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
This point I have already talked about as a case study in the context of bias, here: Am I biased? Are you?, and on its own, here: Organic vs conventional food. Shortly, the criticism was as follows:
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.”
For more pieces on these topics, you can find my collections of articles under Farming and GMOs or The Environment.
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.
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Great article! Finally someone who takes the ecological perspective in this debate. It is constantly rotating around human health issues in the fat west and it makes me tired.
There is an alternative to “organic” meat in Germany: Neuland http://www.neuland-fleisch.de/landwirte/neuland-erzeuger-haben-vorteile.html
I still have not managed to find details of their regulations, but I find the concept interesting. Neuland consists of farmers who grew tired of the organic label process, which is both expensive and long and decided to start up their own label that focused more on animal welfare. They still are non-GMO, but I presume that they had to if they were to sell any meat at all in the Berlin area…
It should be noted that “organic” vs “conventional” can mean a huge difference for products from certain areas such as seafood. Also, in the developing world it can mean that usage of highly toxic compounds are not permitted protecting the farmers. I underline CAN mean. I think the issue is more complex that be for or against “organic” and that the main problem lies in the labeling jungle (I am currently writing an article on just that and it makes me quite upset!).
Thank you again for a great article!
/ Anna from The Imaginarium
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Like you, I care very deeply about the environmental friendliness and sustainability of our food and have been consuming Swiss bio products (almost exclusively) for many years, in the idea that this helps. Also like you, I am very attached to science and the scientific method (have been doing scientific research for the past ~7 years or so, albeit not in the life sciences).
Needless to say given the above, that your writings on the subject of bio agriculture have absolutely intrigued me. However, on careful consideration, I think they are missing a bigger picture (beyond single details like using GMOs or synthetic substances). Here is an attempt to explain what I mean, though I am certainly not as good at writing as you are.
The evidence you’re presenting above shows that some types of “organic” agriculture (the ones studied in all those references) have some issues. Yet you seem to be drawing the conclusion that bio agriculture in general (does that even exist??? there are so many standards/labels!) is netly(?) inferior to conventional agriculture in general (again, I doubt one can throw all conventional agriculture practices in one big pot and make statement about the whole pot). Some types of conventional agriculture have issues too (different from the one listed above) and I think we’re a long way from finding the perfect agricultural system.
I entirely agree that whatever that system is called/labelled (bio/organic/conventional etc) it should be open to new scientific findings, new ideas and generally evolvable — with the note that findings/ideas need to be thoroughly confirmed both “in lab”/theoretically, as well as in practice on a larger scale, before being officially adopted as part of a standard.
I don’t know about other standards, but I believe the Swiss Bio Knospe standard definitely aims to fulfil these requirements, as far as I can tell. Here is the 2015 edition of their requirements (available in 5 languages) http://www.bio-suisse.ch/en/downloads.php
Just from skimming, as I don’t currently have time for more, I would like to point to a few points relevant to your current post (and related ones):
— evolvability: “Bio Suisse continually updates its standards. A production operation may contribute ideas and help shape these standards through its member organization or by participating in Bio Suisse committees.”
— environment: “‘Bud’ market partners agree to improve the environmental footprint of their
operation or business over the long term. They refrain from seeking a market advantage at the expense of the environment.”
— energy efficiency: page 94
— social accountability: the entirety of section 4 in part I.
— fair pricing: in section 5 of part I
— limitation on the distance travelled by fertilizers that come from outside of a bio-operation (aka farm) – page 84 at the bottom.
So, yes, MAYBE excluding _all_ GMOs and synthetic fertilizers/pesticides is less than ideal and a lot to do with image as well. But I will have that any day over mostly profit-driven, industrialized/factory farming with no sense of social responsibility, fair pricing and so on.
In other words: bio/organic agriculture is constrained in the use of GMOs and some synthetic substances; but conventional agriculture is far from being as free as you portray it: the main driver was, is and will be profit — anything else is a side effect. And profit-hunting is almost never compatible with protecting the environment, in fact, it is mostly exactly opposite: http://www.exposingtruth.com/new-un-report-finds-almost-no-industry-profitable-if-environmental-costs-were-included/
Many rules of bio agriculture are beneficial and there is no need for science to prove that (e.g.social responsibility, fair pricing etc). Some rules may be questionable, but I cannot agree that they are inherently bad.
GMOs (in the current state of how they’re marketed and sold, not in their original scientific vision), are still very controversial and cannot be analyzed as a whole (see the successful case of papaya vs. the more controversial cases of soy and corn).
On synthetic fertilizers/pesticides, I admit I am less informed, but assuming they are 100% beneficial, it is a price I personally would be ready to pay for the rest of the “bio package”. Also, as a side note, a Greenpeace analysis has shown that the amounts of pesticides/herbicides in conventional produce in Germany/Austria is often much higher than the amounts permitted by legislation. If this much makes it to the produce, how much still ends up in the environment and what are the consequences? (e.g. on bees, (super)weeds and other entities).
On the origins of bio agriculture: yes, there was the “mystic” current that turned into present-day Demeter. But there is also the not-unrelated, but largely parallel current that turned into the Bio Knospe, and which is more science-rooted. (See here, hoping you read German: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96kologische_Landwirtschaft).
On the higher use of land of bio agriculture: this one does trouble me a lot. However, again, it is a matter of _overall_ cost versus benefit. Could it be that this extra cost is offset by the sum of beneifts? I am unaware of any comprehensive/”panoramic” study comparing family-farm based bio agriculture, to industrial/factory-based conventional agriculture…
So, my current preference for produce is: 1. family-farm over industrial (industrial may be more efficient in some ways, but it has lots of large scale, severe issues and no incentives to solve them). 2. bio over conventional (not because I believe that bio is inherently better — I believe it’s very difficult to properly assess which one is overall better — but because bio has many “guaranteed” principles to which I adhere, while conventional could go either way, depending on incentives).
Finally, regardless of the debate, here is some reading you find interesting:
— the KAG Freiland standard (www.kagfreiland.ch) is the highest animal welfare standard in Switzerland and probably one of the highest in the world.
— Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer – a very objective treatment of animal factory-farming with lots of researched details. As a small example, it very well illustrates the fate of the animal manure resulting from these farms and the huge problems it’s causing. Using this manure to grow plants seems much better than spraying it over populated areas, just saying…
— The World according to Monsanto by Marie Monique Robin (the book, not the movie) – a very detailed and well documented, award-winning history of Monsanto and its practices. After reading this, any hope I had that something good may ever come out of Monsanto has vanished. P.S. I had never heard about Monsanto before reading this book, so I went in completely prejudice-free.
All in all, while the scientific method and its results are of utmost importance, not everything reduces to that. Not everything can be found in scientific studies, there is also a reality out there, which may contradict them, factors that could never be accounted for in a study and may radically change its results etc…
Just out of curiosity, which bio-standard(s) are the cited studies referring to?
Ok, I have to go to bed now 🙂 Hope I will not have bored you too much with my writing…
Hi Andreea! Thanks for your thoughtful comments, I appreciate you taking the time to look up all those sources, especially the Swiss specifics. I look forward to checking all your links and making a proper reply in a few days – birthday party for my 2 year old and visitor this weekend 🙂
Have a great weekend!
No problem, take your time! And happy birthday! 🙂
We’re also having a 2 yo party next weekend!
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Hello again Andreea! Thanks we had a great birthday 🙂 Happy birthday to your little one too in advance!
I’m really happy that you show such interest in this topic. I used to think farming was an important topic just because of my passion for the environment, but now I’ve learned a lot of fascination in the science of farming itself. I hope you find some of the further sources here helpful. I’m sorry it got so long… there’s so much to say, and I wanted to give you good answers to what is behind my conclusions.
So, firstly … 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 pretty similar. It is explained in part by their common roots – biodynamic agriculture – and roof organisations – International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements IFOAM, http://www.ifoam.bio/
From the Bio Suisse:
“Swiss farmers played an instrumental role in the evolution of organic farming. Soon after Dr. Rudolf Steiner founded biodynamic agriculture in 1924, farming operations were started in Switzerland which utilized his methods and adapted them to local climatic and structural conditions. In the 1940s, Dr. Hans Müller developed the ‘organic-biological’ method. ”
The common roots being in biodynamic farming is a warning sign, and gets us onto very sketchy ground scientifically speaking. Buried animal organs stuffed with herbs and the like, and I’m not kidding! (see table of biodynamic preparations in https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/02/24/delving-deeper-into-the-roots-of-organic/).
Still, bio farming could have evolved to an evidence-based way to try to use the most environmentally friendly farming methods. But unfortunately what is the most important point and common denominator for all bio, all around the world, is this (again from Bio Suisse):
“We use natural means.”
