exported-Bibliography-links-Ammann-2007.pdf

    Ammann, K. (2008)
    Feature: Integrated farming: Why organic farmers should use transgenic crops. New Biotechnology, 25, 2, pp 101 – 107
    http://www.botanischergarten.ch/NewBiotech/Ammann-Integrated-Farming-Organic-2008.publ.pdf AND DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nbt.2008.08.012

    Ammann, K. (2009)
    Feature: Why farming with high tech methods should integrate elements of organic agriculture. New Biotechnology, 25, 6, pp 378-388
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B8JG4-4WKTX50-1/2/1698b7149ed724fd0a49b3ae49f234ab AND http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Organic/Ammann-High-Tech-and-Organic-2009.pdf

    Ammann, K. & van Montagu, M. (2009)
    Organotransgenesis arrives. New Biotechnology, 25, 6, pp 377-377
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B8JG4-4W7YY1F-1/2/28740dfca05cf12bb3b973b4f4568ccb AND http://www.botanischergarten.ch/NewBiotech/Ammann-Montagu-Editorial-Oranotransgenesis-arrives-2009.pdf

    Klaus Ammann

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  50. 50. daedalus2u 12:04 pm 07/26/2011

    Transparency? Really? Please, when a large supplier of “organic” fertilizer in California was found to be adding synthetic ammonia to the “organic” fertilizer that he sold to one third of the organic farms in California, and at one time had one third of the liquid organic fertilizer market, did that use of synthetic fertilizer cause the decertification of any organic farms?

    http://supermarketnews.com/viewpoints/organic-fertilizer-scandal-321/

    “Just as worrisome was the amount of time that elapsed before Townsley’s case became public knowledge. A special request in 2008 by the Sacramento Bee for public records revealed that, despite an inside whistleblower and increasingly damming evidence, it took California agriculture officials more than two years to complete their probe. Additionally, the findings were kept confidential for more than a year.”

    Hmm, a delay of 3 years? Could that have anything to do with the requirement that for land to be certified “organic”, it has to not have received synthetic fertilizer for 3 years?

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  51. 51. Tomato Guy 5:29 pm 07/26/2011

    One point which needs to be clarified is the ability to increase crop yields and nutrient levels, while reducing fertilizer, water and pesticide usage, and grow crops without an adverse environmental impact on both conventional and organic farms.

    Products containing SumaGrow (www.sumagrow.com), developed by Michigan State University and available from Bio Soil Enhancers, have demonstrated the ability to increase crop yields 10-20+% (both conventional and organic, as the product is OMRI listed as approved for use with all types of organic production), increase nutrient levels (third party data shows higher brix, protein and chlorophyll levels, all indicative of higher nutrient levels), bio remediate soil toxins and actually improve the soil health.

    http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2009-07/8-farming-solution-help-stop-world-hunger?page=3#comments

    Link to this
  52. 52. J4zonian 7:18 pm 07/26/2011

    Ms Wilcox and Scientific American

    People ‘project’ qualities they have themselves but can’t admit or tolerate; that is, they see them in other people and deny them in themselves. It’s very common and you can probably think of examples: anger, underhanded motives, etc. get projected all the time.

    Projective Identification (also called “dreaming up” by the Mindells) goes a step further; people project, and then take other steps (seen by them as necessary for other reasons) that actually create the conditions they imagined in the other. The Cold War is a perfect illustration, with the US and USSR each believing the other was building an arsenal to attack, building an arsenal “to defend itself” (never mind that the defense against chemical and bio weapons is gas masks and vaccinations, not other chemical and bio weapons). Then the other country responds in kind, and there you go, projected belief of the “innocent” first party “proved” correct. Industry’s criticisms of organics while it lobbies government to destroy it is similar.

    Organic agriculture fails exactly to the extent that corporate industrial agriculture has weakened its principles in order to perform a hostile takeover and make it as much like chemical ag as possible while providing the organic name for marketing and cover. It proceeds to take every action available, legal, illegal and legalized illegal, to destroy actual organic agriculture in all its variations. Sticking with the principles, whether organic the way it’s understood by non-industry organic producers, organic permaculture, or other, will answer most if not all these false criticisms.

    While there are some valid points in the article, and organic agriculture is certainly not perfect, to ignore the science that supports claims you call “myths” is cynical, dishonest and shameful. The points you raise that are valid should more accurately be used as ways to say we need to further clean up industrial ag’s act and improve organic ag even more. The best way to do that is move beyond industrial ag completely and revamp ag education and standards to support real, principled organics.

    Many of the claims made by fans of the article are absurd.

