Correction #3: Organic farming is better for the environment. Period.
Claim: "People seem to believe they're doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not—at least the issue is not that cut and dry....Organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use."
• Broken promises of biotech: 14 years of commercialization and billions of dollars in publicly funded research and we still have yet to see a GM crop that increases yields or nutritional value, or improves farming practices. Neither do these technologies "reduce or eliminate the use of [pesticides] all together." In fact, they increase herbicide use precisely because that’s what most of them are engineered to do.
• Water use & biodiversity: Conventional (i.e. industrial) agriculture uses 70 percent of the Earth's freshwater resources and is a (by many measures, the) primary driver of the biodiversity collapse that 7 in 10 biologists believe poses an even greater threat to humanity than climate change. By contrast, organic farming systems (the agroecological kind) are dramatically more efficient in their use of water and protect biodiversity.
• Climate change: Agriculture is the largest single-sector driver of greenhouse gas emissions—mainly methane from livestock and nitrogen pollution from synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming systems do not use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, they address soil fertility through cultural practices such as cover-cropping, and in the process mitigate against climate change by cultivating richer soil that serves as a carbon sink.
Yes, Virginia, synthetic pesticides really are bad for the environment.
Correction #4: Organics are not trying to take over the world.
Claim: "As far as I'm concerned, the biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides."
This claim is true enough, in the abstract. The main issue is that nobody believes this myth, it's a version of the "we need all the tools in the toolbox" talking point that conventional ag proponents use in defending the status quo. It also ignores drift and the capture of food and farm policy by big agribusiness and the pesticide industry.
• Pesticides & GMOs drift: Pesticide drift is a serious problem for organic farmers, as is GMO contamination. Farmers lose their certification and with it tens of thousands of dollars in market value for the crops that they paid more to produce without synthetic chemicals. PAN is working with partners to institute a drift liability provision so that organic farmers can recoup lost profits when their crops are contaminated by GMOs and pesticide drift. The idea of pesticide and biotech corporations being held liable for damages caused by their products is apparently quite scandalous, but without this basic legal protection the "can't we all just get along" proposal is disingenuous, at best. In practice it means that organic farmers need to stay out of the way.
• Policy capture: 98 percent of the USDA’s ag research budget goes to conventional, and less than 2 percent to organic, farming systems. Agricultural research and trade policy are written and implemented by former pesticide-industry lobbyists (Islam Siddiqui, USTR), and Monsanto employees (Michael Taylor, USDA, and Roger Beachy, NIFA). The Farm Lobby has held such impenetrable influence over Congress for so long that political scientists use the conventional ag "sub-government" as a case study in undue influence.
One doesn't have to declare allegiance to organic farming to see that a transparent reevaluation of public policy priorities is long overdue and more a matter of democratic governance than political loyalties.
The "feeding the world" issue
While the issue of whether or not organics can feed the world is not among Wilcox's myths, she was compelled to respond to comments on the SciAm blog with this note:
"While I'm adding in notes: stop citing Bedgley [sp] et al. 2007 as evidence that organic farming produces equal yields: this study has been shown to be REALLY BADLY flawed, and was generally torn apart (e.g. this response article)"
The Badgley article in question has not, in fact, been generally torn apart—least of all by the Alex Avery commentary to which Wilcox points. Badgley responded here to Avery's points with more depth and care than was likely deserved.
A few words here on Avery, since we haven't seen it covered elsewhere yet. Alex Avery is the loyal son of Dennis Avery, the author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic (Hudson Institute, 1995), and a vociferous climate change denier.
The Averys work together at the Hudson Institute, which is a fringe think tank with deep corporate ties. The roster of companies that have supported its work includes: Monsanto, DuPont, DowElanco, Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy, and agribusiness giants ConAgra, Cargill, and Procter & Gamble.
Note to SciAm editors: the next time a blog or article reads like an industry hit piece, dig a little deeper into the sources.
Published on: July 28, 2011
Updated on: July 29, 2011