I have written about my journey going from an enthusiastic organic supporter to a reluctant avoider of organic products in my piece Natural Assumptions, and afterward I received harsh criticism from one organic farmer. I have learned my lesson about remaining open to evidence, so I wanted to take the opportunity to review his points carefully to make sure I had not been too hasty in my conclusions about organic farming. (This piece was originally published in February 2015 and updated in April 2016.) In a three-part series of posts, I will offer my response to the criticism posted on the comments section of the Skepti Forum Blog by Rob Wallbrigde (who blogs over at The Fanning Mill). I thank him for his interest in civil debate, and for providing me with a detailed 6-point list of issues he saw with my piece, making this discussion possible. I will go into more detail on the aspects of 1) nutritional content, 2) animal welfare, 3) pesticides, 4) environmental impact, 5) yield differences, and 6) the origins of organic farming. The answers got lengthy. The two last points are dealt with in a post of their own, Delving deeper into the roots of organic.
1) Nutritional value of organic vs conventional
1) The Stanford study is not the only meta-analysis conducted on organic food, it has been criticized for excluded data and poor statistical analysis, and other studies have reached opposite conclusions. (e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/249681031 ) I think it’s more accurate to say that the jury is still out on this one.
Summary answer repeating the gist of my pieces above, is that several comprehensive reviews support the view I have presented, namely no nutritional or health benefits for organic products. You may also read Novella’s analysis of the study Rob cited above. It is the only review to reach the opposite conclusion, and the significance of that conclusion is questionable. The study is outlined also in the Conversation by Ian Musgrave: Organic food is still not more nutritious than conventional food.
2) Animal welfare – it’s not that simple
Criticism from Rob Wallbridge:
2) Animal welfare is one of the core principles of organic agriculture, and organic standards make specific and detailed references to livestock production, including animal welfare. So while it may be true that organic is “no guarantee” of superior animal welfare across the board, it is certainly inaccurate to portray it as “more narrowly focused on the farming of crops.” (A German newspaper article hardly qualifies as a definitive source.)
What comes to animal welfare in organic farming, I have found some indications of problems, and little proof of benefits. If you, the reader, know of studies on this topic one way or another, I am sincerely interested and hope that you will send them my way. I have been a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian for a large part of my life and that is mostly because I feel deeply for sentient beings and am concerned about animal welfare.
While I am heartened about hearing of special care being taken of livestock, I can no longer just take someone’s word on that being true. I need to have some kind of proof. I want to read what regulations there are, if and how they are controlled, and if they live up to the standards. I have heard several optimistic accounts from farmers about animal husbandry in general – conventional farmers as well as organic, and I do hope that people treat their farm animals well, after all, they are their livelihood.
What I learned after reading that mentioned respected Swiss animal welfare organisation warning that bio label does not necessarily mean much difference for the animals (news article in german) concerning Swiss animal husbandry, was that this animal welfare organisation in question was also the independent controlling body for animal welfare in Switzerland. My research (all in german, though italian and french probably available as well) on the fine print of the labels confirms that the ‘bio’ (organic) labels did not have specific regulations in place for animal treatment, only on their feed (specifically no GMOs, only organically grown). That leaves animal welfare for ‘bio’ in neither a better or worse status than the conventionally bred livestock.
Organic certification: no antibiotics
What concerns me, however, are reports of treatment of organic livestock in case of illness. A former organic farmer wrote a piece over at Random rationality blog, called Why I’m Through with Organic Farming. In it he argues that organic farmers have an incentive to forgo efficient treatment of sick animals, while instead treating them with natural cures and homeopathy (water pills):
Both MOFGA and the NOP make it clear that livestock must not be subject to the “routine use of synthetic medications.” Antibiotics cannot be used “for any reason.” And yet:
“Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.”
So an animal treated with appropriate medications is thereby rendered unclean.
OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes). Then there are the “Homeopathic remedies, Bryonia, Phytolacca,” and other letters of the alphabet.
