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‘Natural’ illusions: Biologist’s failed attempt to defend organic food

Here I write of my attempt to defend organic, of the risks of repeating slogans, and of how pieces of worldview are built and change, sometimes as easily as with a comment or two.


“Yes, Monsanto is pure evil,” I said. This was about a year ago, in 2013, and I was defending science and nuanced thinking in the same sentence, no less. “Monsanto is pure evil,” I said, “but genetic engineering is just a tool and in itself is neither good or bad.” My University course literature had given a balanced view of many possible benefits to GM while highlighting a couple of areas of caution. My main insight on Monsanto came from the movie Food Inc., confirmed by plenty of common internet knowledge and a couple of trusted friends of mine.

I had always considered myself a rational and science-minded person so I was upset when I first heard people object to GMOs for reasons such as not wanting genes in their food (in the late nineties, when the topic was still very new and knowledge scarce) or just because ‘it wasn’t natural’, which I saw as a fear of the unknown.

Later on I was incredibly frustrated to find that a lot of people opposed standard vaccinations going counter to scientific evidence. So when I stumbled on a Facebook page called “We love vaccines and GMOs”, though I didn’t exactly think of my view on genetic engineering as ‘love’, I was happy to find a place to share my frustration. But as I started following their posts I was confronted with something that gave me pause. There were several that criticised organic farming.

I had been a loyal organic consumer for a decade. My vegan friends had talked a lot about how detrimental industrial agriculture was for the environment, and even my favourite ecology teacher back in the University mentioned how important it was to buy organic milk and meat. Living on student subsidies and saving on about everything else, I was convinced that buying ecological produce (In Finland the label actually goes under the name ‘Eco’, and the Swedish label, translated roughly to ‘Demand’, also states the food is ecologically produced. In Switzerland it’s called ‘Bio’ for biologically farmed.) was vital for the environment. Paying twice the price was more than worth it.

I couldn’t just leave the criticism unaddressed. Somebody needed to present a nuanced voice of organic farming, so that people would not group it together with anti-science sentiments. So I started digging. I read about comprehensive meta-analysesof studies where they found that organic food was no more nutritious than conventional produce – News in Standford medicine – Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods (or click for the paper behind paywall), for instance, said:

science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

and in Scientific American on: Mythbusting 101 organic farming vs conventional agriculture. Interesting, I thought, but hardly devastating. That wasn’t my reason for choosing organic. I read about how organic was an industry like any other, looking for profit, with all the dirt that entails. Even Michael Pollan criticized the organic industry in his book Omnivore’s dilemma. Well sure. It couldn’t exactly be a charity, could it? Not every company was perfectly principled. It didn’t mean that the whole organic label was bad.

Then I read a Swiss animal welfare organisation statement (article in german) that organic did not necessarily reflect in greater well-being for the animals, that it was more narrowly focused on the farming of crops. As a great animal lover I thought, okay, that’s a pity, for animal products I would have to look for different labels. But I would continue to support organic for the most important point, for the sake of the environment.

I continued. Then there was a study about organic pesticides being no more benign than conventional. Well that was surprising, but made sense now that I thought of it – they would all have to be some kind of chemicals that kill plants and insects. It turns out, when they looked at natural vs synthetic chemicals, researchers had come to the conclusion that natural or not does not make a big difference. As one commenter on that concluded:

Until recently, nobody bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. But when the studies were done, the results were somewhat shocking: you find that about half of the natural chemicals studied are carcinogenic as well. This is a case where everyone (consumers, farmers, researchers) made the same, dangerous mistake. We assumed that “natural” chemicals were automatically better and safer than synthetic materials, and we were wrong. It’s important that we be more prudent in our acceptance of “natural” as being innocuous and harmless.

strawberries pesticides
Find more information from safe fruits and veggies website

I further read about how the risks from pesticides for the consumer were actually very small, and that people feared them much out of proportion! What a relief. Why did so many seem to think the opposite?

 

Further, there was a study that said organic farming actually contributed more to pollution of groundwater, and then a meta-analysis of more than a hundred studies saying organic had more ammonia and nitrogen run-off per product unit, leading to more eutrophication as well as acidification potential. Ouch. That was not what I would have thought. But considering the imprecise mode of fertilisation (spreading out manure), that too did make sense. Most importantly, also confirmed by several sources (and here and here), I found out that the big issue with organic farming was the yield – forgoing the more efficient synthetic methods meant having one third (or between a half and one fifth) less of end product. Nature News:

Crop yields from organic farming are as much as 34 percent lower than those from comparable conventional farming practices, the analysis finds. Organic agriculture performs particularly poorly for vegetables and some cereal crops such as wheat, which make up the lion’s share of the food consumed around the world.
Cereals and vegetables need lots of nitrogen to grow, suggesting that the yield differences are in large part attributable to nitrogen deficiencies in organic systems, says Seufert.

This in turn meant that scaling up organic farming, we would need to find a third more land to make up for its inefficiency.

