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

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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.

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.

  • August Pamplona

    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?

    Of course, saying that the roots of organic agriculture are in biodynamic agriculture says very little. You could just as easily say that the roots of chemistry are in alchemy but that doesn’t make modern chemistry any less scientific. In principle, organic agricultural could both have had its roots in biodynamic agriculture (which has its origins in the deluded rantings of Rudolph Steiner) and yet currently be scientific (though it would seem not to be).

    Nevertheless, I still kind of have the same reaction, how could I have missed that?

    • Freedom

      But the thing is research in modern chemistry grew exponentially from it’s roots in alchemy. Organic farming, not so much.

      • August Pamplona

        Of course. You don’t dismiss organic farming because the Steiner cultists had some sort of input early in its history, though. You dismiss it because you research it and find out that you are not getting what you think you are getting for the price premium of buying organic. That is, you are not getting something that is clearly better for the environment (in fact, given the productivity limitations it’s probably quite a bit worse) and you are not getting a health benefit in the form of a reduction in pesticide residues that is significant enough to have an impact or a health benefit in the form of improved nutrition that is commensurate with the added cost (if you get any of those benefits at all).

        And even then, “dismissing” organic does not mean that we refuse to use any technique or chemical that has ever been allowed in organic. Since organic is defined by what you are not allowed to do and conventional simply does not have the arbitrary restrictions of organic, conventional farmers get to pick and choose what is effective and to ignore the rest. So, in a sense, if you took organic and made it more science based you might end up with something that looks a lot more like conventional agriculture than like what is currently defined by the various organic standards.

        Organic + science = conventional.

  • gmoeater

    Good comments in this article about organic marketing. Misleading? In one local health food store, there are signs saying “Organics have 40% more cancer-fighting antioxidants.”

    would love to see the study behind THAT hype. It’s mistruth in advertising, in my opinion.

    • Iida Ruishalme

      That could be from the study I’ve written about in the context of other nutrition reviews (published both on my blog and here on GLP):

      http://thoughtscapism.com/2015/04/27/organic-vs-conventional-food/

      https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/05/12/organic-foods-claimed-nutritional-benefits-rest-on-shaky-anti-oxidant-study/

      • Ole J. Hansson

        “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”

        To me this is simply wrong. Steiner founded biodynamic farming, which was not based on scientific principles, and Albert Howard (followed by Rodale) founded organic farming, based on science. His book “the agricultural testament” (where he among other things expressed serious doubts about the methods of R. Steiner) has a lot of knowledge that is still relevant to farmers of today.

        http://www.zetatalk3.com/docs/Agriculture/An_Agricultural_Testament_1943.pdf

        I think the fuzzy thinking of sceptics on this point is due to the bias of wanting to represent science in a monotheistic way: “There can be no other science than ours.”

        That being said, I liked your piece a lot. But I also reacted negatively to another thing. Namely that you used Seufert et al 2012 instead of Ponisio et al 2014 when comparing yields…

        But I guess that was due to the fact that you wrote this before the last study on this came out? But why did you use the 34 % figure (biggest yield difference in the study) instead of the average of 25 %?

  • Keith Reding

    Thanks for the article. I have worked at Monsanto for 19 years. I grew up in a farming family in Arkansas. I joined Monsanto because I wanted to use science to help agriculture. I’m glad I did it. My hope is that other people will examine the evidence and come to their conclusions based on facts. For me, I’ll keep working to help farmers produce food and feed in an efficient, sustainable way using our best knowledge of biology and chemistry. Regards, Keith Reding, Ph.D.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Thanks Iida, Enjoyed your story. Somewhat similar to mine. But I had to have some help with some of the technical facets. Still do. BTW if you ever come over here be sure to go see the Finnish area of the U.P. of Michigan. they even have Finnish meat pies in the restaurants.

    • Iida Ruishalme

      Thanks, and good to know! It would be cool to see the Nordic parts of the states sometime. Even though I am more of a Carelian pie kind of person… ;)

      My husband is Swedish and he has some not-too distant family in Minnesota as well. Never visited them yet.

  • Wackes Seppi

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

    You are wrong (classic…). If yields are reduced by one third, you need a HALF more land.

    • Iida Ruishalme

      These are pretty rough estimates from different sources, that put organic yields at 20-50% lower than conventional.

      For 20% lower yields we’d need 25 % more land, for 50% lower yields we’d need to double the land area. Hard to say exactly where we’d land.

