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USDA OrganicIn the responses to my article on organic myths, I have been called an industrial shill, liar, and an organic hater. People have questioned my motives, saying I am a bioengineer or paid by Monsanto*. They have called for my head, or at the very least, the retraction of my article.

In most of them, my arguments were inflated, twisted, or flat-out re-written. I don’t think GMOs “are the only way to feed the world.” I don’t think organics are “trying to take over.” So, screw the myths. This time around, I’m just going to focus on the facts.

Fact #1: Organic farming uses pesticides – and yes, organic pesticides are bad for you, too.

My main point in the first myth I brought up was simply to say that organic farms do use pesticides, contrary to what many people think. Since none of the people attacking my article can disagree with this fact (since it’s 100% true), they have instead warped my argument, saying I claim that organic farms are “seething hotbeds of toxic pesticide use” or that I believe all “naturally occurring pesticides pose the same risk as same as [sic] synthetic ones” when “the truth is, they’re [sic] don’t.”

I didn’t say either of those things. I did say that you can’t automatically assume a natural pesticide is safer, which was my point with rotenone. But Jason Mark claims it’s unfair to use rotenone as an example as it’s now banned in the US - fair enough (turns out the National Organic Program re-approved it in 2010 despite mounting evidence of its links to Parkinson’s. So my point stands). He then goes on to say that he chooses organic because he wants “to eat food that I know doesn’t involve the use of chemicals that harm ecosystems and have been linked to human health impacts.” Similarly, a response to my post on the Rodale Institute’s website says that the consumer can confidently state that they “buy organics because they don’t use the kinds of pesticides that create public and environmental health hazards, harm pollinators and other indicator species, make farmers and farmworkers sick, and/or persist for years in the environment accumulating up the food chain.”

Oh, really?

Let’s look at the details, shall we? The claim is that organic pesticides and fungicides are better to use because they’re less dangerous for us – and though he accuses me of ‘cherry-picking’, Jason only briefly talks about the health side effects of copper sulfate and conveniently doesn’t talk about the dangers of the most widely used organic fungicide: pyrethrum, though he delves deeply into the dangers of synthetics.

So let’s pit the most used organics against the most used conventional ones for a moment. In the USA, the top synthetic pesticide used is chlorpyrifos while the top fungicide is chlorothalonil. Yes, they are nasty chemicals, which in high doses are known to cause some serious health effects. But what about the organic alternatives? One way to compare is to look at their acute toxicity, often represented by an LD50 value. LD50, “lethal dose for 50%,” represents the dose at which 50% of a population will die from exposure.

In rats, the LD50 for copper sulfate is 30 milligrams per kilogram of body weight – which is a lot1. But copper sulfate has also been shown to have chronic effects at lower doses of exposure. In animals, chronic exposure has led to anemia, stunted growth, and degenerative diseases1,2,3. Furthermore, copper sulfate has been shown to disrupt reproduction and development, including inhibition of sperm development, loss of fertility, and lasting effects from in-utero exposure3,4. Copper sulfate is also mutagenic and carcinogenic4. And because copper is a trace element, it is strongly bioaccumulated, meaning consistent low doses can lead to toxic levels3,5. In people, increased exposure has been linked to liver disease and anemia3,6.

What about chlorpyrifos? The LD50 is 95 to 270 mg/kg – 2.5 to 10 times less toxic than copper sulfate1. As for its chronic effects, dogs fed chlorpyrifos at high doses daily did show increased liver weight and cholinesterase inhibition, meaning potential for neurological toxicity. But the effects went away immediately when feeding was stopped, and no long-term health effects were seen in either the dog or a similar rat study7,8. Furthermore, no evidence of mutagenicity was found in any of four tests reviewed by EPA9. It’s also not considered carcinogenic – rats and mice fed high doses for two years showed no increases in tumor growth9.

As with copper sulfate, those who work with pesticides for a living have experienced acute toxic exposure to chlorpyrifos. Studies have also linked fetal and chronic exposure to neurological complications and cancer risk, but these studies are hard to interpret, as they rely on a biomarker which may overestimate exposure by 10 to 20 fold10. Unlike copper sulfate, chlorpyrifos does not build up or persist in body tissues, and thus is not considered have significant bioaccumulation potential11. In humans, chlorpyrifos and its principal metabolites are eliminated rapidly following a single dose, within a day or so12.

What about those fungicides? The LD50 for pyrethrum in rats ranges from 200 mg/kg to around 2,000 mg/kg. Those that get a lethal dose suffer from tremors, convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure before they finally die1. The LD50 for chlorothalonil? Well, it’s more than 10,000 mg/kg. That was the highest dose tested, but the rats still didn’t reach the 50% death rate target1. Rats fed a range of doses of chlorothalonil by the EPA over time showed no effects on physical appearance, behavior, or survival13. Yes, in some other high-dose feeding studies, chlorothalonil showed the potential to act as a mutagen or carcinogen14. But so has pyrethrum, with exposure leading to increases in tumors in the lungs, skin, liver, and thyroid of mice and rats15.

Ecologically, pyrethrum is extremely toxic to aquatic life and slightly toxic to bird species16. Chlorothalonil is toxic to fish as well, but it is non-toxic to birds17. Perhaps the kicker is that pyrethrum has been shown to be highly toxic to bees and wasps, which are keystone species necessary for the pollination of crops and other plants18. Chlorothalonil, on the other hand, isn’t.

