Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Organic Farming: Myths and Facts

The great organic myths

Why organic foods are an indulgence the world can't afford

They're not healthier or better for the environment - and they're packed with pesticides. In an age of climate change and shortages, these foods are an indugence the world can't afford.

by Rob Johnston (May 01 2008)

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment

The study of Life Cycle Assessments for the UK, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should concern anyone who buys organic. It shows that milk and dairy production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. A litre of organic milk requires eighty per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has twenty per cent greater global warming potential, releases sixty per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes seventy per cent more to acid rain.

Also, organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle - and methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Meat and poultry are the largest agricultural contributors to greenhouse gas emissions emissions. Life Cycle Assessment counts the energy used to manufacture pesticide for growing cattle feed, but still shows that a kilo of organic beef releases twelve per cent more greenhouse gas emissions, causes twice as much nutrient pollution and more acid rain.

Life Cycle Assessment relates food production to: energy required to manufacture artificial fertilisers and pesticides; fossil fuel burnt by farm equipment; nutrient pollution caused by nitrate and phosphate run-off into water courses; release of gases that cause acid rain; and the area of land farmed. A similar review by the University of Hohenheim, Germany, in 2000 reached the same conclusions (Hohenheim is a proponent of organic farming and quoted by the Soil Association).

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable

Organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertiliser production, but need more fossil fuel for ploughing. A hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one.

Heated greenhouse tomatoes in Britain use up to 100 times more energy than those grown in fields in Africa. Organic yield is 75 per cent of conventional tomato crops but takes twice the energy - so the climate consequences of home-grown organic tomatoes exceed those of Kenyan imports.

Defra estimates organic tomato production in the UK releases almost three times the nutrient pollution and uses 25 per cent more water per kilogram of fruit than normal production. However, a kilogram of wheat takes 1,700 joules of energy to produce, against 2,500 joules for the same amount of conventional wheat, although nutrient pollution is three times higher for organic.

Myth three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides

Food scares are always good news for the organic food industry. The Soil Association and other organic farming trade groups say conventional food must be unhealthy because farmers use pesticides. Actually, organic farmers also use pesticides. The difference is that "organic" pesticides are so dangerous that they have been "grandfathered" with current regulations and do not have to pass stringent modern safety tests.

For example, organic farmers can treat fungal diseases with copper solutions. Unlike modern, biodegradable, pesticides copper stays toxic in the soil for ever. The organic insecticide rotenone (in derris) is highly neurotoxic to humans - exposure can cause Parkinson's disease. But none of these "natural" chemicals is a reason not to buy organic food; nor are the man-made chemicals used in conventional farming.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

The proponents of organic food - particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon - say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for fifty years.

If there is a "cocktail effect" it would first show up in farmers, but they have among the lowest cancer rates of any group. Carcinogenic effects of pesticides could show up as stomach cancer, but stomach cancer rates have fallen faster than any other. Sixty years ago, all Britain's food was organic; we lived only until our early sixties, malnutrition and food poisoning were rife. Now, modern agriculture (including the careful use of well-tested chemicals) makes food cheap and safe and we live into our eighties.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier

To quote Hohenheim University: "No clear conclusions about the quality of organic food can be reached using the results of present literature and research results". What research there is does not support the claims made for organic food.

Large studies in Holland, Denmark and Austria found the food-poisoning bacterium Campylobacter in 100 per cent of organic chicken flocks but only a third of conventional flocks; equal rates of contamination with Salmonella (despite many organic flocks being vaccinated against it); and 72 per cent of organic chickens infected with parasites.

This high level of infection among organic chickens could cross-contaminate non-organic chickens processed on the same production lines. Organic farmers boast that their animals are not routinely treated with antibiotics or (for example) worming medicines. But, as a result, organic animals suffer more diseases. In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against four per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often.

Disease is the major reason why organic animals are only half the weight of conventionally reared animals - so organic farming is not necessarily a boon to animal welfare.

Myth six: Organic food contains more nutrients

The Soil Association points to a few small studies that demonstrate slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients in organic produce - flavonoids in organic tomatoes and omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk, for example.

The easiest way to increase the concentration of nutrients in food is to leave it in an airing cupboard for a few days. Dehydrated foods contain much higher concentrations of carbohydrates and nutrients than whole foods. But, just as in humans, dehydration is often a sign of disease.

The study that found higher flavonoid levels in organic tomatoes revealed them to be the result of stress from lack of nitrogen - the plants stopped making flesh and made defensive chemicals (such as flavonoids) instead.