The idea that ‘natural’ methods are best in a mysterious way that was above and beyond evidence – no bio movement or certification ever justifies this. They are not even looking to justify it with any evidence. They use natural, because it’s natural, even where evidence shows that ‘synthetic’ methods are better for the environment. They don’t need to consider that, because that is not natural, – and ultimately, that’s not their marketing tactic. All farming is profit driven. There is no difference there between bio and non-bio. If farming operation is not profitable, it is not going to continue. Also, if it’s not profitable, it is wasting it’s resources, as they are being poured out while not producing enough food.
Bio brochures use nice words about making the world better, and I used to take them by their word, too. Not that I think they treat their workers badly – I hope not. But that doesn’t mean other farmers do either. I have yet to actually see evidence of the making the world better part. Like you say, this is not mysticism. If they could actually show evidence of environmental benefits by measurable things like nutrient loss, yield, and carbon footprint, I would really listen. Notice the big meta-analysis on more nitrogen run-off in my Natural Assumptions piece is specifically done on European bio farming studies.
What differences I have heard about between different labels, are that there may be some additional restrictions on pesticides depending on country, mostly. They all still allow pesticides, and pesticides must by their nature be something poisonous to plants and animals, in order to work. Here the division between ‘synthetic’ and ‘natural’ has never been based on an evaluation of lesser harm. Among the organic approved pesticides in Swiss Bio standards (in appendix 3 among others) are things like plant oils, pyrethrins, and copper. And is there some evidence of them being so much better for the environment? None that I’ve seen.
“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
Repeated spraying also means repeated rounds of tractor use (compaction, carbon emissions..).
But all in all, pesticide use is often really skewing the perspective on farming and its environmental impacts. This pesticide-fear is detrimental because there are other really important environmental issues that we should be focusing on instead. See this excellent Food and Farm Discussion Lab 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.”
Bio Suisse says:
“Therefore, it is vitally important to maintain and improve natural soil fertility through appropriate cultivation practices. Anything that detracts from this goal must be avoided. In particular, the use of synthetic fertilizers and synthetic or genetically engineered plant protection products is prohibited.”
So, how does one take care of the soil and its fertility?
From a great piece from an agronomist on what sustainable means:
“1. Protect the soil
2. Maintain soil fertility
3. Use water efficiently
4. Protect the crop”
On nr 1. :
“We must minimize erosion, as that is the greatest threat to the soil. This is the top priority because erosion is not easily fixed. We minimize erosion by protecting the soil surface from wind and rain. Here are the main practices used:
Maintain crop residues. This is the best way to keep the soil protected.
Minimize tillage. Tillage reduces soil cover leaving it more prone to erosion.
Avoid compaction. Fixing compaction requires deep tillage to fix, which increases the potential for erosion.”
And again for 2. Maintain soil fertility (among others, see the piece):
“Reduce erosion. Erosion is the loss of soil, but also of nutrients. Erosion can be reduced by the methods in #1 above.”
And here the goal and the aversion of scientific methods contradict each other. What is best for soil is to avoid tilling (Bio Suisse says as much), but then without further justification they throw the biggest tool allowing no-till out of the window – namely GMO and otherwise created herbicide resistant crops.
Here are some summaries of how the environment benefits from biotechnology: “Shortly put, GMO crops have been found to increase farming efficiency: higher yields, reduced pesticide use, increased profits, and reduced farm labour.
GMOs help farmers make the best possible use of the land area used for farming. Does that mean that they are using the land somehow too efficiently, resulting in drawbacks for the environment? Not really. Farmers continue working their land for generations. What is best for them is a land that stays healthy and soil that retains its nutrients. On top of that, there are good arguments for farm efficiency being a good measure of its 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 of weeds, bug food, and run off.
The US Department of Agriculture notes that the spread of the no-till method is largely thanks to the adoption of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crop varieties.” More in the piece: https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/03/22/gmos-and-the-environment/
Other pretty awesome things being developed: https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/07/28/three-ways-science-could-improve-the-world-through-rice/
But NO Bio label can or intends to ever use these methods.. because – not natural.
“Propagation methods should be as close to nature as possible. … The use of genetically modified source material is prohibited in organic farming. The use of hybrid seed for the cultivation of grain (except maize) is prohibited.”
I am at a loss. I am an environmentalist, and I can’t see why people don’t want evidence of environmental benefits, but instead they would settle for a nice idea of natural with ‘surely it must be better for the environment’.
Even their ‘energy efficiency’ doesn’t say anything apart from ‘let’s not waste heat or lighting’. Nothing about pouring fertilizer, pesticides, tractor hours, irrigation, into producing a lesser yield (more eaten by pests, more runoff) and thus needing more land to make the same yields as farming methods that are optimised looking at the evidence?
If you look at that table on exposingthetruth on environmental costs in farming, it’s very much in line with the paper discussed in the Food and Farm Discussion Lab piece above – the developing countries especially are wasting resources, while the US farming sector has managed to significantly reduce it’s environmental impacts. In no way does it say that organic farming would be better.
It even connects to the big problem in rice cultivation – which GMOs could fix.
Also, it confirms that animal farming is a huge problem. Yet if we were to move to all organic farming, we would need way more cattle to produce all the manure, which is the only allowed form of fertiliser. Organic farming as is now, is dependent on manure from all the conventional cattle manure.
This comment of yours:
“But I will have that any day over mostly profit-driven, industrialized/factory farming with no sense of social responsibility, fair pricing and so on.”
really could have been mine a few year ago – it is very much how I used to assume it was – but after what I’ve learned the past years, I’d just ask you to stop and wonder, is this so? What is industrial/factory farming anyway? Do farmers have no sense of social responsibility of fair pricing? What bad things do they do in order to make a profit, that their bio colleagues aren’t doing?
I know there were several harmful pesticides in the 70s and earlier, and other methods that luckily were abandoned, and other methods, like Integrated pest management, and crop rotations, cover crops, that are luckily being used more nowadays. I know there are improvements that should and can be made, unfortunately I see many of them antagonised and shunned by the organic movement.
And “controversial cases of soy and corn” I wonder what you mean? They are not controversial if you look at the science of it. The popular culture does tend to vilify them though.
You can read more in the report by European Academies Science Advisory Council (ESAC):
Taken together, the published evidence indicates that, if used properly, adoption of these crops can be associated with the following:
• reduced environmental impact of herbicides and insecticides;
• no/reduced tillage production systems with concomitant reduction in soil erosion;
• economic and health benefit at the farm level, particularly to smallholder farmers in developing countries;
• reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices.”
Again from the piece: https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/03/22/gmos-and-the-environment/
What comes to Monsanto, I haven’t read that book, but I have heard so many incredible claims that turn out not to be true when I’ve tried to check them out. This is a good collection of links, might be helpful for double-checking, depending on what claims you may have heard.
Thanks for the freiland link, I will definitely check that out! I only eat meat a couple times a month, and I try to make sure it is from a more animal-friendly label. I just love animals, and want to know they have had a comfortable and interesting life, really.
I’m sorry if it’s a bit mangled, and got so long.. please let me know if there’s something I missed to comment on.
I hope you have a good start of your week! Tschüss!
Thanks for the wishes! 🙂
And thank you also for taking the time to respond and sharing your sources. I am also extremely happy that I am not the only one interested in the where and how our food comes from and how to optimize that. So many people I’ve talked to _refuse_ to be informed, for fear of having to change their eating habits! It’s driving me nuts.
Anyway, farming has been an extremely important topic for me ever since I can remember. I grew up in the countryside, where absolutely everyone grew their own food and many were also making a living out of selling food. So, I know a thing or two first hand about farming (at least on a smallish scale). I am also very fond of tasty, “real” food. In fact, I only got to know supermarket food when I left home for university. Around that time, I also got interested in agricultural science (or the science of farming, if you prefer) and started reading on it. At that point, I was still unaware of bio agriculture.
Then, in 2008, just before starting my PhD, I read “The World According to Monsanto” (and related sources) and was appalled at all the issues surrounding GMOs (will come back to these later). That’s when I actively started consuming bio food, with the goal of voicing my opposition to GMOs. I also continued to furiously read on the topic. I think I can safely say that I would have finished my PhD in 4 years instead of 6, had I not had such a relentless interest in agricultural and environmental topics.
I also joined all kinds of online communities opposing GMOs and was extremely disappointed to discover that many of them were mostly propagating complete nonsense about GMOs, instead of highlighting the actual problems and the accompanying evidence. These are the same people who make anyone opposing GMOs look like an anti-science loon. But, luckily, science-loving people have an open mind and are able to distinguish between fear-mongering and actual, very serious problems.
