The NYT has just featured a debate series on organic food in light of the study that I mentioned here last week. Excerpts from each contributor are quoted below the jump.
f crops are grown without pesticides, they won’t contaminate soil and water, foods will contain fewer pesticides, and people who eat organic foods will have lower levels in their bodies. The Stanford study and others confirm all this. Critics of organics say: “So what. Pesticides are safe.” They point out that nobody has ever died from eating industrially produced broccoli. Although science does not presently demonstrate long-term harm from eating pesticide-treated vegetables, pesticides are demonstrably harmful to farm workers and to “nontarget” wildlife, and they accumulate in soils for ages. If pesticides were all that benign, the government wouldn’t need to regulate them, but it does.
There is, however, a great deal of certainty over the human cost of industrial pesticides and fertilizers. In the next decade, the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that pesticide-related health care will cost Africa $90 billion. Agricultural chemical poisoning kills one million people a year, with millions more made severely ill by it.
This is to say nothing of the long-term environmental harm and other costs associated with pesticide use. Worse, agriculture is both perpetrator and victim of climate change. The fossil fuels used to make fertilizer contribute to agriculture’s carbon footprint, yet the rural poor will be hit hardest by climate change.
We’re encouraged to shrug off the environmental and social costs as necessary evils, unavoidable if we are to feed the world. We should shrug less. First, despite the acknowledged costs, one billion people are still malnourished. We all pay the price, but one in seven never see the benefits.
Second, there’s mounting data from comprehensive peer-reviewed international studies that it’s possible for certain kinds of organic agriculture to outperform conventional agriculture, with lower input costs and a smaller carbon footprint. Agroecological farming manages pests, soil fertility, water use, human social relations and biodiversity as part of a complex organic system. Beyond food, these systems also produce more fuel, fiber, fodder and pharmaceuticals than conventional agriculture.
Yet despite the claim that only it can “feed the world” as the climate warms and population grows, industrial agriculture has already reneged on its promises.Around 14 percent of the globe’s population is undernourished, a level that has held steady since the mid-1990s and will likely rise alongside food prices. Even in the United States, industrial agriculture’s epicenter, nearly 15 percent of households are“food insecure.” Meanwhile, Howard’s contention that chemical-dependent soil can’t produce healthy food may yet be borne out: diet-related maladies among Americans, like obesity and Type 2 diabetes, are reaching epidemic proportions.
Nor can industrial agriculture’s material basis last forever. Synthesizing nitrogen for fertilizer requires vast amounts of energy — bad news in a time of climate change and global competition for fossil fuels. Meanwhile, our reliance on mined phosphorus is in for a rude shock; phosphate deposits are running low and concentrated in geopolitically fraught places.
Does organic farming “have a place” in such a world world? A better question might be, how long can policy makers keep ignoring its lessons?
Most people say they buy organic food to avoid pesticides, but organic farms (especially those with products found in grocery stores) use natural pesticides like rotenone and copper sulfate. While “natural” sounds better, it’s not synonymous with safe. There are plenty of naturally occurring things that are bad for us — after all, anthrax and botulinum toxin are 100 percent natural. Organic pesticides have been linked to a wide variety of diseases – some at lower doses than synthetic ones. Fact is, all pesticides are designed to kill, and natural ones aren’t in any way less dangerous.
But perhaps the crux of the organic argument is the idea that natural methods are better for the environment. The trouble is, organic farms are only about 80 percentas productive as conventional ones. Already, we have cleared more than a third of the Earth’s ice-free land for agriculture. To farm entirely organically, we’d need more. Decreased productivity isn’t just a space issue; it has real environmental consequences. While organic farming can be better for wildlife, a systematic review by Oxford University scientists found these benefits come at a high cost, as organic varieties actually produce more carbon emissions per unit of food, contributing to the devastating effects of climate change.
Until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost is devastating, and so far, science has been unable to support claims that organic foods are safer or healthier. Organic farming does have many potential upsides, but it isn’t a panacea. Instead, its methods need to be considered alongside conventional ones to create the best balance of productivity and sustainability.
Organic advocates often claim that its methods lead to less nitrogen pollution, but calculated per good produced, that pollution is similar to or higher thanconventional methods. And most important, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that shifting U.S. agricultural production to organic would require an area greater than the state of California to be converted from pristine land into agriculture.
Finally, organic entails a huge price tag. For the U.S. alone, estimates (measured by lost gross domestic product based on my calculations) suggest a cost of at least $100 billion annually.
Most of the world’s inhabitants need cheaper food, so we should focus on higher yields, and better access to fertilizer and pesticides. Well-regulated use of genetically enhanced crops offers the potential to boost yields, reduce pesticide use, and better ability to handle adverse conditions like saline soil and droughts.
The evidence is clear: organic products are neither healthier nor better for the environment.
Regular readers can guess where my sympathies lie, but you can read each of the five brief responses and decide for yourself.