Organic foods: The triumph of PR over science

corntassels2016According to a press release by the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales grew to $43 billion in 2015. This puts the organic food industry sales just below Coca Cola(#62) in the Fortune 500 and just a bit above American Airlines (#67). By contrast, seed industry “giant” Monsanto had only $15 billion in sales and ranked #189, similar to #181 Whole Foods.

This release was echoed in a different form by the pro-organic publication Food Tank on Tuesday, which also discusses the problem for farmers in transitioning to organic farming, because of the expensive three year period farming organically before they can by certified as organic. The articles note that the OTA has asked the USDA to create some sort of organic transitional designation. Incidentally, the same article was published nearly word for word in the Christian Science Monitor Wednesday.

Today the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom following suit, covering the same “story,” but with considerably more detail. She notes that on average the price of organic goods is 47% higher (according to Consumer Reports) but accepts the claim of Annie’s president John Foraker that “almost every consumer wants organic.” She correctly notes that organic farming is more labor intensive but fails to mention that organic crop yields are considerably smaller, with the USDA estimating that corn, wheat and soy yields are 68% to 73% of those for conventional crops.  A recent paper by Seufert found the organic yields to be only 65% of conventional crops.

But all of these articles, particularly Strom’s make no mention of the Organic Big Lie:  that organic foods are safer or more nutritious. They are not. Papers by Brevata and Smith-Spangler and earlier by Dangour, et. al. found no nutritional differences. And the pesticide residues for both conventional and organic crops are negligible compared to the safe minimum daily dosage.

Soil health

One of the major claims for organic farming practices has been that the soil is better treated, and not depleted of nutrients. Of course, all the good ideas from the development of organic agriculture have long been adopted by all farmers, so this is not particularly persuasive any more. However, farmers have in recent years adopted no-till farming, where they do not plow up the soil every year, turning the soil over and exposing the lower soil layers that are better left unturned. Instead, they simply apply a low toxicity herbicide like Roundup in the early spring to remove all the weeds and then use a seed drill to plant below the surface. This is far kinder to the soil, and uses less fuel than plowing up the entire field every year, and reduces soil runoff. Unfortunately, this is not available to organic farmers who are not allowed to use such herbicides, even when they are overall kinder to the soil and the environment.

In the same way, use of manure to add nutrients back into the soil has been encouraged in organic farming, and is now practiced by many types of farmers. However, it has a serious drawback, in that the composting of manure emits more greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxide) than conventional farming using conventional fertilizers. Manure composted in an anaerobic digester eliminates these problems, but is seldom used in smaller farms. Steve Savage explains in this article how large the carbon footprint of compost actually is, and why using nitrogen fertilizers are far kinder to the atmosphere.

Cows also do not make fertilizer themselves, as Savage explains, in this article. They eat grass, which may well have been fertilized, and their manure contains the nitrates that enrich the soil. This is essentially laundering nitrogen fertilizers through cows to make organic-permitted fertilizers, and at significant expense.

So, to conclude, the idea that organic crops are safer or more nutritious is the organic industry’s Big Lie. And they have sold it to the public so successfully, that everyone imagines organic foods are a desirable goal. They are not: they are a scam.

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3 thoughts on “Organic foods: The triumph of PR over science

  1. I’m all for busting myths and believe the organic food industry is shrouded in misconception, but I thought Roundup (glyphosate) was recently reported to be carcinogenic?

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