I also became skeptical of the bio food I was so eagerly consuming. I had never actually looked at the standard, I just knew that it was guaranteed to be GMO-free. But what if the bio farmers were the same kind of loons I had found in the anti-GMO online communities? So I went and looked at the actual bio standard (Bio Suisse, as I was already living in Switzerland at that point), but found nothing off-putting (please bear with me, will come back to your objections to bio later).
A couple of years later, in 2010, I read “Eating Animals” (and related sources) and was yet again appalled at the practices of large-scale animal husbandry. I became (almost) vegetarian (I still ate animal products from my home village, when I went back). I felt a profound disgust for everyone around me who stuffed themselves with cheap supermarket meat and was completely oblivious to the consequences of their actions! For my research, I had to do a good amount of travelling, mostly to the US. I always spent hours looking for local vegetarian restaurants, ideally also bio, for local bio supermarket and so on. I went to these, despite the long distances or other inconveniences. When I couldn’t find any, I ate just enough to function…
So, all in all, I think I can consider myself quite well-informed on the topic of bio agriculture and agricultural science. I will admit I haven’t had the time to read as much as I used to in the past two years: having a baby and leaving behind the time-flexibility of academia have definitely taken their toll. But I am trying to keep an eye on things and continue interacting with smart, interesting people (hence this discussion with you :)).
The auto-biographical rant is over, the interesting stuff will follow shortly in a separate comment.
P.S. Your original piece on organic farming “Natural Assumptions” seems to be mostly based on references relating to the American organic industry, which is radically different from the Swiss one, this is why I was asking which standard(s) are the actual studies about.
Also, as you may have noticed, some of the points I tried to address above actually appear in “Natural Assumptions”, not in the above.
[I’m putting the reply here, so that it doesn’t get super narrow and less readable.] [THOUGHTSCAPISM(Iida): I’m adding a few answers in line here for clarity so it won’t be too hard to trace the discussions]
I think your reply missed one of the two main points I made in my comment: the fact that it is prohibitively difficult to compare bio agriculture as a whole to conventional agriculture as a whole (if that exists). The final conclusion can only be a personal opinion, no matter how long and how solid the accompanying list of supporting studies. (The second main point was related to Bio Suisse and its particularities, on which you have commented.)
For you, the perception that bio agriculture is anti-science is a deal breaker. I disagree with this perception on the whole, although I can agree with a few of the individual points that contributed to it (more on these below).
For me, the problems of conventional agriculture (list below) far outweigh its higher willingness to adopt bleeding-edge methods and technology.
Before going once more through your list of objections to bio, let me once again state the reasons why bio is important to me, in order of decreasing importance:
1. environmental sustainability
2. minimized adverse effects on health
3. taste, aspect and diversity
And now to (some of) your objections. Just for overview, to keep some order:
— origin of bio agriculture
— lack of justification for using natural methods
— pesticide use
— profit, social responsibility, pricing.
Origin of bio agriculture.
So the “biodynamic movement” may have given the starting impulse to present day bio agriculture. So what? I see no warning sign in that. Just as I see no warning in the fact that medicine at some point included the practice of blood-letting and “barber-surgeons” as medical practitioners, or that people were recommended to avoid bathing as a disease prevention strategy, or that (some) pediatricians endorsed “crying-it-out” at some point. I could go on, but I hope you see the point.
Mind you, the team of guys who came right after Steiner (Mueller & wife, Rusch, etc) and were much more influential on bio (as opposed to Demeter-biodynamic) were a biology teacher (Mueller), a doctor (Rusch) and a microbiologist (Becker). They laid a scientific basis (at the time) of bio agriculture, based on their work on the lifecycles and functions of bacteria (published in an article called “The Cycle of Bacteria as Life Principle”). The work has apparently also recently (2009) been revisited: literatur.ti.bund.de/digbib_extern/bitv/dk042577.pdf (in German).
Going back to Steiner, yes, he seems to have been crazy. But he also pretty self-deprecating and told people verify what he was recommending empirically, as he hadn’t tested anything and had no clue about agriculture…
Finally, as an aside for your information, one of your links on biodynamic actually supports bio 😛 (https://biodynamicshoax.wordpress.com/ — A small box on the right sidebar: “This blog is about biodynamic viticulture. It is not an attack on organic or sustainable farming—both of which the author supports.”)
[THOUGHTSCAPISM (Iida): I’m adding a few answers in line here for clarity. The worrying thing with biodynamic farming is that organic farming is how close it still is the more mystical practices like biodynamic. It’s evident here, for instance, where I look at the UN report on organic: https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/09/21/myth-un-calls-for-small-scale-organic-farming/ which includes Steiner/biodynamic organisation in the mix. The page about biodynamic is useful for giving an idea what biodynamic is about. Whether its writer supports organic or not, is unfortunately not evidence for benefits or drawbacks of organic. I used to support organic too, but sadly that was not because I had properly looked into the evidence.]
Lack of justification for using natural methods.
Personally, I see lots of issues with both GMOs (in their current form) and pesticides — that is justification. I believe it is every person’s responsibility to check what they are eating, and whether the way it is produced makes sense or not. One could just as well argue that it is irresponsible of conventional agriculture to use GMOs and pesticides, without justification and without solutions for the problems created by them. [THOUGHTSCAPISM(Iida): this would be an important point to consider giving sources to claims, so that we know what problems you mean, and how they are not being handled responsibly, and how that has to do with the methods themselves]
Natural methods have been refined and have proved their worth over at least a thousand years. Sure, they don’t work in the context of the industrial-scale farm. But is that really such a bad thing? Are industrial-farms the way to the future? Not according to the UNCTAD Trade and Environment Report 2013 (http://unctad.org/en/Pages/Publications/TradeandEnvironmentReviewSeries.aspx). It suggests moving away from current industrialized farming to small-scale farming and to a “holistic”, integrated approach, where it is finally recognized that everything is connected to everything. You cannot optimize for one factor here (let’s say yield) and expect everything everywhere else to stay unchanged. In the same vein, it calls for a fair comparison between “single climate-friendly practices” (like the ones you argue for) versus “systemic changes” (like bio agriculture among others).
[THOUGHTSCAPISM(Iida): This UNCTAD report has come up so many times in discussions that I decided to write a whole post about it: https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/09/21/myth-un-calls-for-small-scale-organic-farming/ This report does not represent UN’s views, it’s authors feature many advocacy groups/companies, and there are some rather worrying choices among it’s writers. Note official UN view actually underlines that GMOs and biotech should be included in farming methods.]
This is also exactly the point of my first comment to your article, which I have apparently failed to express properly. You can hardly compare the individual optimizations of conventional agriculture to the approach of holistic optimization that bio agriculture is taking. If you have ever in your research work dealt with systems’ optimization in general (regardless of research field), you should see this point right away.
Incidentally, the Bio Suisse standard also has specific provisions for encouraging self-sufficient (or almost) small-scale farms, where natural cycles are not broken (e.g. manure going back to the soil as fertilizer for plants), where crop rotation is almost mandatory and so on. The highly specialized focus of industrial farming makes it impossible to balance out activities and their results (e.g. overproduction of a certain product or extremely high quantities of waste, that are very hard to deal with — like the manure from factory-farms, and so on).
Side note: I have said this before, maybe not clearly enough: as far as I know, animal farming is currently producing a large and problematic surplus of manure currently. There is no way we would need to grow more cows in order to sustain more bio agriculture (this would also not be in line with the mentioned holistic approach to agriculture that bio is following).
[THOUGHTSCAPISM(Iida): Again important not to assume. Did you read the citation I gave before? http://environmentalresearchweb.org/cws/article/news/56037 – organic as it is now is largely dependant on conventionally kept animal’s manure. Organic cattle just isn’t sufficient for the amounts of manure needed. The Federation of Swedish Farmers has even calculated that for the whole of Sweden to go organic – as the Green party calls for – they would need 3 million cows – an increase by 10 times compared to what the whole of Sweden has as is. (source in swedish, but can look for if they have it in English)]
Many pesticide are toxic way above and beyond the targeted pest. You may be familiar with the issues surrounding the dramatic decline of the bee population and how it’s very likely caused by synthetic pesticides. Other species are in a similar situation, though they don’t have as high a profile as bees (butterflies, small birds etc).
