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For people who are familiar with the actual practices of organic and non-organic farmers, it is alarming to watch how both systems are misrepresented in marketing messages for Organic products, by some environmental advocacy groups and by some governmental and academic spokespeople. Rather than presenting an accurate picture, these voices present a mythic version of farming in which Organic is presented as the ideal solution, distracting society from attention to real 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 pesticides Myth 2: Organic food is the fastest growing segment of the food supply Myth 3: Organic food is better for the environment because it does not use synthetic fertilizers Myth 4: Organic food is not produced on “factory farms” Myth 5: Organic food is more nutritious and healthy to eat Myth 6: Organic production could be the answer to concerns about global climate change because it has a lower carbon footprint Myth 7: Organic production could play a significant role in meeting the challenge of feeding the next 3 Billion people on the planet 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 are generally 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 are more toxic and persistent than many of the modern, synthetic pesticide options. Copper sulfate and copper hydroxide are pesticides that started being used in the late 1800s. They are somewhat more toxic than most modern pesticides and the copper is a heavy metal, which persists in the environment where it is sprayed. Sulfur is a good, cheap option for powdery mildew and mite control that was probably first used in ancient Egypt, but it is highly irritating to the eyes and skin of anyone that has to work in vineyards and other crops treated with this very high use-rate product. Organic production does use pesticides and they are not all better for us or the environment than many of the “conventional” options by many objective measures. A large proportion of the pesticides used in “conventional” agriculture today are every bit as safe as those used for organic and often safer. Marketers and supporters of Organic often sell or advocate against the pesticide practices of 30-50 years ago and with the implication that Organic means no pesticides. Pesticides are a complex issue, but there has been dramatic movement towards safety over the years. Myth 2: Organic food is the fastest growing segment of the food supply This is a classic case of the abuse of statistics. If I start a new religion and in one year added one new convert, I could say that I have 100% growth in a year and thus the “fastest growing world religion” (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, the percentage 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 is growing in real terms. What is remarkable is how SMALL this segment is considering that it enjoys a substantial price premium, extensive marketing, wide-spread media and celebrity support, and the implied government endorsement of “USDA Organic” certification. Considering the “buzz” around Organic it is remarkable how small it remains, but in practice it is very difficult to produce economically viable crops in many regions under the restrictions of the Organic guidelines. At its historical growth rate, Organic will still only represent a small percentage of US cropland in 2050. Organic is a niche and will remain so. Myth 3: Organic food is better for the environment because it does not use synthetic fertilizers In 1918, German scientist Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize for his contribution to the new process by which a bit of the 80% nitrogen gas in the atmosphere is converted to forms of nitrogen that plants can use. That technology has enabled vast increases in agricultural 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. This is indeed one of the largest energy and carbon “footprints” of the modern agricultural system, but the world could not be fed without it. A common claim for organic is that it avoids this greenhouse gas “footprint” by using legume crops and “natural” fertilizers based on animal manures and other animal by-products. (“Conventional” agriculture also generates some of its nitrogen from rotations with legume crops, e.g the standard corn/soybean rotation of the American Midwest). The problem is partly that there is only so much manure, but also that manure is a problematic fertilizer. It tends to have more phosphate than needed relative to nitrogen so
that the excess becomes a water pollution issue. Manure also is a “slow release” form of nitrogen, which often means that nitrate (NO3), a source of water pollution and a source for conversion to the very potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, (N2O, >300X the warming potential of CO2) continues to be released long past the time when the crop needs it. But the real problem with manure as a fertilizer is methane (CH4). When manure is stored for later use on fields, even as well as it can be, 1-2% of the biomass in it is converted to the potent greenhouse gas, methane (24X the warming potential of CO2). When manure is composted to make it safe to use as a fertilizer on food crops (to eliminate E. coli, Salmonella etc) more than 2% of the biomass is converted to methane. To put this in perspective, if steer manure is composted and then used as a nitrogen fertilizer on an organic crop, the carbon footprint of that fertilization is ~17 times as large as that for a crop fertilized with synthetic nitrogen. Judicious use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is