Myth seven: The demand for organic food is booming

Less than one per cent of the food sold in Britain is organic, but you would never guess it from the media. The Soil Association positions itself as a charity that promotes good farming practices. Modestly, on its website, it claims: "... in many ways the Soil Association can claim to be the first organisation to promote and practice sustainable development". But the Soil Association is also, in effect, a trade group - and very successful lobbying organisation.

Every year, news outlets report the Soil Association's annual claim of a big increase in the size of the organic market. For 2006 (the latest available figures) it boasted sales of GBP 1.937 billion.

Mintel (a retail consultantcy hired by the Soil Association) estimated only GBP 1.5 billion in organic food sales for 2006. The more reliable TNS Worldpanel, (tracking actual purchases) found just GBP 1 billion of organics sold - from a total food sector of GBP 104 billion. Sixty years ago all our food was organic so demand has actually gone down by 99 per cent. Despite the "boom" in organics, the amount of land being farmed organically has been decreasing since its height in 2003. Although the area of land being converted to organic usage is scheduled to rise, more farmers are going back to conventional farming.

The Soil Association invariably claims that anyone who questions the value of organic farming works for chemical manufacturers and agribusiness or is in league with some shady right-wing US free-market lobby group. Which is ironic, considering that a number of British fascists were involved in the founding of the Soil Association and its journal was edited by one of Oswald Mosley's blackshirts until the late 1960s.

All Britain's food is safer than ever before. In a serious age, we should talk about the future seriously and not use food scares and misinformation as a tactic to increase sales.

Rob Johnston is a doctor and science writer

Copyright (c)


The great organic myths rebutted

Rob Johnston argued that organic foods are not as good as supporters claim. His article sparked heated debate. Now the case for their defence.

by Peter Melchett of the Soil Association (May 08 2008)

Fact one: Organic farming is good for the environment

Organic farming is not perfect; it was only developed sixty years ago, and we still have much to learn. Over those years, organic research has been starved of funding because most investment went first into developing pesticides and then into genetically modified crops. Organic farming was started by scientists and farmers who wanted to develop what we would now call a more sustainable way of producing food. Their main concern was with the link between healthy soils, healthy food and human health. However, those pioneers did create a farming system that has clear environmental benefits. Organic farming is better for wildlife on farms. The science is clear cut. Scientific literature reviews have found that, overall, organic farms have thirty per cent more wild species, and fifty per cent higher numbers of those species. Based on scientific research, the Government says that organic farming has clear environmental benefits - better for wildlife, lower pollution from sprays, produces fewer dangerous wastes and less carbon dioxide. The Sustainable Development Commission says that organic certification represents "the gold standard" for sustainable food production. I farmed non-organically for more than thirty years, and switched to organic, mainly to try to bring back wildlife on the farm. We have far more birds, and data on hares before and after switching to organic show numbers doubled from twenty to forty. This year we found 56.

Fact two: Organic farming is more sustainable

Last week's article contained several errors - for example, the statement that organic tomatoes take double the amount of energy to produce is wrong, as were the figures for different types of tomato. The information on the climate change impact of organic food omitted one of the key benefits of organic farming: storing carbon in the soil. When this is included, the climate change impact of organic food goes down by between twelve and eighty per cent. Government-funded studies have shown that across a range of sectors, organic farming uses 26 per cent less energy than non-organic farming to produce the same amount of food, and the Government agrees that organic farming is better for climate change. The article ignored the extraordinary challenges we face. We must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the farming and food industries - by eighty per cent by 2050. We have to adapt to a world with declining oil and gas supplies. We have to help mitigate the effects of climate change, for example by reducing flooding and cutting demand for fresh water. We have to adapt to a world of more extreme and unpredictable weather. How we do this is the challenge.

Fact three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides

We've never claimed this! The Soil Association's rules allow farmers to use four pesticides, with permission. Non-organic farming uses more than 300. The vast majority of organic farmers have no need for sprays. If all farming was organic, spraying would fall by 98 per cent. Organic sprays are mainly used on potatoes and in orchards. Those we allow are either of natural origin (rotenone and soft soap) or simple chemical products - copper compounds and sulphur. The active ingredients in rotenone and soft soap break down rapidly when exposed to sunlight, minimising risk to the environment. Copper and sulphur occur naturally in the soil, and most copper is applied by non-organic farmers to correct copper deficiencies. None is found in organic food.

Despite the wet weather and greatly increased risk of disease last year, only three per cent of Soil Association farmers and two per cent of organic crops were sprayed. Our goal is to use no sprays at all.

Fact four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

I'd say certainly risky, and potentially dangerous. In the EU, one food item in thirty contains levels above European legal limits. Nearly forty pesticides, which we were promised were safe, have been banned or withdrawn from use over the past decade. People who want to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful pesticides can buy organic food. A US study showed that within one day of switching to an organic diet no traces of pesticides could be found in children's urine. When the children switched back to a non-organic diet, pesticides were found immediately.

