General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

Just how good is organic farming?

Asked by LostInParadise (29299points) March 16th, 2013
26 responses
“Great Question” (5points)

I attended a lecture that was billed as being about soil ecosystems. The lecture was given by Elaine Ingham, chief scientist of the Rodale Institute. I knew that the Rodale Institute pushes organic farming, so my radar immediately went up.

I did learn some interesting things about the organisms in soil, like the bacteria and micorrhizal fungi that form a symbiotic system in the plant roots. Mostly the lecture was about the superiority of organic farming, along the lines of this. Dr Ingham told of several cases where she and her team visited an ailing farm on the verge of bankruptcy and turned it around by applying compost tea. She spoke of collusions by government and pesticide companies that discourage organic farming.

Checking on the Web, you can see that Elaine Ingham has respectable credentials as a microbiologist. I would like to believe her when she says that organic farming can match the output of green revolution techniques without applying chemicals and with less need for water. The obvious question is why these techniques are not universal if they are so good. Can you shed any light on this?

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Tropical_Willie's avatar

For commercial operations they can be expensive. Bottom line for most commercial farms is profit. Backyard / community gardeners can use the organic methods for their own tables., but it requires attention, planning and time. It can be good but time intensive.

flo's avatar

It could be the usual problem, short sightedness. Making a fast buck is easier, looks more attractive. Or most people are not informed about it, or both. I’m purely guessing here.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (2points)
poisonedantidote's avatar

A scientist has more credibility and integrity than a politician any day of the week. The reason is more than likely money.

Why tax vegetables, when you can tax vegetables and chemicals and have lots of both made and sold.

What are the politicians eating? Do they chow down on pesticide smothered food, or do they eat organic? I’m guessing chances are they eat organic, but they want the peasants to eat the shit stuff and pay for it.

bkcunningham's avatar

Did you happen to catch the Stanford study on organic foods?

Here is a snippet of an article about the study:

Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds

You’re in the supermarket eyeing a basket of sweet, juicy plums. You reach for the conventionally grown stone fruit, then decide to spring the extra $1/pound for its organic cousin. You figure you’ve just made the healthier decision by choosing the organic product — but new findings from Stanford University cast some doubt on your thinking.

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, published in the Sept. 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

A team led by Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods. They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.

The popularity of organic products, which are generally grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones, is skyrocketing in the United States. Between 1997 and 2011, U.S. sales of organic foods increased from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion, and many consumers are willing to pay a premium for these products. Organic foods are often twice as expensive as their conventionally grown counterparts.

More at the above link.

gailcalled's avatar

They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.

That sentence strikes me as very odd, as written.

Isn’t reducing the risk of pesticide exposure exactly what is meant by carrying fewer health risks?

Organic foods…which are generally grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones certainly works for me.

nikipedia's avatar

It sounds like your question is about the benefit of organic farming techniques in improving food yields, rather than any potential health effects. Is that correct?

flo's avatar

“The obvious question is why these techniques are not universal if they are so good.”
Just because people are not embrasssing something better in droves, doesn’t mean it is not as good as it is cleaimed. That is the case accross the board.

If we look at the “dirtry dozen” (fruits and vegs) in apple for example, the pesticides are in through and through not just on the surface.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (0points)
bkcunningham's avatar

The risk of residue is small, @gailcalled. Even from conventionally grown foods. Also, skin can protect the food from pesticides exposure. To say the least, the study wasn’t met with enthusiasm from proponents of organic.

gailcalled's avatar

See @flo‘s list. Why would I voluntarily choose to eat these if I have a choice?

The Dirty Dozen Plus:
sweet bell peppers
imported nectarines
domestic blueberries
green beans
kale, collards, and leafy greens

flo's avatar

People in California voted to be ignorant :
Prop 37

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (2points)
serenade's avatar

The reason they are not universal is because we are still living with the fallout of the post-WWII era that spawned the idea of “better living through chemistry.” The western food system serves the military industrial complex by propping up chemical companies and by providing cheap calories through subsidies.

