Natural Assumptions

IMG_1929Iida writes of her attempt to defend organic, of the risks of repeating slogans, and of how pieces of worldview are built and change, sometimes as easily as with a comment or two.

I published this piece originally in the Skepti Forum blog: Iida Ruishalme’s 500 words – Natural Assumptions and later also at The Genetic Literacy Project.


“Yes, Monsanto is pure evil,” I said. This was about a year ago, in 2013, and I was defending science and nuanced thinking in the same sentence, no less. “Monsanto is pure evil,” I said, “but genetic engineering is just a tool and in itself is neither good or bad.” My University course literature had given a balanced view of many possible benefits to GM while highlighting a couple of areas of caution. My main insight on Monsanto came from the movie Food Inc., confirmed by plenty of common internet knowledge and a couple of trusted friends of mine.

I had always considered myself a rational and science-minded person so I was upset when I first heard people object to GMOs for reasons such as not wanting genes in their food (in the late nineties, when the topic was still very new and knowledge scarce) or just because ‘it wasn’t natural’, which I saw as a fear of the unknown.

Later on I was incredibly frustrated to find that a lot of people opposed standard vaccinations going counter to scientific evidence. So when I stumbled on a Facebook page called “We love vaccines and GMOs”, though I didn’t exactly think of my view on genetic engineering as ‘love’, I was happy to find a place to share my frustration. But as I started following their posts I was confronted with something that gave me pause. There were several that criticised organic farming.

I had been a loyal organic consumer for a decade. My vegan friends had talked a lot about how detrimental industrial agriculture was for the environment, and even my favourite ecology teacher back in the University mentioned how important it was to buy organic milk and meat. Living on student subsidies and saving on about everything else, I was convinced that buying ecological produce (In Finland the label actually goes under the name ‘Eco’, and the Swedish label, translated roughly to ‘Demand’, also states the food is ecologically produced. In Switzerland it’s called ‘Bio’ for biologically farmed.) was vital for the environment. Paying twice the price was more than worth it.

I couldn’t just leave the criticism unaddressed. Somebody needed to present a nuanced voice of organic farming, so that people would not group it together with anti-science sentiments. So I started digging. I read about comprehensive meta-analyses of studies where they found that organic food was no more nutritious than conventional produce1,2. Interesting, but hardly devastating. That wasn’t my reason for choosing organic. I read about how organic was an industry like any other, looking for profit, with all the dirt that entails3,4 – well sure. It couldn’t exactly be a charity, could it? Not every company was perfectly principled. It didn’t mean that the whole organic label was bad. Then I read a Swiss animal welfare organisation statement that organic did not necessarily reflect in greater well-being for the animals, that it was more narrowly focused on the farming of crops5. As a great animal lover I thought, okay, that’s a pity, for animal products I would have to look for different labels. But I would continue to support organic for the most important point, for the sake of the environment.

I continued. There were studies about organic pesticides being no more benign than conventional6. Well that was surprising, but made sense, they would all have to be some kind of chemicals that kill plants and insects. I further read about how the risks from pesticides for the consumer were actually very small7,8,9, and that people feared them much out of proportion! What a relief. Why did so many seem to think the opposite?

Further, there was a study that said organic farming actually contributed more to pollution of groundwater10, and then an analysis of more than a hundred studies saying organic had more ammonia and nitrogen run-off per product unit, leading to more eutrophication as well as acidification potential11. Ouch. That was not what I would have thought. But considering the imprecise mode of fertilisation (spreading out manure), that too did make sense. Most importantly, also confirmed by several sources, I found out that the big issue with organic farming was the yield – forgoing the more efficient synthetic methods meant having one third (or between a half and one fifth) less of end product2,11,12,13. Which in turn meant that scaling up organic farming, we would need to find a third more land to make up for its inefficiency.

When I looked at these studies one by one, my immediate reaction was: surely now that these results were available, where necessary, organic farming practices could be adapted so that they would continue to provide consumers with the best environmentally friendly sources of food. But that relied on an assumption I held that I had so far not even thought of checking.

