Exposed: the great organic myth

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.”

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

5 comments

  1. Such bunk. Let’s look at number three. yes, we use ‘pesticides’but there is a big difference between organic soap and long lasting synthetic poison. And number six is no myth as I’m pretty sure I’ve pointed out in your blog before. Numerous studies including a four year comprehensive by the EU shows clearly that fruit and veg grown in organic soil using organic methods contains more vitamins and nutrients than the same fruit and veg grown in similar situations using conventional methods. The findings by the EU study were backed up by findings in studies done by Uof Maryland for USDA and others and also by another study done by U of Michigan The sad fact is industrial ag is great at providing us empty calories but it doesn’t sustain us.IOW, we may be well fed, but we are not nourished.

  2. I’m sorry for not making myself clear. What I meant to say is that reporters on both sides of pretty much any issue are not very good at writing unbiased reports. I reviewed and found errors and exaggerations in both “Exposed: the great GM crops myth” and “The great organic myths”. I think the problem comes when people look at things through whatever colored glasses they happen to be looking through at the moment – so unreasonable statements become reasonable and vice versa.

    As for “certified organic pesticides”, you may want to look at a list. Granted, it can be a bit difficult to find a list, you can find the official one here (let me know if the link doesn’t work). The only requirement to be certified organic is that the chemical must be found in nature. Whether or not they are dangerous to people or the environment in the short or long term is not under consideration. Copper and rotenone are the best examples of dangerous “naturally occuring” chemicals that are approved organic pesticides. Modern pesticides are designed to be as non-toxic as possible and to degrade quickly (glyphosate is the best example of this). I’m certainly not saying that all conventional pesticides are safe or that all organic pesticides are terrible – just that things are never as black and white as they seem.

    To be honest, I firmly beleive that the best pest management is integrated pest management, where all other alternatives are exhausted (including prevention) before chemicals are brought in. One of the most important things about organic agriculture is that it typically emphasizes IPM over chemical use.

    As for nutrition, please go back and read what I wrote in “Myth six”. I think the author’s point about dehydration is a joke. However, there is reason to beleive that the increased antioxidants detected in some types of organic produce in some studies is due to plant stress – simply because flavnoids (aka antioxidants) are produced in response to stress. This isn’t me making things up or “disrespecting” organic ag, this is me reporting on plant physiology.

    If we want to look further into the subject, at least some of the evidence for improved nutrition isn’t very strong science, as reported here by the American Council on Science and Health. I haven’t been able to find the studies you mentioned, since I have no authors or titles. Please provide references if you mention particular studies, it makes it much easier to have a discussion about them 🙂

    I think you might have me pegged as someone I’m not, so I hope I can clear that up here… I am by no means a proponent of “industrial ag”. In my opinion, everyone should be eating whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, avoiding anything out of a box (organic or not), and eating only grass-fed pastured animals and animal products a few times a week if at all. I wish US government policies would reflect these goals at least a little!

    However, I also think we should use science (carefully implemented, not-for-profit science) to do the very best job of producing food, fiber (and even fuel) that we possibly can while keeping the environment as pristine as possible. Ideally, we’d use the principles of organic agriculture as a solid base, adding technology when it can provide a real benefit. What we can’t do is reject all technology simply because it doesn’t fit into some preconceived notion of “natural”. Nothing humans do is natural. Instead we must do our best to fit into the ecologies we find ourselves in.

  3. Interesting post and follow up comment Anastasia. This is an area that I’m unfamiliar with but feel like I should learn more about.
    I’m a first time visitor to geneticmaize, by the way, but I’ll be back!

  4. My website is down at the moment, but I would like to respond to “nosmokes” above. We simply do not know enough to be able to call organic “healthier” than conventional. A comprehensive analysis of the studies on this topic was done by Dr. Carl Winter at UC Davis, and he found that the results were mixed. In some cases, there is no perceptible difference, and in others, there are a few differences, sometimes improvements in the compounds studied. But that’s just it – the studies weren’t studying whether organic was healthier or not, they were studying the levels of certain nutrients in the organic produce. By the same biochemical processes that promote those, such as the flavonoids in tomatoes mentioned above, the levels of unhealthy compounds also increase. When the plant is defending itself, it’s got an array of toxins it produces which aren’t good for us. So he concluded that given the available research, we can’t say that one is healthier than the other. My site is down at the moment, but I interviewed him on my radio show last year – here is a link to the mp3:
    http://media.libsyn.com/media/inoculatedmind/mindcast_2007_03_29.mp3

    On your pesticide comments, please. Copper kills fish, stays in the soil, and is totally natural. Many synthetic pesticides are designed to degrade rapidly in the soil, which is not to say that they are totally safe, but I’d take some fast-degrading synthetics over “natural” copper. Rotenone is nasty nasty stuff, and there’s more than that. To say that organics just use soap is a misrepresentation.

    Finally, I’d like to second the notion expressed in this article about fossil fuel use. I have read several papers on fuel use by organic farms, and heard several stories about organic farmers that either have to or want to run their tractors up and down the fields, mowing down any last weed there is – they do this mostly because organic ag has a really tough time with weeds. Further compounding the issue is the possibility that produce grown far away under ideal conditions can be more environmentally friendly than local hothouse produce – if only this stuff was simple!

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