It is worth noting that excess use of antibiotics is not recommended and may provide opportunities for development of antibiotic resistance, and organic certification’s ban on antibiotics makes sure farmers avoid this drawback. Luckily most of the antibiotics used on animals are not used in humans, and their contribution to multi-resistant bacterial diseases among human seems small (over-prescription of antibiotics to humans is deemed the biggest culprit here – Debunking Denialism talks of these issues here). Still, proper treatment of sick animals is something I would definitely demand from a label that should guarantee best animal treatment, and here the organic brand fails me.
Studies of animal welfare
One study I have read about looks at US dairy cows, and it shows few differences and several similar shortcomings what comes to the standards of treatment of both organic and conventional dairy cows. Science-minded dairy farmers who very sincerely seem to care for their animals have not shown great concern when I have asked them about this study. I have heard speculation that the kind of standards that were so frequently failed in this study would have more to do with being up to date with paperwork and having written procedures in place for handling a number of possible problems – probably good things to have, but it doesn’t necessarily imply poor animal treatment in practice. Whatever the case, neither does it show that buying organic would get me products from animals treated any better.
Another scientific paper very relevant to this topic is one titled “Animal Health and Welfare Issues Facing Organic Production Systems” (you can download the paper in pdf format by clicking here). This paper highlights the advantage that the organic label has what comes to animal welfare – consumers are interested in an animal friendly standard, and organic could serve this purpose. General animal welfare regulations can vary greatly from country to country, whereas organic could have a global standard for a level of animal welfare guaranteed through regular farm audits.
The primary welfare risk identified in the literature in organic management systems appears to be related to biological function, specifically animal health. The other main domains of animal welfare including affective state and the ability to perform natural behaviors in organics systems have not been well studied. These domains however appear to be the ones that resonate most with consumers when they consider welfare in organic systems due to assumptions of increased outdoor access, space and ability to perform natural behaviors. This is a potential area for the organic livestock farming industry that needs to be quantified as it could be a documented benefit which would compensate for other deficiencies.
The paper acknowledges the risks of alternative medicine and its potential result of prolonged animal suffering (for background, the prohibitive terms of the use of conventional medicine for USDA Organic can be found here §205.238 Livestock health care practice standard).
Other labels that focus on animal welfare
Bottom line, are organic animals happier? That is a very difficult thing to quantify. I have understood that the US organic rules are not very specific what comes to the living conditions of the animals, for instance, whereas Canadian ones are much more prescriptive. There are some factors even in the US rules, however, that should be contributing positively. I would like to see that animals have access to pastures or the outdoors, and the organic standards of the USDA NOP (§205.239 Livestock living conditions) do guarantee that ruminant animals graze at least 120 days per year, getting minimum 30 % of their feed during that time from the pasture. Rest of the year, as well as a month around calving, and another four months days at the end of their life (‘finishing’) they can also be kept at feedlots (which fills the criteria for ‘access to the outdoors’). Feedlots are given a bad rep, but not being an expert, I can’t confirm one way or another. I have heard consultants who work with several farms comment that it is highly dependant on how each individual operation is kept.
I would like to add that I am the target market for an “animal friendly” label. I would like to pay more to be sure to buy products from animals that are given a low-stress environment, ample space and access to the outdoors, the possibility to express their natural behaviours, and interact with each other. I think that organic could become that label, and I hope they do. For that to happen, I do argue that the important aspects of animal wellbeing should be more carefully formulated. I don’t want to pay more for the use of homeopathics or the exclusion of GMO feed – I want extra happy and healthy animals, preferably with carefully defined standards developed by animal behaviour experts.
In fact, there are other existing labels more focused on just this topic. In Switzerland, I have discovered the label Naturafarm – it is one primarily concerned with animal welfare, audited by the Swiss Animal Protection (Sweizcher Tierschutz STS), and distinct from organic product lines.