I thought organic farming was based on evidence, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t designed by studying what would be best for the environment. On the contrary, to my surprise I found it’s roots were actually in biodynamic agriculture – a method that emphasizes spiritual and mystical perspectives on farming14. What? How could I have missed such a point for a decade? The picture I was beginning to piece together was that being ‘organic’ was based on the idea that modern farming – industrial agriculture – was bad, and the old ways of farming were better. That whatever natural was, that was better.

So anything created specifically in a lab, with intention, aim, and knowledge – anything synthetic – had to be bad15. Genetic engineering (which I had thought would go hand-in-hand with many of the ecological intentions of organic farming) had to be especially bad. And companies working on modern agricultural approaches were simply the worst16.

While I was in the midst of what I call my organic crisis, I saw another post that was at odds with my world view. But this one was over the top. A YouTube video called “I love Monsanto”17. I clicked on the link in disbelief as I had never seen those three words in the same sentence before. Obviously it was an attention-seeking stunt, and it worked. The man in the video, Dusty, went through one Monsanto-claim after another, and punched them full of holes. And quite easily too. He urged his watchers not to take his word but to read up on the claims themselves. I did. Alleged lawsuits, abusing and controlling farmers, bad treatment of employees, Indian farmer suicides, terminator seeds, terrible farming practices, toxic pesticides, devastating health impacts and on and on18,19,20,21,22. I came up empty. There was nothing terrible left that I could accuse Monsanto of. I even skimmed back and forth in the movie Food Inc., and looked for supporting sources online, but instead of finding ammunition, I found more holes23,24. With a few emotional testimonies and dramatised footage the movie painted a worldview which made all its following insinuations plausible. I couldn’t believe I had not seen the gaps in its presentation on the first viewing. Why didn’t they interview any science experts or organisations? What about the FDA? Union representatives? Farming organisations? Lawyers? Immigration officials? Where was the actual evidence?

I was embarrassed and angry over how easily I had been fooled. Not only had I parroted silly slogans such as ‘Monsanto is evil’, but I had long and determinedly supported a branch of agriculture that I thought was making the world better. It dawned on me that the only improvements in fact being made were the ones in the minds of myself and the other organic supporters – thinking better of ourselves for making such ethical choices. I had shunned others for using the ‘natural’ argument, but with my wallet I had supported the idea that ‘natural’ methods were best in a mysterious way that was above and beyond evidence.

I began to question if there even was a ‘natural way to farm’? If natural was defined by, say, the exclusion of human activities, then surely there was nothing natural to farming. On the other hand, if we accepted humans as a part of nature, and our continued innovations as part of *our nature*, then all farming was natural. Saying that more traditional farming practices would be inherently better than those using more advanced technology wasn’t a concept that could be settled by a romantical appeal to nature. Only careful definitions of ‘better’, followed by observations, testing, and evaluation of evidence could tell us something about that.

Another thing which may or may not be considered natural, is how incredibly many humans there are on this planet today. My reading has made me accept that innovations like synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, and enhanced crops are important in the quest of keeping everybody fed. I have even begun to accept that Monsanto – gasp – could play a part in making the world better. As I see it, the best kind of agriculture going forward should be a scientifically oriented one. It should be free to combine the best methods whether they be derived from old traditions or created in the lab, using what makes most sense, in order to arrive at efficient and environmentally friendly ways of farming. And what has made me happy indeed, is realising that this is already being done2,12,25,26,27.

Organic labels on the other hand are not adapting. Actually, it appears they are spending considerable sums of money to mislead the public about science3,28,29. That is not something I can approve of. And I am not ready to give up one third more land to support the appealing idea of ‘being natural’. That is land which isn’t there. Land which comprises the last dwindling habitats for wild-life – the actual nature.

Venn organic

Unfortunately many mistaken ideas about organic farming stem from the misleading tactics of organic marketers. Infographic created together with Alison Bernstein aka Mommy PhD, who came up with the idea behind it. You can read more about pesticides, animal welfare, antibiotics, GMOs, conservation tillage, and crop rotations in the piece On Farming, Animals, and the Environment.