At the same time, I don’t know whether organic standards, if maintained since the prewar era, would sustain the population. It certainly wouldn’t now, but I’m not sure what an alternate timeline would look like.

Contrast this with the methods of the “rice bowl” in China, which until recently was, I believe, pretty much organic—relying on waterfowl, for example, to fertilize paddies. That’s a more widespread application of organic techniques.

bkcunningham's avatar

@flo and @gailcalled, what regulations are in place regarding pesticides on organically grown foods? Read this from Berkley and tell me what you think.

From the above link:
Contrary to what most people believe, “organic” does not automatically mean “pesticide-free” or “chemical-free”. In fact, under the laws of most states, organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops.
So what does organic mean? It means that these pesticides, if used, must be derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured. Also, these pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply any synthetic materials for the past three years, and the land being planted cannot have been treated with synthetic materials for that period either.

Most organic farmers (and even some conventional farmers, too) employ mechanical and cultural tools to help control pests. These include insect traps, careful crop selection (there are a growing number of disease-resistant varieties), and biological controls (such as predator insects and beneficial microorganisms).

When you test synthetic chemicals for their ability to cause cancer, you find that about half of them are carcinogenic.
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.

bkcunningham's avatar

“Organic” farming has been around forever.

flo's avatar

@bkcunningham why the need to spend $45 million to convinvice people not to have GMO labels? (Prop 37)

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (0points)
bkcunningham's avatar

@flo, those pushing for the new regulations spent millions as well. I’ve read both sides of the argument. Why give so many exemptions to the labeling in the bill?

bkcunningham's avatar

There’s some good information regarding both sides of the prop 37 issue, @flo.,Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food(2012)

EDIT: I can’t get the page to link correctly. Weird.

flo's avatar

@bkcunningham They spent millions? They were fighting the position that there should be no label on GMO products? Noone should fight for ignorance. Just tell me why the GMO people need to hide that it is a GMO product?

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
bkcunningham's avatar

I don’t think they were exactly fighting to hide that products are GMO. There’s more to it than that. I wish that page worked so you could read some of the remarks from both sides. Can you just do a Google search for ballotpedia and look up the prop 37 page? It is interesting.

flo's avatar

I did and it looks like I’m having the same problem. Most of the page is blank.

What did it say though in a sentence or so.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (0points)
bkcunningham's avatar

The arguments against Proposition 37 in the state’s official voter guide were submitted by:
Dr. Bob Goldberg. Goldberg is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Jamie Johansson. Johansson is a family farmer in California.
Betty Jo Toccoli. Toccoli is the president of the California Small Business Association.
Jonnalee Henderson. Henderson is affiliated with the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Dr. Henry I. Miller. Miller is a founding director of the Office of Biotechnology of the Food & Drug Administration.
Tom Hudson. Hudson is the executive director of the California Taxpayer Protection Committee.[15]
Other opponents included:
The California Republican Party.[16]
Arguments against
The arguments in opposition to Proposition 37 presented in the state’s official voter guide included:
“It’s a deceptive, deeply flawed food labeling scheme that would add more government bureaucracy and taxpayer costs, create new frivolous lawsuits, and increase food costs by billions—without providing any health or safety benefits.”
“It’s full of special interest exemptions.”
“It authorizes shakedown lawsuits.”[15]

