Food:The Myth of Organic Agriculture

11 November 2013( STANFORD – Organic products – from food to skin-care nostrums to cigarettes – are
very much in vogue, with the global market for organic food alone now reportedly
exceeding $60 billion annually. The views of organic devotees seem to be shared by
the European Commission, whose official view of organic farming and foods is, “Good
for nature, good for you.” But there is no persuasive evidence of either.

A 2012 meta-analysis of data from 240 studies concluded that organic fruits and
vegetables were, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional
counterparts; nor were they less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria
like E. coli or salmonella – a finding that surprised even the researchers. “When we
began this project,” said Dena Bravata, one of the researchers, “we thought that
there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics
over conventional food.”

Many people purchase organic foods in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of
pesticides. But that is a poor rationale. While non-organic fruits and vegetables
had more pesticide residue, the levels in more than 99% of cases did not cross the
conservative safety thresholds set by regulators.

Moreover, the vast majority of the pesticidal substances found on produce occur
“naturally” in people’s diets, through organic and conventional foods. The
biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues have found that “99.99% (by weight) of the
pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend
themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer
tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present
in many common foods.”

The bottom line is that natural chemicals are just as likely as synthetic versions
to test positive in animal cancer studies, and “at the low doses of most human
exposures, the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are
insignificant.” In other words, consumers who buy expensive organic foods in order
to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides
that they consume.

Ironically, in both Europe and North America, the designation “organic” is itself a
synthetic bureaucratic construct – and it makes little sense. It prohibits the use
of synthetic chemical pesticides, with some pragmatic exceptions. For example, the
EU’s policy notes that “foreseen flexibility rules” can compensate for “local
climatic, cultural, or structural differences.” When suitable alternatives are
lacking, some (strictly enumerated) synthetic chemicals are allowed.

Similarly, in the US, there is a lengthy list of specific exceptions to the
prohibitions. But most “natural” pesticides – as well as pathogen-laden animal
excreta, for use as fertilizer – are permitted.

Another rationale for buying organic is that it is supposedly better for the natural
environment. But the low yields of organic agriculture in real-world settings –
typically 20-50% below yields from conventional agriculture – impose various
stresses on farmland and increase water consumption substantially. According to a
recent British meta-analysis, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, and
nitrous-oxide emissions per unit of output were higher in organic systems than in
conventional agriculture, as were land use and the potential for eutrophication –
adverse ecosystem responses to the addition of fertilizers and wastes – and

An anomaly of how “organic” is defined is that the designation does not actually
focus on the food’s quality, composition, or safety. Rather, it comprises a set of
acceptable practices and procedures that a farmer intends to use. For example,
chemical pesticide or pollen from genetically engineered plants wafting from an
adjacent field onto an organic crop does not affect the harvest’s status. EU rules
are clear that food may be labeled as organic as long as “the ingredients containing
[genetically modified organisms] entered the products unintentionally” and amount to
less than 0.9% of their content.

Finally, many who are seduced by the romance of organic farming ignore its human
consequences. American farmer Blake Hurst offers this reminder: “Weeds continue to
grow, even in polycultures with holistic farming methods, and, without pesticides,
hand weeding is the only way to protect a crop.” The backbreaking drudgery of hand
weeding often falls to women and children.

Of course, organic products should be available for people who feel that they must
have and can afford them. But the simple truth is that buying non-organic is far
more cost-effective, more humane, and more environmentally responsible.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at the
Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at
the US Food and Drug Administration.

Project Syndicate, 2013