I am still searching for that label that would say ‘buying this will make the world a better place’. And if I do find one, I will do a proper background-check to see if I can verify its claims. I’ve realised that I am in no way immune to basing my views on unchecked assumptions, and I shouldn’t judge others for making the same mistake. Having to change a deep-seated world view can be exhausting and painful. I am thankful for this experience and see it as a reminder to stay respectful of others, no matter what beliefs they may hold. We can help each other in remaining open for opportunities to learn.


References

1 News in Standford medicine – Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods

“The most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods.”
Above discussed paper (behind paywall)

2 Scientific American: Mythbusting 101 organic farming vs conventional agriculture

“science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides. Guess what? You don’t. You can appreciate the upsides of rotating crops and how GMOs might improve output and nutrition.”

3 Article criticising the marketing practices of organic industries.

“The organic and natural products special interests are spending more than $2.5 billion a year in no-holds-barred advocacy, and hundreds of millions more in unreported marketing activities to disparage farming methods and promulgate fraudulent health claims about the foods we eat – to no other purpose than to increase sales of their own exorbitantly priced offerings.”

4 Pollan’s criticism of the organic industry in the book Omnivore’s dilemma summarised in Wikipedia

“For Pollan, the marketing geniuses at Whole Foods peddle an irresistible commodity: self-satisfaction. He quotes a marketing consultant waxing creepily about how the store offers consumers the opportunity to “engage in authentic experiences” and “return to a utopian past with positive aspects of modernity intact.
Yet the virtues on sale often prove spectral, Pollan shows. The “free-range” chicken on offer, it turns out, hails from a confinement operation with a tiny yard, largely unused by the short-lived birds. And after giving gigantic organic vegetable outfits a long and sympathetic hearing, he subjects them to a devastating energy analysis. Pollan finds that while a one-pound box of California-produced organic lettuce contains 80 food calories, it requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to process and ship to the East Coast. He adds that the figure would be only “about 4 percent higher if the salad were grown conventionally.” It’s hard to dispute Pollan’s assessment of large-scale organic agriculture: it’s “floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.””

5 Respected Swiss animal welfare organisation warns that bio label does not necessarily mean much difference for the animals (news article in german)

6 Scientific paper – Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans

“These data bring into caution the widely held assumption that organic pesticides are more environmentally benign than synthetic ones. All pesticides must be evaluated using an empirically-based risk assessment, because generalizations based on chemical origin do not hold true in all cases.”

7 Berkeley grad students commentary on the Ames study of (organic) pesticide carcinogenicity

“Until recently, nobody bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. But when the studies were done, the results were somewhat shocking: you find that about half of the natural chemicals studied are carcinogenic as well.
This is a case where everyone (consumers, farmers, researchers) made the same, dangerous mistake. We assumed that “natural” chemicals were automatically better and safer than synthetic materials, and we were wrong. It’s important that we be more prudent in our acceptance of “natural” as being innocuous and harmless.”

8 Synthetic vs Natural pesticides

“They found that about half of natural chemicals tested positive for carcinogencity, the same proportion as the synthetic chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contained their own pesticides that caused cancer in rodents. The toxins were found in apples, bananas, beets, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, grapes, melons, oranges, parsley, peaches — the list went on and on.
We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.
“Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock full of carcinogens,” Dr. Ames told me. “But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and, obesity.”

The paper discussed in the above piece

9 Study on pesticide levels in food

“The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announced that once again, the majority of produce it tested annually had little or no detectable pesticide residues and posed no health risk to the public. 95 percent of all California-grown produce, sampled by DPR in 2013, was in compliance with the allowable limits.”

10 Organic pollutes ground water more than conventional

Above discussed paper (PDF)

11 A 2012 analysis of more than 100 studies of farming methods across Europe

“Getting the same unit production from organic farming tended to lead to “higher ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.” And while organic farming tends to use less energy, it also leads to “higher land use, eutrophication potential” – that’s the dead zones mentioned above – “and acidification potential per product unit.”
The meta-review (discussed above).

