Bronze-level articleOrganic food

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Organic foods are crops which have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as genetic modification and 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 (né 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.

Governments usually set standards along these lines which must be adhered to in order for food to be legally sold as "organic." However, the scientific definition of an "organic" compound is any which contains carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bonds, which applies to the overwhelming majority of carbon compounds as well as pretty much everything and anything of biological origin. (E.g., gasoline consists of organic molecules.) 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 agriculture is one of those curious fields that started out as woo, but proved to be very amenable to a scientific approach in implementation. Not everyone does, sadly, but it can be handled in a practical, woo-free manner.

Contents

[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. 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.
  • 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.

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.[8]

[edit] Drawbacks

Organic farming practices are not evidence-based, but arbitrarily decided upon based on a vague notion of what is "natural."[9] 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.[10]) Organic farms also have higher shadow land use, since they tend to use manure from other farms as fertilizer.[11] This means that if the whole world was to be fed by organic agriculture, there would be little to no land left for wilderness, and biodiversity would suffer massively.

[edit] Animal cruelty

One requirement for meat and milk to be labelled as 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, some of which are lethal.[12][13]

However, this criticism is largely inept when put up against the standards set by the U.K's organic certification body, the Soil Association, who do allow for the use of antibiotics in specific instances where an animal is suffering greatly, but do not allow the routine use of anti-biotics as per conventional farming[14]. 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..."[15] none of which are guaranteed with inorganic farming.

[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 agriculture, 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.[16][17] 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).[18]

A common misconception among dirty hippies 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.[19][20] Indeed, U.S. sales of organic food were $28 billion in 2012,[21] 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.

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.[22] 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.[23]

Organic food is also a staple of food woo and related quackery. A particularly egregious example of this is the Gerson Method.[24]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  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 Wikipedia
  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. 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.
  9. Howy Jacobs: Poison running through my veins, EMBO reports, DOI: 10.1002/embr.201338286
  10. Organic Crops Impressively Productive When Compared With Conventionally Grown Crops, American Society of Agronomy, 26-March-2008
  11. Mark Lynas: How land-inefficient is organic agriculture?
  12. When it comes to animal health and welfare, there are worse things than antibiotics
  13. Terry J. Allen, The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards, In These Times, 31-Aug-2013
  14. [2]
  15. [3]
  16. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review
  17. Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature
  18. Should I Buy Organic Foods? USDA
  19. Organic Processing Industry Structure, Philip H. Howard, Michigan State University
  20. Lockie et al. Eating Green: Motivations behind organic food consumption in Australia. Sociologia Ruralis, Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 23–40, January 2002
  21. Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Industry, USDA Economic Research Service, 24-Oct-2013
  22. Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron, NPR.
  23. USDA National Organic Program, Subpart G. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
  24. 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 security 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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