Sacred Cows – Organic food

by Deb on March 21, 2011

Organic Farming

This is a guest post from Terrie Torgersen Peterson, the Anthropologist Underground.  She is at home raising two laughing children and likes to write about her life as ethnography.

Organic food is one of my sacred cows: (Wikipedia): “[…] an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so.”

It seems to be common knowledge that organic foods have many benefits that justify the extra expense.  Purported benefits include: health benefits from fewer pesticides/herbicides, sustainable farming practices, humane treatment of food animals, health benefits from hormone and antibiotic-free meat and dairy, and supporting smaller producers.

The entire industry is geared toward making conscientious liberals (me) feel good about food-purchases-as-activism.  It’s easy to imagine healthy dairy cows grazing on pesticide-free natural grasses.  Or to picture a family lovingly and sustainably raising organic strawberries. In my mind all organic farming it looks like this…

It feels good to buy organic.  Plus, it’s a marker of status.  Such purchases indicate concern for health, for the environment, for small producers, and can also indicate (or embellish) financial status.  (I carry a Whole Foods branded cooler bag and frequently fill it at down-scale grocers.)  I feel like a Good MotherTM when I pull out our favorite yogurt at the playground.

My first inkling that I might be wrong about organic foods came from my Awesome Girlfriend’s husband. He is a former cattleman and said that the flap over hormone-free and antibiotic-free dairy was silly.  He claimed that by law, regular milk was tested and had to be free of hormones and antibiotics.  He said it was a marketing ploy like the one depicted in this XKCD strip…

Asbestos is bad; definitely get the one on the right. Wait-- This one has no swine flu! Now I can't decide.


The second major blow to my organic sacred cow came from a Skeptoid episode.  First, unethical marketing by–gasp!–major agricultural conglomerates who are taking advantage of gullible organic consumers:

I want to stress that I am not opposed to organic food. It is generally a perfectly fine product. I do have objections to the way it’s marketed: It’s an identical product, sold at a premium, justified by baseless alarmism about standard food. Whether you agree or not that this alarmism is baseless, you should at least agree that that would be an unethical way to promote a product that offers no real benefit. I choose not to reward this with my food-buying dollar. People who willfully seek out the organic label when buying food are being taken advantage of by marketers employing unethical tactics.

It’s a seductive message. Everyone loves to hear that corporations are bad, that all-natural is good, that chemicals and synthetic compounds are poisons. This is not a message that’s difficult to sell. It’s little wonder that organics have been the fastest growing agricultural market segment over the past decade. It’s an ironic little secret that those very same corporate food producers taking our money to sell us organic foods are the same ones spending it on the ad agencies to stoke the anticorporate message that drives them. Nearly 100% of organic food in supermarkets comes from a producer owned by one of the major food companies that also sells regular food. Don’t think for a minute that any well-managed food company has not already been on this bandwagon since it started rolling.

Next he tackles my strongest reason for buying organic foods (environmental concerns) and rips it to shreds:

The biggest misconception is that organic farming does not use fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides. Of course it does. Fertilizer is essentially chemical nutrient, and the organic version delivers exactly the same chemical load as the synthetic. It has to, otherwise it wouldn’t function. All plant fertilizers, organic and synthetic, consist of the same three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Referring to one as a “chemical” and implying that the other is not, is the worst kind of duplicity, and no intelligent person should tolerate it.

The difference between the two is the source of the chemicals. To make the high-volume commercial versions of both organic and synthetic fertilizer, the source materials are processed in factories and reduced to just the desired chemicals, and the end product, these days, is virtually indistinguishable. Small organic farmers, and home organic farmers, might use fish meal, bone meal, bat guano, or earthworm castings. These are fine products and do indeed deliver the required nutrients. They’re just not useful for high volume farming because they’re (a) far too expensive, and (b) contain too much ballast, or inactive ingredient, that the crops don’t use and merely increase the energy requirements of moving and delivering them.