12 Nature news article on yields in organic farming

“Crop yields from organic farming are as much as 34% lower than those from comparable conventional farming practices, the analysis finds. Organic agriculture performs particularly poorly for vegetables and some cereal crops such as wheat, which make up the lion’s share of the food consumed around the world.
Cereals and vegetables need lots of nitrogen to grow, suggesting that the yield differences are in large part attributable to nitrogen deficiencies in organic systems, says Seufert.”

13 Article on the unsustainability of organic farming

“In recent decades, conventional agriculture has become more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But that reflects science-based research and old-fashioned technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders, and agribusiness companies, not irrational opposition to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering, and “industrial agriculture.”

14 Searching for the roots of organic agriculture

15 Wikipedia on organic farming

“Depending on whose definition is used, organic farming uses fertilizers and pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) if they are considered natural (such as bone meal from animals or pyrethrin from flowers), but it excludes or strictly limits the use of various methods (including synthetic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides; plant growth regulators such as hormones; antibiotic use in livestock; genetically modified organisms; human sewage sludge; and nanomaterials.)”

16 Millions against Monsanto

17 Cult of Dusty “I love Monsanto”

18 Discussion (with more linked sources) on myths about Monsanto

19 Study about the farmer suicides in India

20 Article on myths such as sterile seeds, suing farmers and more

21 About corporate funded studies – can we trust the research?

22 View from an Iowa farm: In choosing seeds, ‘I’m no pawn of Monsanto’

23 Addressing questions about the views portrayed in the film Food Inc

24 Monsanto’s response to Food Inc

25 Integrated Pest Management

26 The Promise of GMOs: Conservation Tillage and What is No-Till?

27 Why we will need genetically modified foods

28 Realclearscience – article criticising claims by Whole foods

“Whole Foods — the most (in)famous face of the organic industry — maintains on its website a list created by the Organic Trade Association called the “Top 10 Reasons To Go Organic” Many of the statements are misleading or completely false.”

29 A column on the marketing tactics of organic farming

“Tens of millions of organic marketing dollars flow annually to activist organizations such as the Environmental Working Group which spread misinformation and fear. Unsupported, provably counter­factual claims are so habitual to the industry that they are even included in official statements: “Not only is organic safer, healthier and more nutritious,” claims the Organic Consumer Association in testimony to USDA, but buying organic will “reduce food-borne illness and diet-related diseases.
The Organic Seal does not and cannot signify any health or safety criteria whatsoever. It merely certifies that products were produced using less modern inputs.
“Let me be clear about one thing,” said USDA Secretary Dan Glickman when organic certification was being considered. “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”
Yet USDA’s own research shows consumers buy higher priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious.
The science is clear on this point: As numerous studies, USDA monitoring, and a massive “meta-analysis” recently conducted at Stanford University confirm, organic foods are no more nutritious, nor do they carry any fewer health risks, than conventional foods. In fact, a good case could be made that conventional food may be considerably safer.”

Advertisements

About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
This entry was posted in agriculture, biology, environment, health, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Natural Assumptions

  1. Pingback: Am I biased? Are you? | Thoughtscapism

  2. Pingback: On farming, animals, and the environment | Thoughtscapism

  3. Pingback: Delving deeper into the roots of organic | Thoughtscapism

  4. Thank you for a great summary. The naturalistic fallacy I think is at the heart of how ‘organic’ is defined today. Although I do think there is something at the base of it — not a natural way to farm, but a sustainable way to farm. And in the latter, precision technologies like genetic engineering have to play a part.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. iidadragon says:

    Thanks! I think that people involved in the organic movement are in it because of wanting good things, and that environmental and humanitarian arguments will carry a lot of weight for them – growing enough food for everyone even in difficult conditions, ensuring good nutrition for the even poorest people, like with vitamin A fortified GMO rice, and making sure as much land as possible can still be conserved for wildlife. I agree, I am wary of the overly simplistic concept of ‘natural’. I am hoping to spread the awareness about the nuances in these questions.