    “If everyone were to eat the recommended number of produce servings (which the USDA now defines as “half your plate”), neither conventional nor organic farming could supply enough!” 26. foodandfarming

    The amount of land, water, fertilizer and other resources devoted to inherently inefficent livestock is far beyond what it would take to live on a fruit, vegetable, grain and legume-based diet and it seems impossible that an educated person in the food industry wouldn’t know that.

    “The idea that organic farming can feed the whole world is simply completely wrong.” 34. daedalus2u

    27. feedtheworld’s whole post is inaccurate to say the least, ludicrously uninformed to say the next-to-the-least. Organic permaculture’s use of perennial-based multi-level food forests and re-creation of nature-like plant communities to meet fertilizer needs while actually improving the soil and sequestering carbon, as well as considerable research, says organic production can meet the world’s needs. What’s proven is that multinational corporations using industrial methods and mindset cannot, as shown by half a century of their doing exactly that—not meeting needs. In so doing they have destroyed indigenous systems of production, destroyed soil created over millennia or eons, skewed the entire world’s production toward wasteful luxury crops and meat production, corrupted governments and turned the wealthy as well as the poor into malnourished medical-care vacuums. Especially in the context of grossly unequal economic conditions, which it causes, chemical-industrial ag has failed miserably in every important way, including feeding the world. Most of the rest of daedalus2u’s post is equally untrue.

    And on and on. The posters should familiarize themselves with the alternatives before they blast reams of nonsense and lies into the blogosphere.

    I have been impressed before with the quality of articles, posts and people on the Scientific American site. Obviously, once you introduce anything that threatens the profits of a large PR-ready industry, there goes the neighborhood.

    Here’s an answering article that corrects a few of the falsehoods in Scientific American’s article: http://www.grist.org/organic-food/2011-07-21-in-defense-of-organic .

    Link to this
  53. 53. clothesmoth 11:53 pm 07/26/2011

    The part about organic farms using pesticides was disturbing. I always shop locally for produce and meat but for those who use the big ag organic suppliers this is a useful warning.
    GMOs are mostly bad, especially the ones that merely enable RoundUp to be used on crops. (There’s also the issue of the disaster looming from use of glyphosate in conjunction with genetic engineering.) The few nutrient enhanced crops seem to only be used in Africa. Unleashing a thing like Bt inside plants means it can now move into lots of other plants with no control over it. Plus encouraging the big drug companies to continue being involved in agriculture with their profit motives ready to ruin farmers one way or another is just criminal.
    Organic crops can produce as much as regular crops. The artificially boosted production of crops using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is destroying the soil. There is no choice of organic or conventional: conventional is time limited and will lead to us all starving. We have to choose the organic route and learn to use animals and plants together on every farm. Synthetic does mean bad for the environment.
    Nutritionally speaking organic food is way better for you than conventional farmed food. It has more trace elements as its not grown on impoverished soils. There is more virtue in food than the merely measureable chemicals. Look at things like the Brix ratings of plants grown organically and see how much more vitality they have. They last longer too. Eating lots of fruit and veg is just part of the myth of fiber being good for you: it’s not. All those carbs and too much fiber and sugar is terrible for you.
    It is as black and white as it looks and you’ve come down on the wrong side. The answer lies in the soil. Conventional farming is destroying it. We need to change methods fast not talk about reconciliation with the evils of factory farming and big agriculture.
    I’d recommend adding Acres magazine to your reading list it includes information that your regular sources are missing.

    Link to this
  54. 54. MBendzela 6:07 am 07/28/2011

    RichWa has said: “To use USDA Organic to compare organic farming and produce with conventional is meaningless as USDA Organic is not organic farming as we commonly think of it.”

    The fact that the fans of “organic” cannot even agree on what it means is just one of many nails in its coffin.

    Link to this
  55. 55. raqistar 2:36 pm 07/28/2011

    @mem,
    thanks for the note on organic livestock and the link. We raise natural, grass-fed beef. They will never be organic, because I love my cows. The calf we treated for a respiratory infection this morning will never be organic, but he won’t suffer and die, either.

    Link to this
  56. 56. scibleevr 1:22 pm 07/29/2011

    I think you mean (USDA) certified organic did not exist 10 years ago, because products certified by the same organizations that certify today have been available for decades. Right out of the gate, you are off track.

    Anyway, I am no more a defender of organic than I am of conventional, traditional, or whatever you wish to call the opposite of organic. All of this blah, blah, blah about organic vs. everything else over the years is such a waste of time. Organic is a category or brand really, that people BELIEVE in. Well, belief does not make anything true. I have known hundreds on hundreds of farmers over the years and they range from great to poor stewards of the land and resources they are responsible for. It doesn’t matter whether they are organic certified or not.

