Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why organic must turn to science to survive

According to a couple of recent news stories, organic food is no better for you or the environment than conventionally farmed food. While growers and consumers would do well to take a closer look at the findings before making up their minds, the organic sector needs to turn to science if it is to remain relevant.

The big organic story of the week is a Stanford University meta-analysis which has variously been reported as showing that "Organic food no healthier" (Irish Times), "Why organic food may not be healthier for you" (NPR), and "Organic food is 'not healthier'" (Telegraph).

According to the study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, there is little evidence from 237 existing studies that suggest organic foods are more nutritious than conventional alternatives. The authors do acknowledge that consumption of organic foods "can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure". Clearly the healthiness of a foodstuff is more than just its nutritional value, so the reduced pesticide use on organic foodstuffs is worth noting.

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, co-author of the report. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” Perhaps they shouldn't have been given that a 2009 analysis of 50-years of research showed similar results.

Some commentators have mentioned that they don't purchase organic because it is better for them, they shop organic because it is good for the environment. It seems, however, that this claim may not live up to further scrutiny.

The second, and less widely reported organic story of the week is a study by Oxford University scientists which suggests that while organic farming is good for biodiversity, it does not necessarily have a lower impact on the environment than conventional food production.

The Oxford study, published in the Journal of Environmental Management, is a meta-analysis of 71 peer-reviewed studies conducted in Europe. The authors report that "whilst organic farming almost always supports more biodiversity and generally has a positive wider environmental impact per unit of land, it does not necessarily have a positive impact per unit of production."

The study showed that organic production generally needed less energy, but more land than the same amount of conventional produce. While biodiversity was 30% higher on organic farms, the production of organic milk, cereals and pork all generated more greenhouse gases than the conventional alternative.

"Many people think that organic farming has intrinsically lower environmental impacts than conventional farming but the published literature tells us this is not the case," said Dr Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). "Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realise that an "organic" label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product".

an organic stamp should not be seen as the pinnacle of achievement in terms of sustainable food production What these two studies clearly show is that an organic stamp should not be seen as the pinnacle of achievement in terms of sustainable food production. On the other hand there are clearly some advantages of growing organically - increased biodiversity on farms and a decreased use and exposure to pesticides being just two highlighted in these studies. While these are positives, as conventional agriculture slowly moves away from the worst excesses of pesticide use, the importance of purely organic production may wane.

I've long argued for a third way - an agricultural system based on science where what works and is safe from all systems of agriculture can be used together to get the best results for growers, consumers and the environment.

If organic farming is to remain relevant in an era of growing food insecurity, it must be based on rigorous science and clear evidence. The organic sector must also begin to pick its battles. Organic is not the answer to all of the worlds problems. It does however have real contributions to make in terms of biodiversity and sustainable pest management.


Mary September 5, 2012 at 12:05 AM  

This discussion gets so heated so quickly, and it's too bad. While I might laugh really hard at someone who wanted to try some wacky farming technique (say, biodynamics) I wouldn't withhold that from anyone.

What I really resent is that some people want to withhold techniques and technology from farmers who want to use them. I think that's unfair--and it seems to be the organic proponents that want to prevent other people from using tools they disapprove.

I do really dislike the organic regulations for animal care in the US though. I wouldn't stop people from homeopathic animal treatment that results from this, but I think it's cruel.


Anastasia September 5, 2012 at 12:19 AM  

I totally agree that we need a third way. We need careful use of modern tech combined with what we know about ecology. The problem is, how to get people interested and how to make it profitable for farmers?

I've argued that we need to quantify the impact of each method (to the best of our ability). If we give each method a number then combine the numbers for each farm (average, or some more complex formula) then that number can be used for marketing. It could be called something like an E-score for Environment. Companies could make products with ingredients that have an E-score of x or higher and advertise their product as more sustainable. Farmers could charge more for their products that have higher E-scores yet retain far more flexibility in method options than if they were to go certified organic.

