Why im through with organic farming

Organic Farming: what is it good for?

Last week, my blogging buddy Allallt, wrote a post, GMOs: it’s our right to know. But what will you do with the information? I asked him to bring to bear his simplicity to the issue of GMOs, and I think he succeeded quite well. Today, he writes on organic farming. I can’t help but agree with–almost–everything he says. See if you do too, and if you have any questions Allallt will be responding to comments (though responses maybe delayed due to travel).


Organic Farming: what is it good for?

 

There are many shopping trends in the real world, and painfully some of them are fashionable instead of well-thought-out. But I find myself unable to criticise the people who shop locally because it is fashionable; of course I would rather they did it because it weakened corporations1 and supported local businesses, all of which are noble, but they are achieving that regardless of whether they know it.

But I do remember an MMA-training, body building, rice counting, all-round massive and scary guy at my university gym explaining his weekly shopping, coming in at a student loan-destroying £100 a week. I spent about that a month and I paid the lion share of a couple living together. £100 is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on one person. And he shopped at Asda (the WallMart of the UK). I understand that to be a 275 lb guy you need to eat a lot, but it’s still ridiculous. His justification of this spending was “I buy organic”.

Well, “I buy organic” didn’t cut it for me. I buy responsibly sourced and, where possible local (but there are no local pineapples or tuna). And I know why I do this. I wanted to put in some muscle, so I asked him why he bought organic in the hope that he would share some evidence that food farmed by inorganic methods2 some way impede muscle growth. And his answer, much to my disappointment, was that he didn’t know what might be on conventionally farmed food, nor their impact. That is an awful reason to spend as much as 70% extra on his shopping (assuming he could do the shopping for just under £60 otherwise).

Organic food is expensive for two very basic reasons, and one of them is fashion. Do you think Bob Geldof buys organic? Of course he does. But the other reason is that it is much more capital-intensive. You need more land and more man-hours (and these are the expensive things). What’s the point?

To a farmer there is an excellent point, money. To the consumer there may be peace of mind, but only if the mind was in turmoil about an imagined slight. And the peace is imagined too. Rotenone, a pesticide allowed in farms which are organically certified, is not the tree-hugger of love and peace you might want it to be. It might as well be DDT. But organic chemistry is organic chemistry3, and organic certification allows rotenone onto the farms. But that needn’t worry you, you can wash it off. But if we’re washing stuff off, why not just go back to the cheap and wonderful conventionally farmed food?

We might as well be clear about this: organic food cannot be demonstrated to be healthier than conventionally farmed food. Organic food is a fictional answer to an imagined problem. And this false-security and peace of mind comes at a considerable cost: less yield per field means we need more fields to get the same amount of food. In a world where people are already starving and the demand for food is only going up, this is a massive issue.

Enter Thomas Malthus. Thomas Malthus described what has become known as a Malthusian crisis. This crisis will appear at the moment the Earth is producing the maximal amount of food and it will be able to support fewer people than exist. This is an easily imaginable process: my mum has an allotment, and it produces enough food for that house and about the same again for resale. If everyone on the street relied on my mum’s allotment for food the street would be well into a Malthusian Crisis; there simply wouldn’t be enough food. And you would want her to use fertilisers and pump the ground with pesticides if you lived on that street!

With farms dwindling to climate change and the pressures of urban sprawl, and the demand on farms increasing with every new mouth to feed, we are constantly teetering on the verge of a Malthusian crisis, inventing new technologies to squeeze a little more productivity out of the land. At the moment we have some leeway and can produce enough food. But knowing this problem is coming means we know organic is not the answer. Organic is a way to get less out of the land and preferentially sell it as a fashion accessory to the richer part of the world, starving the rest of it just a bit more. And it’s set only to get worse.

The End

1 – When you understand what Nestlé did with powdered baby milk or what Coca Cola did by drying up the water table, both in Africa, you will understand why it is important to weaken corporations. They are painfully and immorally bulletproof. Collapsing corporations may be an unachievable goal, but changing the nature of our economics so that the market is run by an ethical consumer would make all the headway we need. And we do that by making ethical decisions when we shop.

