Cornucopia Institute: Organic farms industrializing--As sustainability benefits of GMO crops rise

The idyllic image, often promoted by the organic industry itself, of organic farming as a collection of independent farmers committed to sustainability and fighting against Big Ag is far from current reality. Sure, there are thousands of small backyard farmers and small farms, but in terms of output--what consumers buy and eat--they represent an increasingly smaller fraction of the organic market. And this analysis comes not from critics of organic farming but from its most ardent supporters.

"When people buy organic milk and eggs, they are buying the story behind the label," Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, told the Washington Post. "We have a wonderful, romantic story. When they see the reality, they really feel betrayed."

Green Meadow, Saranac, Michigan (Cornucopia Institute)

Recently, Cornucopia took aerial photos of some of the most productive organic farms in the United States to show how little they portray that  family farm image that most consumers think they’re buying when they purchase organic. For example, this photo depicts Green Meadows Farm in Saranac, Michigan, an an organic animal farm that is licensed for over 1 million birds. Each of these two-story houses contains over 100,000 birds.

In an article in The Saturday Evening Post, Barry Yeoman recounts the organic industry’s climb  toward industrialization. After 12 years of setting standards for organic foods, including exclusion of genetically modified crops, the USDA set its official guidelines in 2002.

“From 2000 through 2008 the sector went gangbusters: Organic food sales climbed 15 to 21 percent each year, and organic non-foods like cotton were posting annual growth rates upwards of 40 percent,” he wrote.

The Cornucopia Institute created this flow chart showing corporate acquisitions of organic farms and food companies. To name a few: General Mills owns Cascadia Farms; Hillshire Brands owns Aidell’s Sausage; Coca Cola owns Honest Tea.

(Cornucopia Institute)

For some organic supporters, corporate control isn’t an issue. Helge Hellberg, a California consultant, told Yeoman, “Any acre converted from non-organic production to organic—even if it’s industrial—is a victory for the environment.”

For others, it’s a betrayal of the movement. “Part of why many of us went to organic many, many decades ago was because of the kind of concentration and difficulty we saw in the agribusiness-as-usual model,” Michael Sligh, the founding chair of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), told Yeoman.

Ultimately, organic farming’s need to fit into the existing model of agriculture has pushed it to concentrate on efficiency. This leads many farmers and businesses to get big to stay in the game. This flies against its early ideals of local production, animal welfare and sustainability.

This is certainly not true for every organic farmer, as some try to maintain small operations. Yeoman gives the example of Ray Christopher, who runs the 12-acre farm Timberwood Organics in Efland, N.C. Christopher was dropped as a supplier to Whole Foods Market over the higher price point of his vegetables compared to a large-scale organic farm in California.

Another conundrum that Cornucopia Institute is addressing is how many compromises have been made in the regulation of the organic industry. The group is using its aerial photos to argue that organic farmers are not meeting requirements to provide grazing for animals or even give them time outside. It is filing complaints with the USDA against 14 operations.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the growth of organic food industry is stretching the USDA's ability to monitor the industry. A recent internal memo at the agency found that 23 of 37 certifying agents that were reviewed this year did not correctly conduct onsite inspections. A Wall Street Journal investigation went further looking at all 81 certifying agents, finding that 38 had failed at least once to follow standards.

The organic industry is certainly not the opposite of conventional farming, as it may sometimes attempt to portray itself. Nor is it the antithesis of farmers choosing to plant genetically modified crops.

That brings us to the issue of what is sustainable agriculture. In fact, crops can be genetically modified to be more sustainable—a high value among consumers who buy or consider buying organic. In fact when the formal organic standards were being established in the 1990s, President Clinton proposed including some GM crops as organic if they improved sustainability, by say reducing insecticide use or other inputs, but they industry rejected that proposal.

If one's goal is protecting the environment and not an ideology, It make sense to support  biotechnology when it offers genuine sustainability benefits--and some consumers are catching on, especially younger ones. One recent survey by the International Food Council Foundation found that millennials are more open to food biotechnology than other age groups, while they are also willing to pay more for sustainably produced foods. Consumers in the survey indicated their willingness to buy food modified by biotechnology to require fewer pesticides.