      If yields were consistently 34% lower as the Nature News piece cited, then yes for the same amount of produce we would need 1.5 times as much land not 1.33.

      For others who wonder why:

      (1 unit with 66 % produce) + (half unit, 33% produce) to yield approximately previous 100% (99%).

  • Federico

    Congratulations for your skepticism!! You are a beatifull example of how all can learn without been scientists.

    Greetings.

  • Ashton

    Where I live it seems that the larger organic farms have the same problems as conventional industrial agriculture: destruction of wildlife habitat, low wages and poor working conditions, topsoil erosion, groundwater depletion and fertilizer run-off. There are no labels for these things, so if you want to be an ethical consumer you would need to visit each farm that you buy from, and most people don’t have the time for that. One possible solution is to join a Community Supported Agriculture program where you can develop a relationship with the farmer. If we are going to have a future on this planet we need to implement farming practices which are actually sustainable, but that will certainly mean higher prices, and make it more difficult to feed a rapidly growing global population.

  • Cass Katia

    You mentioned you have vegan and vegetarian friends. The simplest way to reduce the environmental strain on the planet is to switch to a meatless diet. Growing animals for meat is an enormously inefficient use of land and resources, when you consider how many of the grains we grow — that humans could otherwise consume — are fed to meat animals, and how much water is used to keep them hydrated. (Hello, California.) Then we wouldn’t need to have these debates about whether Monsanto is good or evil, because their methods for maximizing agricultural output would largely be unneeded as we relieved the pressure on farmland, releasing it for the cultivation of plants rather than using it for grazing and growing food for animals.

    • Good4U

      You should read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. As a brief summary, vegans don’t compete well vs. other cultures. They quickly get displaced by omnivores.

    • RobertWager

      But the developing world wants more meat each day. How would you convince them to forgo their desires?

      • ringostarr1

        It is elementary my good Robert. You simply encourage the poor people living in the developing world to become one with nature by breaking their lease on life. Isn’t that right Cass?

    • Iida Ruishalme

      I do think that we should try to use all the best options at our disposal that benefit the environment. It’s not either-or. My family does eat very little meat, for various reasons. I used to believe all land producing food for cattle could go straight to human food. I’ve learned it’s not quite as simple, especially in parts of the world, like Australia, where livestock takes advantage of vast ‘low quality’ grasslands not suitable for farming. Also livestock can take advantage of a crops to whole different degree than we can (leaves, stems). I think it would be clearly beneficial to greatly reduce meat consumption, but what degree would make most environmental sense in each part of the world is more complicated to determine. What kind of cultural change is possible is another question.

      To my understanding, as mentioned, the developing world does have a growing demand for meat, and dictating what people are allowed to eat and what not in our own countries or others is not a simple issue.

    • TsuDhoNimh

      Cass … you can graze cattle on land that can’t be farmed because it’s too hilly or arid.

      Range-fed beef exists all over the western USA, like this picture shows.

  • CyrusSmith1820

    OMG….look….I should be diplomatic but I couldn’t….please come back to University and do it again….maybe in another town or better, country….
    You skeptical? Please…….you are a fish….or….I hope you got big $$$$ to write that……there would be the only logical reason to ridiculize your reputation like that…..
    Finally, please, remember to farm something in your life, to put your hands in the soil directly……you will learn probably even more…
    Half of the Monsanto products are intended for practices that we should never do to crop anything…..
    Biodinamics ad organic have nothing in common….if not to crop. Monsanto and organic practices and concepts are a Light Years closer than biodinamic and organic ones…..

    • Sterling Ericsson

      You…..use……too……many……ellipses…..

      • CyrusSmith1820

        Yes…sorry and a terrible English….It isn’obviously my language….but the superficiality and bias (to use an euphemism) of this article teased me to write…..the ellipses was needed to hide some…..#*/^#@!*&$#@@

        • Iida Ruishalme

          I assure you I am not a fish. :) Not even a paid fish. :(

    • Iida Ruishalme

      I assure you I am not a fish. :) Not even a paid fish. :(

    • Dubhslaine

      I see no gills nor aquatic surroundings in Iida’s picture, so what evidence do you have that she is a fish? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence…

    • Good4U

      I put my hands in soil just about every day, and have long, varied experience in growing food crops & livestock. I also know a lot about the technologies that are required to grow food for 7 billion people on this planet. Biotechnology (i.e. direct genetic modification) is one of the factors that will contribute to the survival of the human species. Without it, many billions of people will perish. Many millions are undernourished and perishing today for lack of it.
      I’ve often said that if anyone is truly interested in the protection of human health and the integrity of the environment then he/she would a) stand strongly in support of biotechnology, and foster its development toward worthy objectives; and b) limit human population growth by humane means, i.e. birth control. In many regions of the world, and tragically even in highly developed countries, there seem to be too few of such people.

