Bronze-level articleOrganic food

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Organic foods are crops which have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and sometimes certain preservation techniques such as food irradiation. The term also encompasses meat and other animal products (milk, cheese, honey) which have been produced without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. Organic farming was pioneered by alternative medicine promoter Jerome Rodale (née Cohen)[1] in the early part of the 20th century based on the idea that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides damaged the flavor and nutritional value of foods, and has become big business as consumers seek to reduce the environmental impact of food consumption and eliminate food safety issues such as pesticide persistence in food ingredients. Most proponents of organic food also want it to be free of genetic modification, although some proponents regard the use of genetically modified food as a valid form of organic farming. In the last case, it seems that not everyone agrees.

Governments usually set standards along these lines which must be adhered to in order for food to be legally sold as "organic." In some countries, the regulatory role is taken on by non-governmental agencies. The Soil Association performs such a function in the UK.[2] In the United States, the USDA does have a certification program (which still allows pesticides, so long as they're not synthetic), but so long as the food does not use the USDA Certified Organic logo, it can be sold as "organic"—and attract elevated prices—without any regulation.

"Organic" is a made-up, unscientific label which has no link to the scientific definition of an "organic" compound, which is any which contains carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bonds. This applies to the overwhelming majority of carbon compounds as well as pretty much everything and anything of biological origin, and many non-biological compounds. (E.g., gasoline consists of organic molecules, and some amino acids form inorganically). As such, the actual definition of "organic" is based essentially entirely on arbitrary chemophobia, with the idea that "natural" compounds are somehow better for you than other chemicals. Contrary to popular belief, in the United States, organic does not mean "pesticide free", and organic farmers can use "natural" pesticides, including Bt and copper sulfate. These pesticides are, unsurprisingly, no better than synthetic pesticides, and are frequently worse, having inferior efficacy and in some cases exceeding safe levels on produce due to their persistence, whereas many modern synthetic pesticides are designed to break down rapidly.


[edit] Methods and benefits

Studies have found that organic farming can, if properly implemented, have environmental benefits over conventional farming. One of the earliest scientific verifications of organic productivity was demonstrated in a 22 year study by Cornell University, which found yields of organic to be equal or better and had the added benefit of containing fewer toxic chemicals when compared with other non-genetically modified food.[3]

Sustainability—the ability to leave the soil and growing environment fertile enough to grow more crops without major chemical or other intervention—is a major goal of many organic farmers. Avoiding pesticides is another major issue, since many pesticides are also toxic to humans and other animal life, though contrary to popular belief, many pesticides are used on organic crops in the United States. Common methods used to achieve these goals include:

  • Crop rotation: The replanting of fields with different crops between seasons to repair damage done by a crop in the previous season; for example, swapping maize (a very soil-damaging crop requiring massive intervention by the farmer[4]) with legumes such as soybeans or alfalfa (which live in symbiosis with "nitrogen-fixing" bacteria that can convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into bioavailable forms in the soil).
  • Composting and "natural" fertilizers: Instead of using inorganic salts and substances such as anhydrous ammonia, organic agriculture prefers fertilizers such as compost, manure, fermented fish guts (similar to the old New England native American practice of burying dead fish under maize plantings) and "green manure" (i.e. cover crops as mentioned above, plowed into the soil to decay and provide organic matter for the next growing season).
  • Integrated pest management: A "defense in depth" method of dealing with pests, where blanket pesticide use is replaced with intercropping (planting of less-valuable, more-attractive barrier crops between plots of more valuable crops to attract pests), predators such as ladybugs and lacewings, pest traps, and more precisely targeted applications of biodegradable pesticides.[5]
  • Companion planting: Placing plants with common care needs in close proximity. The iconic "Three Sisters" combination used by North American Indians to raise beans, squash, and corn is one famous example; the beans use the corn stalk as support while enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, while the crawling squash plant provides a sort of mulch effect to protect the area from weeds. From there, entire books have been written on the subject. Altough the companion planting technics are commonly used in organic gardening scale, profesional farmers tend to stay away from the practice for logistic reasons (machinery, harvesting, species specific pesticides, etc.) and focus more on crop rotation over seasons for mutual plant and soil benefits.
  • Bee health: Neonicotinoid and pyrethroid, two pesticides forbidden by USDA organic standards, have been tagged as potentially harmful to bee colony health and a possible contributing factor in colony collapse disorder.[6] However, since Spinosad insecticides are both approved for and used by organic farms, organic farms may also be contributing to CCD.[7] The pyrethrum insecticide approved for use on organic farms is also highly toxic to bees. There is currently no clear link between any of the four and CCD, but all four have negative effects on bees.
  • Higher employment rates: Organic farming is much more labor intensive than conventional farming, the advantage of this is that it provides more job units per area. It has been suggested that organic farming may provide 60% more employment than currently and that it can create 47 million additional jobs over the next 40 years. By enforcing organic agriculture and food distribution, more calories per person per day, more jobs and business opportunities especially in rural areas, and market-access opportunities, especially for developing countries, will be available. [8]
  • Increased biodiversity: Modern organic farming practices such as the removal of pesicides and the inclusion of animal manure, crop rotation and multi-cultural crops provide the chance of biodiversity to thrive. On average, species abundance is 30% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms. This is a major advantage because it promotes the thriving of bacteria and funghi to break down chemicals, plant matter and animal waste into productive soil nutrients, which leads to healthier yields and more arable soil for future crops. A switch to organic farming does however not imply an increase in biodiversity and to guarantee an increase in biodiversity it requires a conservation ethic that is often overlooked because it requires physical and economical eforts from the producer and common weed-processes in organic farming like undercutting and controlled buring provide little opportunity for species survival and often leads to comparable populations and richness to conventionally managed landscapes when performed in excess. [9]

Organically-raised meats are usually taken only from animals fed only plant matter (thus preventing the transmission of prion diseases and other illnesses carried in livestock feed containing animal by-products) and generally raised in less-stressful surroundings than the factory farms commonly used by meat producers. Milk from cows fed on grass instead of corn, as is common in organic farming, may also contain a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.[10]

[edit] Drawbacks

Organic farming practices are not evidence-based, but arbitrarily decided upon based on a vague notion of what is "natural."[11] As such, it is a form of appeal to nature. It may very well be that certain techniques used in organic farming have positive results, but other organic techniques have no impact or even negative results. There's no way to tell them apart without testing each technique (or specific technique-combination) on its own—and that happens only rarely. Proponents and producers of organic food also engage in other pseudoscientific actions, such as scare campaigns against genetic engineering, food irradiation, and other provably safe methods.

Possibly the biggest issue with organic farming is that it has lower yields than conventional methods, and therefore requires more land to produce the same amount of crop. For fruits, yields are a negligible 3% lower. For oilseed crops, the yield gap is a more significant 11%; for cereals, 26%; and for vegetables, a very significant 33%. (For forage crops such as alfalfa, it's possible for organic farming techniques to equal or even exceed the yield of conventional farming techniques.[12]) Organic farms also have higher shadow land use, since they tend to use manure from other farms as fertilizer.[13] While "recycling" manure is usually a good idea, organic farming faces a cap of "all of it"; if the whole world was to be fed by organic agriculture, there wouldn't be enough fertilizer to maintain productivity and so there would be little to no land left for wilderness, and biodiversity would suffer massively. Its lower yield also means that it uses more water per unit of food produced.

