In four short years, since I started looking at the science of farming more closely, the topic of organic vs conventional has felt very worn out to me, several times. I already know how it will go: some people have a field day bashing any organic supporters as idiots, while others just keep declaring their choice to buy organic as superior, ignoring any evidence I or others may provide. Then sometimes you find people who have really just not looked at it very thoroughly before, and are actually interested in hearing more – and for once, talking about it is worth it again!
I am really glad that the Swiss blogger Fran over at the Little Zurich Kitchen had the openness of mind to read my pieces on agriculture even though they challenged her views. I know it can be really hard to be in that situation. Not only did she read, but she also reached out to me and asked for an interview, which I will also include here. It originally appeared on her food blog, under the title The Interview: The Organic Crisis. Per her request, I tried to be really short and refer to my pieces for more in-depth information… and then I cut down another 1000 words.
For better of worse, when it comes down to it, this is still a very real, current, and impactful topic. Developing our agricultural systems in environmentally friendly directions is important, and we really need to connect the awesome motivation of many organic consumers (like mine before) to do their best for the environment, with the information about where the best potential for improvements can be found.
Introduction from Fran: If you are a bio (organic) shopper, this interview won’t be an easy read. Having been a believer in organic food myself, I found Iida’s blog quite upsetting at first and it took me a while to get used to some of what she wrote. But being an economist, I know how statistics can be bent to prove false claims and the way Iida works is how I was trained to detect the true facts too, which is why her work makes a lot of sense to me. I would like to invite you to read the interview nevertheless, to keep an open mind and if you don’t like what you read, to dig into the topic deeper yourself to make up your own mind. So, here we go.
Iida, who are you?
I am a Nordic expat twice over, a mother of two, a biologist, a writer, and an environmentalist – and unendingly curious about the natural world. I grew up in Finland, studied in Sweden, and have lived for soon a decade in Switzerland with my Swedish husband. We adore the mountains and love the fact that we have cows for neighbours – one of my favourite things about Switzerland is that it’s never so far to the nearest bit of greenery with a few cows, donkeys, goats, chicken, sheep, or rabbits.
Why do you write your blog?
It sparked from wanting to help shed light on topics where I see that there is a lot of misinformation. As a new parent in a foreign country, I turned to internet parenting groups for support, and I saw a lot of dubious claims being passed around without good sources to back them up. Often they were very fear-inducing claims, too, and I think new parents have enough worry, fear and doubt in their lives to begin with! I was frustrated and wondered how people could believe these stories so uncritically. Well, I was in luck – for I got a very personal answer to my own question soon after. This ties in with your next question:
On you’re blog, you’re describing how you went from an avid bio grocery shopper back to buying conventional food. How did this come about?
A simple internet meme from an acquaintance caught my attention and annoyed me because it criticized organic farming. Having shopped near exclusively organic for a decade out of my passion for the environment, I was upset. But I was also trained as a scientist, so I decided I would defend my position properly, looking up the best evidence for the benefits of organic. That’s when I realized that… I had never looked for that evidence before.
*Wham*. I realized that I had uncritically believed in a concept based on nothing but the word of my friends (who in turn, had believed their friends…), thinking adamantly that there were benefits to organic food, without ever looking more closely at the claims. So, based on my own experience, how do people believe in something without good sources to back it up? Quite easily! We don’t have the time to double-check everything we hear, and hearing something from several trusted friends will often get filed away as ‘ah that’s how it is’ – we assume something without even thinking that it would need more scrutiny. There is also an abundance of sources with simple, emotional narratives available on the internet, whereas the access to the more thorough sources of deep analyses on the topics are… dull, technical, and hidden away in the (paywalled) scientific literature.
Being both a scientist and a worried parent, who had learned from her own experience about believing in information that just ‘gets passed around’, I thought I should do my best to contribute to bridging that gap: I wanted to help make a source-critical, nuanced way of looking at the actual evidence more accessible to everyone. That’s why my blog happened. My failure to find evidence for the benefits of organic farming, and the wrenching realization that I was actually supporting methods that had some environmental drawbacks when buying only organic, was the topic of the first post I wrote, called: Natural Assumptions.