Meanwhile, as I have learned more about conventional animal handling, I have understood that it is not in the best interest of either the farmers or the industry to have animals that suffer – it would hurt their results as well. As naive as it is to think that no farmer would ever treat their animals badly, it is just as naive to imagine that most farmers would be involved in a routined culture of maltreatment. Suffering animals are as bad for the heart as they are for the farm.
3) The nature of pesticides
Here is the criticism I received from Rob Wallbridge:
3) The pesticide study you cite was a theoretical exercise based on the assumption that organic farmers would use pesticides in the same manner as conventional farmers. They conducted no research to determine how organic farmers actually manage soybean pests, and what type of pesticides they would use (if any), and at what rates. Actual field research demonstrates significant environmental impact advantages to integrated and organic approaches: http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/?id=12991771856291
The link provided by Rob above is not a scientific paper, and does not go counter any conclusions I made in my piece Natural Assumptions. The argument I do make is about which pesticides are allowed in organic farming (synthetic vs ‘natural’) and why. I am sure there are good and bad ways of using all pesticides, and both conventional and organic farmers should be knowledgeable in the best ways of applying pest control. Reading the criticism above, I can’t help but note that if one wishes to argue that organic farming is better because of *how* they apply pesticides, not *which* pesticides are allowed, I do think the rules of organic should be changed to reflect the usage, rather than the arbitrary exclusion of some chemicals in favour of others, and this without evidence of lesser harm.
Agricultural scientists Steve Savage talks about this in his piece Why You Can Feel Guilt-free Buying Non-Organic Produce:
Some organic approved pesticides are very benign (low hazard) materials, but so are a great many of the synthetic pesticides used by conventional farmers. Some organic-approved pesticides are slightly to moderately toxic. This is also the case for synthetics. There are many pesticides that are used by both conventional and organic growers. Some of the pesticides commonly used on organic crops are applied at rather high rates (pounds per treated acre). Some are approved for use until almost immediately before harvest. In any case, organic-approved pesticides definitely leave residues on treated crops by the time they reach the consumer.
The unfortunate marketing of organic as the healthier or more environmental choice because of being free of synthetic pesticides is a misleading marketing tactic. Sometimes it even goes way beyond that, and crosses over to hate speech and propaganda against conventional farming. In order for the organic label to regain my respect, it should transparently recognise that other factors are much more important. Factors such as how the pesticides are applied, how practising no-till, crop-rotation, using cover crops and energy-efficient farming methods are where the focus should be for the environment’s sake.
Fear of fruits and vegetables as a sales tactic
Organic marketing wishes to imply that eating conventional produce is not healthy. But eating more of fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventional, is hands down one of the most important factors for a healthier diet. Making people afraid of eating vegetables with no basis in evidence is not an ethical practice. You can read A half a dozen reasons to ignore the Dirty Dozen to learn about the Environmental Working Group’s baseless attempts to frighten consumers into buying organic.
This image of healthfulness is false on so many levels. While conventional synthetic pesticide residues are regularly tested for and found to be of no concern to consumers, organic pesticides have so far remained outside of any testing regimen (read more by Steve Savage at: Pesticide Residues on Organic: What Do We Know?). Some wine farmers are even switching from organic citing health and environmental issues of organic allowed pesticides vs those available for non-organic farmers. Meanwhile, organic marketing perpetuates the idea of organic as ‘pesticide free’, happily forgetting to mention the kinds of pesticides that are used in organic farming.
In my piece I referenced three pesticide-connected papers which highlighted the point that the nature of a pesticide is not inherently different for being synthetic or natural, and that the ‘pesticide free’ image is playing on fear, because pesticides cause nearly no risk at all to the consumer.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) brings some valuable perspective to the question of pesticides: how harmful are they? They write:
Although there have been pesticides that were toxic and dangerous to handle, most of these products are no longer used and have been replaced by newer chemistry. Pesticides now must go through rigorous testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be sold. This has led to many herbicides that possess little or no mammalian toxicity and are less harmful than many everyday household products (Table 1). Surprisingly, household chemicals that many of us store under the kitchen sink pose more risk to the handler than herbicides.