  • Dezmond

    I like this. Thanks for writing. I agree that all options should be considered. I still don’t agree with the use of herbicides and pesticides of any kind, because of their toxicity to unintended species and the way they lose efficiency over time due to the evolution of resistances. Also, as a person trained in community ecology, I find management solutions that explore and exploit interaction networks far more fascinating, such as current research on endophyte communities and associated metagenomes. But to each their own.

    Funny, I always thought biodynamic was more about methods like IPM, that is pest control that modulates and adapts with pests.

    Ultimately population is the biggest problem, and so is meat consumption, which as far as I know is still greater in developed countries (I know that the US even imports beef from other countries). Remember, people in developing countries still have lower carbon footprints per capita and consumption typically increases with GDP (and I suppose with education, lower birthrates, and all the other things that correlate).

    I’m working on an organic farm now that doesn’t use any chemical herbicides. They are mostly dry farming. I wonder how that compares to the irrigated system in Dahan et al (2014)? That might be an interesting study. I should write a grant.

    No-till is interesting, but couldn’t similar results be achieved through transplanting into the dead material, essentially like a kind of mulch?

    So many questions and ideas for the future.

  • Dezmond

    I like this. Thanks for writing. I agree that all options should be considered. I still don’t agree with the use of herbicides and pesticides of any kind, because of their toxicity to unintended species and the way they lose efficiency over time due to the evolution of resistances (this is the general problem of single tactic solutions). Also, as a person trained in community ecology, I find management solutions that explore and exploit interaction networks far more fascinating, such as current research on endophyte communities and associated metagenomes. But to each their own.

    Funny, I always thought biodynamic was more about methods like IPM, that is pest control that modulates and adapts with pests.

    Ultimately population is the bigger problem, and so is meat consumption, which as far as I know is still greater in developed countries (I know that the US even imports beef from other countries). Remember, people in developing countries still have lower carbon footprints per capita and consumption typically increases with GDP (and I suppose with education, lower birthrates, and all the other things that correlate).

    I’m working on an organic farm now that doesn’t use any chemical pesticies or herbicides. The only thing I’ve seen seen used so far is Bacillus thuringiensis. They also do mostly dry farming. I wonder how leeching here compares to the farms in Dahan et al (2014)? That could be an interesting study. I think though that the real takeaway is that fertigation is less harmful than solid compost. Compost and other forms of recycled nitrogen are still heavily used worldwide, especially by poor (a prominent review from the late 2000s I remember said roughly half of all global agricultural N inputs are still organic). It’s cheapness and ease of access are real advantages over the energy intensive Haber-Bosch. If biotechnology scientists ever figure out cost effective N from diazotrophs, especially phototrophic diazotrophs, I would support that project. I’d even help out.

    No-til seems promising, but couldn’t you do the same thing by transplanting, using the old material as a kind of mulch?

  • Lynn Wilhelm

    Excellent article Iida! But the formatting seems very wonky on my PC screen. Maybe it is just me, but it was very distracting from an otherwise wonder piece. Thank you.

    • It looks fine from our end. What browser are you using? Could you check in another browser? We have checked on multiple Mac computers and browsers and it’s clean.

    • Shayna Murray

      I’m having the same issues reading it. Things are all jumbled up (windows and chrome BTW)

  • Eileen Young

    This is a really fascinating article. And if you’re looking at labels that help, Rainforest Alliance aims for farmer education and local environmental improvement.

  • disqus_hzWthOnKYd

    This “review of the evidence” appears very one sided; not a review so much as marshalling all the evidence against avoiding pesticides, antibiotics and other modern farming techniques that could indeed be harmful to human and other life. Your argument would be more convincing if you found at some evidence that went counter to your position; e.g. evidence on the effects of pesticides accumulating over time in the food chain. Surely not all synthetics are “good” while non synthetics are bad? Surely the organic movement is no more “profit oriented” than agribusiness. I am open to the range of evidence on food safety and environmental concern. But why so lopsided. I”m skeptical of your “scientific” review.