To make synthetic fertilizer, we start with nitrogen, which we extract from the atmosphere. This process is infinitely sustainable and produces no waste. The potassium is mined from ancient ocean deposits. The phosphorus we get from surface mining of phosphate rock. Although we have centuries of reserves of phosphate rock and millenia of reserves of potassium salts, mining is not sustainable, as these reserves will eventually run out. So, increasingly, producers are turning to seawater extraction for both. This forms a completely sustainable cycle, as the oceans are the ultimate destination of all plant matter and farm runoff.

But clean, sustainable atmospheric and seawater extraction are both taboo for organic certification, which I find astonishing. The chemicals for organic fertilizer must be sourced from post-consumer and animal waste, which is fine but the restriction strikes me as completely arbitrary. Food waste, animal manure, and other organic recyclables collectively provide all the needed ingredients to make refined, high quality fertilizer. The refining process is necessarily a little bit different, but the end product is comparable.

[…]On to pesticides and herbicides. All crops are subject to disease and infestation, and all farmers have to do something about it. Because organic herbicides and pesticides depend on toxic plant-derived chemicals like rotenone and pyrethrin, they’ve had a tougher time meeting the same standards, making them safe for farm workers and for human consumption, that synthetic versions have already met for decades. Organic versions do meet the standards and are just as safe, but doing so makes them considerably less efficient.
According to one winemaker interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, most vineyards do not get certified organic
because some of the rules emphasize the ideology over the science. Vineyards need fungicide. Organic fungicide lasts 7 days, while superior synthetic fungicide lasts 21 days. This means two fewer tractors pass through the vineyard spewing diesel exhaust and compacting the soil.

Curse you Brian Dunning!111!!!!

The third major blow came from Steve Novella at Science Based Medicine:

Overall there does not appear to be any advantage for health to organic farming (sustainability and environmental effects being a separate issue). However, despite the fact that organic farming has been around for over 50 years, there is a surprisingly small amount of quality research available. The organic farming industry and popularity of organic products is growing. Organic products are more expensive, and questions remain about whether or not such methods would be adequate to supply our food needs. There may also be hidden health risks or unintended consequences to relying upon organic farming. There may also be benefits that have not been adequately documented. Therefore, this is one area where I think it is reasonable to conclude more research is genuinely needed.

The comments here are fascinating. It was really interesting to watch science-minded people defend organic food against all critical evidence. Of course I added my own comment:

Organic foods is one of my sacred cows. I try to justify it against all conflicting evidence. I like organic bananas and dairy better–but
probably because I’m subconsciously trying to justify the extra expense.

We eat very little meat and pay more for the humanely-raised variety. (Or we eat meat from hunting friends–but that brings the risk of chronic wasting disease.) Unfortunately trying to be a responsible carnivore might not be very helpful. How do the labels “cage-free” and “free-range” translate in real life?

I had finally settled on the “organic is more eco-responsible” meme, until a Brian Dunning podcast shot that down. Evidently organic farmers have to apply non-synthetic fertilizers/pesticides, etc far more often, so you have to consider the extra fuel, pollution, and added impact to the topsoil.

And finally, I learned that one of the vendors at my local farmer’s market travels to Costco or Sam’s Club the day before and buys a truck load of organic produce to sell at the farmer’s market.  It really pisses me off to think I likely contributed to this vendor’s profits thinking I was really supporting regional producers. It further pisses me off to know I was duped about who owns most of the organic farms and about the purported environmental benefits of organic farming.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Deb March 21, 2011 at 7:41 am

Thankyou Terrie. I know my experience with organic foods is mixed – I have organic free range hens and I honestly can’t tell the difference between their eggs and supermarket eggs. And the fact that we have had several killed by feral dogs means I’m very sympathetic to barns – it isn’t a nice way to go.

I know the problem with antibiotics is more producing resistant strains than having us drink them, but it doesn’t happen where I am because I’m in the middle of nowhere and the cattle roam vast stations. However, that’s terrible for the environment as well because they damage the soil and kill the young plants. Basically cattle shouldn’t be here at all. And crops are even worse – at least the cattle leave some of the native plants there!

