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The Seven Most Dangerous Myths About Organic

The Seven Most Dangerous Myths About Organic

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Published by Steve Savage
There are many things that are widely believed about organic food production that are not actually true
There are many things that are widely believed about organic food production that are not actually true

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Published by: Steve Savage on Apr 08, 2009
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08/04/2014

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The Seven Most Dangerous Myths about “Organic”Farming
For people who are familiar with the actual practices of organic andnon-organic farmers, it is alarming to watch how both systems aremisrepresented in marketing messages for Organic products, by someenvironmental advocacy groups and by some governmental andacademic spokespeople. Rather than presenting an accurate picture,these voices present a mythic version of farming in which Organic ispresented as the ideal solution, distracting society from attention toreal and critically needed solutions for feeding the world in an age of climate change. The elements of the “Myth” are as follows:Myth 1: Organic food is grown without the use of pesticidesMyth 2: Organic food is the fastest growing segment of the foodsupplyMyth 3: Organic food is better for the environment because it doesnot use synthetic fertilizersMyth 4: Organic food is not produced on “factory farms”Myth 5: Organic food is more nutritious and healthy to eatMyth 6: Organic production could be the answer to concerns aboutglobal climate change because it has a lower carbonfootprintMyth 7: Organic production could play a significant role in meetingthe challenge of feeding the next 3 Billion people on theplanet and doing so with reduced environmental impact
Myth 1: Organic food is grown without the use of pesticides
 This claim is frequently seen and often implied. In fact “natural”pesticides have always been allowed under organic rules and aregenerally needed for organic crops. This includes some very “soft”
 
products like Bt and spinosad, which are also widely used in“conventional” agriculture. It also includes some materials that aremore toxic and persistent than many of the modern, syntheticpesticide options. Copper sulfate and copper hydroxide arepesticides that started being used in the late 1800s. They aresomewhat more toxic than most modern pesticides and the copperis a heavy metal, which persists in the environment where it issprayed. Sulfur is a good, cheap option for powdery mildew andmite control that was probably first used in ancient Egypt, but it ishighly irritating to the eyes and skin of anyone that has to work invineyards and other crops treated with this very high use-rateproduct. Organic production does use pesticides and they are notall better for us or the environment than many of the “conventional”options by many objective measures. A large proportion of thepesticides used in “conventional” agriculture today are every bit assafe as those used for organic and often safer. Marketers andsupporters of Organic often sell or advocate against the pesticidepractices of 30-50 years ago and with the implication that Organicmeans no pesticides. Pesticides are a complex issue, but there hasbeen dramatic movement towards safety over the years.
Myth 2: Organic food is the fastest growing segment of thefood supply
 This is a classic case of the abuse of statistics. If I start a newreligion and in one year added one new convert, I could say that Ihave 100% growth in a year and thus the “fastest growing worldreligion” (on a percentage basis). The very frequently claimed“fastest growing” statistic for Organic is also on a percentage basis. The reality is that after more than 30 years of growth, thepercentage of organic cropland in the US is 0.6% (US Census of Agriculture, 2007). For pasture land the percentage is somewhat
 
larger (2.4%). What is remarkable about Organic is not how fast it isgrowing in real terms. What is remarkable is how SMALL thissegment is considering that it enjoys a substantial price premium,extensive marketing, wide-spread media and celebrity support, andthe implied government endorsement of “USDA Organic”certification. Considering the “buzz” around Organic it isremarkable how small it remains, but in practice it is very difficult toproduce economically viable crops in many regions under therestrictions of the Organic guidelines. At its historical growth rate,Organic will still only represent a small percentage of US cropland in2050. Organic is a niche and will remain so.
Myth 3: Organic food is better for the environment because itdoes not use synthetic fertilizers
In 1918, German scientist Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize forhis contribution to the new process by which a bit of the 80%nitrogen gas in the atmosphere is converted to forms of nitrogenthat plants can use. That technology has enabled vast increases inagricultural production and much higher protein diets for much of humanity. The process is energy intensive as it takes about 1 lb of fossil carbon emissions to make every lb of nitrogen for crops. Thisis indeed one of the largest energy and carbon “footprints” of themodern agricultural system, but the world could not be fed withoutit. A common claim for organic is that it avoids this greenhouse gas“footprint” by using legume crops and “natural” fertilizers based onanimal manures and other animal by-products. (“Conventional”agriculture also generates some of its nitrogen from rotations withlegume crops, e.g the standard corn/soybean rotation of theAmerican Midwest). The problem is partly that there is only somuch manure, but also that manure is a problematic fertilizer. Ittends to have more phosphate than needed relative to nitrogen so

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