The Organic Illusion

27 November 2008

Organic food is now firmly entrenched in most people’s minds as the environmentally friendly way to eat. But why is this the case? There have been no studies showing overwhelming benefits, no dramatic experiments, nor even any believable miracle stories. A close examination of the evidence shows a different and more nuanced story than the Soil Association (the UK organic food campaigning group) presents to the willing media. First, the organic standards do have some genuine worth, despite their worrying flaws. They require commitment to ethical employment, concern for the environment and make a genuine effort towards sustainability. Organic food has been show to have small benefits for local wildlife diversity over conventional farming and the yields of organic farming (mainly due to hedgerows), although generally worse than conventional farming, are probably only about 20% worse and might even outperform conventional farming in some circumstances.

But this the bare minimum. The Soil Association has, like much of society, fallen victim to the “appeal to nature”, that is, the idea that because something is natural, it is inherently better. This is a patently ridiculous belief. Just think of the number of toxic plants, mushrooms and animals and compare it with the safety of modern food – deaths from food are so rare that even food poisoning can be newsworthy.

Some of you might be under the impression that organic farmers don’t use any pesticides. You’re almost right. They don’t use any artificial pesticides. So they can dust your organic tomatoes with rotenone (with an oral lethal dose of 300 – 500 mg/kg), pyrethrins (with an oral lethal dose ~ 1000 mg/kg) and copper sulphate amongst other chemicals. Aside from their general toxicity, what bizarre criterion was used to decree that copper sulphate is natural? Copper sulphate, for those of you who have forgotten your GCSE chemistry, is a bright blue crystalline chemical which is usually manufactured by melting down scrap and dissolving it in sulphuric acid. But it’s got a simple formula, so apparently that’s natural enough.

In addition, two nascent technologies have been outright banned from all organic food: genetic modification and nanotechnology. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or frankenfoods, as some tabloid newspapers delight in referring to them, have shown some real promise in increasing yields of crops whilst reducing use of fertilisers and pesticides. There is such fear of GMOs amongst organic farmers that apparently even having a GM field near to an organic one will pollute its genetic purity, and that farm cannot be certified as organic for five years after.

Despite the superficial differences in technique – scientists in pristine lab coats in contrast to horny handed sons of the soil- genetic modification is essentially equivalent to the age old technique of cross-breeding. DNA is being systematically changed in order to improve some quality of the organism.

It is feasible that there are unknown problems despite the scientific consensus of their safety, but the restrictions and paranoia fostered by the organic movement hobble any attempt to discover and resolve these problems.

Nanotechnology has been banned, completely. This is despite the fact that nanomaterials are as diverse as ‘ordinary size’ materials, and have at the moment no major agricultural application. Instead of taking pesticides, nanotechnology and GMOs on a case by case basis and examining the evidence, the organic movement bans them all.

Another unfortunate aspect of many organic ‘philosophies’ is the fixation on self-sufficiency of a farm, conflating it with sustainability.

Sustainability can be more easily achieved with the advances of modern technology, but a self-sufficient farm cannot use them – what farm could support an industrial chemical plant? This belief, along with the obsession with nature, highlights the key problem with organic farming: its blindness to reality.

Organic food does not address today’s problems, let alone those of the future. The world population is going to have increased by 50% by 2050, and food production will need to double to meet the demands of the increasingly non-starving poor, but the only large areas of fertile land left unused are the tropical forests.

Further, we will have to abandon land efficient power generation methods such as fossil fuel power stations to prevent a climate catastrophe,

in favour of renewable energy which by necessity uses enormous areas of land (to power the UK we would need to cover at least an area the size of Wales in solar panels). So the situation the world faces is a need to produce twice the amount of food on at most the same land area. But organic food generally produces reduced yields and offers little to no hope of the massively increased yields that we will need for the future. Furthermore, the anti-scientific and ‘holistic’ nature of organic foods will hinder the necessary creation of really sustainable forms of agriculture.

We cannot ignore the valuable contributions some organic methods can make, but we must not adopt the whole redundant philosophy without condemning the world to starvation. Organic food is a distraction from the issues. Matthew Cliffe is a second year natural scientist.

Matthew Cliffe is a second year natural scientist.