The latest piece of my interview with GreenState TV, which I performed for a promised cheque from Sygenta—muahahaha. (Yeah, I know that wasn’t funny.)
This is a guest post by Allallt.
He writes prolifically on science and atheism. I’ve always been amazed at the simplicity of his arguments. I once jokingly referred to him as the Steve Jobs of atheist arguments, but I well and truly meant it. He knows how to write about both science and atheism in such a way as to make you slap your head at the obviousness of his arguments in hindsight. He makes his arguments and polemics very simple, and that is the most powerful thing about them, so I challenged him to write a post about GMOs a little while ago in the hope he could likewise make a difficult subject simpler. He dutifully accepted. I’d like to say he succeeded. (There’s another article written by him on organic farming coming in the pipeline.)
Knowledge, generally speaking, is a good thing (so long as it’s true). I’ve poked my head into the world of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) for the sake of food, and people are making the seemingly harmless demand to simply know if the food they’re buying is the result of genetic engineering or not. And, on the face of it, I’m happy with a little green sticker that says “GMO” in the bottom corner of my packaging. It’s about as important to me as the name of the person that sealed the box; whatever, who cares?
Normally the information on a packet helps me make certain decisions and answer certain questions: that’s too many calories; I can’t cook that for my cousin, he’s allergic to nuts; I feel ill if I eat that much salt; I’m trying to see if I feel more mentally focused if I cut aspartame out of my diet; I’m boycotting palm oil because there’s no distinction between orangutan friendly and unfriendly palm oil etc. What do you hope to know by seeing the “GMO” label, or not, on your food? That is the central question I want to discuss, and suggest that people will only be misinformed.
I spoke to a friend about GMOs and she is wildly against them, under the banner of “we don’t know what we’re doing”. She even had a reference for her issue: thalidomide. Now, there’s a word with a legacy. Thalidomide was an anti-nausea pill and sleeping aid, marketed at helping women with morning sickness. But it also induced birth defects in children and a high infant mortality rate. This, according to my friend, is what happens when we mess with nature and we don’t ’now what we’re doing. We have a good reason to fear new things.
My friend sees “GMO” as a thing she doesn’t understand and things she doesn’t understand as potentially being thalidomide. If there were truth in this, would we not know about it already? Thalidomide was on and off the market in the UK in 3 years. GMOs are not some idea that might be introduced and people are protesting. GMOs already happen, and they are widespread. I was learning about their application in terms of case studies when I was doing my GCSEs (when I was 16, 8 years ago). And there is simply no evidence to suggest there is a problem. Despite research.
I may need to digress momentarily to make a note about science, but as I’m guest-posting on Random Rationality I suspect I won’t need to say much. There is a big difference between there being no evidence and there being no evidence despite research. To be clear about the difference (and perhaps a little facetious) “there is no evidence that my sock is under my bed because I haven’t looked” is very different from “I have looked, and there is no evidence my sock is under my bed”. These mean “I haven’t looked” and “it’s not there” respectively. We have looked for health effects from GMOs and we haven’t found them.
“This box was packed by Steven; it will be identical to the boxes packed by Jill” is useless information. Trivia. “This food was produced via genetic engineering; it will be identical to foods not produced by genetic engineering” is an equally useless statement, and so any non-zero effort made to put a label on the box is a disproportionate amount of effort. But the issue is not just that the label is a disproportionate effort, but that it is misinformation.
You may wonder how correct facts can be misinformation. And that paradox is a fair question. So long as GMOs (wrongly) mean ill-health and disease and FrankenFood* and contaminated ingredients to people, the label “GMO” is simply misleading. GMOs are not these things, despite public perception and fear. To me, GMO means feeding the world, pest-resistance, better sustenance, more nutrition, bigger yields, longer shelf-lives. These are profoundly excellent things.
Imagine a child in sub-Saharan Africa who is both starving and malnourished. This means that she is immensely hungry, to the point the body is atrophying away, and what food she has eaten is so nutritionally imbalanced that she has life-threatening deficiencies of certain nutrients. She’s starving because farmers can’t grow enough food in the current drought, and pests and disease attack what is grown, and that which farmers can harvest doesn’t have the shelf-life to make it to her village. And she is malnourished because that is the nature of the food she can scavenge or does reach her village. There is hope, and it’s no mere glimmer. There’s no problem in this paragraph that cannot be eradicated by GMOs. GMOs would transform this poor girl’s life, and the thousands who live like her. They would be her saviour.