I also mentioned a great practice that is widely applied in organic faming: Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This was in the context of choosing best methods for the environment. Fortunately this is also a big part of conventional farming. In my piece Myth: UN calls for small-scale organic farming, I mention that according to the USDA, IPM has been incorporated at over 70 % of US farms since the year 2000.
Another good method that can help avoid pest-problems is crop-rotation. In another one of my pieces, Monocultures – the great evil of modern Ag?, I discuss the use of crop rotations at length. Suffice it to say that organic farmers are by no means alone in applying crop-rotations on their fields: USDA reports that currently the majority of crops in the US are farmed using crop rotations (82-96 % of cropland for most crops).
I argue that the organic dictated dichotomy of pesticides (synthetic vs natural) is artificial, and instead I support the use of scientific evidence for determining the best possible methods of pest control, not restricting oneself to those which are allowed within the organic certification, based on assumption rather than evidence. I hope we are in agreement there.
4) Environmental impacts of farming
The next point of criticism was as follows:
4) As for nutrient management, it’s a big stretch to look at the results of a single greenhouse study in Israel and extrapolate them to criticize organic farming in general. As for the meta-review, reading the actual research rather than a newspaper columnist’s opinion of it, leads to very different conclusions. To quote (with my comments in square brackets): “The only impacts that were found to differ significantly between the systems were soil organic matter content [higher/better in organic], nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions per unit of field area [both lower/better in organic], energy use [lower/better in organic] and land use [higher/worse in organic]. Most of the studies that compared biodiversity in organic and conventional farming demonstrated lower environmental impacts from organic farming.” The author ends with a call for an approach that does beyond the simple conventional vs. organic dichotomy.
I agree that a single study of anything shouldn’t be used for a conclusive look at things in general. I am not doing that. I’m afraid the comment above misrepresents the meta-analysis “Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?” however. The paper points out problems with nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide in organic agriculture. The bracket additions in Rob’s comment make statements that go counter the results in the paper. (During a discussion on Food and Farm Discussion Lab, Rob charitably acknowledged as much.)
I would also like to quote from the conclusion in the abstract, which highlights once more the problem regarding yield in organic systems. The data quoted in the criticism were in the category where they are favourable to organic, that is, the results per field area. Unfortunately those benefits turn to drawbacks when compared per product unit (because organic yields are lower, we need more field area to produce the same amount of crop). Another quote from the meta-analysis Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? (my emphasis):
The results show that organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, but not necessarily per product unit. Organic farms tend to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions and ammonia emissions) per unit of field area. However, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.
Specifically, looking at page 17, graph “B – Non-LCA impacts per unit of product”:
- Nitrogen leeching is significantly higher in organic systems (the star * denotes the differences that are determined statistically significant – which means it is very unlikely that differences were due to chance).
- Nitrous oxide and an ammonia emission in the same graph show slightly higher or similar impact as conventional – practically similar levels. Organic farming is not more beneficial.
- Graph on page 18: land use for organic was also significantly higher.
To highlight what this means, you can read more about how nitrogen leaching is indeed a big problem for the environment.
Environmental impacts – greenhouse gasses
Another surprising little detail, which isn’t so little in the context of greenhouse gases, is the carbon footprint of compost. Composted manure is the fertilisation method of choice in organic farming. Should that method be adopted on large scale, its methane emissions would become a considerable problem. Agricultural technology professional Steve Savage takes a well referenced look at composting issues, and provides a calculation of average emissions per acre:
a mid-range [compost] use of 5 tons/acre would represent a carbon footprint of 10,833 pounds (CO2 equivalents). This is without including the fuel footprint of hauling the compost to the field and spreading it.