Tell me, do you feel like the organic alternatives are totally safe? Sorry, but organic pesticides do make farmers sick. They do bioaccumulate. They do harm non-target species.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: organic alternatives are applied in higher concentrations and more frequently because they’re less effective at controlling the species they’re meant to kill.

While it’s true that some organic farms may not use any pesticides, those organic foodstuffs in your supermarket are almost guaranteed to have used them, and liberally. As Tom Laskawy notes, “copper and sulfur in particular are often overused, especially among fruit growers.” As with conventional fruits and vegetables, most of what you’re getting at the supermarket is factory farmed. And as Michael Pollan and Samuel Fromartz, among others, have pointed out: factory farming is factory farming, even if it’s organic.

My point is, a pesticide is a pesticide. If it kills things, it does so for a reason, and you probably don’t want to go around eating it. Do I want to chow down on food coated with chlorpyrifos and chlorothalonil? Well, no, of course not. That’s why we screen for synthetic pesticide residues. However, we don’t screen for organic pesticide residues. Given what you just read, wouldn’t you want to know how much of those chemicals are ending up on your plate?

Of course, to be fair, the other most widely used organic pesticide is Bt toxin – which is, by just about any tests so far, non-toxic to people. That’s exactly why it was chosen for use in GMOs: because you can eat it all you want and it has no ill effects. But I’ll get into that more later.

Fact #2: Science has yet to support claims that organic foods are healthier.

In my second myth, I said that “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.” I was attacked for this statement, with citations of studies that show increased nutritional quality in organic strawberries, tomatoes and milk. It’s true – you can find single, unrepeated studies which have found some nutritional improvements. But that’s not how science works. When scientists weigh in on a topic, they can’t just rely on single studies that support their view. Instead, they have to consider all the studies on a topic, and examine the results of each. That is exactly what a meta-analysis does.

I actually cited not one but two separate papers which summarize the studies to date on nutritional quality, one of which was a meta-analysis19,20. In both, the results were clear: any nutritional benefits are slim, variable, and not universal. In other words, overall, the science hasn’t supported any claims of unilateral nutritional benefits.

If you really want a more in depth look, check out Erin Prosser’s detailed explanation of the research. She concludes that the science is mixed at best, and even if organic foods are nutritionally superior, “it won’t be by much, meaning it may make no substantial difference in terms of your health.”

Fact #3…

Ok, my third myth got attacked on two fronts that are so separate, I feel the need to address them independently. So, instead of Fact #3, I have 3a and 3b.

Fact #3a: Certified organic farms don’t have yields that equal conventional ones.

Organic farming – and by organic farming, I mean farming that is officially organic through some certification process – has lower yields than conventional. At least, that’s what a 21-year study published by Science in 2002 found – that organic farming methods produced 80% what conventional farming methods did21. A 2008 review of the literature found organic yields were 50 – 75% of those of conventional farms22. An even more recent meta-analysis puts the value at 82%23. In fact, only one study to date has said that organic methods get average yields higher than that.

This is the paper by Badgley and colleagues which many claim shows organic farms produce just as well as conventional ones24. But that’s not what the paper says. The paper models whether or not organic farming can feed the world based on different yield percentages. The lowest yield they test for organic farming: 91%.

Where did the 91% figure come from? The authors averaged the yields from 293 studies they found looking at organic production. But the paper flat-out states that it considers a wide variety of agricultural systems in this analysis. The authors explicitly state that by organic, they are not “referring to any particular certification criteria” and that they “include non-certified organic examples.” They don’t just include a few – of their 293 ‘organic’ comparisons, 100 are not certified organic, including ones which likely used synthetic pesticides and GMOs25. The paper’s methods, math and modeling have been critiqued strongly by two separate sources 25,26.

Even still, I never, and still don’t, make any claim that sustainable agriculture can’t have the same yields as conventional farming. It definitely can. But you have to broaden the definition of “sustainable”, as Badgley et al. did, to include non-organic methods.

For example, a recent study found that alternative management strategies outperformed both conventional and organic methods. These strategies, like no-till methods, demonstrated greater production efficiencies than either conventional or organic, and even had greater average yields27.

Do yields matter? Yes, they do. While we can argue left and right about whether hunger and famine now are a matter of production or politics, when the planet reaches 9 billion people or so in 2050, production will matter. That’s not to say that lower-yielding methods can’t be used in areas of abundance, or where people can afford it. But to feed nine billion mouths, we are going to have to be careful and efficient in our use of land if we are to produce enough food without destroying what little habitat is left for the world’s other species.

Fact #3b: GMOs aren’t evil, and yes, they might even do some good for the world.

By far the most passionate responses to my post centered around the issue of GMOs. I would argue that the rumors about my stance on GMOs have been greatly exaggerated. After all, I never claimed that “organic agriculture can be redeemed if only its definition can be broadened to include GMOs,” or that “genetic modification is all benefit and no risk.”

Do I think GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritional value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use? Yes, yes I do. I’m not alone on this – the science supports me.

GM crops have been in fields and on the market for decades now, and studies are starting to weigh in on their benefits. A recent review of results of farmer surveys found that of 168 comparisons between GM adopters and non-adopters, 124 show positive results for the GM adopters, 32 indicate no difference and only 13 show negative yields – and that these increases were highest in developing countries28.

