It is time, at last, for my eagerly anticipated exposé of the organic farming industry (OFI). The eagle eyed/bored amongst you will have noticed that I missed my usual ‘a post every other day’ deadline yesterday. Blame it on this post. I’ve put a lot of hours into researching and fact checking this. What follows is going to be relentlessly negative so I’m going to preface it by saying that there is plenty of positives to be taken from some organic practices. It isn’t all bad. But it is a very long way indeed from being all good. What I mostly want to achieve here is to dispel some of the assumptions and myths that surround the OFI and level the playing field not just between organic and GMOs, but between organic and bog standard food. Let’s get to it.
Let’s start at the beginning: what is organic farming? This is a disarmingly difficult question to answer mostly because the definition of organic, even the legally binding one set down by the USDA, is rather wooly. This should always be a red light when you’re looking into something. Be it detox diets, ‘alternative’ medicine, superfoods; all these things lack specific definitions, mainly because that is the beginning to there being some kind of standard up against which to hold them. If the meaning stays amorphous then there is wriggle room.
One thing is clear, organic isn’t what a lot of the general populous think it is. It doesn’t, for example, mean that only ‘natural’ non-synthetic items are used in its production. Here is a link to the many hundreds of synthetic, man-made chemicals that are allowed in organic farming; known as the National List. The reason that there are these exceptions to the rule is simple: without them organic food wouldn’t exist. You can’t simply put seeds in the ground, add nothing but rain and expect to feed a country from what grows out. This is what most of Africa and Asia has to do and is a large part of why many millions are perpetually on the brink of starvation. So, right off the bat, organic doesn’t actually mean organic in the non-synthetic sense of the word.
Another assumption is that organic means that pesticides aren’t used in the production process. Wrong again. What do people think an organic farmer does if they see a pest on their crop? Just turn around, shrug their shoulders and mutter, “Oh well, maybe next year.” No, they hot foot it down to the barn and reach for the pesticides the same as every other farmer in the land.
The difference is that the pesticides they use must be ‘organic’, except, again, the definition of organic here is foggy. There are synthetic exceptions on the National List that organic farmers are permitted to use. But let’s say that they were all 100% natural. So what? Cyanide is natural. Uranium is natural. I’m not sprinkling any arsenic on my fish and chips any time soon. There is an enormous assumption here that ‘natural’ is synonymous with good or safe or healthy. It’s the naturalistic fallacy in overdrive and has no grounding in reality.
Unfortunately, this is an assumption that regulatory bodies have also fallen foul of. There is vanishingly little data out there on organic pesticides compared to synthetic ones. When a new synthetic product is created it must be tested exhaustively for all manner of possible negative effects. When an organic one is produced the assumption is that natural is safe and there is no requirement to see if it actually is safe; at least that was certainly the scenario for many decades, things are beginning to change these days. Allow me to give you some illustrative examples.
The standard test of toxicity is the LD50 test. This is where you take a population of an organism, most commonly rats or mice in modern times, and then force progressively higher quantities of whatever is being tested onto/into the organism until one half of the population is dead; LD50 being shorthand for lethal dose 50%. It is unpleasant work to say the least but unfortunately necessary to know how toxic new compounds are. The more toxic something is the less of it is required to kill and so low numbers in the LD50 are those to look out for.
As a marker against which to set things we’ll start with glyphosate, the poster boy of evil Big Agro. It has an LD50 of 5600 mg/kg. This means that to stand a 50% chance of killing an adult weighing 75 kg would require them to consume 75 x 5600 = 420,000 mg or nearly half a kilo of pure glyphosate. That’s an enormous amount and qualifies glyphosate for membership of the Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘slightly toxic’ category. Other members of this category include the ethanol in our alcoholic drinks and the citric acid in our yummy citrus fruits. Most of us, then have merrily quaffed back in a single night far more ethanol than the amount of glyphosate we might be expected to be exposed to in our whole lifetimes.
The next category up is ‘moderately toxic’ and contains such deadly killers as table salt (LD50 3000 mg/kg); baking soda, used in baking most biscuits (LD50 4220 mg/kg); and theobromine, the naturally occurring chemical that gives proper chocolate its bitter taste (LD50 1256 mg/kg).
In the ‘very toxic’ class we have the notorious DDT (LD50 200 mg/kg) which everyone in the world knows is nasty, nasty stuff. In the same category there is the organic pesticide rotenone (LD50 132 mg/kg). This is pretty nasty for humans being known to increase the risk for Parkinson’s Disease but absolutely lethal to fish and other aquatic life, one drop of it would be the holocaust for your pond. Also here we have one of the most commonly used organic fungicides, copper sulphate (LD50 300 mg/kg), the main ingredient of copper-based organic pesticides. This is also very bad for marine life, especially invertebrates like crabs and oysters, which is unfortunate because copper sulphate persists in the water table. It’s highly carcinogenic to rodents, sheep, chickens and people. It tends to kill all life in the soil it’s sprayed on and once treated multiple times there is no effective way to remove it from the ground. Yummy.
Coming in with an LD50 of 250 mg/kg is the organic insecticide pyrethrin. Shown to result in a 3.7 fold increase in leukaemia in farmers that use it it is far worse for bees. Originally derived from flowers but now synthetically manufactured, pyrethrin is a rather unpleasant neurotoxin but is advertised in the organic industry as ‘insecticidal soap’ to make it sound less deadly to the unsuspecting consumer.
At this point glyphosate is starting to look more appealing. As a nerdy aside, the most toxic substance known to man is botulinum toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. It has an LD50 of 0.00001 mg/kg; 1 litre of the stuff would be enough to kill every man, woman and child in the UK. It is more commonly known as botox. Yes, the stuff people inject into their faces. It is classed as ‘super toxic’.