The Bay Area Reporter: “Prohibited in many countries (e.g. France), no one really knows the health risks of genetically engineered food. This is a transparency measure, which will allow the consumer to make an informed decision. It would be the first such measure of its kind in the United States.”[18]
The Marin Independent Journal: “Consumers have a right to know what they are buying and consuming.”[19]
The North County Times: “Proposition 37 is as common-sense a measure as Californians have had a chance to approve in quite some time.”[20]
The San Francisco Bay Guardian: “Prop. 37 doesn’t seek regulations or limits in any way. It just mandates that GMO food be labeled — the way it is in at least 50 countries worldwide, including all of the European Union, China, Japan and Russia.”[21]
“No on 37”
The Contra Costa Times: “Proposition 37 purports to be a simple law that requires proper labeling to identify so-called genetically modified food. If that was all it did, we would be for it. Unfortunately, it does much more, and we think voters should send it back to its creators for some modification.”[22]
The Daily Democrat (Woodland, California): “While we support identification of genetically modified food, this measure is so convoluted as to impose excessive costs on our state’s farmers and agricultural industries.”[23]
The Fresno Bee: “Under Prop. 37, no food that uses genetically engineered ingredients could be called natural. That seems to make certain sense. But it contains wording that could prohibit ‘natural’ labels on any food that that has been pressed or milled. That might include grain, which is milled, or olive oil, which is produced by pressing olives. Proponents say that wasn’t their intent. But that’s no guarantee against lawsuits.”[24]
The Long Beach Press Telegram: [25]
The Los Angeles Daily News: ”...once you get past the pleasing outside surface of this proposition (more information is good, right?), it reveals a rotten interior that pits the organic food industry against the non-organic food industry, includes special interest exemptions and sets up a system ripe for lawsuit abuse.”[26]
The Los Angeles Times: “Unfortunately, the initiative to require labeling of those ingredients is sloppily written. It contains language that, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, could be construed by the courts to imply that processed foods could not be labeled as ‘natural’ even if they weren’t genetically engineered. Most of the burden for ensuring that foods are properly labeled would fall not on producers but on retailers, which would have to get written statements from their suppliers verifying that there were no bioengineered ingredients — a paperwork mandate that could make it hard for mom-and-pop groceries to stay in business. Enforcement would largely occur through lawsuits brought by members of the public who suspect grocers of selling unlabeled food, a messy and potentially expensive way to bring about compliance.”[27]
The Merced Sun-Star: “The initiative would grant authority over labeling to the California Department of Public Health, which already has plenty of work combating food-borne pathogens. For state government, the cost of the additional duty would be relatively small, but the initiative provides no funding to cover the additional work.”[28]
The Modesto Bee: ” This flawed measure would set back the cause of labeling.”[29]
The Orange County Register: “Voters should be concerned that Prop. 37 would likely spawn waves of lawsuits, with the litigation and enforcement costs passed on to grocers and the consumers. The initiative’s language invites abuse.”[30]
The Press-Enterprise: “Prop. 37 is the wrong approach to addressing the merits or dangers of genetically engineered food. Whatever its intent, this badly written, logically muddled initiative stands to do more mischief than good.”[31]
The Redding Record Searchlight: “But as written, Proposition 37 would create a fertile new field of litigation. Retailers would be mainly responsible for ensuring the proper labeling of the products they sell, overseen by the state Department of Public Health, but private lawyers and activists would have the power to sue over alleged violations and collect their costs and fees — even if nobody’s suffered any damages. More work for creative plaintiff’s lawyers and more hassles for businesses? That is not what California needs.”[32]
The Sacramento Bee: “Proposition 37 is a classic example of an initiative that shouldn’t be on the ballot. It is an overreach, is ambiguous, and would open the way for countless lawsuits against retailers who sell food that might lack the proper labeling.”[33]
The San Bernardino Sun: “The most concerning aspect of Prop. 37 is its method of ‘enforcement.’ It allows every member of the public to become an enforcer, dropping lawsuits if they only suspect noncompliance but have no evidence…What a nightmare scenario for grocers small and large who, under the terms of the initiative, would have to keep reams of paperwork certifying that all the food they sell is properly labeled as to which might contain genetically modified organisms or not.”[34]
The San Diego Union-Tribune: “Should genetically modified food be labeled and face more thorough regulation? That is a completely valid question, one that should be the focus of congressional hearings and possible federal legislation. It is not, however, an issue that should be addressed via a weakly crafted state ballot proposition whose leading donor appears to stand to gain from its passage.”[35]
The San Francisco Chronicle: “Prop. 37 is fraught with vague and problematic provisions that could make it costly for consumers and a legal nightmare for those who grow, process or sell food.”[36]
The San Jose Mercury News[37]
The Santa Cruz Sentinel: “Citizens would be empowered to sue grocers they believe to be selling unlabeled GE foods, without needing to prove any damages. Clearly, this provision would create even more lawsuits. And who would this benefit? Lawyers.”[38]
The Ventura County Star: “Such a law would create mistrust and confusion about the foods that Californians eat.”[39]
The Victorville Daily Press: “Proposition 37 is, at bottom, another means of adding income to those lawyers — and they seem to be legion — who seek remuneration by bringing suit under what would otherwise be frivolous circumstances.”[40]