BandAid, in 1984, released “Do they know it’s Christmas (feed the world)”. And your one-off donation to buy a cheesy but delightful Christmas song made big differences in Ethiopia. But to feed the world, to have enough food successfully delivered to every remote corner of the planet, will take a lot more than your one-off donation. Feeding the world will take GMOs.
*Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great metaphor for GMOs. Throughout most of the book, Frankenstein’s monster is a kind, humane, misunderstood and terrified creature. He seeks acceptance and love and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s health or wellbeing. Frankenstein’s monster is a good person. It is the DeLacey family, in their ignorant fear, who started the hatred.
Following on from my last guest post, The Insanity of Biotech by biochemist Paul Little, Mike Bendzela is the author of this guest post. These guest posts have been tangentially exploring similar subjects I have in my book, but in different directions; and this post explores organic farming. In S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I lightheartedly tackle the naturalistic fallacy and use some bad (and funny) statistics that purposefully confuse correlation with causation, intending to teach a lesson. As I was writing the book, Mike Bendzela reached out to me with his organic story that sprouts off from that Correlation chapter, and it is a supremely informative read. (A bit long, well worth it, and you’re used to long articles from me anyway.)
Why I’m Through with Organic Farming
“It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you;
you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
– Jesus of Nazareth
For twenty-five years I was a self-styled organic gardener. I say “self-styled” because I didn’t need certification as I wasn’t marketing produce. And by “organic” I mean “too lazy and cheap to buy fertilizers and pesticides.” So I maintained a perennial compost heap and harvested the produce the insects didn’t eat. We ate the leftovers.
Then there was the cheating: The first year that I grew potatoes, I had zero Colorado potato beetles. The second year, I had a jar full. The third year, I had a continent’s worth and had to nuke them with Rotenone dust. I decided to stop growing potatoes for a while.
Which leads directly to my point:
The older I get, the more I like food, the more I hate bullshit.
A season in hell
In July of 2010 four of us started Dow Farm, named after the ancestral owners of the land we farm. We would be a small market farm and CSA, the trendy “Community Supported Agriculture,” but we’d just call it a subscription club. Save the Syllables.
I was still working at an organic farm, learning the central pleasures and evils of farming at a scale larger than gardening. Helping to run Dow Farm would mean having to quit this summer job that I really liked and probably taking a significant hit in the wallet for a while.
Would we be certified or not? Certification is a three-year process, the materials are more expensive, and the methods are more labor-intensive. These stresses of organic certification come on top of a central fact of life for Maine farmers: The weather around here is just awful.
The crap we had to endure in 2011 just to get plants into the ground six weeks late meant that if we were going to limit our options to “organically-approved” ones, the reasons had better be good. I decided the best way to research the value of gaining certification was to go to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) website, and read the “fact sheets” and the manual.
I found the philosophy of the organics movement to be a barrel raft covered in loose planks. In trying to justify their beliefs, they pile on the claims (planks), each of which rests on a different assumption (barrel). And when one claim is questioned, they simply jump to another plank on the raft and try to hold it all together. Sadly, for the investigator, dismantling a raft of claims requires a crew of rebuttals.
It took awhile for all those planks to be yanked away from me, one by one, and for the barrels to disperse and sink.
The origins of the “organic” vs. “chemical” false dichotomy
In the early 19th century, “Vitalism” reigned. This was the belief that certain materials could only be produced through a mysterious “vital force” in living organisms; hence, “organic” substances were those derived from organisms and their products. Then a German scientist, Fredrick Wöhler, synthesized urea, a component of urine, in a laboratory without having to pee in a bottle. Goodbye Vitalism.
These “mysterious” materials turned out to be the results not of a vital force but of the properties of good old carbon. So the term “organic” came to describe the chemicals based around the carbon atom.
The organic farmers parted ways with the organic chemists around the turn of the century, with “organic” gaining positive connotations and “chemical” negative ones. This commenced with the German mystic Rudolph Steiner and his “Anthroposophic” movement, which includes “biodynamic” farming, a school that believes the farm should be seen as a “holistic” organism that needs to be balanced with various astrological forces. Some ways of achieving this “balance” include shunning “synthetic chemicals” and burying manure-stuffed cow’s horns to focus cosmic energy into the earth.
Today we have the government-sanctioned term “organic” to describe a veritable Leviticus of “Allowed” and “Prohibited” practices that are put into place to ensure that a farm is, well, organic. The term now conflicts with the scientific, chemical definition in just about every way.