    Like

  6. kcuchet says:

    So sane and well presented. I am truly happy and encouraged to read about this journey of yours. For the past several months, I’ve been going through the same awakening. Feeling somewhat untethered as I learn to think more critically, your story provides much hope! Timely and relevant. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Organic vs conventional food | Thoughtscapism

  8. grapedoc says:

    I’ve bookmarked this as a classic reference on this question. Thanks for all the work you put into doing this and collecting all the resources!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Plants don’t have problems | Thoughtscapism

  10. Good site you’ve got here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours nowadays.
    I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Organic Vs. Non-Organic Food: Which Is More Nutritious?

  12. Pingback: Going to Fork Out More Money for Organic? | Red Hot Mixer

  13. I am debating this article with some friends and I’m wondering if you used worldwide data or just American. A biologist friend of mine claims that European organic farming standards are much higher than in the U.S. and that in Denmark, where she lives, the standards are possibly the highest in the world. We are specifically talking about pesticides — whether there are more pesticides used in organic farming and whether they are more dangerous than synthetic ones. I found this link which discusses organic farming standards used, I believe, in Europe, but I don’t really know how to interpret it: http://infohub.ifoam.bio/sites/default/files/ifoam_norms_version_july_2014.pdf
    Can you shed some light on this?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hello Margaret,

    thanks for making the effort and reaching out to me! I appreciate that you are really looking for answers – and yes, it’s not always so simple to find the relevant information.

    I used to believe that organic labels in different countries could have very different definitions, and was surprised to find that the rules were in fact so similar – which is explained largely by just the international organic standards you linked above. I have heard that there may be some differences – some additional restrictions on pesticides in Sweden is what I’ve heard mentioned before. They all still allow pesticides, and pesticides must by their nature be something poisonous to plants and animals. Here the division between ‘synthetic’ and ‘natural’ has never been based on an evaluation of lesser harm. You can see that among the organic approved pesticides in that document you linked (in appendix 3) are things like vinegar, plant oils, pyrethrins, copper sulfate and rotenone.

    Some pesticide comparisons:
    —–
    Rotenone (rarely used) and coppar sulfate (very common, would be very surprised if it wasn’t allowed and a Danish wiki page implies it is used: https://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%98kologisk_landbrug) for instance are much more toxic than glyphosate – see the excellent table here for putting toxicants in context https://doccamiryan.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/the-dose-makes-the-poison/

    —–
    And in fact even vinegar – allowed everywhere what I know – is more toxic than the much vilified (but low toxicity herbicide) glyphosate. See this excellent post from an agronomy professor Andrew Kniss:

    “So it appears that glyphosate, the less toxic chemical, is being applied at a rate 6-times lower compared to acetic acid. […]
    One gallon of the homemade mixture contains 198,200 mg of acetic acid, or approximately enough to kill 59 rats, if administered orally. One gallon of mixed glyphosate solution contains 31,752 mg glyphosate, or enough to kill 6 rats. The acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate mixture. And this doesn’t include the salt.”
    http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2014/06/salt-vinegar-and-glyphosate/

    —–
    “The three most common organic herbicides are clove oil, acetic acid (mixed with water it makes vinegar), and cinnamon oil. All three are more toxic than Roundup, which is actually less toxic than table salt. (Click on each for their MSDS.) Organic herbicides only kill the plant tissue that it touches, requiring more to be sprayed, and more repeated spraying.” http://welovegv.com/pesticides

    —–
    This paper compared two organic pesticides used to control aphids – mineral oil and fungus spores (Beauvaria bassiana) – to four synthetic ones:

    “We found that in addition to reduced efficacy against aphids compared to novel synthetic insecticides, organic approved insecticides had a similar or even greater negative impact on several natural enemy species in lab studies, were more detrimental to biological control organisms in field experiments, and had higher Environmental Impact Quotients at field use rates.”
    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0011250

    —-

    How much pesticide residue is there?

    What comes to Denmark (and the Nordics), from what I can find it seems that, just like in North America (http://www.safefruitsandveggies.com/), the consumers need not worry about pesticide residues – organic as well as conventional fruits and vegetables both have some conventional pesticide residues, but nowhere near risky levels – see 2 reports below.