    • Sterling Ericsson

      “evidence on the effects of pesticides accumulating over time in the food chain”

      That would require the chemical in question to bio-accumulate, which is rarer than you’d expect. Neither organic or synthetic pesticides are necessarily good or bad. They have to all be looked at individually.

      Though synthetic pesticides have a higher likelihood of being safer and lower in toxicity, since they are derived from the organic pesticides in question and modified to have a more specific mode of action and be dangerous only for what they are being used on,

      • disqus_hzWthOnKYd

        Thank you for responding to my comment. I am a social scientist, new to this discussion and not proficient with the literature in life sciences. Thus, I will take your word that bio-accumulation is rare. I have a harder time believing that sythnetic pesticides (including how they are used in practice) have a higher likelihood of being safer/lower in toxicity than organic farming farming practices. I’m assuming this is not “settled science”. If I had the time to do a literature review myself I’m certain I would find this topic under debate and I’d like to hear an informed, knowledgeable response. I find this discussion very interesting and centered on a tremendously large problem facing the world–safe and wholesome food production. But upon my first read, I was struck at how similar this conversation among “like minded” folks is to the discussion among those advocating for organic farming and “free range” animal production. This last is not devoid of science. I am informed about food production and some of the consequences of current practices. I would love an evidence based conversation across “belief systems”.

        • Sterling Ericsson

          I think the scientific literature is quite clear on the variety of issues with organic farming.

          Nitrate leaching from intensive organic farms to groundwater
          http://www.hydrol-earth-syst-sci.net/18/333/2014/hess-18-333-2014.pdf

          Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans
          http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0011250

          Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? – A meta-analysis of European research
          http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479712004264

          The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture
          http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X1100182X

          Pesticide/environmental exposures and Parkinson’s disease in East Texas
          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19042691

          • disqus_hzWthOnKYd

            I will read some of these. Do you know of any journal articles that have found something different for balance?

          • Sterling Ericsson

            There are multiple different studies on yield comparisons. But in regards to nitrates and environmental effects, no, I don’t know of any others than those. Apparently studying the environmental effects of organic farming is not done very much, which is concerning in itself.

          • disqus_hzWthOnKYd

            Thank you for the information you provided and your thoughtful responses to my queries.

          • Good4U

            I’m intrigued by your purported search for “balance”. Where does seeking “balance” lead you? Does it make sense to seek “balance” between fact and fiction? If one were to find “balance” between superstition and fact, does that mean such person would be only half superstitious? Would a “balanced” person seek to be half good and half evil? Do “balanced” people seek to be half educated, in the middle between ignorance and enlightenment? I have a lot of trouble understanding this concept of “balance”. To me, it makes more sense to seek the truth, i.e. to follow the basic principle of science. By definition, science seeks the truth.

          • disqus_hzWthOnKYd

            While science “seeks the truth” it rarely finds it in a simple direct course, and often never finds it as different disciplines come at questions from different perspectives using different methods. Moreover, we have no way of knowing if the “basic principles of science” are used in studies without reading the methods sections closely and examining inferences made. Science principles are very often used to advance an agenda–e.g. tobacco companies funding a myriad studies meant to disprove that smoking contributes to cancer. That “lack of definitive proof” went on for years. Since I don’t have time to do that, I was asking for studies or qualitative analyses(e.g. chemical analyses) and other evidence based arguments suggesting the pros and cons of different inputs –in this case farming practices. The truth through science, is rarely a one sided enterprise where all the evidence arrayed points directly to the “truth”. Informed, scientists disagree, find different outcomes and so. I just wanted someone to suggest some articles that might show the strengths of organic practices, even as a niche in the overall strategy of food production, as well as the strengths of farming practices that seemed to be embraced by many who contribute to comments.

          • JoeFarmer

            How many words can be tortured in one post?

            I think you did it.

          • Jeff Leonard

            I totally agree with GoodU’s questioning of your search for balance. Perhaps it is because you come from the Social Science field? It is not a philosophical debate; it is the presentation of evidence. At any rate, you could follow any of the links provided to you by Sterling and put the title in PubMed or Google to find other papers that cite the original work or, in the case of PubMed, related papers.

          • I hope I can help clarify a few things. The tobacco case for instance wasn’t a science issue. There was a propaganda campaign that tried to sow doubt (maybe they called it balance…?) despite the fact that the science was clear.