Most of the yield increases have come from the use of Bt crops. I specifically called out organic proponents on the hypocrisy of using Bt toxin liberally but not being willing to consider a GM Bt variety. As Jason Mark says, this means I claim that “there’s no distinction between spraying Bt and placing it directly into the plant” – but that’s not true at all. Of course there’s a difference. The GMO is the better solution. Studies have shown that spraying insecticides have a much stronger, negative effect on biodiversity than the use of transgenic crops29, which is particularly important when you consider that Bt crops have reduced pesticide use by 30% or more30. Furthermore, the pesticide use reduction wasn’t just in GM Bt fields – planting Bt varieties benefited non-GM growers, allowing them to reduce pesticide use and produce more crops31.

Bt crops not only increase yields and decrease pesticide use – they increase biodiversity. Three separate meta-analyses have confirmed that Bt crops benefit non-target species including bees and other insects29,32,33.

Have GM crops failed their debut? No, they haven’t. “There is now considerable evidence that transgenic crops are delivering significant economic benefits,” writes Clive James in a review of transgenic crops published in Current Science. His final sentence unequivocally states that “improved crop varieties are, and will continue to be the most cost effective, environmentally safe and sustainable way to ensure global food security in the future.” A 2010 review study found that “results from 12 countries indicate, with few exceptions, that GM crops have benefited farmers.” Similarly, a review examining 155 peer-reviewed articles determined that “by increasing yields, decreasing insecticide use, increasing the use of more environmentally friendly herbicides and facilitating the adoption of conservation tillage, GM crops have already contributed to increasing agricultural sustainability.”

That’s not to say all GM crops are stunning examples of the potential benefits of GMOs. Herbicide resistant crops are perfect examples of how GM technology can be used poorly. I don’t like Roundup Ready corn any more than my critics. How anyone could have thought that making a crop resistant to an herbicide (thus ensuring that we use MORE of this herbicide) was a good idea is beyond me. But I’ve been told not to judge organic pesticides by rotenone, so how is it fair to judge the future potential of all genetic engineering by Roundup Ready crops?

While Tom Laskawy says that in listing the potential benefits of GMOs, I have transgressed from “science to science fiction” and that most of the GM varieties I mentioned “don’t even exist in the lab”, every one of them is being or has been produced (hence the links) – including virus-resistant sweet potatoes, high-calcium carrots, high-antioxidant tomatoes, vaccine-producing fruits and vegetables, and allergen-free foods. He’s right that they don’t exist commercially, but how can they when all GMOs are universally demonized?

The real problem is that although GMO technology can be used to produce large social and ecological benefits, most GM crops developed to date have been designed to benefit Big Ag. This trend will only continue if the public keeps its negative attitude towards GMOs. I don’t like Monsanto any more than you do – so why let them control how GM technology is used? If there was more public pressure and desire for socially and ecologically beneficial GMOs, more scientists could get involved and use the technology better.

That’s what happened when the Rockefeller Foundation funded researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Institute for Plant Sciences. The result was Golden Rice – a vitamin-A rich variety that the foundation had hoped to freely give to third world countries to help fight malnutrition34. The Swiss were working on a iron-rich variety, too, until widespread protesting of GMOs in Europe pressured the foundation into not renewing the institute’s funding.

Do I think all GMOs are perfect? Of course not. But should they be considered among the many different farming practices which may contribute to better farming in the future? Absolutely.

Fact #4: Farming practices of all types should be considered and weighed for their merits independent of labels.

The dichotomy between organic and conventional is misleading at best, and dangerous at worst. There is so much variation in each category that they are almost meaningless, except when it comes to our wallets.

I’m not pro factory farming. Nor am I pro organic. As Benton et al. write in their review of conventional, organic and alternative farming methods:

“rather than creating a misleading contrast by dividing farming systems into either organic/extensive and conventional/intensive there needs to be greater recognition that future farming has the potential to maintain yield whilst becoming “greener” by further optimizing inputs and practices to reduce environmental impacts”

Andy Revkin said it far better than me in his recent commentary on the destruction of GM wheat in Australia:

“It’s clear to me that genetics, intensified agriculture, organic farming, crop mixing, improved farmer training, precision fertilization and watering, improved food preservation and eating less wastefully and thoughtlessly will all play a role in coming decades — each in its place”

The central point of my mythbusting article, and of this one, is that the future of agriculture needs to examine all potential methods and determine if they are right for a given area. Landscapes are different – growing crops in Africa isn’t the same as growing crops in the Midwest, and if we universally apply the same methods globally, we are destined to fail both in terms of efficiency and sustainability. It is only through the breakdown of this arbitrary and variable distinction between methodologies and integration of a variety of practices that we will achieve our ultimate goal of a bright future both agriculturally and ecologically.

Links to the critiques of my first article:

*As for the attacks of my career and character, I can say without any hesitation that exactly 0% of my PhD funding comes from any kind of agribusiness. I study the population genetics and evolution of lionfish – you know, those frilly fish that are horribly invasive in the Atlantic. So no, Monsanto and bioengineering companies aren’t interested in what I do. If anyone really wants to know, my research funding and interests are freely disclosed and readily available on my website. And if anyone would like to contribute to said funding (bioengineering company or otherwise), there’s a nice contact form that you can use to get in touch with me. It’s a rough time to be studying science – I’ll take whatever funding I can get!