This or some other system is needed to encourage farmers, packagers, etc to produce products with sustainability in mind on a far larger scale than organic. I wrote about this in Toward a better agriculture… for everyone.

MikeB September 5, 2012 at 1:32 AM  

Having worked in the organic sector, and having investigated getting organic certification for a small farm I'm now involved in, it's clear to me "organics" is going to be a perpetual obstacle to rational discussions about farming.

Organics has been around so long now that it is simply not going to go away. Debunked nonsense doesn't go away, it just finds a way to persist. The phenomenon of crop circles was debunked long ago but still has its believers.

I decided against organics because not only is it unscientific, but it impedes a farmer's freedom to make his or her own decisions. Why let the NOP dictate how you farm?

When you "go organic," you get the whole enchilada, not just the choice bits.

You get the Naturalistic Fallacy, which is the cornerstone superstition of the organics movement.

You get the lies of the Environmental Working Group about pesticide "loads" while ignoring the fact that organic farmers use pesticides.

You get the total elimination of antibiotics as veterinary medicine but you can have all the homeopathy you want.

You get the inanity of the Organic Consumers Association and their rants against "chemical farmers."

You get the irrational Luddism and conspiracy theories of the anti-genetic-modification crowd.

You get the Manichean "us" versus "them" mentality.

No amount of scientific meta-analyses is going to cure farming of the organic derangement.

Mary September 5, 2012 at 1:57 PM  

Anastasia: that Tuomisto paper had a nice conclusion section that reminded me of your proposal. I know the article is subscription access so I'll just show a bit here. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479712004264 )

Further research is needed to explore the feasibility of assembling the elements of best environmental practices into coherent agricultural systems. These systems then need to be tested through a re-invigorated emphasis on farming systems research that assesses the alternatives not simply in terms of farm level returns but also through comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment of their place within wider food and energy supply chains. Similarly, in coming to an overall view of the relative performance of different systems, it is necessary to attribute relative importance to different types of environmental impacts ( [Tuomisto et al., 2012b] and [Tuomisto et al., 2012c]). This implies the adoption of some sort of multi-criteria analysis that introduces an implicit or explicit weighting of environmental impacts.

They hope to move beyond the organic vs conventional debate. But it's not clear to me that some people are interested in moving beyond, and I don't know how to do that.

PythagoreanCrank September 6, 2012 at 1:44 AM  

Science advocates calling for more science-based Organic always sounded disingenuous to me. I don't understand how this can happen when the foundation of their practice rests upon the naturalistic fallacy. Also, studying the pros and cons of the practice is practically moot for the same reason. There are so many variables to consider how can we lump all those into one category like that?

Instead of calling for Organic to be more science-minded how about we get all of agriculture to be more ecologically minded? There's nothing that Organic does better that can't be also done by agriculture. Anastasia's and Mary's proposal sounds like a good way to encourage regular ag to really do what Organic promises.

Anonymous September 6, 2012 at 5:39 PM  

Tomorrow's Table is a must read on this subject.

as September 6, 2012 at 9:21 PM  

The problem I see with organics is that it is locked into its (absolute/fundamentalist) rules that were set once and for all times. I do believe that a lot of these people want to do the right thing, and a lot of their ideas are good, but with its given set of rules (for certification etc.) organic agriculture cannot adopt inputs and processes that turn out to be more sustainable, better for the environment, more nutritious, more healthy, etc. Conventional agriculture, by contrast, can use any input or process that is advantageous, "organic" or otherwise, which means well-intentioned conventional farmers have more tools at their hands to grow their crops and manage their farms sustainably. Hence, the "agricultural system... where what works and is safe from all systems of agriculture can be used" is conventional agriculture; no need for a "third way." (The crucial word in the phrase here is "can". In any system those few farmers who manage their farms poorly or irresponsibly will not get the best results for growers, consumers and the environment, irrespective of them being conventional or organic.)

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