For example: a chemically organic, naturally-occurring pesticide produced in Kenya, pyrethrum, is declared “organic” even though it decimates bees, but a likewise chemically organic pesticide native to the North America, nicotine sulfate, is not “organic.”
A synthetically produced, chemically organic fungicide, Captan, is declared not “organic,” but the synthetically produced, chemically inorganic fungicide copper sulfate is declared “organic.”
Go figure. Nowadays, if someone asks if our food is “organic,” I say, “Sure, it’s carbon-based.”
Mother Nature, Bad Parent
Not only are absurdities uttered with a straight face, contradictions are simply codified as “standards.” A central fault of organics is the Naturalistic Fallacy, the belief that substances derived from nature are better than those created by humans. Well, sometimes, anyway. Maybe not.
The USDA’s National Organics Program, which began with an Act of Congress in 1990, articulates the fallacy this way:
“As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.” [emphasis mine]
In other words, natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK; and synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK. One can only stand in wonder at how high the manure has been piled in this case, all the way up to the United States Department of Agriculture, in fact.
“Allowed Synthetics” are rationalized this way:
(1) The substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes
(2) The substance’s manufacture, use, and disposal do not have adverse effects on the environment and are done in a manner compatible with organic handling….
In other words: Mother Nature doesn’t always provide us the protection we need to farm successfully. In fact, She regularly supplies pestilence, disease and infection. If you’re an orchardist, the fungi are your mortal enemy and you have to spray fungicides or your orchard is doomed. So please just be careful with that copper sulfate, which can accumulate in the soil and cause organ damage if ingested.
How about if all farmers agree to use any substance, natural or synthetic, in a way that minimizes adverse effects on health and the environment? In other words, follow the doggone label.
Something I read on MOFGA’s website, a “Pesticides Quiz,” really bothered me:
“The EPA performs toxicity tests on pesticides prior to registration.
False: Toxicity tests are performed neither by the EPA nor by independent laboratories contracting with the EPA. Pesticide manufacturers provide the data that the EPA bases its judgments on. There is an inherent conflict of interest between EPA’s need for unbiased data and the manufacturers’ need for data that show their products are not hazardous.”
How does a lay person check out such a claim? I Googled “Pesticides” and “Maine” and got Maine Board of Pesticides Control as the top hit. I called the number there and got Dr. Lebelle Hicks, Toxicologist. Dr. Hicks seems delighted to have a real citizen asking her questions.
Summarizing her reply to the scary MOFGA claim: It is true only as far as it goes. But it’s not the EPA’s job to test the compounds that manufacturers wish to market; that would mean taxpayers paying for the testing of products that the corporations will profit from. It is the EPA’s job to set the tolerances for residues and to review the data submitted by the manufacturers according to strict guidelines. Laboratories contracting with the manufacturers perform such tests.
This conversation came sometime after a discombobulating experience I had while working at the organic farm: I was required to attend a workshop upcountry to be certified . . . as a pesticides handler.
So a group of us drove up to MOFGA’s fairground, where the MBPC’s Gary Fish, Manager of Pesticide Programs, gave us a PowerPoint on how to read pesticide labels and how to follow what’s written on them. Calling this an instance of “cognitive dissonance” is putting it mildly. It’s true:Organic farmers use pesticides and they have to follow the same laws as non-organic farmers. No amount of special pleading (“But they’re natural!”) negates this fact.
At Dr. Hicks’ advice, I eventually studied for and received a private pesticides applicator license in Maine. This year, in spite of the weather, we have had the best apples, ever.
From MOFGA’s manual:
Genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) is a synthetic process designed to control nature at the molecular level, with the potential for unforeseen consequences. As such, it is not compatible with the principles of organic agriculture (either production or handling). Genetically engineered/modified organisms (GEO/GMOs) and products produced by or through the use of genetic engineering are prohibited.
This prohibition is articulated by the NOP as well:
A variety of methods to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production.
Question: As one of the partners of Dow Farm daily injects himself with insulin that is produced through recombinant DNA technology, does this mean he can never consider himself an “organic” farmer? (Not that he cares at this point.)
The idea that “the principles of organic agriculture” do not “control nature at the molecular level” and do not have “the potential for unforeseen consequences” is a classic instance of the one who judges the gene splice in another’s eye while not seeing the cloned apple tree lodged in one’s own eye.