NOTE: I accidentally switched the uses of Copper Sulfate (actually an organic fungicide) with Pyrethrum (actually an organic insecticide). Oops! The points still stand, though – if you look at the information I provided, the organics are much more acutely and chronically toxic.

References:

  1. EXTOXNET: Extension Toxicology Network. A Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis. http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/index.html
  2. Clayton, GD and FE Clayton, eds. 1981. Patty’s industrial hygiene and toxicology. Third edition. Vol. 2: Toxicology. NY: John Wiley and Sons.
  3. TOXNET. 1975-1986. National library of medicine’s toxicology data network. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB). Public Health Service. National Institute of Health, U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bethesda, MD: NLM.
  4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 1981- 1986. Registry of toxic effects of chemical substances (RTECS). Cincinati, OH: NIOSH.
  5. Gangstad, EO. 1986. Freshwater vegetation management. Fresno, CA: Thomson Publications.
  6. New York State Department of Health. 1984. Chemical fact sheet: Copper sulfate. Bureau of Toxic Substances Management. Albany, NY.
  7. American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, Inc. 1986. Documentation of the threshold limit values and biological exposure indices. Fifth edition. Cincinnati, OH: Publications Office, ACGIH.
  8. Hayes, WJ and ER Laws (ed.). 1990. Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology, Vol. 3, Classes of Pesticides. Academic Press, Inc., NY.
  9. US Environmental Protection Agency. June, 1989. Registration Standard (Second Round Review) for the Reregistration of Pesticide Products Containing Chlorpyrifos. Office of Pesticide Programs, US EPA, Washington, DC.
  10. Eaton, DL et al. 2008. Review of the Toxicology of Chlorpyrifos With an Emphasis on Human Exposure and Neurodevelopment. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 2008 38:s2, 1-125
  11. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 1986. Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Amendments to 6 NYCRR Part 326 Relating to the restriction of the pesticides aldrin, chlordane, chlorpyrifos, dieldrin and heptachlor. Division of Lands and Forests. Bureau of Pesticides. Albany, NY.
  12. Nolan, RJ et al. 1984. Chlorpyrifos: Pharmacokinetics in human volunteers. Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol. 73: 8-15.
  13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1984. Chlorothalonil: Fact Sheet Number 36. September 30, 1984. Washington, DC.
  14. Sweet, D.V., ed. 1987. Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances Microfiche January 1987. NIOSH, Washington, DC.
  15. United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances . Carcinogenicity Peer Review of Pyrethrins . February 22, 1995. Washington, D C .
  16. Casida, J. E., ed. 1973. Pyrethrum, The Natural Insecticide. Academic Press, New York.
  17. Shelley LK, Balfry SK, Ross PS, Kennedy CJ. 2009. Immunotoxicological effects of a sub-chronic exposure to selected current-use pesticides in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Aquat Toxicol 92:95–103.
  18. Cox, C. 2002. Pyrethrins/Pyrethrum Insecticide Factsheet. Journal of Pesticide Reform 22(1) 14-20.
  19. 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
  20. 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
  21. Mader, P. (2002). Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming Science, 296 (5573), 1694-1697 DOI: 10.1126/science.1071148
  22. Kirchmann, H et al. 2008. Can Organic Crop Production Feed the World? ORGANIC CROP PRODUCTION – AMBITIONS AND LIMITATIONS. 39-72, DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-9316-6_3
  23. Mondelaers, K et al. 2009. A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming. British Food Journal, 111(10); 1098-1119. DOI: 10.1108/00070700910992925
  24. Badgley, C et al. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renew. Agric. Food Syst. 22, 86–108
  25. Avery, A. 2007. ‘Organic abundance’ report: fatally flawed. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22: 321-323
  26. Gelfand, I., S. S. Snapp, et al. 2010. Energy Efficiency of Conventional, Organic, and Alternative Cropping Systems for Food and Fuel at a Site in the US Midwest. Environmental Science & Technology 44(10): 4006-4011.
  27. Carpenter JE. Peer-reviewed surveys indicate positive impact of commercialized GM crops. Nat Biotech 2010; 28:319-21
  28. Wolfenbarger LL, Naranjo SE, Lundgren JG, Bitzer RJ, Watrud LS, 2008 Bt Crop Effects on Functional Guilds of Non-Target Arthropods: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 3(5): e2118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002118
  29. Naranjo, S. E. 2009. Impact of Bt crops on non-target invertebrates and insecticide use patterns. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Sciences, Nutrition and Natural Resources 4: No 11 (PDF)
  30. Hutchison, WD et al. 2010. Areawide suppression of European corn borer with Bt maize reaps savings to non-Bt maize growers. Science. 330: 222-225.
  31. Duan, J.J. et al. 2008. A meta-analysis of effects of Bt crops on honey bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae). PLoS ONE 3, e1415.
  32. Marvier, M. et al. 2007. A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316, 1475–1477
  33. Ye X et al. 2000. Engineering the provitamin A (beta-carotene) biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoid-free) rice endosperm. Science 287:303-305
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. gmopundit 10:11 pm 08/15/2011

    More facts that should be considered:

    You don’t develop here fully the full scope of problems with copper. One is that it is highly persistent. It cannot be degraded as it is a chemical element, not a compound chemical. It stays around the soil for a very long time

