Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Organic Agriculture in Perspective

Earlier this month a handful of scientists and doctors hailing primarily from Stanford University published an article about the health benefits of organically grown food. What they found was quite controversial: that organically grown foods are not any safer or healthier than conventionally grown foods.

The response to this article has been substantial. Organic interests have quickly replied that the study fails to address many issues that make organic agriculture so necessary and important. Some of these arguments are thoughtful. Others are simply ridiculous – and amusing. All of them that I have read, however, fail to take a broader look at the organic movement and appreciate the reality of the world we currently inhabit.

Take the pesticide issue as a case in point. This is the main issue (of any credibility) that the organic apologists make against the Stanford study. It is argued that conventionally grown crops contain pesticide residues that are not found on organically grown crops. This is true for the most part. But this claim needs to be considered along with the fact that the residues occurring on non-organic produce fall below the danger zone established by EPA and FDA. They have to. It’s the law.

Well yes, argues the organic lobby, but what about the long-term effects of these pesticide residues? Certainly they can’t be healthy.

And the answer to this troubling question is that we don’t know for sure? And this is my point. Arguing about the dangers of miniscule amounts of chemicals on food makes about as much sense as arguing about the quality of the air we breathe. And I don’t mean this as an analogy. The air we breathe is probably just as dangerous to our long-term health as anything on the skin of unwashed apples. It may be more dangerous in some instances.

I don’t mean to poke fun at the organic movement. I would be a hypocrite to do so. But for a long time now, the purveyors of the organic gospel have been pushing an agenda that is quite different from the way their own movement got started. Special interests in recent years have focused on the evils of big business – the big chemical business in particular – whereas originally, the organic movement focused on the health of the soil.  

Sir Albert Howard is generally recognized as the father of organic agriculture. His book, An Agricultural Testament, published in 1943, is a clear statement on the importance of composting to good health. Howard was an agricultural adviser in India during the early part of the 20th Century and faced the challenging problem of low soil fertility in a land that did not use cow manure in agriculture (manure was/is used as a fuel for cooking and heating homes). His solution was to use so-called “green manure” or decomposing plant material to add fertility to impoverished soils.

Howard named his composting method the Indore Process, after the village where he worked. It was a great success and became the basis for many books and articles published by J.I. Rodale (via Rodale Books and the Rodale Press).

Some of this early literature does address the importance of limiting the inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but these issues seem to be mere tangents. The clear message is that healthy soils produce healthy food; which, in turn, produces healthy people.

Then the environmental movement came along. And after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, many things changed within the organic movement. Pesticides became the causa belli. During the decades following the 1960’s many pesticides were banned and the Environmental Protection Agency became a powerful organization deciding what could and could not be used to protect the nation’s food from pests. The widely active biocides and pesticides with long residual activity were the first to be taken off the market. Many others have since followed in their wake.

This has been a positive thing for the most part. Growers are better educated on how to manage pests, and they generally have more products to choose from than they used to. Of course, it’s more expensive now to kill pests and the long-established problems of pesticide resistance continue to plague us. But the future of agriculture is promising – in spite of the many more mouths we have to feed.   

And through all of this the organic movement has felt the need to adapt its message. From healthy soils it now focuses on pesticide-free food. Unfortunately (for them) this will turn out to be a poor course to follow. The credibility of the organic movement (already limited) will become even more limited. Claims to better health and living can hardly be justified anymore.  The Stanford Study is a clear case of this.

But there have been hints of this for some time now. You may have been part of taste tests that used to be popular. Two plates of carrots (or apples, grapes, or other food) would be placed side-by-side. One plate would hold organic carrots, the other would hold conventional carrots. The challenge was to taste a difference between them. If you could taste a difference, then you had to rank them by preference. In the tests I participated in, there were often differences detected, and conventional produce tasted best. You may have experienced the same thing. The reason for this is that food tastes best when it is kept from spoiling. And the truth of the matter is that organically grown foods spoil quicker than conventionally grown food.

Another popular series of studies have looked at the productivity of conventional farming compared to organic farming. In many of these studies, organic farms produced less in acre-by-acre comparisons than conventional farms.

So the question becomes, if conventionally grown food is tastier, is just as healthy, and is less expensive than organically grown food, why should we bother with organic foods at all?

The answer may not be what you expect. We need organically produced food because it is old fashioned. Or rather, the answer lies with old fashioned organic agriculture. It lies with the soil. Organic farms that fail to compare favorably with conventional farms do so because they are trying to copy conventional markets. A dedicated organic grower that focuses on Albert Howard’s organic method of composting can out-compete conventional growers in both the quantity and quality of food produced. But this almost always happens on a small scale.

The farm that focuses on organic soil fertility can harvest fresh produce over a long growing season. If this is supplemented with modern pesticides (if they are needed) a farm will out-compete conventional growers.

You may say that this does not count as “organic” and you would be right. The rules of the organic movement (having started in California) are now official nationally (and are expanding globally). Using un-certified pesticides disqualifies a product as “organic”.

My response to all of this may seem harsh: Who Cares? If “organic” produce is not healthier, is less tasty, and costs more than my grocery store produce, I’m not going to buy the organic food. It doesn’t bother me to wash my vegetables.

But there is still a big need to improve the soil. And I still keep my own vegetable garden (and compost pile) because I much prefer the taste of fresh garden produce. I promise you that my fresh garden salad tastes better than conventionally grown salads (which taste better than flagging organic salads).

This is because I use tastier varieties (that aren’t “tough” enough for shipping) that come straight from plants that have been fed from rich compost. We may have a lot of sandy soil here in Fresno but my garden is full of organic matter and my plants love it. And they taste really good.

I think it’s time to give Sir Albert Howard a closer look. We’ve learned our lesson from Silent Spring. It’s time to move on. If we’re really serious about our health, let’s go outside and start a real organic garden. Let’s build up our soils.


The Stanford Study: Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (vol. 157(5)) in September of this year (2012). My copy of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament is a reprint published by Oxford City Press in 2010.

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