[edit] Animal cruelty

One requirement for meat and milk to be USDA Certified Organic is that the animal it comes from must never have been fed any antibiotics. This mandate stemmed from a genuine concern over the overuse of antibiotics in cattle, and over the possibility that some of the antibiotics might be present in the meat after slaughter. However, it has one disturbing side effect: A livestock animal that gets sick cannot be treated with antibiotics, even if such treatment would follow the best veterinary practices known, without forcing the rancher to reclassify the animal among his "not organic" stock. Thus, infected animals are made to suffer through their illnesses in the hopes that they recover on their own (and thus, maintain the higher price per pound of organic meat), which sometimes results in their deaths.[14][15]

However, this criticism does not apply in the UK as their organic certification body, the Soil Association, does allow for the use of antibiotics in specific instances where an animal is suffering greatly, but do not allow the routine use of antibiotics as per conventional farming[16]. Under Soil Association standards, organically farmed livestock are guaranteed "access to fields (when weather and ground conditions permit) and are truly free range.. plenty of space, to reduce stress and disease... a diet that is as natural as possible..."[17] none of which are guaranteed with inorganic farming.

[edit] Price

Organic food is frequently much more expensive than the equivalent non-organic food due to its inferior yield and higher costs, with no demonstrable scientific benefits. This makes it a form of conspicuous consumption at best. At worst, it is a scam perpetuated on the scientifically uneducated, who are made to fear eating non-organic food.

This reaches its apex of absurdity in the sale of "organic" salt, which is by its very nature neither an organic molecule nor something which is meaningfully produced in a non-"organic" fashion, with the additives added to salt being anti-caking agents (and in North America, iodine, which is necessary to prevent iodine deficiency, once a major cause of delayed mental development). Assuming of course we are talking about sodium chloride, and not actual organic salts such as MSG or lead sugarWikipedia's W.svg.[18]

A proposition by the Flemish green party is to reduce the value-added tax for organic food to 0%, which would make little difference for most conventional food, but could definitely make the organic product cheaper than the conventional one for expensive luxury foods such as caviar, oysters and crabs, which all have a high value-added tax, guaranteeing at least a small niche composed of organic products that is cheaper than their non-organic counterpart. [19]

[edit] Poop

Organic farming standards prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers. The hope is that farmers will switch to techniques such as companion planting and crop rotation so as not to need fertilizer, but the reality is that most organic farmers simply use natural fertilizers instead. And by natural fertilizers, we mean manure.

This has three drawbacks: (1) Manure comes from farm animals, which means any crops grown with it can't be called vegan; (2) higher shadow land use, as mentioned above; and (3) manure particles can wind up on the final product, resulting in increased risk of foodborne illnesses such as salmonella or E. coli.[20]

[edit] Nitrate leeching

Organic plants emit more nitrous oxide and ammonium and eutrophiate much faster than other more conventional plants. This is a very major disadvantage organic farming faces compared to conventional because that also means that organic farming is more likely to cause major ecological damage in aquatic life as this type of farming causes a higher presence of nutrients in lakes. Although nutrients in lakes by themselves aren't harmful, it is a major and very pressing environmental problem due to their excessive presence in the environment, which can cause algal blooms and subsequent dead zones if left untreated. [21]

[edit] Neither a benefit nor a drawback

[edit] Global warming

Depending on the type of agriculture, organic agriculture can be more or less polluting than conventional agriculture. In the debate on how to combat global warming the debate should go beyond conventional vs. organic and start by finding specific solutions to specific problems. [22]

[edit] Organic woo

Organic food is generally sold with vague, unsubstantiated claims that organic food is "safer", "healthier", or "more natural", leading organic food to become a fad diet and a form of nature woo. A more extreme form is biodynamic agricultureWikipedia's W.svg, which is broadly similar in its application to organic agriculture, but is based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophy religion, an offshoot of Theosophy; this particular species of woo (popular in the wine industry for some reason) is highly ritualistic, including aspects of homeopathy and possibly feng shui in its required techniques.