    We, planet earth, need to use the best science available to maintain ourselves. Broadbrushing a grouping of farm practices makes no sense. Each land management technique, pesticide, food process, etc. should stand on its own merit or risk.

    Link to this
  57. 57. daedalus2u 8:41 pm 08/1/2011

    J4zonian @ 52, Interesting that you are talking about psychological projection.

    Are you talking about organic farming the way it is done now? or the idyllic way you imagine it could be done if the laws of supply and demand, economics, physics, chemistry and reality were suspended? And if as Vitis01 @44 wants, if it were accompanied by significant population reductions?

    I would agree with you that “organic farming can feed the world”, if we reduce the population to the number that organic farming can feed. Compelling a reduction in the population is not something I am willing to accept.

    Clothesmoth @ 53. You really don’t know what you are talking about. When crops are grown, plants take minerals and water from the soil, combine them with CO2 from the atmosphere and using energy from sunlight turn them into plant biomass. That plant biomass is then harvested and used as food. Plants don’t need anything “organic” in the soil, plants do just fine on water, minerals, air and light. Plants can’t absorb “organic” sources of nitrogen. Plants can’t absorb nitrogen until after it has been mineralized, that is not until after soil bacteria have broken down organic sources of nitrogen (proteins for example) into inorganic nitrogen, such as ammonia or nitrate.

    When plant biomass is harvested and removed from a farm, it removes the minerals that the biomass contains. The potassium, phosphorous and other minerals are removed. Unless those minerals are restored, the soil is depleted. The best way to restore those minerals is by replenishing the minerals that are lost. If soil is depleted in trace minerals, the best way to restore them is by adding them back. Restoring trace minerals using synthetic sources of those trace minerals is considered to be “organic”.

    http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=77ea6acc21b69074a6e6ea575022b1f6&rgn=div8&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.7.354.2&idno=7

    You do know that Brix is a measure of sugar content don’t you? It seems kind of nonsensical for you to tout all the advantages of organic farming with its high Brix levels and then decry the consumption of sugar as being bad. Which is it? Is organic sugar good and conventional sugar bad? Sort of like how organic ammonia is good and synthetic ammonia is bad?

    Link to this
  58. 58. TEim3 10:04 am 08/2/2011

    The responses by organic zealots are predictable: here is a list of biased, non-peer reviewed studies that contradict whatever facts you have, USDA organic is not true organic, organic yields are as high as conventional yields – just ignore all data on this and trust me, etc. It is abundantly clear that devotion to organic farming is part of a faith based belief system. Facts and data do not matter – if a fact or piece of data contradicts your faith, you simply dismiss it or attack the messengers as being tools of ______ (fill in the blank: satan, evil industrialists, arrogant scientist know-it-alls who are playing god, etc.). By the way, hkibak – you may want to check some facts yourself before throwing around generalities after mentioning your credentials. Here are a few for you: copper sulfate (used as an organic fungicide), LD50 30mg/kg in rats, application rates 0.5-5lb per acre (this is a low ball estimate); azoxystrobin (a modern fungicide), LD50 >5,000mg/kg in rats, application rates 0.08-0.4 lb/acre. Who would have guessed?

    Link to this
  59. 59. Todahl 3:08 pm 08/2/2011

    Your article is good, BUT, until you have been a conventional farmer and then went to being a organic farmer, you really don’t know the true diffrence. You can read all the articles you want, but you are talking about a profession that you have not lived, breathed or sweated.

    I grew up in a conventional farming family. Until, one day the bank said you need to do something different. So we went organic (100% OCIA Certified Organic) just because people pay more money for it.

    I’m not one to promote eating organic foods. That’s a personal choice as far as I’m concerned. BUT I will say that by farming orangic, the soil in the fields is much more healthy. But by all means buy organic, you’re just increasing my inheritence!

    and really… If we leave nothing but unhealthy soil for our futures generations to survive off of, than what sort of legacy are we really leaving?

    Conventional farming isn’t creating healthy soils. At least the organic farmer knows that to be successful, they have to take care of the soil, and the soil in turn will take care of them(in the checkbook).

    That’s my 2cent rant for the day.

    Link to this
  60. 60. grorganic 6:55 pm 08/12/2011

    Christie Wilcox: “But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones.”

    David Wogan: “A study recently published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that about one-third of all food produced on the planet is wasted, to the tune of 1.3 billion tons per year.”

    Link to this
  61. 61. rojoea 7:20 pm 08/30/2011

    I smell a rat in Denmark, with a “Monsanto” tattoo.