    “Despite the finding of pesticide residues, the experts at DTU Food say that the current findings give no cause for health concerns. ”
    http://en.fvm.dk/news/news/nyhed/fewer-pesticides-in-danish-fruit-and-vegetables-than-in-imported-produce/

    “The general level of pesticide residues in both conventional and organic food is low, and well below what is likely to result in adverse health effects. This conclusion is based on the comparison of estimated dietary exposure with toxicological reference values i.e. acceptable daily intake (ADI) for chronic effects, and acute reference dose (ARfD) for acute effects. The finding of pesticide residues that exceeds established regulatory limits in a minority of tested samples is not considered to represent a health risk. ”
    http://www.vkm.no/dav/c6eff8464a.pdf

    Since organic campaigners make such a big deal about pesticides, though, what I find dishonest is the glaring lack of testing of organic-approved pesticide residues – organic produce are only tested for the pesticides that is not supposed be used on them, NOT the pesticides that for sure are being used. The organic pesticides. No information about copper sulfate or Bt levels for instance.

    You can see more about the lack of testing of organic pesticides here:
    http://appliedmythology.blogspot.ch/2012/12/pesticide-residues-on-organic-what-do.html

    All in all, from all the research I’ve read, I really want to stress that people tend to worry about pesticides way out of proportion. It is very likely that fear of pesticides in fact IS the biggest health risk of pesticides, when what we should be doing for our health is actually enjoying our extremely safe fruits and vegetables without worry.

    This pesticide-fear is detrimental because there are other really important environmental issues that we should be focusing on instead. See this excellent post on that:

    “When you really dig into the research on the hierarchy of ecological impacts, pesticides represent a drop in the sustainability bucket when compared to land use, water use, pollution and greenhouse gases. In fact, it may seem counter-intuitive but, pesticides can play a substantial role in mitigating the damage associated with many of those other factors. Pesticides allow for us to grow more food on less land, limit the wasting of fuel and water, and help curb erosion and run-off. There is nothing sustainable about pouring inputs into growing food that is destroyed by pests. http://fafdl.org/blog/2015/03/06/focus-on-pesticides-is-a-distraction-from-major-eco-impacts/

    There’s a lot of ground to cover here, please ask if you have some more questions. Or tell me if you find a list of Danish-approved organic pesticides for instance.. 🙂

    I also talk a bit more about pesticides and that rather the context, *how* they’re used is the important part, not whether they’re synthetic or ‘natural’: https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/02/24/on-farming-animals-and-the-environment/

    Thanks for showing interest!
    I hope you have a friendly and enlightening discussion with your friends.
    Iida

    Like

  15. Pingback: Myth: UN calls for small-scale organic farming | Thoughtscapism

  16. Pingback: Myth: UN calls for organic farming - Biology Fortified, Inc.

  17. Pingback: Myth: UN calls for small-scale organic farming | Skepti-Forum

  18. Pingback: Mito: Las Naciones Unidas llama a adoptar agricultura orgánica y no la biotecnología » Sí Quiero Transgénicos

  19. gagarine says:

    Hello,
    I was in a similar position with peoples telling me, “organic is more productive than conventional agriculture”. I asked for evidence but they were not able to deliver any. So I try to search evidence for their belief by myself in the spirit of challenging my belief.

    One very interesting report I read was “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa” by two UN agency UNEP and UNCTAD http://unctad.org/en/docs/ditcted200715_en.pdf . The report was badly reported by the news (like always) with titles like “organic is better according to the UN report”. But the report says something way more interesting and balanced: In some countries, the organic approach is easier and more efficient to develop than the conventional approach.

    This sentence in the introduction hit me:
    “Modern agricultural methods have resulted in spectacular increases in productivity: more cereals and the majority of the chronically hungry are small farmers in developing countries who produce much of what they eat are often too poor to purchase inputs and are marginalised from product markets.”

    And after “increased food supply does not automatically mean increased food security for all. What is important is who produce the food, who has access to the technology and knowledge to produce it, and who has the purchasing power to acquire it.”