You’re writing about some big, controversial topics. What is your approach for coming to your conclusions, or why should the readers believe in your viewpoint?
Actually I don’t want the readers simply to believe my viewpoint – they should want more to go on that just my opinion! I simply want them to be interested. I wish most of all that they reflect on how to be critical of sources. If they do that, my work is pretty much done! Of course I also hope that they enjoy the way I write, and that they find my presentations of the evidence thorough and useful 😉 My viewpoint is simply that if we want to really know something, we should take the best evidence into account – I’ve made a case for it in Why Science? I present to my readers the most comprehensive evidence I can find on a topic, and I hope they hear out my case for why we can’t in good conscience ignore that evidence.
Let’s talk more about organic versus conventional produce. There’s a lot of talk about why organic is better for us and the environment, but anyone who starts digging a little deeper also realises there’s a lot of controversy about organic food. Let’s discuss the most important aspects separately – organic versus non-organic.
Organic vs Conventional: Nutrition?
This was a rather straight forward part of my ‘organic crisis’. There have been several big reviews of the literature, and the evidence is clear – I presented them all in my piece about Organic vs Conventional Food. Shortly, the reviews find no significant difference in the nutritional value or health benefits when comparing organic or conventional food. This was not a big blow to me – why would there be a difference? Things like weather, or land-type, or other factors can play a big role on the composition of the produce, and it varies somewhat from season to season and field to field. Of course say, breeding of a specially vitamin fortified crop would clearly make a difference. But whether nutrients come from cow or a fertilizer bag, or which type of pest control is used, it doesn’t really change the growing fruit or crop.
Fruit and vegetables: Pesticides and our health
Lot of people are really worried about pesticide residues. I don’t think that is strange – it’s an unknown substance that has been on our food, with the aim to kill another plant or pest. What might it do to us? The best medicine for the worry is finding out more.
If you look at the studies, you find that most people worry needlessly – pesticide levels are generally so low, that they are actually not a health issue for the consumer. Both organic and conventional pesticides contain potentially more or less harmful substances, if exposed to in high enough doses. The organic selection is not based on evaluation on health effects to begin with. In any case, neither residues on our food is something we need to worry about. In fact, pesticide and food safety regulation nowadays is very strict, and the food we have is safer than ever in human history. Trying to scare someone about pesticides in food is pretty unethical, not only because there are no grounds for that, but also because eating more fruits and vegetables (whether organic or conventional!) is about the healthiest thing a person can do, diet-wise. For studies and other information on pesticides, please see more here, where I delved into the topic: On Farming, Animals, and the Environment, and here for more on pesticide regulation and relative safety of herbicides.
Fruit and vegetables: Impact on the environment
This topic is really complex, because there are so many aspects about the impacts to the environment. Which is why any simple, generalising arguments about ‘being better to the environment’ should really always invite question: better how?
There are two good starting points to looking at this: there is a meta-analysis of 100 European farming studies comparing organic and conventional which highlights that organic has some benefits while conventional others, and underscores the fact that organic’s impacts (especially nutrient run-off) become larger because it takes more land than conventional to produce the same amount of food. There is also a Swedish report, looking at European studies, trying to break down the topic into several different factors, which is great, to prompt people into thinking of the many facets of environmental impacts. I have written and presented a key table from their work here: Environmental Impacts of Farming. I have included the mentioned 100-study meta-analysis in the discussion of that piece too, as well as in my story of Natural Assumptions.
Something that is very close to my heart is biodiversity, and sparing as much land as possible from agricultural use is a key issue there – some argue for biodiversity within farming areas, whereas many people, including a recent WWF project on biodiversity, point out that the most vulnerable plant and animal species, those we really want to protect are the types that particularly need areas that are left entirely outside of farming – calling for ‘land-sparing’ agriculture. Whereas some biodiversity in fields (weeds, pests) actually wastes resources, causing more carbon emissions, more run-off, more land, etc. (Presentation and my commentary on the WWF project here).
It is important to reduce antibiotic use in order to avoid development of resistance. Using antibiotics preventatively or for growth-promotion is already not allowed in the EU, to the best of my knowledge, so all farming here is under this legislation.