    Link to this
  62. 62. NerdyChristie 1:28 pm 09/14/2011

    *Update* Rotenone was re-approved for organic farm use in 2010. It’s currently listed on the Organic Materials Review Institute’s list of approved substances.

    Link to this
  63. 63. TwampDonkey 10:01 am 09/18/2011

    CW. I can see from many of your commentors a general lack of understanding of conventional agriculture.

    Link to this
  64. 64. joelboldman 11:51 am 12/16/2011

    To truly have organic foods you must grow your own. Only you will know where it came from and what was put into it. It doesn’t hurt to visit your local farmer and build a relationship with them. Knowing is knowing.It is that simple.
    http://mdsfinance.com/equipment/

    Link to this
  65. 65. kphuser1 3:17 pm 01/3/2012

    Pesticides make people sick: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22206198

    Commercial farming is bad for the farmer, the environment, and the consumer. The consumer needs to be reunited with what they are eating. America’s Gilded Age, Chicago slaughter houses…people used to discard what they now pay handsomely for. If you only saw what went into your food. You cannot trust someone to not rip you off. No law can exceed necessity, thus no regulation can keep fire retardants or other toxins from your baby’s formula.

    What to do? Farmers’ markets. Small-scale farming. Diverse crops. Reunite the consumer with what they are eating and where it comes from. The consumer needs to do their own ‘processing’ at home. People make beer in their NY city apartments. Spices are grown in flower pots in India’s crowded cities. Paris used to have a huge marketplace where farmers brought their goods for sale.

    Link to this
  66. 66. JBunk1973 2:03 pm 01/16/2012

    @HonestOrganic:
    “The irony is that most people who buy organic do not want to know the truth. They would rather not spoil their idea that they are doing the right thing for their family and the environment. It is much easier and feels better for them to buy into the whole organic myth.”

    I buy organic produce, meat and dairy because I believe, based on what I know, that I’m doing the best thing for the health of my children. It’s ridiculous to suggest that I don’t WANT to know “the truth”. You yourself state, in the first sentence of your commentary, that “It is difficult for people who are not actually involved in farming to really understand these issues.” Of course I want to know the truth, but as evidenced by the comments to CW’s Mythbusting post the truth appears to be evasive to even Cell and Molecular Biology PhD students who write for Scientific American.
    I’m just an upper-middle class mom who wants to give her family the best chance at having long, healthy lives to enjoy with one another. Based on your comment you should show more contempt for your peers than the consumers of your product.

    Link to this
  67. 67. ders45 11:16 am 01/18/2012

    Thanks for taking this possiblity to go over this specific, Personally i think highly regarding this i appreciate researching this unique subject material.forex

    Link to this
  68. 68. scienceprevailed1 10:00 pm 01/21/2012

    plants are all children of mother nature and you cant ban a plant because mother nature would not be happy mother natures children are friends and they are all happy when all their friends are alive she is happy, mother nature that is…i like mother nature i hope she likes me

    Link to this
  69. 69. scienceprevailed1 10:00 pm 01/21/2012

    let the karma spread

    Link to this
  70. 70. zpalqm 5:32 pm 01/23/2012

    “Ten years ago, Certified Organic didn’t exist in the United States.”

    There are many types of certification, and some have been around for decades.
    __________

    “…everyone praised the local organic farms for being so environmentally-conscientious, even though they sprayed their crops with pesticides all the time while his family farm got no credit for being pesticide-free (they’re not organic because they use a non-organic herbicide once a year).”

    If they use an herbicide, they are not pesticide free. Herbicides are a type of pesticide that kill pests commonly called “weeds”.
    __________

    “…over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards.”

    A tiny number compared to what is allowed on non-organic certified farms.
    _________

    “…the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government.”

    Yes, this is a problem. If the government is going to claim to regulate something, it should actually regulate it.
    __________

    “[organic pesticides have] lower levels of effectiveness.”

    If they aren’t very effective, they are usually minimally harmful to both pests and humans.
    __________

    “synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.”

    Quantity doesn’t mean anything if potency isn’t also factored in.
    __________

    ““They’re organic by the letter, not organic in spirit… if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off.””

    What exactly is being referred to here? Factory organic farms, I presume, but it is not clear.
    __________

    “It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used.”

    Yes, this is one difference. Another is that a truly organic farm aims not to use any pesticides, but rather manage the farm well enough so that it is in balance with its natural surroundings and therefore doesn’t require pesticides.
    _________

    “As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential – or serious – health risks.”

    How many? Which ones?