    It acts like an antibiotic trait too:

    …antibiotics are not the only selective pressure that promotes spread of multiple-drug resistant plasmids in the environment. Copper resistance is in fact a genetic a trait that is carried by many plasmids. (For example Voloudakis AE, Reignier TM, and Cooksey DA. (Appl Environ Microbiol. 2005 Feb;71(2):782-9. ) describe details of a copper resistance genetic trait carried by plasmids in the plant pathogen Xanthomonas axonopodis pv. vesicatoria. )

    Resistance by bacteria to the killing ability to copper can arise, for instance, because of their ability to actively pump toxic excess copper out of the cell, and miniature bacterial pumps that eliminate many different compounds from the bacterial cell (copper included) are common in many organisms. These pumps are often of the type of pump called MDR pumps. Thus copper resistance may directly promote resistance of bacteria to other compounds through the pumping ability of a shared MDR pump.

    See
    http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2005/11/copper-fungicide-use-in-farms-can.html

    and other copper related posts findable using search at that site.

    Another topic that could be explored further is the extra land needed to produce green fertilisers separate from synthetic nitrogen fertisation. Often in presenting “yields” the organic studies don’t factor in this land area. It means that they overestimate the effective yield of organics.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ejwillingham 10:21 pm 08/15/2011

    Rodale, I think, not Rondale. [CW: Fixed. Thanks!]

    What needs to be considered in any evaluation of pesticide effects is less the LD50 values, as those illustrate acute toxicity, and more the developmentally disruptive effects those pesticides have in various spp. I’d wager…and no, I don’t have studies for it…that many parents who purchase organic foods do so because of a presumption that the developmental influences of contaminants would be lessened as a result of exposures. What everyone needs to remember when hollering about “toxic” and “LD50″ is that the dose makes the poison. Add to that that the route and the species and the developmental period also make the poison, and LD50 values in rats start to lose their value in terms of effects.

    Lost in all of this reference tossing–and really, a book from 1986? Where did you dig that thing up?–is that all of these longreads about organics don’t help the average consumer at all, and even more relevant, they don’t do much to address hunger needs worldwide. They’re appealing to people who have dogs or passion in this hunt, but for regular folk? Not so much. Probably not the goal. At any rate, it’s one thing to discuss in tremendous detail which way the balance tilts, but in the end, what is the take-home, elevator message for the consumer? All they want to know is, with which one do I–or my children–eat more poison?

    For example, are there studies that illustrate what residues remain on organic fruits and vegetables? Whether the government tests this or not, has anyone else? Because in the end, if your concern is contaminants, it’s what you take home and eat that counts, not where it comes from. If there isn’t regulatory testing for contaminants of organics, then obviously, there should be. What would be best in the end? Labeling that specifically shows what contaminants are present in the food we’re buying? Seems like that’s the only thing that would ultimately settle this aspect of the argument.

    If the concern is sustainability, then obviously, the way to go is to buy locally. Unfortunately, for huge swaths of this nation and the world, that’s not feasible, as large population concentrations exist where sustainable farming is not, well, sustainable.

    If nutrition is a consideration, even if studies are mixed about the relative nutritional value of organic vs conventionally farmed foods…as you likely know, meta-analyses are a broad look and seem almost always to say “hey, the findings are mixed!”, and one would have to comb the studies themselves for design and methods to determine how valid each individual study is.

    What gets lost in this logorrhea about organics vs. conventional food is that this issue a fully first-world problem. Golden Rice looked like a real winner until this kind of first-world infighting got in the way. Indeed, all anyone needs to home in on in the end is the quote you provide from Revkin at the end of this piece. I’ve read many related blog posts now, and having waded through barrage of words, Revkin’s are the ones that are most concise and relevant.

    Otherwise, having read all that’s been said…I don’t see a clear conclusion either way for anyone trying to make that devilish and fiscally relevant decision between organic and conventional foods.

    Link to this
  3. 3. foss4us 10:30 pm 08/15/2011

    Jason’s rebuttal was full of naturalistic fallacy (naturally-occurring good, synthetic bad!), which I can’t say is very surprising; in some ways, the organic movement is beginning to seem like a religion (if not a cult). I’m happy to see you clarify your statements on the issue rather than simply dismissing the critics.

    As a layperson whose knowledge on the subject doesn’t go past Bio 101, I lack the expertise to take sides on this debate. I will say, however, that I found your case much more logically sound than those of the other side.

    Link to this
  4. 4. mem from somerville 11:01 pm 08/15/2011

    The other thing that’s bizarre to me is that people seem to think you are the first person to suggest organic farming uses pesticides. Just recently on NPR they covered essentially the same thing. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/06/18/137249264/organic-pesticides-not-an-oxymoron?sc=tw&cc=share

    “A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of produce that found nearly 20 percent of organic lettuce tested positive for pesticide residues piqued our interest. Lots of the lettuce contained quite a bit of spinosad, a pesticide marketed by Dow Chemical under the brand name Entrust.”

    I told you you’d need your asbestos pantsuit. I’m delighted to see you are wearing it. And I stand with you, similarly attired.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Skiles 2:44 am 08/16/2011

    I think Christie is correct, and I’m not just saying that because according to her profile picture, she’s absolutely beautiful.