            “Bringing up pictures of doctors smoking cigarettes is a common tactic used by anti-GMO activists and other critics of “mainstream” science to cast doubt and mistrust on matters of scientific consensus by implying that a world wide scientific consensus can realistically be bought off by corporations, and insinuating that that is, in fact, what is actually happening.

            The claim comes up frequently enough that I think it deserves to be directly addressed, so let’s put this tired canard to bed for all time.

            One of the fatal problems with this argument, of which there are many, is that the scientific consensus never was in favor of cigarette safety to begin with. In fact, it was known as far back as the 1930s that epidemiological datasuggested a connection between smoking and lung cancer, and other detrimental health effects were documented as far back as 250 years ago.”
            http://www.crediblehulk.org/index.php/2015/05/14/blowing-smoke-annihilating-the-fallacious-comparison-of-modern-biotech-scientists-to-tobacco-company-lobbyists/

            What comes to balance, seeking balance tends to be seen as an obvious virtue, but there is such a concern as false balance. What comes to studies that evaluate strenghts and weaknesses of all methods, just scroll back to the middle of my piece – there’s an extensive meta-analysis on the topic. I’ll include it again here below.

            “False balance is a real or perceived media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports. ” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_balance

            The balance fallacy, also known as false balance,[2] occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal value regardless of their respective merits. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Balance_fallacy

            A 2012 analysis of more than 100 studies of farming methods across Europe
            http://www.academia.edu/1907461/Does_organic_farming_reduce_environmental_impacts_-_A_meta-analysis_of_European_research

          • Nick

            How dare you ask for balance, sir?! This thread is devoted to assailing organic farming for requiring more land, water, and having lower yields than GM counterparts. It is lacking in evidence supporting the use of glyphosate, save that it increases yields. This is similar to the FDA’s conundrum. Monsanto did a study or 2 or 10 or 100 on a certain number of subjects over a certain period and didn’t find exploding heads. So it must be safe. It is not possible to control all necessary variables, ensure an adequate sample size, or mandate an appropriate duration for a study to prove that the multitude of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc in use today are not detrimental to people’s health. (see aprotinin, pentylenetetrazol, rofecoxib, methaqualone, etc. Darvocet was on the market for 55 years and survived multiple petitions directly to the FDA to ban it before finally being pulled. It killed over 2000 people. Whoopsie.

            I do not see enough evidence to support current methods of pesticide application as ‘safe’. ,That 51.51% of samples pulled in California in 2013 had ‘residues within legal limits’ means nothing. Legal limits change frequently. BPA had legal limits. TDCP and TCEP still do.

      • Nick

        ‘Dangerous only for what they are being used on”? That is one heck of a claim.

        • Sterling Ericsson

          It’s a tested claim. It’s why we can see that Bt toxin only works on insects and can’t harm vertebrates. It’s one of the few natural pesticides that has a very specified mode of action. Most natural pesticides are rather broad and have decently high toxicity, which is why we modify them (thus making them “synthetic”) in order to have specific modes of action.

          Like how glyphosate only works on plants and requires a rather high amount to start having any effect on mammals. Though, like most herbicides, the methods by which it effects plants also works well on fish. Herbicides in general seem to be good piscicides in addition. It’s rather aggravating. But that’s why glyphosate was also made to have the soil binding effect, so that the amount of potential runoff is limited extremely.

          • Nick

            You said pesticides, not BT toxin

          • Sterling Ericsson

            Bt toxin IS a pesticide.

          • Nick

            Yeah… I know. Not trying to be a jerk but your statement was that synthetic pesticides have a higher likelihood … and be dangerous only for what they are being used on”. It didn’t specify BT toxin. It seemed aggressive to say that all synthetic pesticides are only dangerous for what they are being used on. Is that what you meant?

          • Sterling Ericsson

            Considering Bt toxin producing plants are called synthetic by anti-GMO people, I assumed you were including that. There’s only the two main varieties that they ever complain about anyways.

    • Iida Ruishalme

      Skepticism is actually a great outlook on things, even if the casual meaning nowadays more often leans toward ‘cynical’, which is unfortunate. Getting a good idea about the landscape of scientific evidence is the way to skeptically investigate something, and that’s what I’m all about.