    Also, the reference doesn’t strongly support this claim. The final sentence of the abstract reads, “Although the findings do not indicate that these natural dietary carcinogens are important in human cancer, they cast doubt on the relative importance for human cancer of low-dose exposures to synthetic chemicals.”
    __________

    “Take the example of Rotenone. Rotenone was widely used in the US as an organic pesticide for decades 3. Because it is natural in origin, occurring in the roots and stems of a small number of subtropical plants, it was considered “safe” as well as “organic“. However, research has shown that rotenone is highly dangerous because it kills by attacking mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of all living cells. Research found that exposure to rotenone caused Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats 4, and had the potential to kill many species, including humans. Rotenone’s use as a pesticide has already been discontinued in the US as of 2005 due to health concerns***, but shockingly, it’s still poured into our waters every year by fisheries management officials as a piscicide to remove unwanted fish species.”

    This is a good point. However, it supports stricter regulation of the organic food industry, not that organic farming is just as bad as conventional farming. For every one horror story of pesticides in organic farming, there are hundreds in conventional farming.
    __________

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

    True, but any knowledgeable and responsible organic farmer knows this and acts accordingly.

    There are farmers who want to make more money and therefore become organically certified, and there are farmers who actually care about the environment and people’s health. The latter will always be safer, whether or not they are certified.
    __________

    “Just last year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union’s safety evaluation that is required by law. 5″

    If you’re going to get your all your information from the internet, at least make it easier for people who are checking your references to find the article you cite. This citation doesn’t have a direct link to the article.
    __________

    “Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foodstuffs produced in 2007 and tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels – and these are of pesticides that are not organic. Similarly, when Consumer Reports purchased a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides, they found traces of them in 25% of the organically-labeled foods, but between all of the organic and non-organic foods tested, only one sample of each exceeded the federal limits.”

    Again, this is all not ideal, but it is still better than conventional.
    __________

    “Not only are organic pesticides not safe…”

    Whoa, hold on there. You haven’t justified this claim. SOME of them are not safe. That is all you’ve shown. Actually, you’ve only shown that one of them isn’t safe. You have much more homework to do before you can know if this claim is true.
    __________

    “…they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry.”

    ?? You haven’t shown this to be true. Stop saying things just to be dramatic. It’s not good science writing.
    __________

    “They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like the aphid’s predators.”

    Well then obviously it shouldn’t be used. Is it used? Is it ecologically damaging in all the ecosystems it is used?
    __________

    “…but studies like this one reveal that the assumption that natural is better for the environment could be very dangerous.”

    Yes, this is a good point, and perhaps the only one you should be making. Anything MIGHT be true. Leave all that out and talk about what actually is true.
    __________

    “Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame.”

    No citation? I bet the vast majority of cases were from conventional farms. It’s on conventional farms that the ecosystems are so out of balance that unusually high levels of parasites and pathogens arise.
    __________

    “That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens.”

    Proof?
    __________

    “One study, for example, found E. coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farms samples, but only 2% of conventional ones.”

    Yes, this is disconcerting. However, most of your article is about certified organic farms, and the study you cite says, “…the E. coli prevalence in certified organic produce was 4.3%, a level not statistically different from that in conventional samples.”
    __________

    “Organic foods did, however, have higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats.”

    Wow, way to be misleading. In a small quantity there are naturally occurring trans fats in the digestive systems of ruminants. However, they are not hydrogenated oils, which are the trans fats that cause such severe problems in our bodies.
    __________

    “So if anything, the organic livestock products were found to be worse for us (though, to be fair, barely).”

    No, this has not been found. Your scant and mostly inappropriate reference is insufficient to evince this claim.
    __________

    ““This is great news for consumers. It proves that the 98% of food we consume, which is produced by technologically advanced agriculture, is equally nutritious to the less than 2% derived from what is commonly referred to as the ‘organic’ market,” said Fredhelm Schmider, the Director General of the European Crop Protection Association said in a press release about the findings.”

    Big Ag pays Fredhelm Schmider to say stuff like this. The ECPA is a division of CropLife, and leading members of CropLife include BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC Corp., Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta. These companies make up what has been dubbed Big Ag. Therefore, he is not a reputable, unbiased source.
    __________

    “But when researchers had people put their mouths to the test, they found that people couldn’t tell the difference between the two in blind taste tests14, 18.”

    In the first citation, the abstract for the study says, “The study found that organic orange juice was perceived as tasting better than conventional orange juice; however, no differences were found between organic and conventional milk. Therefore, it is concluded that the global claim that “organic food tastes better” is not valid, and each product type should be treated separately before a claim can be made.” So, based on this study, it could very well be true that for many fruits and vegetables, consumers really can tell the difference and prefer organic produce.
    __________

    “So, in short, organics are not better for us and we can’t tell the difference between them and non-organic foods.”