[THOUGHTSCAPISM(Iida): actually the confirmed reason for the recurring cycle of Colony Collapse Disorder has been known for some time to be the Varroa Mite. The bee populations have already bounced back again, also countries that do use neonics like Australia, didn’t have problems with their bees – because they don’t have the mite. The pesticides neonicotinoids helped substitute were more toxic to bees and other insects than neonicotinoids, which for sure are toxic to insects (insecticides..), but the realistic exposure is very little. There is lot of important research to follow on neonics, and it is also not a topic where one should rely on assumptions. I’m adding more reading in a separate new comment on this one. I’ll add info on the butterflies there too – not a casualty of pesticides or GMOs.]
The three most common organic pesticides you cite (btw, your link – http://welovegv.com/pesticides – is broken) seem to break down fast and leave little behind. Synthetic pesticides, on the other hand, tend to persist in the environement and to accumulate in relatively large quantities in the fatty tissues of various animals, especially fish (and including humans).
I have nothing against (synthetic) pesticides, but with the current issues still lingering, I think it is perfectly justified to exclude them from bio agriculture. [Big assumptions here. DDT accumulated in fatty tissues, and ever since the 70’s great care has been taken to use pesticides that do *not* bioaccumulate. Could you give a citation to one in use?]
I have several bones to pick with GMOs:
— patenting of genes/seeds (I know GMOs are not the only patented ones, I support none)
— threat to biodiversity through cross-contamination and extreme competition
— huge pressure and ultimate destruction of small farms through monopoly
All this is nicely discussed in a very interesting MIT (Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences) class called Mission 2017: http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2017/genetically-modified-crops/
I like it a lot because it is a very balanced treatment of GMOs, highlighting both the huge potential of GMOs as well as their equally big current problems. As you may know, this is extremely difficult to come across.
In short, I can only restate what I said in the previous comment: I am absolutely not against biotechnology and I am willing to accept your claims of improvement brought by GMOs in individual areas. I just cannot possibly support the current format of using GMOs. Hence, I also think it is justified for bio agriculture to reject it (for the moment).
[THOUGHTSCAPISM (Iida): Patents are universal for organic, conventional, biotech. Not a GMO issue. Threat to biodiversity? No references given. There is no known ‘outcompeting other plants’ that I know of that has actually happened. Food crops (most, whichever category) tend not to compete well (or even survive long) in nature unless they are specially taken care of – they have been bred for characteristics that are useful for us, like lot of energy poured into producing high yield. Cross contamination happens with crops made by all methods. Does not ‘lead to monoculture’. Mangles concepts here. No references given. This is a site by a group of MIT students. It might be useful to find more scientific / professional agricultural sources. Continue later, have to run now… have a great day!]
Profit, social responsibility, pricing.
As I pointed out before, these are an integral part of the Bio Suisse standard (btw, I believe the link I sent you is not a mere “brochure”, it is the actual standard to which the farms are held for certification).
These issues also appear time and again in UN reports (like the one I cited above) under “problems with the current industrialized agricultural system”. They are also discussed in the context of GMOs in the Mission 2017 class. Also, if you read the “Eating Animals” book, you will find out a lot more unpleasant details about what the idea of social responsibility and fair pricing/salaries represents for factory farms.
So yes, bio agriculture also needs to make profit in order to survive. But the mentioned provisions for social responsibility, fair pricing etc, as well as the focus on small scale farms, put it in a whole different league compared to industrial agriculture.
And this brings me to the end of my case (though I certainly cannot have covered everything relevant). There remain two footnotes:
On reconsidering my views of Monsanto.
I took a quick look at Marc Brazeau’s starter kit. I have not discovered any new information in there.
— I still disapprove of seed patents — Hawaiian papaya is the proof that GMOs work just fine without them as well. Also, enforcing seed patents on contaminated crops is beyond outrageous, as far as I’m concerned (also discussed in Mission 2017).
— I disapprove of the interdiction to save seeds for the following year.
— I am not familiar with all the trial cases, but I know the one of Percy Schmeiser. It touches exactly the issues of enforcing a patent on contaminated crops and of saving seeds. In my opinion, he should have won.
— There is no mention of the shady business of “substantial equivalence”, which meant that the safety for consumption of GMOs was initially not even tested, if the company could show that the new plant/organism is “equivalent in substance” (a completely meaningless expression) to the conventional version.
— Finally, even Marc Brazeau concedes that Monsanto has shady legal practices to say the least. In the book I recommended, there is ample information on that.
As far as I’m concerned, anyone believing that any corporation the size of Monsanto has the best interest of humanity and/or the environement at heart is incredibly naive at best.
On the standing of science.
Science is great and has helped accomplish almost everything we are enjoying today. However, modern day science is also deeply flawed. The biggest and well-known problem is the lack of reproducibility of studies. The amount of data or experiment setups that are made publicly available so that anyone can re-do the experiment and check the results is ridiculously small. Many studies declare that the “data is available upon request” and when you request it, there’s zero response.
Another issue is the peer review process, where reviewers volunteer from their already limited time and often produce very superficial and/or biased reviews, based on knowing the author or recognizing them implicitly from the article.
So, scientific studies are definitely not above and beyond all doubt.
Have a good week too!
Hello again Andreea!
I’m happy that you are eager to discuss this topic. I do worry, however, that when there are so many topics up at once, some threads may get mingled and it won’t be easy for us to follow each issue clearly. It might be easier even to have this discussion at a discussion forum – say, Food and Farm Discussion Lab (https://www.facebook.com/groups/FAFDL/) or GMO Skepti-Forum (https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/ – you can get an idea about the discussions from their archived threads at a wiki here: http://wiki.skeptiforum.org/wiki/GMO_Skepti-Forum_Threads), with many farmers and scientists able to participate in the conversation. If you’d rather just continue here, I am happy to thoroughly discuss each and every one your points. But I hope you also find it a good idea to do that one at a time rather than all at once?
Maybe we should start with the most important one. You can choose – or I am thinking that maybe you would agree that it is this one: environmental sustainability – or the environmental impacts from farming. This is my main reason to stop buying organic labels, too. The deal-breaker. So we seem to have arrived at different conclusions on the question. So a good starting point would be: how can we look at the evidence together to reach one conclusion or the other?
How could we find out if organic (or specificaly Bio Suisse organic if you wish) is the better choice for environment than non-bio food? I am not sure what you mean exactly with your comment about not being able to compare different agricultural methods as a whole. Maybe you can elaborate? I’d believe that you think organic can be compared to conventional in some way, though, else how could you arrive at any conclusion of it being better?
Let me know which discussion format you would prefer!
Hope you are enjoying your day 🙂
Feel free to move the discussion wherever you please. I am anyway not familiar with any of the proposals and I unfortunately also cannot take the time at the moment to check them out properly. This is also why I am still replying here.
I agree the main point is about the sustainability of farming (which for me includes also the issues of fair pricing, social responsibility etc). However, bio versus conventional is not the only dimension. There is also the matter of scale, i.e. industrial vs. “family-farm”. While bio is more often associated with the family-farm scale, they are not synonymous.
On comparing the bio as a whole vs. conventional as a whole: I tried to explain this better in the section on “Lack of justification for natural methods” of my previous post.
Basically, the UN report I linked to expresses it best: it is like comparing “single climate-friendly practices” (which conventional industrial agriculture is going for) versus “systemic changes” (which bio is going for).
If you have ever in your research work dealt with systems’ optimization in general (regardless of research field), you should see that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to compare the individual optimizations of conventional agriculture to the approach of holistic optimization that bio agriculture is taking.
My conclusion of bio being better is in part based exactly on the fact that it is going for systemic rather than individual optimizations…
So, how can you show that bio but not conventional ag is going for systemic optimisations? I think you are making quite a leap there. Could you elaborate?
From a mathematical point of view, what utility function are you trying to optimize with “holistic optimization that bio agriculture is taking.”?
Sorry for my shortness – before I get to bed, let me elaborate 🙂
See, the problem is that there are a lot of scientists who have taken care to look at several factors, all that goes into the concept sustainable – ‘holistic’ approach if you will. And they haven’t been able to confirm organic as more sustainable, actually the opposite. For us to say anything about them, these factors need some evidence behind them. Saying that ‘social aspects’ are reason that bio is better does not get far, unless we actually have evidence that it has any impact on social factors. If you have any evidence on any of the factors that bio might be better for, I would very much love to know. I have been looking.
There is a great thread on what sustainability means and how it can be studied here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/permalink/477782085694380/
You must join the group to view it though. Maybe I can post some resources to begin with.
Swedish agronomy professors have written a book on this topic, for instance:
“Many people believe that organic agriculture is a solution for various problems related to food production. Organic agriculture is supposed to produce healthier products, does not pollute the environment, improves the fertility of soils, saves fossil fuels and enables high biodiversity.