The anti-GMO crowd simply cannot separate their loathing for a specific corporation, Monsanto, from the science of recombinant DNA technology. Presumably, because “Monsatan” is Bad, the papaya farmers of Hawaii should cut down their groves of trees engineered to resist ring spot virus, beta-carotene-fortified Golden Rice should continue to be withheld from children who will go blind from Vitamin A deficiency, and GE vaccines should be flushed down the toilet.
Plant pathologist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer R. W. Adamchak, have done an admirable job in their book “Tomorrow’s Table” arguing that the aims of genetic engineering and organic farming are not necessary at odds. They believe the two can coexist.
However, such a prospect brings to mind the words “snowball” and “hell.”
If it quacks, it’s probably organic
In the Fall of 2000, I got to experience a weekend at the Common Ground Fair, MOFGA’s agricultural event, as a helper at some friends’ farmers market booth. People drive in from all over New England to eat organic spelt crepes, experience organic aromatherapy, and buy twenty-dollar-a-pound organic seed garlic.
MOFGA had just moved to their beautiful new digs in Unity, Maine, and it was enjoyable roaming the grounds between shifts to watch fields being plowed with teams of horses; to gawk at produce and price tags; and to hear lectures on how bio-dynamic beekeepers care for the “bee soul.” Hilariously, coffee vendors not permitted on the fairgrounds hang around outside the gates like ticket scalpers. They do a brisk business pre-caffeinating fair goers addicted to this 100% natural substance.
I caught sight of something called The Whole Life Tent. Entering, I was amazed to find myself surrounded by Reflexologists, Naturopathic Doctors, Homeopaths, Reiki practitioners, and other “modalities” by which one may become “moral, united, integrated, and balanced.” I was unsure what any of this had to do with agriculture.
To my dismay, I realized that what the panoply of fried dough, stuffed animals, and monster trucks is to Maine’s largest commercial fair, the Fryeburg Fair, the whole raft of alternative medical scams is to the Common Ground Fair—a necessary evil to get non-agricultural types to attend. Only much later, when I opened the manuals, did I discover that this disorder is not limited to the fair grounds.
Both MOFGA and the NOP make it clear that livestock must not be subject to the “routine use of synthetic medications.” Antibiotics cannot be used “for any reason.” And yet:
“Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.”
So an animal treated with appropriate medications is thereby rendered unclean.
OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes). Then there are the “Homeopathic remedies, Bryonia, Phytolacca,” and other letters of the alphabet.
However, you must not use Bag Balm for any reason whatsoever.
“Go organic”: slander a farmer
At Maine’s Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January, we got to mingle with other farmers, big and small, and to attend workshops on combating pests and Internet marketing.
In the Exhibition Hall, I found myself standing behind two young women in wool grilling a commercial apple orchardist about his spraying practices. He was trying to explain to them that he kept both “organic” and “conventional” plots and that the “organic” trees actually needed to be sprayed more often because of the transitory nature of “organic” pesticides. This increased his costs in both chemicals and fuel, which was reflected in the price of his apples. The women then sidled off to another booth. I asked him if they “got it.” He issued a flat “No.”
I had just published an editorial on the remarkable irony that MOFGA, the group that itself defined the sharp divide between “organic” and “conventional” farmers, was complaining about feeling excluded from an event at the show. This event, called “Convergence = Sustainability,”was billed as “bringing all farmers together to talk about common issues.” It was apparently not enough that an entire day of the show was called “MOFGA day.” They seemed to want “conversion,” not mere “convergence.”
In response to the Convergence = Sustainability flap, MOFGA published an editorial with the following contemptible passage:
Why would organic growers and consumers want to converge with conventional agriculture, as the title of a Maine Agricultural Trades Show session, held in January, suggested? Craving the Organophosphate-Arsenic-Laced Special for dinner?
There seems to be no limit to the calumnies organics advocates will heap on non-certified farmers. Maine’s organic guru Eliot Coleman derides non-organic farmers as “chemical farmers” who supposedly believe that “nature is inadequate.” He rehashes the 19th fallacy of “chemical” versus “biological,” dismissing the whole agricultural discipline of plant pathology as “plant-negative.”
Members of the Organic Consumers Association also employ the derisive term “chemical farmers” in their screeds. They even come right out and say that local foods not “organically-produced” are unsafe and that consumers should shun their local farmer who is not certified organic. Their modus operandi is to frighten people into buying organic.
