Better for the Environment
Well, now we’re getting onto firmer ground. It’s pretty widely acknowledged that there is little, if any, taste or health benefit to organically grown food. While that is at odds with popular belief and personal experience (a friend wrote to tell me that “oohs” and “aahs” only happen when the food is organic and local and never when purchased through a supermarket), this seems to be a case of confirmation bias. When the the benefits of organic food are rigorously tested no significant difference are found. Most people who’ve responded to my previous posts on the topic have accepted that conclusion but remain clear that organic farming is sustainable and avoids the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are a risk to our health and cause long-term damage to our environment.
Chemically dependent agriculture harms the environment and puts human health at risk.
Pesticide or fertiliser laden runoff from farmlands washes into rivers, lakes, and streams, contaminating waterways, and destroying habitat. Many pesticides are also toxic to health, and have been linked to respiratory problems, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer and reproductive problems. Every year, farm workers and people living near conventional farms suffer from poisonings and serious health effects from pesticide spraying.
By supporting organic agriculture, we reward farmers who have made significant efforts to eliminate the need for harmful chemicals.1
It seems hard to argue against such obvious benefits, but the literature contains quite a bit that challenges the assumptions inherent in statements like the one above. Just as with taste and nutrition, what everyone knows to be true isn’t necessarily true. It’s easy to be blinded by what appear obvious, and even virtuous, assumptions.
Organic farming is generally good for wildlife but does not necessarily have lower overall environmental impacts than conventional farming, a new analysis led by Oxford University scientists has shown.2
An Oxford University study looked at 71 peer reviewed studies and noted that there was truth in most of the environmental claims about organic farming. It supports biodiversity, it uses less energy per acre of land. It doesn’t use the most common sorts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and therefore does not risk environmental damage from them. It does not support genetically modified crops. On the surface it sounds like organic farming is the answer to the world’s agricultural needs if we want to be able to feed our populations sustainably.
But, and it’s a big but, most of those benefits are only true when measured per acre or unit of land. Organic farming tends to use more land to produce the same yield as conventional farming. If you start to measure environmental impact per unit of production the story is quite different.
Organic milk, cereals, and pork all generated higher greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product than their conventionally farmed counterparts – although organic beef and olives had lower emissions in most cases. In general organic products required less energy input, but more land than the same quantity of conventional products.
‘Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realise that an “organic” label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product.’3
The point seems to be that some sorts of organic farming are generally better for the environment than others. However, consumers of organic food rarely know anything about which is which and simply use the organic label as a guide to environmentally responsible shopping.
What about the Chemicals?
No matter what some scientific study says about the overall impact of organic farming techniques, the killer argument in favour of organics is always chemicals. They are synthetic, artificial and toxic. They are clearly bad for the environment and farm workers. Chemical residue on our food has been blamed for just about everything wrong with us. Google knows all about this.
Organic food requires roughly twice the acreage as conventional food for the same output. When we look at how to feed 7 billion people on the planet that is not a good number – there isn’t that much land left. Even the US and Australia would find it difficult to find that much spare land. Without reclaiming more forest (an idea that no one seems to support) there is no place to find the extra land. That is not a sustainable situation.
The synthetic fertilisers and pesticides used in conventional farming are farm more effective than the organic substitutes. Up to seven times as much of the organically approved fertilisers and pesticides are often required for the same result. And what are these pesticides? At least in the US the list includes “rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don’t want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not.”4 And the fertilisers include cottonseed meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, and manure and sewage sludge, etc. The risk of bacterial contamination of crops is much higher when organic fertilisers are used. “The most dangerous bacteria in America’s food supply is E. coli, which is found in abundance in cattle manure, a favourite “natural” fertiliser of organic farming.”5 Both organic and conventional food is tested for chemical residue. While there might be marginally less on organic food, the amount on conventional food is far too small to have a negative heath impact.
In the modern world the concept of “toxins” has taken hold. They are usually not identified but “everyone knows” that they are bad and that we need to clean up our act and detox as often as possible. In the face of an unfounded belief like that saying that real toxins, and many chemical pesticides are legitimately toxic in large quantities, are present in amounts so small that will not be a risk to anyone’s health is likely to fall on deaf ears. We know what we fear and fear strongly influences our buying habits.
Ma and Pa Kettle
The image most of us have of an organic farm is of a small, neat farm run by a couple or a family devoted to delivering the very best possible food to local consumers. This exists. I have friends who are doing just that. They grow organic garlic and are absolutely committed to the very highest standards of organic farming. However, most of the organic food we buy is now grown on the factory farms that we’ve all learned to hate and distrust. There is a higher profit margin on organic food and the public is willing to pay dramatically more for it. As a result Big Agra has taken on producing most of the organic produce you find. Not all, but by far the lion’s share and growing. As a marketing initiative organic farming has been a big winner for the same corporations that we were buying our non-organic produce from 20 years ago.
There is actually a lot more that could be said about the relative merits of conventional vs organic farming. The point I’d like to leave you with has to do with the Green Revolution. In the 1950s and 1960s the world was faced with the prospect of not having enough food to feed everyone. Famines were becoming common and no one quite knew what to do. At that time science came to the rescue. High yield crops were developed along with chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the changes were labelled The Green Revolution. The results were yields that were up to 10 times as large as they had been using what was then called “conventional” farming methods. Those method were very much like what we now call “organic” farming methods. There are now more than twice as many people on earth and the numbers keep growing. It’s clear that even today’s conventional farming will not be equal to the task of feeding the world; more science will be required. Even more clear is that organic farming is counter productive. It’s more expensive to grow, more expensive for the consumer, requires more land, does not taste better and is not better for your health.
I want to stress that I am not opposed to organic food. It is generally a perfectly fine product. I do have objections to the way it’s marketed: It’s an identical product, sold at a premium, justified by baseless alarmism about standard food. Whether you agree or not that this alarmism is baseless, you should at least agree that that would be an unethical way to promote a product that offers no real benefit. I choose not to reward this with my food-buying dollar. People who wilfully seek out the organic label when buying food are being taken advantage of by marketers employing unethical tactics.6
If you disagree with any of my conclusions I’d love to discuss it. Please leave a comment below. I know I’m being contrarian and I’m completely open to being shown where I’m wrong.
1. Natural Resources Defence Council http://www.nrdc.org/health/farming/forg101.asp 2/3. Oxford University September 2012 http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2012/120904.html 4. Skeptoid Podcast show notes http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4019 5. The Skeptics Dictionary http://www.skepdic.com/organic.html 6. Skeptoid Podcast show notes http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166