This book has been written to provide scientifically based information on organic agriculture such as crop yields, food safety, nutrient use efficiency, leaching, long-term sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions and energy aspects. A number of scientists working with questions related to organic agriculture were invited to present the most recent research and to address critical issues. An unbiased selection of literature, facts rather than standpoints, and scientifically-based examinations instead of wishful thinking will help the reader be aware of difficulties involved with organic agriculture.
Organic agriculture, which originates from philosophies of nature, has often outlined key goals to reach long-term sustainability but practical solutions are lacking. The central tasks of agriculture – to produce sufficient food of high quality without harmful effects on the environment – seem to be difficult to achieve through exclusively applying organic principles ruling out many valuable possibilities and solutions.”
Also, a comment from another member with a very relevant source: “Assessment of agricultural sustainability”
Click to access 439.pdf
“basically there have been a number of “frameworks” for trying to come up with some sort of sustainability index, and they start to get pretty complicated when you include socio-economic indices.
although a number of frameworks have been proposed they usually dont describe how each indicator should be measured, and the weight it should be given in calculating the sustainability index. so from what i understand there is still a long way to go in order to establish simpler, more universal methods that can be used to compare many different agrosystems.
figure 5 from the linked paper shows the authors proposed framework….obviously being certified organic has no weight”
>>Stanford University’s Sustainable Choices website defines sustainability this way: “the ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.”
That definition is compatible with the notion that sustainability is favored by maximizing human ingenuity and the quest for progress—that is, for processes and products that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment. Organic food producers need not apply.<<
Sustainability isn't just a word, it has to mean something as well – something real that we can see the impact of in the world. Weighting different factors is a complex problem, but first we'd need to have evidence of actual benefits in many or any of those factors. If organic can hardly show beneficial effects for any metric, we are off to a troubling start.
Hope you find the sources interesting. Have you seen some of them before?
[Some of the comments have no Reply button, so I will write here.]
@Ingemar, that is not a particularly constructive comment. I am not a farmer, so I personally could hardly be trying to optimize anything in bio agriculture.
I simply drew a parallel to systems optimization, which I thought was useful for illustrative purposes (since Iida has some research background, apparently). I am not aware of a mathematical, systemic utility function used in bio agriculture (or in any other kind of agricultural system for that matter). I also believe it would be very hard (if not impossible) to come up with a single such mathematical function.
More on the “systemic” properties of bio agriculture in the next comment, as this is also relevant to Iida’s replies.
@Iida and @Ingemar If there is any leap in my statement on the “systemic” character of bio agriculture, it does not come from myself.
Citation from the “Key Messages” on pages 2 of the 2013 UNCTAD report I linked above: “In pursuing a fundamental transformation of agriculture, one should take into account systemic considerations in particular (i) the need for a holistic understanding of the challenges involved due to inter-linkages between sometimes competing objectives; (ii) the merits and demerits of single climate-friendly practices versus those of systemic changes (such as agro-ecology, agro-forestry, organic agriculture); and (iii) the need for two-track approach that drastically reduces the environmental impact of conventional agriculture, on the one hand, and broadens the scope for agro-ecological production methods, on the other.”
In this report, “more than 60 international experts have contributed their views to a comprehensive analysis of the challenges […]”.
To me, this quote clearly states that bio agriculture is taking a “systemic” or “holistic” approach. This is also in line with what I know from the bio standard: it encourages small-scale farms, where many types of crops are grown, animals are grown, even food is prepared to a certain degree, basically there is the whole spectrum of agricultural/farming activities, and everything must function together.
In contrast, conventional agriculture is most of the time based on highly specialized large scale units (disconnected from each other), where a very limited number of crops (1-2) is grown, or one species of animal is raised. The quote does not explicitly say that conventional agriculture is going for “single climate-friendly” practices. I believe it strongly implies it, but this is indeed my interpretation.
Iida, to your latest comment:
— Maybe the article on page 50 of the the UNCTAD report on the profitability of bio operations can help further in the question of social aspects. Just a thought (haven’t read the whole article myself).
— I would refrain from making blanket statements like “a lot of scientists […] haven’t been able to confirm organic as more sustainable”. I think if there was a scientific consensus that conventional is the way to go and we should through bio down the drain, it would be known. In my opinion, such statements take us in the direction of “my scientists/sources are better than yours” and that is not at all constructive.
None of us are really specialists of the field, so the best we can bring to such discussions are our personal opinions, and the sources that formed those opinions.
I will happily acknowledge and agree to your conclusions on GMOs, pesticides and the other individual topics we touched upon. But, as I have stressed before, it stands that these technologies still have big issues to which I have yet to see solutions.
— Formal definitions of measurements of sustainability. Thanks for the book reference, it looks very interesting, hopefully I will find some time to read it.
Your following quote: “So from what i understand there is still a long way to go in order to establish simpler, more universal methods that can be used to compare many different agrosystems.” is exactly what I’ve been saying from the very beginning of this discussion. A real, comprehensive comparison of agro-systems is extremely difficult, therefore, I find it extremely suspicious that someone can definitely state that bio-agriculture is more or less sustainable than conventional.
And as a side note: both your last two quotes (the member comment with the relevant source and the Stanford thing) seem overtly hostile to bio, so I am doubting their objectivity.
However, the relevant source of your member seems very interesting. I wonder how often this evaluation framework is actually used (even though I did spot a potential miss on skimming — nothing in there on wildlife friendliness)?
Finally, I entirely agree that we should strive to make sustainability measurable in a meaningful way. But, so far, you have claimed benefits of conventional vs bio (still in the stage of research articles btw, looking forward to see these gain wider acceptance), but have said nothing on a series of serious problems, which I have pointed out. Could you tell me why those benefits are more important than the associated problems? Also, how to deal with those problems, assuming we absolutely want those benefits and need to adopt those methods.
As a final remark, I need to say that this discussion and its current pace is requiring much more time and energy than I now have available (due to job, family etc). In my opinion, the fast pace is also slowly starting to make it less constructive.
You may have noticed I have not at all questioned any of your claims on the benefits of conventional agricultural practices, I have simply argued as if they were true. This is because I could simply not take the time to really check out your references. From your replies and the fact that I’ve had to repeat some things several times, I think I can reasonably assume that you have also not found the time to read the references I cited (do correct me, if I am misinterpreting).
However, I find the discussion very interesting, and my proposal is that we take some time to familiarize ourselves with the other person’s claims, cited sources, books etc, before coming back with more arguments that promise to get less and less constructive. I hope this is a reasonable proposal to you and that you remained open to revisiting your conclusions, even after your drastic and (I can only imagine) emotionally quite taxing change from supporter to detractor of bio.
Have a nice evening,
Hello again Andreea! I hope you are well!
On several occasions during past couple of years, I’ve asked people, among them organic farmers, to point me in the direction of any evidence I may have missed on the environmental impacts of organic farming. I have been hoping to find that my 10+ years of big organic advocate would not have been in vain, so I have hoped to find such evidence. Unfortunately so far that hasn’t been fruitful. I haven’t learned of many scientific papers that would support that view, but I have frequently been referred to a couple of different sorts of documents instead. This report is one of them.
So, let’s look at that UNCTAD report and consider whether it can be considered evidence for benefits of bio agriculture.
Firstly, this report is not the view of the UN or UNCTAD. Perhaps it was presented to you as if it were (as I’ve seen it presented by many organic advocates). This in itself is a bit disconcerting, frankly it’s quite dishonest of them to do so. This is a presentation made by a group of organic advocates – not institutions, not UN, not scientific organisations, or even agricultural organisations.
In the first pages, it states (my emphasis): “The views expressed in the articles contained in this Review are *the personal views* of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organisations and institutions. Therefore, the views expressed in this Review should be attributed to the authors and not to any institution or UNCTAD member States.
Any reference to a company or any of its activities should not be considered as an endorsement by UNCTAD, or by the authors or their institutions, of the company or its activities.”
This is a report presented at a UNCTAD conference, and represents the authors personal views.
What comes to the individual writers in this report making leaps of reasoning, I’m afraid it does seem to be the case. Among other things, they have a section about the supposed benefits to subsistence farmers of treating their soil as a holistic spiritual organism – that is, they endorse biodynamic farming (see the section about SEKEM). Let’s just say that this report does not necessarily require sound scientific (or even non-spiritual) grounds for the methods it advocates for.
Most of these cases presented look at developing world rural subsistence farmers, which is a very special scenario (near starvation situations, nothing like the more expensive luxury food that organic label is for the western world). Essentially what it is saying, to me, is that it is not that hard for organic production to yield the same or outperform conventional subsistence farming, when that subsistence farming has limited access to improved seeds, fertilizer and other inputs. Note the yield differences presented in this report and in the body of scientific literature are night and day. (I look at the yield research here https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/02/24/delving-deeper-into-the-roots-of-organic/)
Another point about these trials. The lower the level of production to start with, the easier it is to show a percentage gain, even from a small actual gain. Since these are very poor conditions farming, it is not perhaps so surprising that there is a lot of variance in its yield results.