To put this in context, he also provides a comparison of the above carbon footprint of the compost needed for that one acre to many other examples, for instance:
The complete carbon footprint of producing 5.7 acres of conventional corn (including fertilizer, crop protection chemicals, seed, fuel, nitrous oxide emissions from soil…)
The carbon footprint of growing, handling and transporting 9,641 pounds of bananas from Costa Rica to Germany
He also highlights a much better carbon-offsetting method of dealing with animal waste, that is adopted by water refinement facilities and large Cattle Feeding Operations. Taken together with the increased nitrogen leaching, I think it is safe to conclude that the understandable wish to use animal manure as fertiliser is environmentally not as clear cut as it may seem. Also, if we were to move to all organic farming, we would much more cattle to produce all the necessary manure. Organic farming is already dependent on manure from conventional cattle for their manure needs. From Environmental Research Web:
On average, organic farms in the study received 73% of their phosphorus from conventional farming, 53% of their potassium and 23% of their nitrogen.
Finally, I would like to underscore that the conclusions which the meta-analysis‘ abstract ends with is exactly what my piece also advocates for. The best methods, whether they be derived from organic or conventional practices, should be used for the goal of most efficient and environmentally friendly farming.
The key challenges in conventional farming are to improve soil quality (by versatile crop rotations and additions of organic material), recycle nutrients and enhance and protect biodiversity. In organic farming, the main challenges are to improve the nutrient management and increase yields. In order to reduce the environmental impacts of farming in Europe, research efforts and policies should be targeted to developing farming systems that produce high yields with low negative environmental impacts drawing on techniques from both organic and conventional systems.
Right now, I believe the only real dichotomy is the one created by organic farming. It excludes several methods from consideration on the basis of an artificial categorisation (no synthetics, no GMOs). Conventional farming has no such drawback, and it can, and should, use science for its direction of development.
Environmental benefits of conventional farming
In fact, I have read several papers highlighting the benefits of modern (organic-forbidden) farming methods for environment. Here is an article that argues farm efficiency to be a good measure for impact on climate change. To clarify what efficiency means in practice, I’ll borrow Marc Brazeau’s words over at Genetic Literacy Project:
High yields are an indicator of efficient use of resources. High yields indicate that water, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, labor, etc were successfully transformed into food instead weeds, bug food, and run off.
Another important tool, forbidden in organic farming but bringing big environmental benefits, are GMO crops. Here are studies on the key environmental impacts that crop biotechnology has had on global agriculture in 2012 and 2013:
The adoption of GM insect resistant and herbicide tolerant technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 553 million kg (-8.6%) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops (as measured by the indicator the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)) by19.1%. The technology has also facilitated important cuts in fuel use and tillage changes, resulting in a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from the GM cropping area. In 2013, this was equivalent to removing 12.4 million cars from the roads.
And here is an article by the US Department of Agriculture on the environmentally beneficial no-till method that is spreading thanks to adoption of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) genetically engineered varieties.
These trends suggest that HT crop adoption facilitates the use of conservation tillage practices. In addition, a review of several econometric studies points to a two-way causal relationship between the adoption of HT crops and conservation tillage. Thus, in addition to its direct effects on herbicide usage, adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops indirectly benefits the environment by encouraging the use of conservation tillage.
The way I see it, being labeled organic really shouldn’t stand in the way of choosing environmentally friendlier methods. Looking at the evidence I can find, sadly at this time this seems to be the case. It’s conventional farming that has the freedom to choose among many methods which are favourable for the environment. I’ll end with a quote from farmer Richard Wilkins in an article from Washington post, “Organic standards fight over synthetics shows there’s room for a third system”:
He rotates his crops (corn, wheat, soy and vegetables), plants cover crops and pays a lot of attention to the health of his soil. When I asked him if he ever considered growing organically, he said, “I’m too much of a believer in the benefits of science and technology to go organic.”
If you would like to ask a question or have a discussion in the comments below, you are very welcome, but please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.