Specifically, for insect-resistant crops, such as Bt crops, pesticide use is reduced by nearly 42 percent, according to a meta-study published in PLOS-ONE in November. Bt corn contains a genetic sequence from a soil bacterium that codes for a compound that kills the European corn borer, requiring less pesticide use from the farmer.

Not to mention that one simple distinction between organic and conventional farming is sometimes just using organic rather than synthetic pesticides.

Eric Hall, a professor at the University of Minnesota, Rochester, writes on the Skeptoid blog: “We shouldn’t judge chemicals based on a “natural” label, a perceived “ickiness,” or on fear-mongering from pseudoscientists. It should be our goal to reduce the use of all pesticides and herbicides not because they are dangerous, but because reducing their use reduces the energy needed to produce the food, and could theoretically lower the cost of food as well.”

Rebecca Randall is a journalist focusing on international relations and global food issues. Follow her @beccawrites.

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  • toddyo1935

    A fine little California company called Magnation – has accumulated data across the organic field. This one on chickens is eye-opening:

    Chickens watered with magnetized water grew larger, with an increase in the meat to fat ratio, and experienced reduced mortality rates (Gholizadeh et al., 2008). Also, poultry have showed an increase in egg production when watered with magnetized water (Lin and Yotvat, 1990).

    Magnetized water supports the growth and development of the bone structure in chickens and other poultry. Chicks drinking this water showed an increase in their bone-formation process, and an improved blood morphology. In addition, premature death rates among chicks decreased by 2 to 3 times the average rate.

    No genetic changes – just more efficient water.

    • hyperzombie

      Magnetic Water??? WTF, are you serious?

      • People like Mr. toddyo1935 are apparently unaware that the planet earth is one big magnet. (Shh… don’t tell him though.)

        • toddyo1935

          Are you here for a discussion or just playing “progressive?” Since you seem to be able to spell, I suggest you spend a little time studying our website.
          One of the great selling points for the product is the rain water that becomes soft as it falls through the earth’s magnetic field. We just concentrate what Nature has demonstrated. We have a lot more to learn.
          As for this Cornucopia site – I just tripped across it. The purpose of science is to discover what works and to apply it for the good of all.
          I broached the magnetic idea here because it at least significantly reduces the need for pesticides, fertilizer, water by 20-30% and even pumping energy by about 14% – all while increasing crop quality and output.
          Like solar has become more practical with the onset of LED’s over incandescent light bulbs, IMO magnetic treatment of seeds, water and minerals improves the whole process and reduces the need for things that are considered impure in the organic field.
          We could well return to horseshit and flies if technology becomes anathema. NYC at the turn of the 19th Century produced over 700 tons of the stuff a month – not counting urine that mucked up the streets.
          I’m just glad people with a lot more scientific savvy than me are busting their guts to accomplish something.

    • ISpeakJapanese

      In order for something to be magnetized, it has to contain an unpaired electron. Groups of molecules (or atoms in the case of non-alloys) then have to arrange themselves into domains to amplify this effect. This phenomenon is only possible in solids. For this reason, water cannot be magnetized. Magnetized water is pseudoscience.

      • toddyo1935

        You’re right! The water is not “magnetized.” The term has become one of convenience. Water molecules tend to cluster, thereby reducing their surface area for carrying liquid or dissolved amendments. Also the clusters have a more difficult time penetrating clayey soils and plant pores.
        Passing the water through a magnetic field tends to break down the clusters making the water more capable of penetration. Dissolved solids, like CaCO3 reshape from dendritic crystals to “toroidal” shapes that don’t cake or clog pipes. Significant changes take place in salts and other minerals found in recycled water. A visit to the website can be fruitful, as names are named and studies specifically cited.

    • Aidan Benelle

      Very interesting.

    • First Officer

      Excuse us but we’re do back on planet Earth.

