Not safer, better nutritionally, or likely produced by small, local farm, Robert Paarlberg argues in new book
By Robert Paarlberg
Date February 2, 2021
Excerpted from the new book “Resetting the Table: Straight Talk about the Food We Grow and Eat” (Knopf) by Robert Paarlberg, associate in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School and at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
At a recent dinner party, the hostess served me a tasty salad with carrots, raisins, nuts, and baby greens. “It’s all organic,” she said, expecting my approval. To be polite, I smiled and said nothing, but a voice inside wanted to respond, “You paid too much.”
Nearly half of all Americans claim to prefer organic food, and the label has spread far beyond food. You can now buy organic lipstick, organic underwear, and even organic water. The 2019 Super Bowl featured ads for organic beer, and health-conscious smokers are able to purchase organic cigarettes. Most farmers, however, have little interest in switching to the more costly and less convenient production methods required for organic certification, so this constrains the supply, which makes organic food needlessly expensive. America’s farmers so far have certified less than 1 percent of their cropland for organic production, and fewer than 2 percent of commodities grown in 2017 were organic. Processed and packaged foods can now be organic as well, but fewer than 6 percent of total retail food purchases are organic products. Two decades after federal organic certification began in America, the brand remains a single-digit phenomenon.
Farmers tend to hold back because producing food organically requires more human labor to handle the composted animal manure used for fertilizer, as well as more labor to control weeds without chemicals (sometimes putting down nonbiodegradable plastic mulch instead). It also requires more land for every bushel of production, further driving up costs. Trying to grow all of our food organically today would require farming a much wider area, damaging wildlife habitat. Rachel Carson, the founder of our modern environmental movement, never endorsed organic farming. Her 1962 book “Silent Spring”condemned synthetic insecticides like DDT, but Carson saw no reason to ban manufactured fertilizers, a requirement under the organic standard.
The rules for organic farming do deliver some clear benefit in the livestock sector. Producers of organic meat, milk, and eggs are required to provide their animals with more space to move around, an important plus for animal welfare. Also, animal products cannot be labeled organic if the animals were fed or treated with antibiotics, which is good for slowing the emergence of resistant bacterial strains dangerous to human health. Yet even for livestock the organic rule malfunctions, since the animals can only be given feeds grown organically, and organic corn and soy have lower yields per acre, so more land must be planted and plowed.
Consumers tend to favor organic food because they believe the advocates who claim it is safer and more nutritious to eat, but there is little or no scientific evidence to support these claims. Others buy organic food because they assume it comes from farms that are smaller, more traditional, and more diverse, but this is not a safe assumption either. Most organic food on the market today comes from highly specialized, industrial-scale farms, not so different from those that produce conventional food.
It doesn’t usually pay to challenge popular beliefs, even with scientific evidence, but some have felt compelled to do so in the case of organic agriculture. Louise O. Fresco, trained as an agronomist, is the president of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the world’s leading agricultural university. In her 2016 book “Hamburgers in Paradise,”she drew a harsh conclusion: “Organic farming as a whole is a mish-mash of valuable goals and ideals that have either been insufficiently tested or are completely misguided.”
Scientists like Fresco view the organic vision as fundamentally misguided because it depends on an ungrounded distinction between materials that come from nature versus those fabricated by human industry. Organic farmers are permitted to treat their crops with the former, but not the latter. The organic rule says we can use nitrogen from animal manure to replace soil nutrients, but not nitrogen synthesized from the atmosphere in a factory. This is not a science-based distinction. No matter what method we use to get a supply of nitrogen for use as fertilizer, it will be the same element within the periodic table, with all the same properties.
Visions that privilege what comes from nature over what is made by people have a mystical appeal, but they malfunction as practical guidance. Nature is often alluring and attractive, yet natural materials are anything but safe. Arsenic, nickel, and chromium are all dangerous carcinogens, and all come from nature. Many plants that are found in nature contain dangerous poisons, ranging from the deadly ricin found in castor beans (familiar to fans of “Breaking Bad”) to the itch-inducing urushiol in common poison ivy.
By focusing on natural versus synthetic, the organic rule loses sight of actual risks. Copper sulfate is permitted as a fungicide because it isn’t synthetic, but careless use of this chemical can leave dangerous residues on food and pollute our streams. Animal manure is natural, and an excellent fertilizer when composted, but dangerous bacteria will be introduced into fields and also into groundwater systems if a farmer fails to get the heat in the compost pile up to at least 140 degrees. A close friend with a field of organic blueberries on her hilltop farm in Maine developed serious stomach problems when she located her compost pile too close to the well.
The biggest weakness in the organic rule is absolutism. Cutting back on the use of manufactured fertilizer is frequently a good idea, but the idea of cutting back to zero is needlessly rigid and absolute. Quests for purity in food and farming are not as dangerous as they are in race or religion, but they are just as lacking in scientific justification, and the advocates can be just as exasperating. Calvin Trillin put it nicely: “The price of purity is purists.”