    You haven’t proven this! Don’t write ill-informed opinions in the form of a factual statement! Poor scientific writing!
    __________

    “As an ecologist by training…”

    Just because you are “trained” doesn’t mean you know what is best, or even that you learned what you were supposed to. Monsanto has trained ecologists working for them; science can easily be used to destroy the environment.
    __________

    “But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together.”

    Considering that your references don’t actually support the claims you made above, any statements like this that don’t even have a reference are highly dubious. You have proven yourself incredible.
    _________

    “GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do.”

    Reference?? How do you know this?? Why do you feel comfortable making this claim without mentioning any evidence?
    __________

    “As we speak, there are sweet potatoes are being engineered…The benefits these plants could provide to human beings all over the planet are astronomical.”

    And how will sudden entrance of these new life forms into nature affect the ecosystem? What will the effect be in 10, 20, or 100 years? Do you know? Of course not. No one knows. Anything could happen, and that is why we shouldn’t do it. It is too risky, and it isn’t necessary—there are other ways. GMOs are being lauded because they are owned by companies that want to make big money off of them. Have you drunk their Kool-Aid?
    _________

    “For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades.”

    Citation?? Who does this? How many farmers? Define “unabashedly” in this sentence.
    __________

    “Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals, like making food plants flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds. If the goal is protect the environment, why not incorporate the newest technologies which help us do so?”

    We don’t know what terrible things could happen. Remember DTD? Remember how great we thought that was? What happened a few years later? It’s time that we stop assuming that new technology is safe technology just because it improves things in the short term.
    __________

    “But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces16 (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!).”

    If farmers are using truly organic growing methods, the soil health will constantly improve, and this will lead to greater and greater yields over time.

    Furthermore, much of what conventional farms produced is in excess of what can be consumed and therefore goes to waste. It is my experience that truly organic farms are usually farm more efficient.
    __________

    “Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it17. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now.”

    There are so many variables that you aren’t factoring in. First of all, how much food is wasted each year in the world? How much of the food that isn’t eaten in the region it was grown actually makes it to the places where people are starving? In those places, why can’t they grow food for themselves? Often the heart of the problem is drought, weak or nonexistence connection to foreign aid, and a failure of over-producing countries to actually send food abroad. In some cases, the problems that lead to starvation have their roots in environmental damaged caused by conventional farming!
    __________

    “Unfortunately, what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of currently untouched habitats, thus plowing over the little wild habitat left for many threatened and endangered species.”

    ?? This doesn’t even make sense. You have absolutely no evidence for this.
    __________

    “Already, we have cleared more than 35% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, an area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystem and its inhabitants than agriculture. What will happen to what’s left of our planet’s wildlife habitats if we need to mow down another 20% or more of the world’s ice-free land to accommodate for organic methods?”

    Do you know why it was so disruptive? Because it wasn’t done organically or sustainably. True organic farming doesn’t damage anything, it works with the natural systems. It co-exists. Conventional farming ignores everything about natural processes—it has chemicals and tools that make it possible to grow without considering natural conditions or cycles. However, it isn’t sustainable and it is highly destructive.
    __________

    “As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats altogether.”

    Aaah! This is an insane statement. You are basically saying, “Destroying the environment is bad, but it’s better than destroying the environment.” Except you didn’t prove that organic farming destroys the environment! All you did was say that it does, or would. I can’t believe you’re getting paid by Scientific American to write this. Who is paying them? Monsanto? CropLife?
    __________

    “…but it really depends on technology.”

    Wrong. It depends on being in balance with nature, not on beating it into submission with new technology.
    __________

    “Until organic farming can produce crops on par in terms of volume with conventional methods, it cannot be considered a viable option for the majority of the world.”

    We produce more than we need already. The problem is the inefficiency of the conventional mega-farms.
    __________

    “What bothers me most, however, is that both sides of the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution.”

    And are you on someone’s pay roll?
    __________

    “…using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils…”

    Many GMOs are designed so that we can INCREASE pesticide use. Others are designed to create their own pesticides. With GMOS, we enter a vast new frontier of risk and danger.
    __________

    Readers, always think critically when reading this kind of article. Truth is not easily doled out. You often have to sift through quite a lot deceit to find it.