      I have become critical of organic farming not because ‘all synthetics’ would be good – quite the contrary. This is very important: I’m saying there is not general truth to a pesticide being better or worse for being natural *or* synthetic. What I am lopsided for, is using robust scientific evidence for evaluating the claims of effects of farming and pesticides for the environment and the consumer.

      I would always start approaching a field (especially one that I am not personally an expert in) by considering review articles and the information from respected science organisations. All that I have found so far have confirmed several shortcomings of the arbitrary organic limitations, and supported many environmental benefits of biotechnology (shunned by organics pretty much just because it’s not considered natural). http://thoughtscapism.com/2015/03/22/gmos-and-the-environment/

      I remain open to evidence, and was quite excited earlier when someone criticised my piece, and gave me detailed list of claims/links to check out – at last I would find some research that I had been missing. After all it would be great to know that my support of the organic movement would not have been for nothing. But I was disappointed as my search did not yield evidence of organic superiority – rather more examples of organic farming having a loose relationship to scientific evidence.

      You might be interested in reading the pieces I wrote about that further research, here:
      http://thoughtscapism.com/2015/02/24/on-farming-animals-and-the-environment/

      and here:
      http://thoughtscapism.com/2015/02/24/delving-deeper-into-the-roots-of-organic/

      Being skeptical is just the first step. To be truly skeptical, that step should lead you further into a thoughtful review of the best possible evidence on a topic. The many links I provide in my pieces are there because I don’t want people to take my word for it, but read up on it themselves.

      • disqus_hzWthOnKYd

        I intend to do some reading as I believe the issue of wholesome, safe food production is an important public policy issue as well as a personal one, informing my consumer habits. But I have to be parsimonious given this is not related to my work and time is limited. I am simply looking for balanced evidence, not that one set of farming practices is superior; rather the pros and cons of current practices. What you and Sterling have suggested will be a good start. I may need to look elsewhere for evidence supporting another view. My comments were due to the almost strident “point of view” on this blog that seemed a lot like the one on organic blogs, etc. I was surprised that the debate had escalated to the point of proving one side absolutely wrong, the other right. I also wonder who is funding current studies and would want to see some independence from outcomes/findings. Thanks for your help and for prompting interesting discussion.

  • Frederick

    I went through the same thing. I was a fierce defender of organic farming 2 years ago. Thank to the skeptic’s guide, this site, the afis ( French science site) and other science and skeptic site, I had to change my views. It was hard. I also believe less in local farming although we still do it a lot (buying local) because we like to the idea of helping the economy of our region, that is not super good lately. Each summer for the past 4 years, we subscribe to local organic veggies and fruit delivery. I do want more and more to boycott organic, but those farm’s veggies and fruit (especially their strawberries) are really good and tasty. But, my big problem is that the organization that manages all those deliveries, give some of our money to Equiterre, a Québec environnement defense group. They are anti gmo. The funny thing is that they state they follow science, which is true for climate issue, wild life preservation, water pollution, (but less on nuclear, I not pro nuclear, but they spread fear that is unnecessary) They respect the concensus, but, oups, on GMO, suddenly, there’s not enough evidence, hundreds of scientists are doubtful etc. The Same kind of talking points climate change deniers use. But the irony seems to be lost on them. And of course they call us for more contributions every year with automated messages. My wife, she’s a msc in plant biology, scientificly, she knows, but she’s still want to believe and encourage the local farmers (I agree with this one). If i could just stop part of the money to go to a anti GMO group, totally bought by the organic lobby, it would be better.

  • Nick

    Your Monsanto membership kit came with a white flag? How convenient. In a world where the burden of proof rests with the status quo and not the innovator the moral compass does indeed favor the bold.

    • RJB

      Please elaborate, it appears that you are claiming that the author is a shill for Monsanto.

    • Are you implying I am somehow getting benefits from Monsanto by writing this piece?

