Monday, December 17, 2012

Why is agriculture bad for the Earth? Does organic farming make it better?

In my last post, I responded to a CNN article that claimed that organic food was not healthier than conventional food. In the second half of the article, the author mentions a Scientific American article that says that organic farming is no better, and may be even worse, than conventional agriculture.

You can find the article here, but I address each of the articles main points.

1. Organic farms still use pesticides.

Yes, this is absolutely true. There are a number of pesticides derived from natural sources that certified organic farmers are allowed to use. The thing to keep in mind is that organic certification is really the lowest common denominator. There are any number of practices that environmentally conscious farmers use, and the USDA's definition is the minimum that everyone can agree upon. I am certain that there are many farmers forgo certification because they disagree with the USDA's policies and because the cost and bureaucracy of certification puts small farms at a disadvantage.

The best thing to do is to talk to you farmer. That's part of why the farmers market is so great! You get to know the people who grow your food, ask them where their farm is, what their philosophy is, and so on.

2. Organic food is not healthier.
3. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are good.

Please refer to my previous posts where I address this issue and also talk about the Precautionary Principle. 

4. Organic farms produce less than conventional ones, and so take up more land.

I agree with the general logic behind this claim. Not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers will reduce yield. One way to make up for reduced yield is to increase the amount of land under use. More land devoted to agriculture means less land for forests, grasslands, and so on, which is bad for biodiversity, etc.

However (!!!) this really only applies to monocrop farming. From wikipedia: "Monocropping is the high-yield agricultural practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, in the absence rotation through other crops." It is also referred to as factory farming, and factory farming is pretty bad, even if it is organic.

Again, another reason to support farmers markets and CSAs and the rest. Go ask your farmer if they rotate their crops, if they use biological forms of pest control, if they use pesticides and if so, do they sound responsible about it? If nothing else, you may have a short and entertaining conversation with someone with a different perspective on the world, and what is so bad about that?

And really, we've already gone beyond organic. I try to practice FLOSS: fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable.

Conclusion: certified organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment than conventional, but it probably is in most cases. If you have the choice, buy your food from the farmers market and have a conversation with your farmer about his or her practices.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Is organic food really any healthier?


Back in September, a family member sent me this email:


We're disrupting the ecosystem...aaaahhhhhhh!!!!!! Really?"


There are two main points to address, first that organic food is not healthier, which is the main point of the article, and then the subsequent argument that organic farming is not better for the environment, which I will address in a second post. 

1. Organic food is not healthier
The author reviews studies that show that organic produce did not have any more nutrients than conventional and that while organic produce did have fewer pesticides, the conventional food usually met the allowed standards for pesticides. Further, the author refers to other studies showing that having lower levels of pesticides does not lead to any obvious health benefit.

First, I find it strange that they looked into the nutritional content, given that I have never once read or heard anyone claim that organic food would have more nutrients than conventional. It does not surprise me in the least that they found no difference. Perhaps next time those same scientists will investigate whether or not eating organic food will cause me to pee rainbows or shit bricks of gold.

Now, as for the claim that pesticides have no deleterious effects on us, I would like to point to two pieces of evidence:

A) There have been numerous cases where the FDA approved limit for pesticides was set for the benefit of the chemical companies, not people.

Take the example of one of my personal heroes, Tyrone Hayes ( He was working for a chemical company, investigating the effects of an herbicide called atrazine. He unexpectedly found that even at extremely low levels, the chemical caused major deformities in the genitals of amphibians ( The chemical company, on the other hand, did not seem surprised by Hayes' results and worked hard to keep him quiet and cover up his results. The chemical company intensively lobbied the EPA and conducted a smear campaign against Hayes. No surprise then that the EPA decided its previously stated levels were still A-okay.

B) The burden of proof regarding the safety of a given chemical is on the people when it should be on the chemical company.

The European Union has a much saner approach to this embodied in the Precautionary Principle ( The wikipedia article sums it up quite nicely: "The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action."

For many of us, buying organic food is already an easy alternative to conventional produce, so why take the risk?!

C) Organic food benefits the environment too! It's not all about us!

Okay, I know I said I only had two points to make on this topic. But still, even if I was totally convinced that organic food still had no benefit to me personally, I would still buy it because it is better for the Earth, which brings me to my next blog post:

Is agriculture bad for the Earth? Does organic farming make it better?