Cocktails of sprays are not tested when pesticides are passed as "safe", and research has confirmed they pose a risk. Average male fertility has fallen by fifty per cent, coinciding with the use of pesticides. There are alternative views - a government adviser blamed "too much time riding bikes, sitting down too much and wearing tight underpants". Science cannot prove there is no risk from pesticides. In the absence of clear scientific evidence either way, people who think that the accepted nutritional differences or absence of pesticides and artificial additives in organic food will benefit them or their children, should buy organic.

Fact five: Organic farming is healthier

In terms of food safety, the Food Standards Agency says there is no difference between organic and non-organic food. The animal welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming says: "Organic farming has the potential to offer the very highest standards of animal welfare". It believes that the Soil Association's welfare standards are "leaders in the field". Because animals are kept in better conditions, always free range, there is no need for the routine use of antibiotics, and such use is banned. The World Health Organisation says that: "There is growing concern that antibiotic residues in meat and dairy products could result in antibiotic resistance in bacteria prevalent in humans, reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics used to treat human disease". The most bizarre claim in last week's piece was that "Disease is the major reason why organic animals are half the weight of conventionally reared animals - so organic farming is not necessarily a boon to animal welfare". There is no truth in this. An organic steak or chicken are the same size as non-organic - have a look in the shops! Organic animals suffer no more disease, and frequently less, than non-organic.

Fact six: Organic food contains more nutrients

Published research shows that, on average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. Organic milk is naturally higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, Vitamin A (beta-carotene) and some other antioxidants than non-organic milk.

Diseases such as eczema, asthma and allergies are affecting more and more children. Ten per cent of children in the EU now suffer from eczema. Following research in Sweden, a Dutch government-funded study published last November showed a 36 per cent lower incidence of eczema in children fed on organic dairy products compared with children consuming non-organic dairy products.

Organic standards prohibit a host of additives that researchers say may be harmful to our health, such as hydrogenated fat, monosodium glutamate and artificial flavourings and colourings. Recent Food Standards Agency-funded research found that some common additives can cause hyperactivity in children. You can avoid a wide range and large quantity of potentially allergenic or harmful additives if you eat organic food.

Fact seven: The demand for organic food is growing

Organic is still small. But local and direct organic sales are growing at 32 per cent per annum. In 2006 (the latest figures available) retail and catering sales were worth GBP 1,937 million - on average the retail market has grown 27 per cent per year over the past decade, and over the past few years, the proportion of the market supplied by UK farmers has grown. This is no longer simply a middle-class market. Over fifty per cent of people in lower income groups are buying organic food, and if they buy direct from farmers via box schemes or farm shops, it need not be more expensive than the same non-organic food in supermarkets. Three quarters of parents buy organic baby food, which makes up about half the total sold. Many parents and school governors have opted for at least part of school dinners being sourced from organic farms.

Organic farming is helping to reverse the decline in the UK's agricultural workforce, which has fallen by eighty per cent over the past fifty years. Organic farms in the UK provide on average more than thirty per cent more jobs per farm than equivalent non-organic farms - organic farmers tend to be younger, more optimistic and include more women. The choice we face is between oil-based farming with nitrogen fertiliser, or solar-powered organic systems. Producing one ton of nitrogen releases the equivalent of 6.7 tons of carbon dioxide. The raw material used to produce nitrogen fertiliser is, currently, increasingly scarce natural gas. UK farming uses three million tons of nitrogen fertiliser annually, half of which is imported. Organic farming is based on renewable processes on the farm, using clover to fix nitrogen and to build soil organic matter.

Recent research suggests that if all farming was organic, the slight decrease in yields in the northern hemisphere would be more than matched by overall increases elsewhere, leading to a slight increase in total food production. Long-term trials in the US found organic yields matching those from non-organic systems, with organic farming outperforming non-organic in drought years. Even with the uncertainties, in a world of increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, organic farming provides the only environmentally, or economically, sustainable system of feeding the world. Organic farming and food do not have all the answers. But solar-powered, animal and wildlife friendly, pesticide- and additive-free farming and food, is where we're heading.

Copyright (c)

Bill Totten


  • Hi, Great post. I like the way of your writing. After reading this blog, I am planning to start taking organic foods. Let me know how to find difference between organic and conventional foods. Thanks for sharing useful information. Keep blogging.

    Sathish from Organic India Green Tea

    By Blogger Sathish Mrb, at 10:10 PM, July 21, 2016  

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