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.
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.