    I am a Green Party USA supporter and a Sierra Club member, so, I would never deny there are some problems with GM crops. However, I don’t think there’s a need for a complete ban of GM crops, especially not bans which extend to GM crop testing. The way to address problems with GM crops is not to ban them, but to create stronger regulations.

    For example, if GM crops enable us to grow a plant needed to make anti-AIDS medicines or some other such medicine, where such medicines cannot otherwise be produced at an affordable price (as has already been the case several times), then GM crops save lives.

    Couple that with the knowledge that in areas with epidemics and famines, farming often means destruction of forest lands, and then the prospect of growing more resilient crops with more prolific yields is very important. One of the leading causes of deforestation is farming, and deforestation is a cause of global warming. Global warming can lead to worse conditions as far as droughts and famine. Especially with what global warming has in store for us in the future, no single way of fighting hunger available today will be good enough, alone. But if we allow GM crop testing, we may be able to find a safe solution.

    One problem which was discovered recently at BBC news and which was reported on by Guardian, is that the media tends to give anti-GM views an unfair advantage. Which is to say that the media gives anti-GM perspectives equal treatment, when in reality anti-GM perspectives are representative of only the fringe. Being that nothing could be more skeptical of anything, GM crops included, than the scientific method, there’s no reason for the media to be so democratic. No other epistemology has as much integrity as science’s, therefore, giving fringe groups a platform larger than what they deserve, could be dangerous and it could actually be catastrophic.

    GM crops are not a one-dimensional issue. I hope you will apologize to Christie for accusing her of being owned in any regard by Monsanto, and I hope that in the future, you’ll attempt to settle the debate like scientists, through good experimentation, not through anecdotes based on anti-GM dogma.

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  6. 6. Unksoldr 5:09 am 08/16/2011

    LOL, a Phd student, just confirms that educational standards continued to drop even 40 years after I left school.

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  7. 7. Skiles 5:36 am 08/16/2011

    @ Unksoldr:

    If the consensus of the majority of scientists isn’t enough evidence for you (because all the evidence for GM crops is contained within that consensus of the majority), then no other evidence ever will be enough for you. It just doesn’t fit the narrative you’d like to believe.

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  8. 8. Kevbonham 9:15 am 08/16/2011

    “The central point of my mythbusting article, and of this one, is that the future of agriculture needs to examine all potential methods and determine if they are right for a given area.”

    Nuance? In an argument like this? C’mon, you should know better.

    I wish I was confident that thorough research and cited sources would hold more weight than, “I heard some guy say this thing one time,” but alas…

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  9. 9. maskedmike 1:55 pm 08/16/2011

    What is lost in every one of these GMO vs. Organic, Natural vs. Synthetic arguments is the element of taste. I grew up on a small produce farm that would be considered a semi-organic farm. We were not certified organic but we didn’t spray nearly as much as commercial farms (organic or conventional). From my experience and from asking my family about this question I do understand that GMO’s do seem to produce better crop yields but I’d like to get back to my point…taste.

    My family won’t grow any SuperSweet Varieties of sweet corn because it doesn’t taste as good as some of the more traditional or Heirloom plants even though it may contain more sugar. Yes, it may look prettier, it won’t have worms in it (like our corn) and it will last on a shelf or last in a truck to get shipped across the country but that corn just doesn’t taste as good. I recently read an article about tomato growers and the grower said, “they don’t pay me to make tomatoes that taste good, they pay me for how much weight in tomatoes I can produce.” Thats why when you buy a tomato at a grocery store it tastes like water. It doesn’t have that amazing savory sweet taste a tomato is supposed to have.

    What we need to be arguing about how do we get rid of these terrible commercial farms that rape our lands and give us food that has no flavor. People need to rely more on their local farmers who don’t ship their produce all over the nation. Although GMO farming may help the worlds food supply, I don’t believe its the answer for farming.

    As a consumer and a person who grew up on a farm I can tell you this. Buy local buy local buy local. The food will taste better and most of those farmers take care of their land because its their livelihood. Christie will tell you the best produce she has ever eaten has come from my family’s farm. Don’t accuse her of working for monsanto, don’t accuse her of being this scientific nut, don’t insult her intelligence , I believe in her original article her bottom line was buy local. So do your self a favor, if you are lucky enough to live where they have small local farms…support them.

    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001132572847

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  10. 10. Nerdista 5:47 pm 08/16/2011

    @maskedmike I’m sure name dropping a show like Penn & Teller’s “BS” won’t sway anyone, but if you watch the episode on organic foods people can’t tell the difference. I think it’s actually addressed in this author’s original article as well. People cannot taste the difference between organic and non-organic foods.

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  11. 11. maskedmike 10:51 pm 08/16/2011

    @Nerdista , I didn’t say anything about organic tasting better than non organic. I said small local farms food tasting better than large commercial farms (organic or non organic). As a person who has been part of a farm all of my life I know that a ripe tomato from my farm tastes better than a tomato that has been shipped across the nation (organic or not). I don’t care what any study says, that’s a fact.

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  12. 12. kclancy 10:25 pm 08/18/2011

    *claps*

    Well done Christie, wonderful, thoughtful rebuttal.

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  13. 13. Momma,PhD 10:59 pm 08/18/2011

    Three cheers for logic and science!