What the report is mainly discussing is that the old model of agriculture *for developing* nations no longer works. It doesn’t actually look at developed nations or what we know as conventional agriculture.
It also completely fails to mention biotechnology, which is rather interesting.
Contrast this report on developing nations agriculture with that of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, which calls for biotechnology to be included in order to succeed with sustainable farming (and this one *is* a statement that represents the views of the organisation):
“Options such as Agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture should be explored, and so should biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms, FAO’s director-general said, noting that food production needs to grow by 60 percent by 2050 to meet the expected demand from an anticipated population of 9 billion people. “We need to explore these alternatives using an inclusive approach based on science and evidences, not on ideologies,” as well as to “respect local characteristics and context,” he said.”
And the European Academies Science Advisory Council (ESAC) (representing all EU member state science councils) statement on biotechnology (GMOs) – note the focus on developing countries:
“Taken together, the published evidence indicates that, if used properly, adoption of these crops can be associated with the following:
• reduced environmental impact of herbicides and insecticides;
• no/reduced tillage production systems with concomitant reduction in soil erosion;
• economic and health benefit at the farm level, *particularly to smallholder farmers in developing countries*;
• reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices.”
Click to access EASAC_Planting_the_Future_FULL_REPORT.pdf
There may be interesting valid research buried somewhere in there in that UNCTAD report, but then we’d need to be talking specifically about that evidence. If you do find such studies, then looking at them, and putting them in the context with all the other evidence we have, is the objective way to evaluate farming methods. Also looking at relevant science and agricultural organisations’ actual views on these questions is a better start too.
Reduced environmental impact, reduced GHG emissions, better situation for the farmers – a decade of EU research on the matter finds that biotechnology is very important for precisely these goals. I truly believe this is where your passion lies too, right? Otherwise why would moms of little kids like us be using our precious free time to write long and detailed analyses of farming methods?! 🙂
I absolutely agree about no hurry – lets give it time. I have refrained from addressing many of the points that you raised. Frankly, and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but because many of the claims and their sources are very familiar to me, and I can already see a lot of discussion space going to righting some of the misinformation that contributes to several of those. But it is all so much at once, which is why I suggested taking one topic at a time.
I would also suggest, that whenever you make a claim, you would not assume, but instead try to look for sources that confirm or reject that claim. My principle is to always have a credible source for what I am saying, and if there is any claim where you think I didn’t present one, please let me know!
Absolutely no hurry. I will go through the multiple points you made earlier one by one and present what I know about the best state of current evidence on those, and you can come back whenever you have time and look at my sources.
I am here for the evidence. I am not set for only finding evidence one way or another. I’ve been humbled enough to realise I don’t want that, I just want to *know*. I just want to find the best way for humans and animals and nature on this globe to continue living together. I am sure we are 100% on board with this, both of us, as judging from your frustration with people who just can’t be bothered to think too much about these issues.
Thanks for engaging with me, and thanks also for your wonderful comment on the (unconnected) FB mama’s group discussion about acetaminophen and that bogus article.. shiver.. I had to keep myself away from that thread in order to control my turmoil over its propaganda!
Have a great week, talk to you when you have time 🙂
All the best,
Here are some replies directly on your latest post. I think it’s much easier to follow the discussion this way.
IIDA: “So, let’s look at that UNCTAD report and consider whether it can be considered evidence for benefits of bio agriculture.”
A: When I said let’s take some time to read each other’s sources, the last thing I had in mind was “let’s pick a cited source and thoroughly discredit it”. I get it, you’ve been pointed to this before and hopefully this also means you’ve given it enough attention. However, this still leaves a set of other pointers I gave you, which I hope you’re considering. In any case, I have been looking at some of the stuff you’ve pointed to and I have been less than impressed (more below).
IIDA: “Firstly, this report is not the view of the UN or UNCTAD. Perhaps it was presented to you as if it were (as I’ve seen it presented by many organic advocates). This in itself is a bit disconcerting, frankly it’s quite dishonest of them to do so. This is a presentation made by a group of organic advocates – not institutions, not UN, not scientific organisations, or even agricultural organisations.”
A: Firstly, this report has not been “presented to me”, I have searched and found it directly by myself. I make a point of sourcing information all by myself, like the responsible adult that I am, and only from reliable, objective places and people. I am perfectly aware of the statement on the first page of the report, I don’t see how it makes it unworthy of being cited. Please abstain from putting me in the same bucket as your average organic advocate, who is part of various online communities (that I mentioned in an earlier post) and who partakes in all kinds of deceiving practices (also mentioned in the same earlier post). In turn, I have not assumed any connection between you and the equivalent communities of the other camp and I hope this has been clear. I don’t believe I’ve tried to misrepresent the report at any point; if you think that even referring to it as “the UNCTAD report” is dishonest, I would be happy to hear proposals on how to refer to it without seeming dishonest.
Why do you think this report is made by a group of organic advocates? Any evidence on that? And how did it happen that this/a UNCTAD conference/report ended up dominated by such a group of people? This seems unlikely.
IIDA: “Essentially what it is saying, to me, is that it is not that hard for organic production to yield the same or outperform conventional subsistence farming, when that subsistence farming has limited access to improved seeds, fertilizer and other inputs.”
A: Regardless of the level of development of a country, I think, if an agricultural system is highly dependant on external input (like conventional agriculture is on e.g. fertilizer), then it is very unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. No resource is unlimited. For example, phosphorus, as explored in this article: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2013/04/01/phosphorus-essential-to-life-are-we-running-out/ This is certainly not an alarming piece (i.e., it seems unlikely that we’re running out of phosphorus), but I will take an agricultural system that respects natural cycles and does not depend on external input over one that does any day.
IIDA: “What the report is mainly discussing is that the old model of agriculture *for developing* nations no longer works. It doesn’t actually look at developed nations or what we know as conventional agriculture.”
A: This seems like an important fact that should be in the key take away messages at the beginning of the report. Maybe I’ve missed it or maybe it’s not there. In any case, I haven’t found anything to point that the report is limited to developing nations. At the same time, I haven’t studied its minute details, so maybe I’ll have to go back and check that. Which parts of the report is this conclusion based on?
IIDA: “Contrast this report on developing nations agriculture with that of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, which calls for biotechnology to be included in order to succeed with sustainable farming (and this one *is* a statement that represents the views of the organisation).”
A: In addition to the FAO report you’re mentioning, and perhaps more importantly, the FAO also happens to have a quite long-standing programme that explicitly and actively promotes organic agriculture and defines it as “holistic”, similar to the UNCTAD report which you think makes a leap of judgment in that respect: http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq1/en/
The equivalent “programme” or rather simple information portal on biotech (http://www.fao.org/biotech/biotechnology-home/about-this-site/en/) seems in turn much more reserved: “Responding to the requests from its member countries, FAO has been at the forefront in recent years in providing high-quality, updated, science-based, neutral information on agricultural biotechnologies to its Members and their institutions.”
and (emphasis mine)
“***When appropriately integrated*** with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population in the next millennium.”
If you continue reading through that FAO statement on biotech, you will see they also explicitly acknowledge and enumerate the risks involved http://www.fao.org/biotech/fao-statement-on-biotechnology/en/ . As I’ve said before, these risks leave biotech in a currently unripe state. If at some point, the technology does “ripen”, I will be happy to reconsider my views and I’m pretty sure any reasonable organic agriculture organisation will too.
IIDA: “My principle is to always have a credible source for what I am saying, and if there is any claim where you think I didn’t present one, please let me know!”
A: I follow exactly the same principle, with the very important addition that the source must not only be “credible”, but also objective, neutral and as much as possible free of conflicts of interest. In relation to this, I would like to say that I read the Forbes article you linked (“Why organic isn’t sustainable” by one Henry Miller) and was really disappointed that anyone would use this as reference. First of all, this guy is “the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology”, that alone makes his views on the matter sound hardly neutral. Second, for someone so proudly declaring himself “debunker of junk science”, he sure knows how to twist conclusions of scientific articles to suit his purpose (very dangerous, considering how inaccessible such articles are to the general public). Third, a factual and objective piece of writing has no place for insults and stereotyping (“ignorant, arrogant social elites disdainful of modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering and “industrial agriculture.””). Finally, the fact that he is writing for Forbes is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Just today I happened to run across a Forbes article that was denying the dramatic reduction of the ice caps (while pointing to a UIUC website for reference, which openly states just the opposite).