2 – Did you notice that roundabout way I had to describe food farmed by inorganic farming methods? That’s because “organic farming” is a stupid name; it’s a marketing ploy and not a technical name. “Organic” means carbon based, and all food is carbon based. There is no such thing as inorganic food, so linguistic pedants like me have to tiptoe around this nonsense. I point that out not as an aside, but because I went on using the term “conventional farming”, even though I am including organic farming (see my previous guest post) in the arsenal we should use.

3 – Petrol is organic, but I imagine you’d have a few choice words if it was on your carrots.

NB – My original draft included “lowering pollution” as a benefit of shopping locally. This only seems to be true in the more extreme of cases. For example, I used to live in Bristol, and I could buy a wide variety of food that was Bristol or Avon sourced—sometimes cycled from the farm to my local grocer—and that is the low-carbon option. But short of this extreme, international big-business farms have become so efficient in terms of yield and pollution and other costs that it would be better for the environment for me to get my salmon from a big Alaska-based company than it would a small, family-run Scottish farm. This is despite Scotland being considerably more ‘local’. But to continue along the idea of the “ethical market” force, sustainable food supplies are still worth hunting out; don’t think buying international is synonymous with buying unsustainable. Line caught tuna is still better that trawled tuna.

10 thoughts on “Organic Farming: what is it good for?”

  1. Besides the fact that buying local produce tastes better, the fact that it does not come from a behemoth corporation is appealing…I will pay more for people who put in time to give me something of quality. Great post!

    1. I think it’s a mistake to assume that ‘behemoth corporations’ are undesireable or unwanted. And you must keep in mind what you’re paying for when you make that trade-off. You’re sending signals to the market that you prefer them to use more land to provide the same yield for an arbitrary quality (namely, a labour-intensive form of farming), costs 1.5 to 2 times conventional food. Negative environmental effects are not confined to conventional food. The best choice, from an environmental standpoint, is to intensively farm a smaller footprint of farmland than a larger footprint. Wouldn’t you think?

      1. True, and when it comes to business the ‘scales of economies’ argument is important. In farming, efficient methods of production & distribution are vital not only to the economy, but in improving the standard of living of the population.

        However, the disconnect between reaping the true benefits of increased efficiencies versus maintaining quality seems to be an ugly battle industries are facing around the globe. There is a reason why Chinese do not purchase milk powder (just to name one product group) from local producers…because profit is the only goal.

        Behemoth corporations can do great things. Coming from a wheat producing town, it was sad to see local farmers struggling to survive – but I also fully understood that this trend of large corporations purchasing smaller farms was a good thing. Greater efficiencies, greater good for the population, so I definitely desire and want such large corporations.

        Yet, I also want to have a system of checks and balances that keeps the eye on quality and “morality” (I know this is not the word I want to use…but…), and this is where we need small businesses to continue their presence in the market (e.g., throwing a bunch of chemicals on oranges to make them beautiful for the masses, without really fully understanding the affects of said chemicals I find repulsive…however, I have few choices).

        Short-cuts are constantly researched and implemented by large corporations because they positively affect the bottom line…and that is the end goal for such entities. Local businesses and small farmers tend to stay away from short-cuts, as their focus is on quality, and if they screw that up, they are out of business. If large corps screw up quality, their PR team will have it fixed in a few months.

        1. You know how happy I am that I’m having a reasoned discussion with someone who understands that both forms of farming have their own pros and cons. You know how rare this is? THANK YOU!!

          Ok, let’s have a real discussion! 🙂

          I believe you bring up great points when it comes to the compromise between efficiency and quality in places like China where profit seems to be more of the driver at the expense of safety. But this is more of a regulation issue than a behemoth type issue. All developing countries (and this goes for developed countries when they were developing), as they increase in wealth, strive foremost for profit first to the detriment of other factors. This is seen again and again. The reason being that as wealth increases, people want to preserve more of their wealth for the next round than waste it on safety. It’s not until wealth reaches a certain level do people demand more safety built-in. It’s a matter of relative risk and trade-offs. People forget the world we came from where there were more pressing issues and concerns so the less-safe but more wealth-generating means of production were, in a sense, less bad than going back to poverty. (Don’t get me wrong, i’m not saying this is the perfect way to do it, but it is the way that almost every nation has.) In the west, we have a very safe food system, but it hasn’t always been that way.