      The reason I am looking at the science on these topics, is because I care about the environment. “If we don’t value evidence, that may come to undermine all that we do value. For the sake of nature, let’s science it up.”
      http://thoughtscapism.com/2015/06/09/plants-dont-have-problems/

      Also,
      “Here is why the throw-away “you work for Monsanto” or “shill for Monsanto” comment harms the anti-GMO movement:

      1. It immediately says that you are willing to make up information in the absence of evidence.

      2. It says that you are finished with the conversation, that nothing I communicate is valid in your opinion.

      3. It shows that you are willing to try to influence other like-minded people with disinformation.

      4. It shows disdain for the peer-review process and scientific method.”
      http://kfolta.blogspot.ch/2012/07/thoughts-from-shill-for-monsanto.html

      • Nick

        Of course not, but I am suggesting that you are throwing in the towel prematurely. I appreciate the level of discourse in this thread and certainly agree that we should look at the science. But I do not believe your review is comprehensive. My statement was sarcastic, your response was dismissive. I’ve watched the Youtube video and have done my own research and find Monsanto’s business practices abysmal. That they advance the science warrants them no protection from the standard application of corporate and social ethics.
        I try not to conflate my views there with the issue of GMOs. This recent trend of ‘GMOs aren’t evil’ is an understandable response to the ‘GMO’s are evil’ pop science saturating the internet. But the truth is both are pop science, however the former is implying the latter are either Luddites or idiots. This is ad hominem and unfair, just like implying that you are working for Monsanto. You certainly have done more homework than 99% of the organic fans I’ve spoken with, but your argument is unbalanced.
        I have no doubt that MON810, along with proper application of glyphosate, could yield more bushels per acre than conventional corn. Organic farming isn’t modeled around maximizing yields. Saying it would take more land to achieve the same yields with conventional crops is circular reasoning. You say you care about the environment and I appreciate that. All that you mention about erosion and water consumption rings clearly in my ears. Why then do you not address why we are growing so much corn, soy, or alfalfa? If we want to minimize land use, these monoculture commodity crops serve little purpose. They have caloric value, but the micro-nutrient content is sparse. We could better serve populations with varied diets in concerted agricultural operations, freeing up large tracts of land and benefiting the environment.
        The strawberry graphics are great but only represent a single facet of the argument. I don’t care how many strawberries I can eat if the fungicides and herbicides sprayed upon them risk the health of the field workers. This is irrefutable. If they can develop a GM strawberry varietal which doesn’t need any of these chemicals, great. But the focus is on cash crops, not on environmental benefit.
        I have no doubt that there are organic operations who have questionable practices as well. It is entirely likely that the chemicals they are using are no better than glyphosate. But glyphosate’s use among GMO farming is nearly universal. There are organic operations which use far less fungicides/herbicides/pesticides. Another commenter posted about a study showing reduced use actually increases yields. The ecosystem can act effectively to reduce pestilence, but I will certainly concede that at times it is insufficient.
        Your title is alarmist. “Failure to defend organic food” is an absolute statement. This is my biggest qualm. Your implication is that organic food is indefensible yet you only refute a few isolated aspects. GMOs are not evil. They are part of scientific progress which is critical to sustaining our population. How they are being employed today is lacking. Organic food has merit and to deny that entirely is not supported by the science when you take a step back.

  • AllViews

    Do you think Monsanto has ulterior motives, or that it cannot use genetic modification to any more use? I used to think that Monsanto was evil and could make better GMOs, but after reading your article, I think that Monsanto could still make better GMOs. Could it, or do I not know very much about the ability of genetic modification at this time?

  • Andrew Hoban

    I actually had this same experience here in China. I had decided to review the current modes of waste and pollution here and put together a presentation to educate some of the local people as to how to reduce waste. The more I researched the more I realised that there really wasn’t much to say. After months of researching statistics and scientific journals my presentation became one celebrating China’s progress towards green energy and encouraging people to be more positive and focus more on the problems that weren’t being addressed. Of course it had a very mixed reception.

    It’s amazing what kind of truths can be unravelled once you start pulling at the strings a bit. If more people did more honest investigations themselves at home, we could do away with a lot of this disinformation that plagues the environmental movement. More power to you for publishing a well written and supported article that will be read by thousands and citing all your sources. In hindsight I probably should’ve done the same in the local media here.

  • Adam Russell

    The fact that monsanto was such prominently mentioned and defended makes me very suspicious of this article. I think they are getting desperate for support because suddenly a lot of articles like this are being made public with a strong emphasis on defending monsanto. The studies about organic farming practices may be correct but the use of toxic chemicals and genetic modification is not the solution, edpecially the way it is being done by Monsanto. Sustainable, chemical free farming is the way forward and defending chemicals and monsanto is not going to make that happen. A few farms are showing that it can be done and without loss of product or space. Also whole foods has a system now that rates how sustainably grown each product is and selecting a ‘best’ rated product is right now the closest to the wished for ‘making the world a better place’ label