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  14. 14. Kaleberg 12:45 am 08/19/2011

    maskedmike makes a good point. We go for local and generally organic food for the taste. A lot of the taste comes from the plant or animal being stressed somewhat. If you are going for raw yield, you want to eliminate as much stress as possible, always providing enough water, fertilizer, food, minimizing movement and so on. You can feed the masses, but we are fond of flavor and willing to pay for it. (Stress doesn’t mean torture. You can eliminate stress by keeping cattle in pens. Making them wander to forage stresses them by making them use their muscles.)

    We also support our local farms because they are an important part of our local economy both directly because they sell food, but indirectly by encouraging people to come out to farm country, visiting farms, markets, and maybe buying stuff. A number of local restaurants make a point of using local products, and people come out to enjoy that sense of place.

    We are considered oddballs because we are big on local food production, but we are also just fine with GM crops. Obviously, there are some crackpot and potentially dangerous things you can do with GM technology, but you can do some pretty dangerous stuff with a car too.

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  15. 15. Michael Bulger 10:46 am 08/20/2011

    Ms. Wilcox,

    Your first posting, which you defend here, read like a poorly worded broadside and portrayed an argument that was over-simplified and weak.

    I mean this in no sense that should be interpreted as a personal attack. However, it is apparent that your time is spent on issues relating to GM crops, and in particular it seems as if you are susceptible to an all too common knee-jerk reaction to bash anything “organic”. I sincerely urge you to step away from such language.

    In specifics, I see you have not defended your contention that organic food poses a unique food safety risk. I am referring to your misuse of the University of Minnesota study, which it appeared you had not read before citing in your first article on “Organic Myths”. It certainly is important to read the actual studies you will be citing in the future. I think we can agree on that point.

    I don’t intend to thoroughly review this latest entry, yet I’d urge you to continue to expand your knowledge base in the area of “feeding a growing population”. For instance, your fear that the world population might outgrow production might be assuaged by the fact that much of the agricultural land on the planet is not subject to the best of the most simple and least costly farming methods. It has been said that applying agroecological farming practices to developing nations will increase production dramatically while also improving the environment. (See FAO). It is apparent that presenting private and patented (and often prohibitively costly and production intensive) agrichemicals and seeds as the solution to impoverished nations food security is not an optimal course of action. This is especially true when more economically and ecologically sustainable methods are available that would improve the food security of these regions.

    But I would digress, and perhaps will begin to fall into the trap you seem to have earlier found yourself in, if I continue with the details here in this forum.

    In closing, I suggest you tone down your rhetoric. If you wish to discuss the demerits of copper sulfate, do so. Making broader, unsupported, and simple insults, directed at a popular and growing movement, will only provoke criticism. And quite a bit of that criticism was correct. Learn from it, and don’t bluster yourself to a point where you quote song lyrics to comfort some degree of arrogance. In my opinion, earning your PhD shouldn’t require you to never make mistakes, but it should require you to acknowledge those mistakes and learn from them.

    I hope you are not taking this as an insult towards your person. Good luck in the future.

    Michael Bulger

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  16. 16. MBendzela 8:53 pm 08/29/2011

    Did anyone else notice how M Bulger’s “criticisms” model the very tone he criticizes?

    I say Bravo to Ms Wilcox for a great rebuttal.

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  17. 17. mjahi 10:11 pm 08/29/2011

    (Note: some of the below references can be accessed, besides at the home journals, through http://research.vancouver.wsu.edu/uea-lab/publications and at http://www.kootenaycoopradio.com/deconstructingdinner/043009.htm)

    Dear Ms. Wilcox,

    A brief note (assuming you aren’t ignoring them all at this point; I wouldn’t blame you). It is clear we will disagree on a number of points, but I’m sure you have enough people yelling at you for that.

    My simple request is that, if in future you refer to critiques of the Badgley et al. study (I was one of the co-authors), you at least consider or refer to our rebuttal of Avery’s critique (Badgley et al. (2007). Strengthening the case for organic agriculture: Response to Alex Avery. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22(4), 323-324). To be sure, one can quickly get lost in critiques and counter-critiques ad nauseam, and perhaps you weren’t aware of or didn’t want to further muddy a complex and multi-faceted (and high temperature) debate by citing a study, its critique, and counter-critique in turn.

    There have been a couple of substantive critiques of our study that I respect. Avery’s is not one of them. He misunderstands or misstates a number of points, and as far as I’m concerned, a detailed review of his oeuvre reveals this to be a pattern. I consider him a thoroughly impeached and unreliable source, something Prof. Liebhardt reinforced both in his accompanying rebuttal (Liebhardt, W. (2007). Response to Alex Avery (“‘Organic abundance’ report: fatally flawed,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22(4), 328-329) and in a message to Catherine (Badgley). It’s also worth noting that Avery’s response was not peer-reviewed, and was essentially an editorial.

    This is not to say there are no problems with our paper. I feel the results withstand the critiques leveled at it (it has of course also been widely and approvingly cited by a number of established academics; again this doesn’t mean it is of necessity true or unflawed, but it would be as unfair to accuse all academic supporters of being partisan as it would be to accuse all academic detractors of the same), but I respect that others do not–I think they are incorrect, but genuinely so, as I would hope they would think of us (Badgley et al.). Innumerable scientific ideas have researchers on opposite sides who are sure that their view is the best supported by evidence and unequivocally the most correct; I submit only that critiques aren’t necessarily inherently more correct or of greater value than defenses. You and I, and many others, judge the accuracy and relevancy of the critical points differently–unfortunately, there is rarely an easy way to finally and incontestably arbitrate such disputes except the long, slow march of accumulating empirical knowledge. (This is also not to say there is no way to tell “the truth”, but it may be quite a while before “the truth” may be established beyond a reasonable doubt, as is usually the case in science.)