I think there’s a level of damage we have to accept with agriculture because however you do it, it is unnatural and people need to be fed. There does have to be research into how to do it the best way for both people and the land because it can’t just keep going, but the organic food industry hasn’t really done this research and is basically a marketing juggernaut.


Laura March 23, 2011 at 6:36 am

I have a few counter arguments. One problem with current organic farming is that it is still monofarming which loses many of the benefits of ideal organic farming. An ideal organic farm would be one farm that produces a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, eggs, and meat for consumption. My understanding is that in this type of farm the need for additional fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicides are less.

Also according to wikipedia nitrogen is in the air, but to make it available to plants fossil fuels are burned to complete the process.

Finally the study linked to was a review on the health benefits of organic eating, it was a review of existing studies, but it said there weren’t enough high-quality studies to be definitive. My understanding has been that when you test the nutrition content of an organic fruit vs a non-organic fruit the nutrition content is higher in the organic one. So you could eat just as nutritionally non-organically, but you’d have to eat more…

Yes, I agree that companies have used subterfuge in the organic movement and made it less environmentally friendly than it could be. Yes, people take advantage of the “green” movement, but that doesn’t mean the movement is wrong. As a consumer we just have to keep demanding the best.
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Deb March 23, 2011 at 9:54 am

Hi Laura, I have to agree that mixed farming is definitely preferable to mono-cropping. If you look at farming as a cycle then plants remove nutrients but don’t replace them, only animals do through manure. Of course naturally plants would replace nutrients when they die and are broken down, but in farming they are harvested and used for their seeds and hay.

This is one of the reasons for the old crop and animal rotation systems and growing clover, which fixes nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use later. I don’t know much about mediaeval types of farming practices, but the little bit I know is fascinating to see how it all worked together to move the nutrients back into the soil.

When you say fossil fuels are burned for nitrogen, do you mean the Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia? It would be interesting to know what process Brian Dunning is referring to, because he clearly states ‘produces no waste’ and while the Haber-Bosch process itself has no waste, CO2 seems to be a waste product from making the hydrogen and methane used. So it needs to be seen how the burning of gas to produce the ammonia balances against the burning of fuel to apply more of the less efficient fertilisers.

This doesn’t take into account the extra applications of less efficient pesticides that also burns fuel and produces carbon dioxide in organic farming. I don’t know enough about farming to know what sort of impact this has.

You might be interested in this analysis on the nutritional content of organic foods. It’s a few years old, but I know there was one released by the UK Department of Agriculture in the last couple of years that I haven’t been able to find, I’m not sure if it is the same one but it had the same results – there is no evidence of nutritional differences between organic and intensively farmed foods, (except possibly vitamin C in green leafy vegetables). Now no evidence doesn’t necessarily mean no difference, but given the time and number of studies it is a very interesting finding. And given the general principal that if you make a claim you should have the evidence to back it up, organic farming doesn’t.

And I think that’s what Terrie is talking about here – the way that organic food has been marketed to consumers. Unfortunately there isn’t any evidence it is nutritionally better and the environmental claims seem to be questionable. I agree wholeheartedly that we should be questioning farming practices, but ‘organic products’ as they are currently sold to consumers seem to be getting in the way of this questioning rather than helping.


katepickle March 25, 2011 at 7:34 pm

What a great post!
A friend and I have recently been discussing the organic food thing… questioning whether it really is better for our kids to buy organic or is it just as healthful to buy regular non-organic but more local produce? Is it worth the extra money spent which means less of something else? Is it worth driving kms to get it?
For us right now it’s not worth it, but I still have some guilt about that decision, so it’s interesting to read this and process these new ideas,.
Thanks for sharing!


Annie March 28, 2011 at 5:23 am

yeah I tend to buy local over organic as then I really do know where its come from – and in most cases its probably truly organic anyway, just not ‘certified organic’


Audrey March 29, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Excellent post Deb. I’m a former scientist-now doctor and have long noticed organic food seems to be a sacred cow for many people. It’s rare to see the other side of it presented. I agree that buying local is better environmentally, it’s what my husband and I do as much as we can. If it’s organic it’s organic but if not…well we let that sacred cow out the gate a while ago!


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