Organics need help

What bothers me most, however, is that both sides of the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution. Organic supporters tend to vilify new technologies, while conventional supporters insist that chemicals and massive production monocultures are the only way to go. This simply strikes me as absurd. Synthetic doesn’t necessarily mean bad for the environment. Just look at technological advances in creating biodegradable products; sometimes, we can use our knowledge and intelligence to create things that are both useful, cheap enough and ecologically responsible, as crazy as that idea may sound.

I also firmly believe that increasing the chemicals used in agriculture to support insanely over-harvested monocultures will never lead to ecological improvement. In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally.

via Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture | Science Sushi, Scientific American Blog Network.

As far as I’m concerned, Christie Wilcox’s Scientific American blog posting on the myths of organic agriculture is one of the more complete analyses of organic’s strengths and weaknesses I have seen in a mainstream publication in years1. But it misses the mark more than a few times. I read all the literature I could get my hands on for my senior thesis (“Policies to Improve Organic Agriculture: Prospects to Meet an Agrarian, Ecological, or Resource Vision” – yep, I ran out of creative juices for a title…) and found very few pieces that holistically and neutrally evaluated organic agriculture. Wilcox gets top marks for effort.

Many arguments for and against organics rest on just a handful of scholarly articles, in addition to a wealth of anecdotal accounts. Like her peers, Wilcox does not present a comprehensive review of the literature. However, she is right to question many of the “myths” surrounding organic agriculture,  and her overall point about the black and white conversation around organics is spot on.

It’s refreshing that Wilcox critiques organics while sharing its goals. We need more of these kinds of conversations and a whole lot more scientific research of sustainable agriculture if we really are serious about an environmentally-sensitive agriculture for more than just the privileged few.

Pesticides – Better under Organics

Wilcox makes some questionable inferences in her pesticide section. Yes, organic farms do use pesticides, sometimes a lot of them. That myth can be safely busted. “Organic pesticides” are substances derived from naturally harvested resources, to be distinguished from conventional pesticides, which are synthesized by humans. The USDA’s working definition of organic agriculture hinges on this somewhat arbitrary distinction between natural and manufactured resources.2

Some naturally-derived, “organic” pesticides – Wilcox singles out Rotenone – do have detrimental effects on human health. But does that mean organic foods are inflicting the same pesticide residue burdens as conventional foods? That depends on which organic pesticides are used and how much is applied.

Wilcox cites an evaluation of organic pesticides by the EU Crop Protection Association, which found half of organic pesticides to fail safety standards.3 This is worrisome indeed. But Wilcox infers that this means large quantities of harmful organic residues are found in organic food (in the US as well as the EU). That is a possibility, but she presents no evidence for this whatsoever.

Instead, Wilcox brings up studies showing the presence of synthetic pesticide residues in organic foods (European Food Safety Authority (2009) and Consumer Reports (1998)). I think Wilcox’s implication here is that organic farmers are cheating and using synthetic pesticides. The other explanation for their presence, which Wilcox does not account for, is contamination (“drift”) from adjacent conventional farms and persistence of pesticides in the environment.

Baker et al. (2002) believe contamination explains synthetic pesticide residues. They analyzed three data sets from the USDA, the CA Department of Pesticide Regulation, and the Consumers Union. They found pesticide residues in conventional produce in 73% of USDA samples, 31% of CA DPR samples, and 79% of Consumers Union samples. This can be compared to 23%, 6.5%, and 27% respectively for organic samples, with the 23% USDA figure dropping to 13% if eliminating long-lived banned substances such as DDT. Conventional samples were also found to have at least six times as many samples with multiple residues.4

Given that Baker et al. published in a peer-reviewed food contaminants journal, I give a lot of weight to their statement that “there is no objective evidence to support the assertion that natural pesticide residues pose a hazard… The botanical insecticides tend to break down rapidly in the environment, are comparatively non-toxic, and are used by a relatively small fraction of growers, ordinarily only as a last resort.”

But Wilcox does bring up this Bahlai et al. (2010) article, in which the authors found organic pesticides to have reduced efficacy against aphids with a higher mortality rate for beneficial insects as compared to conventional pesticides. It’s difficult to extrapolate from this study, but it does challenge Baker et. al’s assertion.

Following the explosive growth of organics nine years later, it may be time for Baker et al. to update their study. Tom Philpott brings up the 2009 USDA Pesticide Data Program report (Tom – why not find the primary source?). I could not verify the Organic Center’s analysis of the report linked to by Philpott. Tests on organic lettuce found the allowable organic pesticides spinosad in 18.3% of samples and azadirachtin A/B at 1.8%/0.3%. Only a handful of the 387 samples contained prohibited (conventional) chemicals, at levels easily attributable to residual environmental contamination.

Overall, the evidence points to organic produce having lower toxic pesticide residues than conventional produce. Myth not busted.

Nutrition – Toss up

Although the relative nutrition of organics was not addressed at length in my thesis, I did read the relevant body of nutrition literature. As Philpott and Tom Lawskawy at Grist point out, there’s a lot of studies that have found higher levels of certain nutrients in organic produce. Wilcox cites a bunch that have found no difference in nutrition.

One reason I omitted discussion of organics’ nutrition is the impreciseness of the organic label. Briefly, the USDA certification follows a resource definition for organics (natural vs. manufactured inputs), whereas most people probably hold an “ecological” (crop rotations, cover crops, compost, etc.) definition and a lot of people hold an agrarian (small farm, low input) definition.

Although USDA-certified, supermarket-sold organic produce appears to have lower pesticide residues, it may not have higher nutrition than conventional produce. This could explain the studies finding no nutritional differences. But ecological/agrarian, farmers’ market-sold organic produce could have higher nutrition than conventional produce and USDA supermarket organic, which would explain the findings of other studies. As far as I know, there are no peer-reviewed studies looking at nutritional differences between USDA supermarket organic and ecological/agrarian produce.

Bottom line: it’s unclear.

Yields – Organics far less

The yield question – how much food is produced per acre – is most often framed as an issue of feeding the world.

Post incomplete…

Tom Laskawy at Grist was quick to respond with a rebuttal. . Laskawy quickly dismisses organics’ yield problem by focusing on the GMO question. The GMO question is an important one – an issue well-worth debating. But I simply have not found anything to convince me that the act of gene manipulation itself is problematic – most of the critiques, Laskawy’s included, center on the implementation of GMOs.

More to come…


1 By far, my favorite thesis resource was Julie Guthman’s Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (2004). Please read it alongside your Wendell Berry. Guthman is, as far as I could find, the only person in this country who has conducted a wide-scale, quantitative evaluation of organic farms’ agrienvironmental/ecological practices. All other evidence of “conventionalization”  is anecdotal.

2 The USDA definition differs from what I call the “working definition.” According to the National Organic Program website, organic agriculture is “a production system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 … to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” The actual regulations under the National Organic Program (i.e. the “working definition”) do not require any practices, and simply apply to agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers.

3 I could not locate the actual report online, only a news release. It would certainly be more useful if a listing of the chemicals was available.

p>4 Baker, B. P., Benbrook, C. M., Groth, E., & Benbrook, K. L. (2002). Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: Insights from three US data sets. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 19(5), 427-446.

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