    Additionally, I propose to you that your statement that 9 billion people will mean we are driven to scarcity-driven agricultural expansion is not supported by the evidence. For one thing, the evidence for yield increases (from organic) has been the most consistent in some of the most food insecure regions (a number of them are in Africa, though you likely would be among the skeptics/critics of this research as well–again, a reasonable position, as I consider my own more favorable interpretation to be). If we can double yields (as World Food Prize winner Dr. Hans Herren thinks we can) with organic–low- or no-synthetic external input practices–I suggest we reconnoiter once we’re there and see if the problem is still as dire. (NB: We used the term “organic” in the sense of IFOAM’s definition; certification is a problematic and semi-arbitrary standard, especially at the international level, and may be excessively analytically heterogeneous.) Further, research indicates that we are wasting 25-50% of our food; surely it is better, no matter what, to not throw away and make better use of food that could’ve been eaten in the first place, rather than make more food? (Entropy indicates the first to be absolutely preferable to the latter, barring a Rube Goldberg-esque anti-waste system.) Lastly, land-clearing related to agriculture is only very, very loosely tied to hunger. Hunger and excess food exist side by side in many, many countries. Protected lands and low land-clearing rates and hunger can also exist side-by-side. We clearly, at the extreme, *can* protect our land regardless of the level of food insecurity, and we also can address food insecurity without more land (reducing waste, reducing meat consumption). (Ruth DeFries, Tom Rudel, Arild Angelsen, and David Kaimowitz have all produced research published in PNAS and elsewhere that says the connection between yield and land-clearing is in many/most cases small, inconsistent, and sometimes positive–more yield, more land-clearing.) The most important elements here tend to be the political system we’re operating in, and not necessarily the farming method we’re discussing. (Hence India, the “economic powerhouse and a nutritional weakling” with excess food and high levels of malnutrition co-occurring.) In a thus far relatively uncontentious book, The Atlas of World Hunger, Bassett and Winter-Nelson state “women’s empowerment, often through education, is twice as likely to improve children’s nutritional levels as increased food availability within a country”–exactly the kind of point lost in these debates, yet vitally important in addressing hunger!

    We will need a mix of appropriate approaches going forward, no matter what. We shouldn’t dismiss approaches out of hand. But practices that align with sustainability and conservation–polycultures, low synthetic inputs, soil conservation–do seem to me to be “concentrated” in agroecological (organic) methods. Practices relying on diminishing oil supplies–synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, high degrees of monoculture and mechanization–seem to be concentrated in “industrial” methods. (For a conceptual expansion of this, see for example, Andow, D. A., & Hidaka, K. (1989). Experimental natural history of sustainable agriculture: Syndromes of production. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 27, 447-462.) Perhaps such a Manichean view helps keep the argument fruitlessly heated at times. Nevertheless, I feel the characterization is often more accurate than not (especially worldwide as opposed to just the US).

    But there are many juries that are still out, arguing quite loudly. Unfortunately, this can happen even when everyone is behaving above board and evaluating evidence fairly to the best of their ability; I hope we can find ways to continue to turn up the information-to-volume content on each side.

    Cordially,

    M. Jahi Chappell

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  18. 18. jytdog 1:22 pm 08/30/2011

    Not backing down is great, but as Michael Bulger noted above, the original article was far broader and more inflammatory than you acknowledge here. That kind of writing justifiably drew fire upon you.

    I support use of GMO in agriculture (with care) and education efforts are very important toward realizing the potential of GMOs. Your original article was counter-productive and your lack of acknowledgement of, apology for, its sloppiness is additionally counter-productive. This article is much better for the care you took to state things clearly and more narrowly. Hopefully going forward, your educational efforts will be more like this one. Good luck!

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  19. 19. daniels_md 7:43 pm 08/30/2011

    Well done, Christie. Although I’m not partial to organic or conventional foods, I usually find myself buying the foods that look the most appealing and can be bought at a decent price.

    And as far as facts go, I feel that we should go straight to the source for the most credible information. A source that puts millions of dollars into extensive research on an annual basis. A source focused on food safety and the protection of natural resources. A source that has been governing agriculture and farming for 150 years. The USDA.

    The USDA states that “no conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food” and the USDA makes no claims that organic food is safer than conventionally produced food.

    I, personally, find the labeling aspects of farming and agriculture to be a bigger issue in the United States. I feel that many label definitions created by governing agencies become misconstrued through marketing to the public. For example, the term “fresh,” as defined by the USDA, means the whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F. That means the “fresh” chicken I recently bought at the supermarket could essentially be over a year old, as long as the meat was continually frozen.

    The same goes for the term “free range,” which the USDA indicates that producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. The number of times access is granted or whether that access is ever given again is not regulated. It’s things like these that individuals need to be aware of, and governmental agencies need to stop tip-toeing around their labeling methods.

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  20. 20. NerdyChristie 1:29 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.

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