    Link to this
  71. 71. neoalphaone 11:37 pm 01/30/2012

    it is somewhat shocking and surprising to learn that pesiticides of natural sorts being used in organic methods but i will without hesitation still prefer organic over conventional for the the simple reason that gmo crops cannot be considered organic. i totally disagree with the author for saying gmo are part of the solution as well as merging conventional and organic methods. first, gmo crops when fed to live stock will often die, become sterile, or have offspring that are sterile and/or are deformed. we(the public atleast) dont even know what gmo’s are going to do to us or to future generations, so it would probably be best to stop its use as the spread of gmo dna contaminatting non gmo crops is very difficult to stop unless you can control all the wind, as well as all of the insects in the world. gmo crops are obviously designed for large corporate farms to further their dominance over small local farmers so they can make more money. if you do some research on gmo farming you will learn that it actually adds to world hunger rather than helps fight against it.
    EDUCATING PEOPLE TO GROW THEIR OWN FOOD IS THE REAL ANSWER, NOT GMOS OR COMBINING CONVENTIONAL WITH ORGANIC METHODS. i have recently started gardening and growing my own food and it is very fulfilling, empowering, exciting, and i feel its a much healthier way to pass time vs being indoors sitting in front of a large screen tv or computer screen all day. btw having a lawn is a HUGE WAIST OF SPACE.

    Link to this
  72. 72. JoeBob199 8:53 am 02/3/2012

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/#comment-19

    mem from somerville: @jayseedub: There are no terminator seeds. That’s another major myth in this arena.

    Hate to break it to you, but terminator seeds do indeed exist (also known as genetic use restriction technology).

    Link to this
  73. 73. the truth?? 10:40 am 02/16/2012

    Here is a link to Criticisms and Frequent Misconceptions about Organic Agriculture: The Counter-Arguments. its very interesting. it talks about 42 myths of organic farming, many of which are mentioned here or in comments, and explains them.
    http://www.ifoam.org/growing_organic/1_arguments_for_oa/criticisms_misconceptions/misconceptions_index.html

    also here is the response specifically to this article,from PAN (pesticides action network)
    http://www.panna.org/blog/scientific-american-fact-checkers-holiday

    Link to this
  74. 74. worriedscientist 3:35 am 05/13/2012

    There are a LOT of things wrong with this blog post, and pointing out all of them would take a much longer comment than I have time for.
    Number one, calling the chemical factory farm based agribusiness “conventional” agriculture is a grave misnomer. Organic farming is MUCH closer to “conventional” agriculture. What the author calls “conventional” agriculture as about as conventional as chemically engineered prepared food today is “conventional” food, i.e NOT at all.
    Number two, anyone who believes that GMO crops are harmless or good for anything but increased profits for profiteers like Monsanto and ADM is not worthy of studying for a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology. As the bare minimum, the author should have taken the trouble to read the studies of highly regarded British scientist Arpad Pusztai, whose simple animal studies (published in peer reviewed journals)conclusively showed the disastrous effects of GMO food on rats.
    Three: yes some of the “organic” factory farms cheat and use pesticides and apply reprehensible practices, but most everyone in the organic movement/community knows that real/authentic organic food should be bought from small local sources, for example at farmers market, where no organic factory farm food is offered for sale.

    Link to this
  75. 75. gliberty 3:46 am 06/6/2012

    How does what this article says square with this one?
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss

    Link to this
  76. 76. Katrina R. 12:30 am 06/16/2012

    Here’s a MYTH for you: Academic researchers are independent arbiters of scientific truth free from undue influence by corporate interests.

    Reality: How much money do university departments like yours receive from companies like Monsanto and their ilk? How unbiased do you think that makes your advisors and university officials? Not very. Why is it that the schools that receive the highest sums from companies like Monsanto routinely come out swinging in defense of poison peddlers like Monsanto? These “academics” should be given a new title more in line with their actual profession-Marketing Hack has a nie ring to it.

    Monsanto actually brags about the hundreds of millions it spend annually “donating” (i.e. buying approval) to agroscience, entomology, chemistry, and biology departments at places like your institution. These aren’t altruistic donations; they come with an expectation of tacit or explicit support. How “independent” and unbiased does that make your research? I’ll bet that the very grant supporting your PhD studies comes directly or indirectly from monies proferred by a member of the Chemical Cartel, i.e. Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical-now renamed Dow Agrosciences because it sounds less scary), Dupont, Bayer, and BASF.

    *Ever heard of common sense? Eating, breathing, or drinking a known poison has never been, and will never be, a good idea if human and environmental health are a concern to you. I don’t care how many research studies coopted “researchers” like yourself engineer (through manipulation of duration, sample population, etc) to falsify the safety profile of pesticides, I know better.
    As one who was poisoned by a “safe” pesticide, I have spent a long time researching the conflicts of interest inherent in the entire pesticide review and registration process. It’s a travesty to the public health. Shame on you for participating in this horrific assault on the public health.