the best option from a climate perspective. Manure would be better used as a fuel - by processing it in anaerobic digesters to generate clean, renewable energy. Myth 4: Organic food is not produced on “factory farms” The image of Organic that is most often communicated is small and local farms. Actually, the bulk of organic produce now comes from very large farming operations. Some, like Earthbound Farms were originally organic-only entities that were later bought by mainstream companies, in this case the very large vegetable grower/shipper, Tanimura & Antle. Others are large mainstream entities like Grimmway or Stemilt that have developed organic subsets of their business. This process started in the late 90-s as the definition of “USDA Organic” began to become clear prior to the issue of the “final rule” in 2002. On a percentage basis, most of the
Organic produce in stores today comes from operations that activists would normally call “factory farms.” In fact these are progressive, efficient, highly professional farms for both their “organic” and “conventional” output. “Factory Farm” is an emotive term, but it does not reflect anything accurate about the safety, quality or responsibility of the producer for either organic or nonorganic food. Myth 5: Organic food is more nutritious and healthy to eat A great many studies have been done to compare organic and nonorganic food for nutrient levels and taste with a wide range of results in both directions and most finding no consistent difference. Marketers of Organic are quite selective in which studies they cite and ignore all the studies that fail to say that organic is better. All fresh produce is highly variable in nutrient content and taste and most Americans would do well simply to eat more of it from any source. Myth 6: Organic production could be the answer to concerns about global climate change because it has a lower carbon footprint The single most important thing that farmers can do to help with climate change is to produce enough on the land already farmed to avoid the need for more and more farmland to feed the growing world population. Starting to farm new land leads to a huge release of the carbon that had been sequestered in those soils. Organic production typically leads to lower yields/acre so if it were ever to be a significant part of our food system it would increase the pressure to farm more land. Misleading statistics about the carbon footprint of Organic tend to be expressed on a per-acre basis rather than per unit if output. It is entirely possible for the per acre
footprint to be smaller but the per-bushel or per-ton footprint to be larger and thus drive things in the direction of needing more land to produce the same amount of food. Organic also has the problem with methane emissions from manures described above. Organic row crop farmers don’t have the option to do “no-till” production which has many advantages with regard to climate change and other environmental issues (carbon sequestration, erosion control, biodiversity, water retention…). That desirable practice is now employed on over 70MM acres of conventional farmland in the US. There is one practice that is more common in Organic and it would be highly desirable for more conventional farmers to use it as well. This is the planting of winter “cover crops” that extend the period each year when organic matter is being built-up in the soil. That practice combined with no-till and very careful use of synthetic nitrogen is the way that agriculture can best help to counteract climate change. Climate change itself is already making farming more challenging with weather extremes and shifts in the range of pests. Conventional agriculture has many more tools to deal with these challenges. Myth 7: Organic production could be a significant part of the challenge of feeding the next 3 Billion people on the planet and doing so with reduced environmental impact “Organic” is often presented as a viable option to meet these extremely critical challenges, but for all the reasons listed above, it is not rational to expect that organic production could be scaledup enough, and if it were it would actually make matters worse. What is needed is a focus on the best ways to continue improving the 99+% of agriculture, which has already come a very long way over recent decades.
About the author: Steve Savage grew up helping his grandfather, an avid reader of Organic Gardening Magazine, tend his garden and compost pile in the 1960s. He has long-term friendships with some of the early pioneers of the commercial organic movement. He holds a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from U.C. Davis. He has been working on improvements in agriculture for 32 years, and 14 of those were specifically on cultural, biological and natural product approaches to pest control that could be used in either Organic or conventional production. He has worked for a University (Colorado State), a large company (DuPont), and a small company (Mycogen). He has spent the last 12 years consulting for a wide range of companies and institutions that develop the seeds, chemicals, biological controls, and biotechnology traits of modern agriculture. Having significant respect for organic and non-organic farmers themselves, Savage is simply concerned that marketing and advocacy have been used to present a false image of what Organic is and what its potential would be to address the serious sustainability challenges that world agriculture is facing. He lives in Encinitas, California where he grows grapes for wine in the back yard. He can be reached at email@example.com