Nicotine sulphate (LD50 55 mg/kg) falls into the ‘extremely toxic’ category along with nicotine (LD50 50 mg/kg) and cyanide (LD50 10mg/kg). We’ve all heard about how bad neonicitinoid pesticides are for bees in recent years, well, guess what? The organic version is just as deadly, but no one seems to bat an eye about this one. Azadirachtin (LD50 3500 mg/kg) is not especially harmful to mammals, it’s very bad for insects and aquatic life, though. The recommended dose for an organic spray is 50 times more than the LD50 for bees.
If you want to know why Colony Collapse Disorder is persisting even where neonicitinoids have been banned then perhaps we need to look here. Where is the clamour to ban these pesticides? Why does no one kick up a fuss to remove these chemicals which are known to be absolutely lethal to bees? It’s a wonderful example of organic farming being just as bad if not worse for the environment than conventional agriculture. It’s all ‘natural’, though, so what’s the harm?
One final note on organic pesticide use. Being restricted to organic pesticides the farmers are somewhat hamstrung, they can’t pick the most effective product for their need; it’s like having to choose the runt of the litter. By using less effective pesticides they’re forced to use them more frequently and in greater quantities than if they’d gone synthetic. As a result, there is commonly more pesticides used in the production of organic food than there is in conventional farming. The difference is that these ones are arbitrarily ‘allowed’ and, also, no one tests for them because they’re assumed to be safe.
When a study comes out saying that there is x amount of evil synthetic pesticide on conventional produce but none on organic they’re comparing apples and pears. Yes, there isn’t any glyphosate on the organic tomatoes, but there’s a load of copper and you sure as hell don’t want to eat that. If all pesticides were measured fairly in these studies then the picture would be a far more complicated one.
To recap, then, organic doesn’t mean organic nor does it mean pesticide free nor is it necessarily better for the environment. Thank the stars, then, that it’s better for us at least. Oh wait, nope, it’s not any better for us either.
There is lots in the literature about whether or not organic food is nutritionally better than conventionally grown food and four meta-analyses have been conducted over the past decade. Three of them found that there is no difference between the two and one found that organic was better. I’m not going to offer a prize for correct answers but guess which three had no financial conflicts of interest and which one was funded by the Sheepdrove Trust, an organisation that works to ‘support the development of organic farming and food production’. As well as financial support the Sheepdrove Trust even provided ‘Meta-analyses of data on composition of organic and conventional foods’.
Let us imagine a scenario where there was a drug that was being tested for safety. It’s made by someone evil from Big Pharma like GSK or AstraZeneca. The vast, overwhelming weight of evidence says that this drug either doesn’t work or isn’t safe, but over here in the corner there is one outlier that says it works just fine. That outlying study, though, is funded by GSK. What do we do in this situation? Obviously we go with the consensus opinion and give less credence to the anomalous, conflicted publication. So it is with organic food. The scientific consensus is that there is no nutritional benefits to humans of eating organic food.
It actually could be worse than that. Because of decreased efficiency you generally get 25% lower yields using organic over conventional methods, this is part of the reason that organic food on average costs 60-105% more. The rest of the reason is that they’re just plain ripping you off. There is evidence to show that as it’s so expensive many people can’t afford to purchase as much as they usually might and therefore end up having smaller portions. The result is that people actually end up eating less fruit and veg than they otherwise might.
So, as far as the public perception of what organic food is, organic isn’t what most people think it is. It is also clear that the claims made by the organic industry itself are, if we’re being generous, misleading. Personally, I think they’re lying. To me it seems that the organic vs conventional/GMO food debate plays on our desire for simple explanations. There’s no room for nuance because we just want a good guy and a bad guy; but life is rarely that straightforward. One study found that there was significantly more phosphorous present in organically grown strawberries. Great, lovely. But the same study also found that there was significantly less protein, fibre and minerals. It is not a simple picture, it is complicated and by adhering to our ideologies we only muddy the water further.
Of the more than 1000 chemicals in the average cup of coffee only a few dozen of them have been tested for carcinogenic properties. Of those that have been tested about two thirds were carcinogenic meaning that the average cup of joe contains at least 10 mg of carcinogen. That is more than you will pick up from eating an entire year of conventionally grown crops. Add to the mix that your food is tested for toxic residues and it can’t be sold if it is above the regulation limit. You can further reduce your risk by washing your fruit and veg under the cold tap before you use it, this can remove up to 95% of whatever has made it that far. Cooking the produce makes it even safer again.
I am not trying to fear monger here, there is enough of that going on as it is, and I’m not saying that we should stop buying organic food. What I do want to do is remove the double standard that exists. Organic is not the ma and pa home farm produce you think it is. Just like all other food there are advantages and disadvantages.
I am not ideologically wedded to any particular method of food production. We need to double food production in the next 50 years and I am in favour of whatever methods will help us do that most efficiently and most sustainably. Those decisions must be made based on the evidence and not on our predispositions. As I said at the beginning, there are positives that can be taken from the organic industry and applied more widely but, equally, we cannot afford to discount out of hand the benefits that the latest science and technology may afford us.
The organic food industry can make a genuine contribution to how we tackle food shortages over the coming century, but their demonisation of the GMO industry in particular has been relentless, all too successful and, frankly, despicable. They are not interested in the facts. They tell lies and they clearly do not care about the truth. Sadly, there are people going hungry and even dying because of their propaganda campaign and I really, really want that to stop.