“Non-organic farmers and feedlot operators are literally poisoning us and our children…”
The belief armor of such ideologues is so strong that the concept of “dose” doesn’t penetrate. Organic devotees endow “pesticide residues” with seemingly supernatural powers of corruption while simply ignoring the fact that our diets are full of poisons. To them it doesn’t matter, as Bruce N. Ames and Lois S. Gold have shown, that “99.99% of the pesticides humans ingest are natural.”
It doesn’t matter that fungicides protect us from one of the most potent carcinogens known, aflatoxins produced by molds; what matters are the hypothetical effects of micro-grams of fungicides found on apples, as promulgated by such organizations as the execrable Environmental Working Group.
It doesn’t matter that another potent carcinogen, benzo(a)pyrene, is ubiquitous in cooked foods. Instead of considering, by twisted “organic” logic, that this morning’s hot coffee and toast is a cancer cocktail crossing her placental barrier, a pregnant mother propagandized into being afraid of non-organic food will strap her babies into car seats and drive miles to avoid “chemical” farmers and their products.
Surviving the end of oil, organically
The last plank of the organic barrel raft to be removed unceremoniously from my grasp was the “sustainability” claim. In spite of what I knew were absurdities in the organic movement, I still believed that organic farming would be the only option left to us in a “post peak oil world.” Oil-based farming was clearly unsustainable; as oil becomes rarer and more expensive, we will have to find more sustainable ways to farm, and organic is waiting in the wings to save the day.
I accepted that peak oil was imminent, if not here already, and that this would mean the disappearance of “industrial,” “petroleum-based” agriculture, along with the wholesale decline in the accoutrements of contemporary civilization (i. e. well-stocked supermarkets). But having followed the alleged End of Oil for almost a decade now, I’ve amended my position to “maybe,” even “I don’t know.”
The peak oil “collapse,” always just around the corner, never seems to happen. This doesn’t mean “peak oil is a myth”; rather, it means the catastrophic effects have been over-sold, sort of like the media-hyped “comet of the century” Kohoutek in the 1970s, which fizzled out.
Besides, it doesn’t follow from the decline of oil that organic farming will rise. Organic foods have always been more expensive to produce, even in a regime of low oil prices, than supposedly “oil-based” foods. Organic farmers have fuel bills, too, and they are virtually addicted to plastics, so in the predicted expensive oil future, organic prices will continue to outpace conventional prices.
It doesn’t even follow that organic methods are more “sustainable” than “conventional” ones. My deconversion from this last plank of belief has been preserved for posterity in an exchange with Robert Carroll of the Skeptics Dictionary, under his entry on “organic (food and farming).” He says:
“…the problems we will face will probably be exacerbated if we went totally organic. Think of how much more land we would have to use to feed the world’s population. Where is this land going to come from? Clear-cutting rainforests?
…organic farming could feed the world if population stopped or receded, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Conventional farming of genetically modified crops may be the only hope for feeding the billions more that are likely to be added to world population within the next 50 years.”
The alleged “sustainability” of organics for a “post oil future” is an instance of an ideologically-based movement co-opting a genuine issue (“peak oil”) and casting it in apocalyptic terms in order to make salvationist claims for itself.
The end of the matter
In the end, there is nothing particularly wrong with the methods sanctified as “organic”—the food produced is as good as any other food—but it turns out that just about every other utterance that issues from the organic movement and its acolytes is an absurdity, a contradiction, a misrepresentation, a slander, or a fib.
I phrase the Jesus quote at the beginning this way:
“It’s not what goes into your pie holes that’s the problem. It’s what comes out of your pie holes that’s the problem.”
So if you currently buy your fresh produce from your local organic farmer and you really like it, continue to do so. Just tell them to cut the crap, along with their prices.
All in all, a fantastically, informative read. Just as we should be wary of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Government when they assert, by fiat, that so-so equals bladdy-blah, so should it be of Big Organic when they assert their methods use no pesticides, less-intensive pesticides, is automatically better because it’s au naturale (wild almonds anyone? They contain cyanide), or, any other contradictory occurrences. I believe Rob Hart has said it best: “The world has changed. We don’t live anything like our ancestors. We don’t work like them, talk like them, think like them, travel like them, or fight like them. Why on earth would we want to eat like them.”
Thanks for the guest post Mike. And don’t forget, if you buy S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I’ll give you Random Rationality: Expanded free (which cost 3 times as much). Just email me your receipt (you’ll find my email at my author website). Thanks for reading.