LostInParadise's avatar

I appreciate the discussion on GMOs, but I think that they deserve their own thread.

The argument in favor of organics runs something like this. The soil is a complex ecosystem. The organisms that live there are dependent on the sugars supplied by plant roots. In turn the soil organisms provide the roots with inorganic nutrients. Fungi and bacteria in the soil take the lead in forming soil structure, vital pockets for containing water and oxygen. The nature of the soil ecosystem is largely determined by the plant roots. They encourage the types of organisms that they depend on just as flower structures above ground encourage pollinators. Using organic techniques, the roots grow longer and can tap into water supplies. There is sufficient inorganic material to supply the needs of plants without the need for chemicals, provided that there is a thriving community to deliver them.

glacial's avatar

I am not necessarily pro-organic, and I am definitely not anti-GMO. @bkcunningham makes a lot of good points above (with a couple of caveats: first, there is controversy over the Stanford study and second, the benefits/risks involved in different methods of food production are very complex, and we are not going to come to a consensus based on any one study).

However, I am in favour of labelling food explicitly. I think consumers have the right to choose what they want. What is it that Americans always say? Don’t counter hate speech by banning speech; counter it with more speech? Similarly, I don’t think the solution to ignorance about food is to hide the nature of the food because the answers might spook consumers. I think the solution is to educate people about what they are eating.

Also, even though I am not in principle all for organics and against GMOs, I have as little trust for big agriculture as I have for any other large corporate interest. We should be keeping tabs on what they are doing with our food supply (which is only their business because they want to make profit) as a matter of national security (whatever nation you happen to be in). Monsanto has already shown itself to be a rather nasty entity in terms of how it treats competitors and detractors. The fact that it is not a “good neighbour”, so to speak, does nothing to make me feel that the fate of our food supply should rest in its hands. Transparency is important here.

To address your actual question, @LostInParadise, I think it is simply inertia that keeps us stuck in a technical rut for too long, even when better methods are discovered. So, I don’t think that the lack of change is necessarily an indication that a better way has not been found.

LostInParadise's avatar

I found this article, which suggests that there may be a middle ground between organic and industrial agricultures. I think Dr Ingham may have overstated the case for organic farming.

flo's avatar

Thank you @glacial. esp. for:
“I don’t think the solution to ignorance about food is to hide the nature of the food because the answers might spook consumers. I think the solution is to educate people about what they are eating.”

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (2points)
mattbrowne's avatar

Organic food does not always have the best ecological footprint.

Bagardbilla's avatar

Haven’t read any of the replies above but I’ve worked on bio-dynamic and organic farms as a hobby since 1990’s and have picked up bits and pieces of knowledge here and there… That’s the extent of my practical knowledge.
I studied International Economics and International Politics, and that is the extent of my learned knowledge.
I believe, in the end, to answer your question, as always it boils down to money! At the turn of the century with mechanized development in technology people began moving to cities for work (and were encouraged to pay taxes), and the farmers were using more and more mechanized technology, (providing Banks the opportunity to make loans) to buy more tractors, fertilizers (for oil companies to find markets for their waste products from the refining process) and in the process more and more people were becoming indebted, (again a very good thing for the banks and a developing country as well).
So, basically these techniques are not good because of the economic system we’ve created. Why take hundreds of people (taxpayers) and put them on farms and go back to organic methods of farming where they wont be supporting the banks, the oil companies, etc. when we can have it the other way around.
That’s my 2 cents.

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