Exposed: the great organic myth

posted in: Commentary | 5

The biggest problem I have with the media is that they never post references. Unfortunately, both writers that I disagree with and those I generally agree with are guilty of this. The Independent article “The great organic myths: Why organic foods are an indulgence the world can’t afford” posted yesterday has the headline: “They’re not healthier or better for the environment – and they’re packed with pesticides. In an age of climate change and shortages, these foods are an indugence [sic] the world can’t afford, argues environmental expert Rob Johnston”. He makes a lot of good points, but without proof, the points are nothing. I’ll just run through the list pointing out some flaws and gems in the article.

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment “A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain.” These numbers are surprising, but not altogether different from what I’ve read elsewhere. Organically grown food can have yields comparable to conventional in good years, but doesn’t yield as well when stressed with pests and unideal climate. So, in our imperfect world full of droughts, corn borers, and various fungi to name a few – organic fields are often less productive, requiring more land to grow the same amount of food. I wasn’t able to find the report from the Food and Rural Affairs office of the UK Department for Environment that was mentioned in the article. I really have to question this statement: “organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle”. With my limited knowledge of bovine digestion, the statement would make more sense if it said “grain fed cows burp x amount more methane than grass fed.” I have to wonder if this is a misinterpretation on the author’s part. Grain is not good for cows, organic or not.

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable This section of the article is probably the worst of all seven. While it is probably true that a “hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one”, and that “heated greenhouse tomatoes in Britain use up to 100 times more energy than those grown in fields in Africa”, I don’t know if these things can be directly compared. Transportation is a big issue that needs to be considered. I’ve seen this greenhouse tomato reference in multiple anti-organic articles, so I have to wonder if it’s hearsay based only loosely on actual science.

Myth three: Organic farming doesn’t use pesticides This part hits the nail on the head. Just because a pesticide is labeled organic doesn’t mean it’s safe, and many non-organic pesticides have very low toxicity for non-target organisms. The organic pesticide that particularly concerns me is copper (used specifically as a fungicide on many crops from potatoes to soy). Copper is considered a pollutant because it binds tightly to the soil and can not be removed. If soil concentrations reach a certain level, copper kills plants and soil microorganisms. The problem comes when a farm stays organic year after year, applying more and more copper that builds up to contaminate the land. Coincidentally, I went to a poster session yesterday that was held by the Sustainable Agriculture department at ISU, and saw a poster advocating the use of copper to treat fungus in organic soy. I could only shake my head. The article also mentions rotenone, an “organic” neurotoxin from some tropical plant roots that is used as an insecticide. Thankfully, rotenone is being banned in more and more places since it has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. It should have been banned sooner because of its toxicity to fish.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous The author states that the oft mentioned “epidemic of cancer” is false. After some research, I agree. Cancer Statistics, 2007 (full article here, access required, just ask if you’d like a PDF) published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians by the American Cancer Society, says that conclusions on cancer rates are difficult to make, but that rates do not seem to be rising. I don’t, however, agree with the statement that “cancer rates are falling dramatically”. If anything, they look to be stable. With all of the changes in the environment of the typical developed world person in the past decades, it would be impossible to link pesticide to cancer anyway. Additionally, pesticide levels in conventional food in developed countries are well below international standards.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier Organic produce is actually more likely to harbor bacteria than conventional produce, simply due to fertilizer choice. There is some concern about untreated illness in organic animals, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that organic animals are generally sickly. Instead, organic farmers choose hardy breeds that are less likely to get sick. Antibiotic resistant bacteria appear in both organic and conventional animals, and food poisoning is just as likely from one as from the other.

Myth six: Organic food contains more nutrients Improved omega 3s and other nutrients in meat, milk and eggs has nothing to do with whether or not the animals are raised organically, and everything to do with what the animals are fed. The increased flavnoid levels in organic produce may be a misinterpretation. Stressed plants produce more defensive compounds (i.e. flavnoids), so it could be argued that this is evidence that organic plants are stressed (an interesting point when we consider “plant dignity” as codified by the Swiss). I am amused by the author’s alternative interpretation of research: “The easiest way to increase the concentration of nutrients in food is to leave it in an airing cupboard for a few days. Dehydrated foods contain much higher concentrations of carbohydrates and nutrients than whole foods. But, just as in humans, dehydration is often a sign of disease.”

Myth seven: The demand for organic food is booming If organic food is so much better, so worth the additional costs of growing it, then why is the amount of organically farmed land so small? Why are there so few organic farmers? The “debate” between agribusiness and organic is a false one. Organic lobbyists have just as much to gain from pushing their agenda as conventional farmers and agribusiness do. All the more reason to depend on science to guide our decisions. As the author says: “In a serious age, we should talk about the future seriously and not use food scares and misinformation as a tactic to increase sales.”

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!