Organic food isn't any healthier or more nutritious than conventional food.[23][24] Indeed, a huge market exists for prepared organic foods that aren't drastically different from their conventional equivalents, and certainly aren't inherently a whole lot healthier for you just because they're certified organic (though they do tend to use no preservatives, no high fructose corn syrup, and less saturated fat).[25]

A common misconception among organic food supporters is that buying organic means you are supporting local farmers and more sustainable agriculture. This is not necessarily the case, as much of the organic food in your local supermarket is likely provided by big agribusiness corporations such as Dean, Cargill, and ConAgra.[26][27] Indeed, U.S. organic sales were $39 billion in 2014,[28] so the organic food industry can hardly be considered a small mom-and-pop operation. In this context, organic food preference shouldn't be confused with focused locavorism, which instead targets food grown locally, with organic preparation often a secondary aim or with the food grown in Cuba, of which all or most agricultural output has been organic since the collapse of the Soviet Union has prevented them from importing synthetic materials, even if a majority would contest that all their food is organic because the agriculturers there use Genetic Modification techniques. [29]

Another misconception is that organic foods are pesticide-free. In fact, organic crops are sprayed with pesticides; the difference is that they are usually different types (not necessarily less toxic) than the ones sprayed on conventional crops.[30] There are even some synthetic pesticides allowed for use on organic crops, including copper sulfate, which is toxic to damn near every animal species on the planet.[31]

Organic food is also a staple of food woo and related quackery. A particularly egregious example of this is the Gerson Method.[32]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  1. Yes, this would be the same guy who dropped dead during a taping of the Dick Cavett show after bragging he'd live to 100.
  2. according to WikipediaWikipedia's W.svg
  3. [1]
  4. Among other things, corn fields are often fertilized with anhydrous ammonia, to say nothing of the massive use of oil that conventional agriculture normally requires.
  5. IPM is arguably not an organic technique as such, but it's in the same spirit, with a much stronger connection to science than Rodale's original ideas.
  6. As reported in Nature
  7. "Spinosad toxicity to pollinators and associated risk."
  8. UNEP, 2011, Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication,
  10. Benbrook et al., Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study, PLOS one, 9-Dec-2013 – although the article implies that milk from any grass-fed cows, organic or not, would have the same benefit. Note also that this article was published in PLOS one, which, although it is a peer-reviewed journal, employs a "publish first, judge later" methodology.
  11. Howy Jacobs: Poison running through my veins, EMBO reports, DOI: 10.1002/embr.201338286
  12. Organic Crops Impressively Productive When Compared With Conventionally Grown Crops, American Society of Agronomy, 26-March-2008
  13. Mark Lynas: How land-inefficient is organic agriculture?
  14. When it comes to animal health and welfare, there are worse things than antibiotics
  15. Terry J. Allen, The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards, In These Times, 31-Aug-2013
  16. [2]
  17. [3]
  18. The Romans used to flavor their food with this. Yes, lead. One must wonder not why they fell, but how the hell they lasted as long as they did. Srsly.
  19. Warning, clicking this link may cause you to lose hope in humanity:
  20. Preharvest Evaluation of Coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Organic and Conventional Produce Grown by Minnesota Farmers, Journal of Food Protection®, Number 5, May 2004, pp. 894-900(7)
  23. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review
  24. Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature
  25. Should I Buy Organic Foods? USDA
  26. Organic Processing Industry Structure, Philip H. Howard, Michigan State University
  27. Lockie et al. Eating Green: Motivations behind organic food consumption in Australia. Sociologia Ruralis, Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 23–40, January 2002
  28. Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Industry, USDA Economic Research Service, 24-Oct-2013
  29. Yes, you read it right. Even commies use GMO's.
  30. Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron, NPR.
  31. USDA National Organic Program, Subpart G. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
  32. The organic woo propaganda documentary Food Matters is a big offender in this area as it mixes legitimate criticisms of corporate influence over the food supply and food securityWikipedia's W.svg with cancer woo like Gerson's quackery and raw foodism. See also the review by the Pike's Peak Skeptics Society.

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