When I looked at these studies one by one, my immediate reaction was: surely now that these results were available, where necessary, organic farming practices could be adapted so that they would continue to provide consumers with the best environmentally friendly sources of food. But that relied on an assumption I held that I had so far not even thought of checking.

Related article:  Is monoculture a bad thing? It's time to revise simplistic ideological narrative

I thought organic farming was based on evidence, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t designed by studying what would be best for the environment. On the contrary, to my surprise I found it’s roots were actually in biodynamic agriculture – a method that emphasizes spiritual and mystical perspectives on farming. What? How could I have missed such a point for a decade? The picture I was beginning to piece together was that being ‘organic’ was based on the idea that modern farming – industrial agriculture – was bad, and the old ways of farming were better. That whatever natural was, that was better.

So anything created specifically in a lab, with intention, aim, and knowledge – anything synthetic – had to be bad. Genetic engineering (which I had thought would go hand-in-hand with many of the ecological intentions of organic farming) had to be especially bad. And companies working on modern agricultural approaches were simply the worst.

i_love_monsanto
I couldn’t believe what I had just read.

While I was in the midst of what I call my organic crisis, I saw another post that was at odds with my world view. But this one was over the top. A YouTube video called “I love Monsanto”. I clicked on the link in disbelief as I had never seen those three words in the same sentence before. Obviously it was an attention-seeking stunt, and it worked. The man in the video, Dusty, went through one Monsanto-claim after another, and punched them full of holes. And quite easily too. He urged his watchers not to take his word but to read up on the claims themselves. I did. Alleged lawsuits, bad treatment of employees, terminator seeds, Indian farmer suicides, abusing and controlling farmers, patents, notorious history, being evil, falsifying research, and on and on. I came up empty. There was nothing terrible left that I could accuse Monsanto of. I even skimmed back and forth in the movie Food Inc., and looked for supporting sources online, but instead of finding ammunition, I found more holes. With a few emotional testimonies and dramatised footage the movie painted a worldview which made all its following insinuations plausible. I couldn’t believe I had not seen the gaps in its presentation on the first viewing. Why didn’t they interview any science experts or organisations? What about the FDA? Union representatives? Farming organisations? Lawyers? Immigration officials? Where was the actual evidence?

I was embarrassed and angry over how easily I had been fooled. Not only had I parroted silly slogans such as ‘Monsanto is evil’, but I had long and determinedly supported a branch of agriculture that I thought was making the world better. It dawned on me that the only improvements in fact being made were the ones in the minds of myself and the other organic supporters – thinking better of ourselves for making such ethical choices. I had shunned others for using the ‘natural’ argument, but with my wallet I had supported the idea that ‘natural’ methods were best in a mysterious way that was above and beyond evidence.

I began to question if there even was a ‘natural way to farm’? If natural was defined by, say, the exclusion of human activities, then surely there was nothing natural to farming. On the other hand, if we accepted humans as a part of nature, and our continued innovations as part of *our nature*, then all farming was natural. Saying that more traditional farming practices would be inherently better than those using more advanced technology wasn’t a concept that could be settled by a romantic appeal to nature. Only careful definitions of ‘better’, followed by observations, testing, and evaluation of evidence could tell us something about that.

Another thing which may or may not be considered natural, is how incredibly many humans there are on this planet today. My reading has made me accept that innovations like synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, and enhanced crops are important in the quest of keeping everybody fed. I have even begun to accept that Monsanto – gasp – could play a part in making the world better. As I see it, the best kind of agriculture going forward should be a scientifically oriented one. It should be free to combine the best methods whether they be derived from old traditions or created in the lab, using what makes most sense, in order to arrive at efficient and environmentally friendly ways of farming. And what has made me happy indeed, is realising that this is already being done – just look at Integrated Pest Management, crops adapted to withstand harsher environments, and Conservation tillage or No-till.

Organic labels on the other hand are not adapting. Actually, it appears they are spending considerable sums of money to mislead the public about science (see here, here and here). That is not something I can approve of. And I am not ready to give up one third more land to support the appealing idea of ‘being natural’. That is land which isn’t there. Land which comprises the last dwindling habitats for wild-life – the actual nature.

I am still searching for that label that would say ‘buying this will make the world a better place’. And if I do find one, I will do a proper background-check to see if I can verify its claims. I’ve realised that I am in no way immune to basing my views on unchecked assumptions, and I shouldn’t judge others for making the same mistake. Having to change a deep-seated world view can be exhausting and painful. I am thankful for this experience and see it as a reminder to stay respectful of others, no matter what beliefs they may hold. We can help each other in remaining open for opportunities to learn.

Published originally in the Skepti Forum blog: Iida Ruishalme’s 500 words – Natural Assumptions and my own blog Thoughtscapism.

Iida Ruishalme is a writer and a science communicator who holds a M.Sc. in Biology from Sweden. She is a contributor to both Genetic Literacy Project and Skepti-Forum.org. She blogs over at Thoughtscapism. Follow her on twitter: @Thoughtscapism or on her Facebook page.

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