    After reading more and more reports, I’m “convinced” than opposing organic and conventional agriculture make no sense. Simply the definition of “organic” is very problematic. I prefer to try to look at each possible improvement separately and try to keep in mind that every situation and context have very different need and possibilities.

    Let me know what you think about this report if you find some time to read it.

    Like

    • Hello Gagarine,

      and thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think you have hit on something crucial there: when it comes to the definition of organic, it is indeed problematic. Organic label makes many environmental and health claims, but when it comes down to it, their core claim is an appeal to nature – that what can be considered ‘natural’ (or ‘more natural’ than something else, considering that it is questionable whether farming itself is very ‘natural’) must be better. If the aim of using more natural methods was redefined as using methods that are documented to be better for the environment, the workers, and consumers, then there would be no problem.

      I would tend to be cautious using (especially) UNCTAD reports as source material – it would be better to rely on peer-reviewed publications directly. Many UNCTAD reports have been produced by groups of organic advocates alone, as seems to be the case for this one which you linked to. There is one much-linked report which I took a closer look at in my piece “Myth: UN Calls for Small-scale Organic Farming”, which, btw, features the same Swedish consulting company focused on the organic market, Grolink, which I see among the above report authors. In the case of the UNCTAD report on farming I did look at more closely, I was quite shocked about at the lack of science in many of its topics, as well as the internal inconsistencies, and the profiles of many of the report authors (as an example, one among them was a major proponent of homeopathy and spreader of anti-vaccine articles).

      The piece I wrote on the UNCTAD report also takes up many topics that are important for Africa, and the degree to which biotech has a particularly important role for the developing world. This highlights how the artificial restrictions inherent in organic often cause more problems than they solve.
      https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/09/21/myth-un-calls-for-small-scale-organic-farming/

      What comes to organic especially in Europe, I wrote a recent piece on that based on a very informative Swedish report released last month, here: Environmental Impacts of Farming https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/07/21/environmental-impacts-of-farming/

      There is no one best method of farming, rather like you said it is important to try to look at each component and each method and evaluate them according to the actual effect, not just what our idea of the method might imply. Farming is a network of trade-offs, and the specific contexts like weather, soil, resources, etc. dictate the best methods for each situation.

      I hope I might have given you something useful in my answer, even if I am reluctant to use much more time (a bit short on that) to look at another report which may or may not have a robust scientific basis – if they do refer to scientific publications that bring up interesting viewpoints, I would be much more interested in taking a look at those.

      If you have any further questions, please feel welcome to ask!
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

      • gagarine says:

        Thanks for your interesting answer.

        I agree and I read almost all your blog already ;). I’m not saying this report is a scientific evidence (it is not) but it has the merit to open new questions and highlight other potential problem than the over simplistic “productivity”. But yeah I feel a bit sad their is none solid studies on those questions.

        I hop you find some time to write new articles, they are very good!

        Like

      • Well wow I’m honoured you’ve read so many of them! I just tend to assume people probably have happened by one of my pieces and don’t know about the others. I’ll stop linking them to you 😉

        I’ll try to find the time to write pieces for sure, whenever I think I have something to contribute to a topic (or when I need an overview of some topic and can’t find what I want elsewhere).

        Thanks for reading and commenting!

        Liked by 1 person

  20. gagarine says:

    Say that sometimes I forget what I read or worst don’t remember the content right (sadly!!!!).

    Like

  21. Pingback: 4 meaningless words: toxin, natural, organic, and GMO | The Logic of Science

  22. foodismo says:

    Your blog is one of my favorites. This piece, in particular, is truly useful – as I live in a context where natural assumptions are the only way of thinking well accepted. I’m a little organic farmer and homemade preserves’ producer who refuse that marketing labels for the main reason that I don’t want to sell my thinks based on hypocrisy. Thank you so much and sorry for my poor English. I’m from Portugal and I am very, very concerned about the fear-mongering that is taken more and more place in the EU’s policies.

    Like

  23. Pingback: On the Nature of ‘Natural’ | Thoughtscapism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s