    Last question for you: Do you want your children chronically exposed to pesticides in the environment and suffering from potentially preventable illnesses like autism, cancer, asthma, ADHD? If so, then keep on posting like this.

    Link to this
  77. 77. Katrina R. 10:34 am 06/16/2012

    Here’s a MYTH for you: Academic researchers are independent arbiters of scientific truth free from undue influence by corporate interests.

    Reality: Far from it nowadays. How much money do university departments like yours receive from companies like Monsanto and their ilk? How unbiased do you think that makes your advisors and university officials? For more information on this topic, please see the article in “Natural News”, by Jonathan Benson entitled: “Big Ag, Monsanto take over research universities and turn them into pro-industry propaganda machines”

    Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/035930_Monsanto_universities_propaganda.html#ixzz1xyCWuWQZ

    Why is it that the schools that receive the highest sums from companies like Monsanto routinely come out swinging in defense of poison peddlers like Monsanto? These academics are more like marketing drones than true researchers. I’ve worked in a largely (external) grant-funded university department. I know the trade-offs and expectations that come with accepting a grant from an outside interest.

    Monsanto actually brags on its website about the hundreds of millions it spend annually “donating” (i.e. buying approval) to agroscience, entomology, chemistry, and biology departments at places like your institution. These aren’t altruistic donations; they come with an expectation of tacit or explicit support. How “independent” and unbiased does that make your research? I’ll bet that the very grant supporting your PhD studies comes directly or indirectly from monies proferred by a member of the Chemical Cartel, i.e. Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical-now renamed Dow Agrosciences because it sounds less scary), Dupont, Bayer, and BASF.

    *Ever heard of common sense? Eating, breathing, or drinking a known poison has never been, and will never be, a good idea if human and environmental health are a concern to you. I don’t care how many research studies co-opted “researchers” like yourself engineer (through manipulation of study duration, sample population, etc) to falsify the safety profile of pesticides, I know better. I’ve lived it…

    As one who was poisoned by a “safe” pesticide, I have spent a long time researching the conflicts of interest inherent in the entire pesticide review and registration process. It’s a travesty to the public health. Shame on you for participating in this horrific assault on the public health. Lest you accuse me of “overreacting”, I ask you to explain to me why pediatric and young adult cancers are on the rise? The same trend is true of diseases like autism and Parkinson’s, both of which have been strongly linked to pesticide usage and exposure (which are KNOWN to be neurotoxic in most instances).

    The American Medical Association and President’s Cancer Panel estimate that genetics are only responsible for between 15 and 25% of cancer cases. That leaves environmental and behavioral factors to account for the other whopping 75-85%. I exhort you to do something to reverse this trend before your own kids become a victim of the nearly 5 billion pounds of pesticides we unleash into this country annually. The $25K or so that you get each year in your grant/stipend is not worth the price that your progeny or society pays for the pesticides poisoning our planet.

    Link to this
  78. 78. TobyinSeattle 2:11 am 07/20/2012

    Interesting dialogue. It’s too bad SA would publish such a slanted piece of journalism. The best detailed point by point refutation of the author’s errors and omissions is Comment #70.

    The author’s caveat added after a number of comments were posted (“this is NOT a comprehensive comparison of organic and conventional agriculture, nor is it intended to be. … My overall belief is that there shouldn’t be a dichotomy in the first place”) is naive in the extreme. The global political and economic governance structure is to a large extent controlled by large corporations. Maybe there shouldn’t be a wealth and political power “dichotomy”, but that’s not the reality we’re in. The dispute between industrial agriculture (generally “conventional”) and smaller scale (generally “organic” or family farm) is a reflection of this reality.

    I note that none of the comments (and certainly not the author) mentions these non-sustainable aspects of industrial agriculture (Comment #36 alludes to them):

    • It takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce nitrogen fertilizer at the scales needed; and

    • It takes a lot of phosphorus, and it seems likely we’ll be well past “peak phosphorus” by the end of this century.

    We (humans) are conducting a large scale, “control” free experiment on the planet’s ecology. We may be in population overshoot, likely a major cause of the “experiment.” The situation is certainly not “sustainable” regardless of what kind of farming or food you prefer.

    Link to this
  79. 79. Say_no_to_pants 2:00 pm 11/4/2012

    This was a great article. I have one piece of criticism that has nothing to do with the content. In the last paragraph, the author writes, “Guess what?” using a question mark. Everyone should know this is a command and not a question. She should have written, “Guess what.”

    Sorry, that always bothers me!

    Link to this
  80. 80. organicamlapowder 3:58 am 01/18/2013

    It’s very appreciable, you share many points about the organic food which is not true. It is great, thanks for sharing it.

    Link to this

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