On the other hand, it’s not ethically defensible to let animals suffer if they are sick. So the use of antibiotics should be sensible – the fact that organic can sell meat that has never been treated with antibiotics rests on the possibility of the sick animals to be moved to a conventional (part of the) farm. There is nothing wrong with the animal after that, however, and it is right to treat it when it’s sick. Antibiotics may leave a slight residue (again: miniscule amounts, whose detection is a marvel of modern molecular methods) but these are carefully monitored, and the meat itself is no threat to the consumer (well, neither is ingestion of most antibiotics. European guidelines on veterinary residues here).
Meat: Animal welfare
This was one big reason for me to choose organic. But as these things go, when delving into it, it becomes a lot harder to say if there really are benefits – and here there are quite big differences between countries. It depends on the fine print of the certification requirements. Organic, or bio, suffers from the problem that it might only mean ‘organic feed’ (which, as discussed, does not imply better nutrition and may even imply worse environmental impact) depending on the label, and it also gives an incentive not to treat sick animals – prolonging animal suffering. Some organic labels may guarantee access to outdoors, whereas some may not. In Switzerland nowadays I choose the Coop label Naturafarm (not Naturaplan), as they seem to have the stamp of approval of the Swiss Animal Protection organisation (Schweizer Tierschutz STS) – perhaps this has some positive influence on the animal handling.
I have, however, learned not to put too absolute trust on labels, and as I have learned more about conventional animal handling, as well, 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 too. 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. I’ve discussed this more at length in On Farming, Animals, and the Environment.
To note, for environmental and health reasons, there are compelling arguments for most people in the West to markedly reduce meat-consumption and eat more vegetables and fruits. A recent meta-analysis of 174 studies, on differences between organic and conventional farming, underlines this as well. More on that in the end of my piece, Environmental Impacts of Farming.
The future of feeding the world and preserving the environment: what’s the answer?
Haha, The Answer! Well, my take on it: acknowledging that topics are often complex, and there are no easy, simple answers. Looking at each problem carefully, evaluating the evidence, considering the context, and making the best possible choices that suit each particular situation. Staying humble, willing to learn, and interested in looking at the details.
Another issue we’re all confronted with on a daily basis is whether buying local produce really is better for the environment. To what results did your research come?
While buying local holds a distinct appeal to most of us, from a resource-efficient point of view, and with the aim to minimise emissions, local is often not the best option. The biggest ‘food mile’ burden is the consumer driving to the store. The most energy-intensive part of the food production chain is not the transportation but the production stage – so it makes environmental sense to produce food where it can be done with least resources, where the conditions are optimal. This is also one of my worries with organic – many methods organic does not approve of actually help farmers decrease resource and fuel use in the production stage, which is where reductions are most important (see more in GMOs and the Environment, or Glyphosate and the Environment).
Increasing pressure to produce all different things locally would increase the environmental burden of farming. A good place to start reading more is here, for instance.
Buying things locally, when their production is well suited to that area, is of course always a good idea! And if you are worried about transportation emissions (great!), then the best option is to bike to the store, or walk, or use home delivery.
You’ve done more research on how to buy food than most people. What are your criteria for your own grocery shopping and what do you buy?
I use home delivery for the bulk of things, which allows for more efficient use of resources transporting the food (one big car goes a long route, rather than many small ones driving back and forth), and local farms or markets for the enjoyment of it. I eat lot of vegetables, and I try to use them all – as food waste is a big problem. If a vegetable is no longer pristine, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have plenty of good nutrients. A lasagna, a stew, or a soup won’t mind squishy veggies, and a brown banana makes a great banana pancake. I use a lot of lentils, chickpeas, beans, quorn, nuts, and cheese. We eat fish once or twice a week, and I cook with meat more as a treat, once a week or a couple of times a month.
Sadly, nowadays I avoid organic – I want to support a more evidence-based way of looking at food production and using environmentally friendly methods, and organic not only falls short of that mark, but obscures the science with emotional marketing.
The original interview can be found over at the Little Zurich Kitchen.
If you would like to read more, I have written on this topic many times, for instance here: Myth: UN Calls For Small-scale Organic Farming, or other pieces under the categories: The Environment and Farming and GMOs.
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.