This is the kind of stuff that appears in Forbes… Totally inline with their affinity to corporations who care about one thing and one thing only: easiest way to profit.
Further on the topic of sources, I also checked out the British meta-review study of 2012 (also cited in the Forbes article). It turns out the conclusion advertised by “junk science debunkers” like Henry Miller is slightly different from the study’s own conclusions.
Henry Miller: [“… stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.””]
Study (from the abstract): [“The variation within the results across different studies was wide due to differences in the systems compared and research methods used. The only impacts that were found to differ significantly between the systems were soil organic matter content, nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide emissions per unit of field area, energy use and land use.”]
In other words, many (if not most) of the actually meaningful differences were in areas where organic was better. It is also worth reading in detail the “Discussion” and “Conclusion” sections of the article, where the variety and complexity of agri-systems and geographical conditions is emphasized and where it is called upon policy makers to address these. Personally, I think organic agriculture is currently closer to better addressing this (note I haven’t said “fully” or “perfectly” addressing) than are various legislations/practices of agriculture in general.
Finally, on the issue of yield/land-use, which is identified by this study and in general as one of the central “problems” of bio agriculture. I am really wondering what yield would look like, if the amount of produce that goes to waste were to be accounted for. I don’t have “certified” numbers, but I’ve recently read as much as 50%. I doubt the number is as high for bio products, considering their higher cost. Do we really need to build highly efficient (but also highly input-dependent) systems just to produce waste???
And finally-finally (sorry for the digression), I think you or one of your citations mentioned at some point that glyphosate (RoundUp) was comparable to table salt. Well, this weekend, as I was reading my paper edition of this month’s MIT Technology Review, I read an article about GMOs. Among others, it stated that the WHO/FAO recently classified glyphosate/RoundUp as “probable carcinogen”. I highly doubt that table salt falls into this category. (Digression over.)
IIDA: “I absolutely agree about no hurry – lets give it time. I have refrained from addressing many of the points that you raised. Frankly, and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but because many of the claims and their sources are very familiar to me, and I can already see a lot of discussion space going to righting some of the misinformation that contributes to several of those. But it is all so much at once, which is why I suggested taking one topic at a time. I would also suggest, that whenever you make a claim, you would not assume, but instead try to look for sources that confirm or reject that claim.”
A: Sorry you felt like you needed to avoid the problems I’ve raised, and I also hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you seem dangerously confident about topics that are (at best) scientifically still under debate, as far as I know. While I agree to taking it one topic at a time, I also think you should take your own advice on confirming claims and not assume that you’ve read everything there was on certain topics. Misinformation lurks just as much in anti-GMO/organic as it does in pro-biotech/”myth-debunking” online communities. Both types tend to be real echo-chambers, which is why I’ve been avoiding them for quite some time, as I’ve said before.
IIDA: “Absolutely no hurry. I will go through the multiple points you made earlier one by one and present what I know about the best state of current evidence on those, and you can come back whenever you have time and look at my sources.”
A: Geuinely looking forward to that!
IIDA: “I am here for the evidence. I am not set for only finding evidence one way or another. I’ve been humbled enough to realise I don’t want that, I just want to *know*. I just want to find the best way for humans and animals and nature on this globe to continue living together. I am sure we are 100% on board with this, both of us, as judging from your frustration with people who just can’t be bothered to think too much about these issues.”
A: Amen to that!!!
IIDA: “Thanks for engaging with me, and thanks also for your wonderful comment on the (unconnected) FB mama’s group discussion about acetaminophen and that bogus article.. shiver.. I had to keep myself away from that thread in order to control my turmoil over its propaganda!”
A: Thanks too and you’re welcome 🙂 I know the feeling.
All the best to you!
P.S. Don’t feel like you need to reply to this tomorrow or even this week. I meant it with taking our time and (re-)reading up as much as possible.
Hello Andreea! Hope you are well! I have been busy with a visitor, and for sure I will get back later with more time.
Just the first quick answer, you wrote:
“If you continue reading through that FAO statement on biotech, you will see they also explicitly acknowledge and enumerate the risks involved http://www.fao.org/biotech/fao-statement-on-biotechnology/en/ . As I’ve said before, these risks leave biotech in a currently unripe state. If at some point, the technology does “ripen”, I will be happy to reconsider my views and I’m pretty sure any reasonable organic agriculture organisation will too.”
FAO wants to include biotech which is at odds with all and any organic organisations’ stand – if you find just one organic org that is even ready to consider biotech in the light of the evidence, that would be fab!! This is what I have been sorely disappointed by. That FAO says risks will be carefully evaluated – jumping from that into conclusion that risks are indeed great or any greater than with any other method (everything carries a risk!), is a really big one. Frankly, sounds quite straight forward that FAO just wants people to understand that the choices are done with care, since people tend to perceive biotech as something scary. Here you saying it is not ‘ripe’ yet is really not evidence. The consensus on this is pretty clear, in fact, and points to the opposite. I’m sure you will easily find that out if you look into it, in the pieces I’ve already provided (GMOs and environment, etc or just my main GMO page: https://thoughtscapism.com/gmos/), or independently – I know changing ones view doesn’t happen overnight, or over one discussion, at least it didn’t for me. I’d love it if you could just think of me as a like-minded mum who would love to see you present the most convincing scientific evidence in its context that you can find, to know we are both drawing the most accurate conclusions on this topic.
I wonder if you have seen this table that summarises some similarities and differences between all current breeding methods (organic, conventional, biotech)? http://kfolta.blogspot.ch/2012/06/more-frankenfood-paradox.html
I don’t think it’s very fair to criticise me for talking at length about the report you chose as the first source after I asked about the most important topic! We should really carefully evaluate all sources. I’m sure you would want to know that there are anti-vaxxers and people who believe in cosmic rhythms and animal organ treatment for farming among the authors, before taking their word at face value. I’m convinced of as much after seeing your evidence-based stance on vaccination!
I’d like to say once more that I am happy you are taking your time to talk things through and really making sure that you don’t want to come off confrontational – that it’s the issue we’re debating here, and not each other – of course talking about issues that are important to us brings up emotions and makes us passionate, that’s why discussions like this often end up heated and upset. I think we’re doing really well in comparison! I’ve had many problems with that in the past, especially in vaccine discussions. I’m hoping that it’s helped me become a better person, I’m always trying now to stay friendly and respectful, instead of getting carried away into blasting people with arguments. We are all just people and we all have our reasons for having reached the conclusions we have made. Arguing is easy, listening is hard!
Ok ok have to put my daughter to bed now… later 🙂
Have a good evening,
P.P.S. Sorry if the beginning of the above might sound confrontational… Certainly not meant that way.
More resources connected to the discussion with Andreea
Hello! Hope you are well. Before I forget – having finally recovered from my over a week long cold! – here are the resources I promised on Monarchs and bees.
I realised these topics keep coming up in discussions, so it’s just as well to write up a piece about the issues and present all the good evidence-based sources I’ve found for further reading.
The one on bees can be found here:
I’ll add the link to the Monarch piece when I’m finished with it, too, meanwhile, here a couple of links to kick it off if I get stuck again for days on end before finishing the second piece. 🙂
Lots of new research out on Monarchs, and it’s not all that simple.
“Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others have focused on conserving or restoring milkweed breeding habitat. “But if the problem is that the monarchs are dying during the migration,” Davis says, “I’m not sure just trying to produce more at the start of the [fall] migration is the answer.” Other steps, such as protecting migratory pathways, may also be needed.”
Transcript of a keynote address delivered by Ted Nordhaus at the first annual Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy Symposium this June.
His point about Monarch butterflies:
“There is a correlation between glyphosate use and butterfly decline. But it’s not that glyphosate is killing the butterfly. It is an herbicide that targets plants, not insects. Rather, glyphosate is killing milkweed, a weed in which monarchs lay their eggs. While the decline of monarch butterflies is an unintended consequence of glyphosate use, the elimination of milkweed is not. It is one of the weeds that the herbicide is supposed to get rid of.
The trade-off here is straightforward and zero sum. You can either have more milkweed in cornfields or higher yields, but you can’t have both. If you choose more milkweed, then you are choosing lower yields, and, all else being equal, that means putting more land under cultivation to achieve the same level of agricultural output. With that comes attendant losses of habitat and biodiversity elsewhere.
Ultimately, the only way to have more monarch butterflies without reducing agricultural output or saving monarchs at the expense of other species is to create more monarch habitat outside of cornfields. This is an effort that a lot of people more concerned about monarch preservation as opposed to scoring ideological points about the food system have begun to focus on.”