          Your point on where you grew up and the efficiencies bought into being by the larger farms buying up the smaller ones is another good point. You make the point that there needs to be greater accountability, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Ramez Naam in his book, The Infinite Resource says something similar, and this is where government comes into being. It needs to send the right signals to the market via regulations, not to mention consumers too, to ensure that the market can adequately price short-term vs. long-term/quality vs. efficiency etc. We have the tools at our disposal, it’s a matter of utilizing. In some respects, we’re doing great, in others, we’re lagging behind–GMOs is one example that springs to head.

          So large corporations have benefits that, and so do small farmers. I think the market can accommodate both if there is money to be made from both. I think the biggest problem now is ideology impinging on rational assessment of the facts. Our current system has plenty of room for improvement and there is a lot of work left to do. If we send the right signals, and let the regulatory environment make science-based decisions, I’ll think we’ll move in the right direction.

          If I may impinge upon you one suggestion. I heard you say that ‘c’ word: chemical, in a fairly negative tone. If i may send you this article to read, I think it will change the tone of your derision to at least this aspect of modern agriculture.

          http://www.science20.com/agricultural_realism/how_wrong_latest_dirty_dozen_list-112342

          Namely, that the abundance of chemicals on our food is largely a myth. Take one quick example. Roundup, the pesticide everyone loves to hate, is applied at a rate of 22-44 ounces per acre. A copper fungicide, used in organic agriculture, is applied, usually several times, at a rate of 6 pounds per acre. Keeping things in perspective might help. 🙂

          Thanks for the delightful discourse.

          1. Wonderful reply, and thank you for putting such thought into your reply. It is interesting that you mention right away understanding the ‘pros & cons’ of the situation is the basis for having a reasoned discussion. We need you in politics 🙂

            I do agree with the statement that we need to “let the regulatory environment make science-based decisions” and from there we can move in the right direction, but I fear that politicians often vote with lobbyist in mind rather than the experts.

            Thanks for the link in the article…and hilarious that you mention Round-Up. Decades ago I gave my father ‘advise’ on the damage Round-Up causes and he basically laid out the argument you mentioned…and I walked away humbled. Perhaps the most important thing to be understood, is that science is always a step or two ahead of times… and history often shows that the scary stories are the ones created by uniformed individuals.
            Cheers, very much enjoyed hearing your thoughts (and of course learning a bit more).

  2. “People shop for organic food because it is fashionable.” Fashion is about being seen and we can’t see the label on the food you ate. The organic as fashion argument is a straw man.

    “Organic food promises more than it delivers, therefore it delivers nothing.” Stupid argument, obviously.

    “There is no Malthusian crisis yet because we can keep producing more food with conventional methods.” The argument here is that we should do what we can to forestall the Malthusian apocalypse so that way more people will be alive to die off when we finally do reach the end of the line.

    1. I’m not criticising the fashion-shoppers. We disagree about whether they exist in any bug numbers, but it’s not important enough to get into.
      Now, I’m actually saying organic offers next to nothing. It promises health benefits, but permits things like ritenone. Not only that, but there is shakey evidence (at best) that conventional farming is even bad for you. And the cost of not solving a problem that can’t quite be established to exist is low-efficiency, high-intensity farming.
      Given urban sprawl and land erosion and climate change the amount of food the earth can produce is decreasing; the number of people on the earth is going up; the demand on high-land-use foods (like meat) is increasing: we are headed towards a Malthusian crisis.
      The Boserupian idea that new practices and technology can save us depends on us being willing to follow evidential reasoning. And the evidence is that conventional farming (along with GMOs) produce more food in the same field.

  3. In the city I just moved to everyone hates corporations. They’re all about supporting their local… everything. From bookstores to coffee shops. One of the big things I had to get used to was “organic” shopping. Everything here is organic! But what I also noticed is the price for most items is similar to the “inorganic” produce from my previous city. Anyway…

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