      • toddyo1935

        Your point is? What do you do when you’re due back on earth?

  • Jon

    Hello Rebecca, Please make sure you are factual in your science underlying your opinion.

    In regard to this snippet from your quoted article below, I suggest something along the line… Bt corn contains genetic sequence from a soil bacterium that codes for a compound that kills the European corn borer (or something like that). Bt corn does contain or make bacteria.

    “Specifically, for insect-resistant crops, such as Bt crops, pesticide use is reduced by nearly 42 percent, according to a meta-study published in PLOS-ONE in November. Bt corn contains a soil bacterium that kills the European corn borer, requiring less pesticide use from the farmer.”

    • Rebecca Randall

      Thanks. I’ll make a change.

  • detribe

    “It should be our goal to reduce the use of all pesticides and herbicides not because they are dangerous, but because reducing their use reduces the energy needed to produce the food, and could theoretically lower the cost of food as well.” Really?!

    Well no, this is a flawed logic. If a small quantity of chemical increase farm productivity it may enable a net increase in energy efficiency by a multiplier effect.One needs to know and empirically consider SYSTEM efficiency. Eg. Herbicides by reducing energy used in tillage could be a net plus for the environment, and over-reliance on plowing to manage weeds may be worse than using herbicides.

    • Quite right David!
      And, not only do organic farmers use far more fossil fuel per-acre and per-bushel, they also cause far more soil erosion by using tillage instead of advanced herbicides.

      • Willard M

        Yea chemicals! Bhopal is the future!

        • Right…
          So you think we should destroy the land and burn up fossil fuel just to avoid using a bit of spray?

          • Brucus Ruckus

            Mixed farming and rotation with cover crops aids weed and pest control.

          • Are you speaking from experience?

  • mem_somerville

    I think this is an interesting tension within the organic arena. If it becomes cheap enough for everyone to have it, it’s no longer the special “club” membership that they want it to be.

    I’ve asked them this: well, do you want this available to everyone or not? Do you want the costs to be competitive or not? They get really quiet when you ask these questions.

    But please, organic governor, please proceed to clobber your allies.

    • Bob Kerman

      Agreed. Beginning of the end for them. Hopefully we can get on to the business of creating truly sustainable agricultural practices – without the cognitive dissonance and political agenda from the far left.

    • First Officer

      Could small, locally grown, operations really feed us all? I like to use just USA egg consumption numbers to show why I don’t think so.

  • Dear Mark Kastell and Rebecca Randall:

    No, sorry, but people are not buying a “story” when they buy organic food. According to the USDA National Organic Program (which is a great read by the way) organic food is supposed to be produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It has certainly been touted as being more nutritionally dense, and is supposed to be “purer” than conventional food; 95% more pure in fact (again, have a look at those standards).

    But since there is no field testing in this multibillion dollar business, almost HALF of all organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides, none of it has ever been proven to be consistently-nutritionally superior, and roughly three-quarters of it is imported from countries like China. That’s the real story I’m afraid.

    So, excuse me, but I’ll believe The Cornucopia Institute is an “ardent supporter” of the organic movement when they start talking about the importance of organic field testing. Did I mention field testing is in America’s organic standards?

    • Brucus Ruckus

      Don’t certifiers like QAI ‘field test’ to ensure organic farms are in compliance with NOP standards?

      • Why not ask them?
        They’re supposed to. But I’m not aware of any USDA-accredited organic certifiers that are field testing.

  • Excellent article. One suggestion: add one extra little sentence to the tiny 2nd last paragraph to emphasise the meaning of “organic pesticide” — particularly that they can be _less_ sustainable than engineered synthetic pesticides.

    At the moment that point is implied, but could easily be missed by someone interested in the organic v. conventional debate who doesn’t know the details. I hope that plenty of such people will read this!

    • lajaw

      I suppose that depends on your definition of “sustainable”.

      • Indeed. I was trying to match the language of the article. Higher toxicity and less targeted was what I was trying to get at.

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