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I’ve read with attention the discussion. I’m not sure we can really raise a definitive conclusion on the basis of the scientific papers. It is not a hot topic for research like, say cancer or AD so there might just not be enough people looking at demonstrating this. (which is not to say that it would be good to do so).
The point Andreea also addresses that you don’t apparently “get” or get convinced by is that organic agriculture tries to be a more robust system by having less genetic homogeneity for vegetables (therefore less susceptible to have a disease wiping out the complete culture of an area (like what happened for french wine production with the phylloxera epidemia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phylloxera), depending less on foreigner seed producers or pesticides or fertilizers. This is not scientific, this is more political or sociological. What happens if Monsanto decide to dramatically raise their price in a country where they are acting as a monopoly? What if the phosphorus producers decide not to sell in a country where such resource doesn’t exist? etc. etc.
Regarding the animal production i don’t know what you’ve been looking at but in France where i live, the difference is obvious in the standards. Chicken can actually walk outside instead of being in 20cm² in an artificially lit building or in a cage for egg production. Pigs are outside with 100m² of room instead of being in a cage where they can barely turnover for the time of the piglets to grow which also led to not cutting their tail, not cutting their teeth because strangely they stop being agressive to each other. Organic also means that you can’t use antibiotics preventively but only curatively. see there: https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/eu-policy/eu-rules-on-production/livestock_en
the more detailed version: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32008R0889&from=EN
Fortunately when you do not crowd so many animals in a small space they don’t get sick that often.
By they way, when you eat a free range or organic chicken you can TASTE the difference with those intensively bred poor birds.
On the point of antibiotic resistance for humans: http://www.gerilynburnett.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Bogaard_EpidemioRestoAntibiotic_IntJou_antimicAgents_2000.pdf
https://www.cdc.gov/narms/faq.html and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3234384/ (which states that there is definitely a link but that more research is necessary to understand exactly how it works to help build better antibiotic use policy). (just the 3 first google results)
I belive that if you read the link regarding the regulation for organic breeding you will change your mind on thinking that it is not better for farm animals.
But anyway, you don’t need a study to believe that, just stop by a farm and ask to see the animals.
Thanks for the blog 🙂
This is more of a question than a comment, and one I’ve asked in multiple forums to no avail. I share the same concerns that you do about the environment and animal welfare, and have gone back and forth between organic and non-organic as I’ve seen conflicting information on which is better.
Over the last few years, as I’ve returned to college in pursuit of a biology degree, I have taken multiple ecology (including agroecology) and environmental science classes, and the textbooks, lecture material, and supplemental matierials provided in these classes all favor organic. (One of those materials was a video about how composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon in the soil, which seems to be the opposite of what was presented here about compost.) Like you mentioned in a previous post, my professors also have encouraged us to buy organic, saying it’s the best way for us to reduce our environmental impact and move towards a more sustainable system. I even had to do a lifestyle project, in which the goal was to reduce my ecological footprint and carbon footprint, and the tools we used to calculate this rewarded choosing organic over conventional. As a result of being presented with science that shows evidence supporting organic, I have been seeking our organic produce and especially dairy and eggs for environmental and animal welfare reasons again.
When I’ve brought up the studies that contradict this position, and sent them to my professors, the answers I’m given are always that the study is poor quality, or ignores some major confounding factor, or is industry propaganda posing as science. They then provide other studies which support their position.
So my question, after all that, is: if the science doesn’t support organic being more sustainable and environmentally friendly than conventional, why are we being taught that it does in science classes? Why do our textbooks cite studies that show the opposite of the studies you’ve provided? Why, in a nutshell, are science majors being taught unscientific things in science classes?
I just want to make the best decisions with the least negative impact, and this has been beyond confusing for me. If you or anyone else can help me figure out why there appears to be such a disconnect, I would appreciate it.
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Thanks for your question. It is a very good one, and I am very appreciative of both your wish to simply find the most accurate information, as well as your confusion regarding conflicting reports.
I’d say that as a general rule, the way to have the best chances of forming an accurate view is to look at multiple reviews and large meta-analyses of the topic. Some of these reviews can indeed have failings, and if you can follow someone’s argumentation on what these failings are, in a compelling, clear, and logical manner, then that particular paper can be assigned a lower weight of evidence, especially if it disagrees with other robust overviews. However, simply hand-waving multiple large overviews away as ‘poor quality’ without carefully laying out their failings does seem evasive and not convincing.
I’m aware of at least two large meta-analyses on organic’s impact on the environment (the older one I’ve also mentioned in this above series), and one quite thorough review by the Swedish Food Safety Authority – not a scientific publication, but it breaks down lot of information in a useful way, and in many ways follows the other scientifically published meta-analyses on the environmental impacts of organic vs conventional.
I wrote about all three here:
A very good data presentation site, Our World In Data, featured an article on the topic as well: https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environment
The question why the overviews of the literature appears to be at odds with your professor and coursework, is a very good and troubling one. If they indeed dismiss scientific publications as being “industry propaganda posing as science,” it sounds like they are making very striking accusations, and such should be backed up by very compelling evidence.
While there is indeed worrying evidence of at least one professor being economically influenced, having promised papers with pre-ordained conclusions and being entirely funded by the organic industry (the case of Prof Benbrook laid out in my article here, also dealing with the larger topic of whether research can be trusted: https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/09/13/17-can-glyphosate-research-be-trusted/ ) – I have yet to see evidence of the contrary.
Hand-waving studies away on the excuse of it being ‘industry propaganda’ is a common dishonest tactic with the intent of evading even looking at the evidence laid out. Even in the case of the undisclosed conflict of interest on the part of the organic industry, the study was actually criticised by other scientists first and foremost on the basis of the failings in the evidence it presented, not by dismissing it without considering its data and arguments. The additional evidence of misconduct came to light first later on.
So, why would your professor act like this? Scientists are just people, unfortunately, and anyone can become wrapped up in their own assumptions so deeply they may no longer be looking objectively at the evidence. Many biologists identify with traditional environmental groups and subcultures, as I used to, and many aspects of that kind of identity is unfortunately tied to a narrative about evil conventional agriculture which is not so much examined, simply accepted and reinforced.
There has been a study looking at this problem of ideology and political identity influencing coursework on environmental sciences in the US particularly, that came out 2015. This study found that *two thirds* of introductory environmental science courses covered perspectives from one political ideology only, failing neither to contrast these views with other approaches, nor encourage critical thinking in evaluation of their basic premises. They look specifically at climate change, but the slant in the material ties in with a tendency to prefer the ‘natural’ aura of organic farming.
They identified three categories of major ideologies in attitudes toward climate change solutions presented (see Table 1). They are:
Smart growth reformers
What’s worrisome, only one course included in this study actually evaluated material from all three viewpoints. They write:
“Of the 14 classes, 9 assigned at least one reading from the writers listed in Table 1. Yet, only two syllabi included voices from two discursive groups, and only one class featured all three.”
Here’s the study: http://www.academia.edu/12212445/Discursive_diversity_in_introductory_environmental_studies
Critical thinking is the cornerstone of science, and failing to include it from such a basic introductory level goes a long way showing why there may be many academically trained people around today who have never critically evaluated some of their basic premises on these areas. After such premises have become a part of your views for a long time, as well as part of your social circle’s views, it may be very hard and cognitively exhausting to consider having to change such underlying assumptions. That in turn leads to the wish to simply dismiss contrary evidence out of hand instead of facing the great discomfort of having to actually consider it fairly.
I can’t comment more closely on the video you mentioned or the tools you were given to evaluate carbon footprint, but as neither videos nor curtailed tools are primary evidence on their own right, I do think that if asked, a professor should be obligated to provide the scientific evidence those videos or tools were supported by for closer examination. If they revert to the cop-out of ‘industry propaganda’ when presented with robust scientific studies however, I would not set my expectations very high. Picking and choosing ones evidence relying on nothing more than such a loose accusation is a very bad sign.
I’m very sorry that your sincere search for evidence is so difficult. I wish it weren’t so. I share your wish to simply want to find out what the data actually tells us, and I hope to help others make sense of the evidence, or how to look at the evidence at the face of confusing reports, too.
If you read the first article I linked to, you can see that there is a lot of nuance to the topic, and in some instances organic is a little better – on many instances however, it isn’t. Animal welfare is not included in the environmental impacts, and it is, if possible, even more heterogenous: depending on your country’s regulations, there may be welfare benefits from organic, then again there may not, or the benefits may be very small. It’s not very easy to dig out the specifics of this either.
Please let me know if I can help you with further questions. I empathise a lot with your muddled situation of trying to make sense of the information you’re given.
Thanks for reading and for writing about your perspective,