Americans believe that organic food is healthier than conventional fare by a 2-1 margin, reports John Miller of National Review. But Miller’s worthy article (link requires subscription) demonstrates that the reverse is far closer to the truth. “Organic foods may be fresh,” he points out, “but they’re also fresh from the manure fields.”
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with buying organic. Miller rightly scorns, however, the holier-than-thou organic-only political movement trying to legislate and scare the rest of us into buying their high-priced alternatives.
The discovery of a single case of mad cow disease in the United States provided a perfect opportunity for organic advocates to promote the false belief that conventional foods are excessively risky. As we pointed out in the Orlando Sentinel: “During the Christmas season, it was hard to open a newspaper without reading assurances from Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, that organic beef provided a safety net from mad cow disease.” He conveniently forgets that in 1995, the British had hundreds of mad-cow diagnoses on organic farms.
Facts aren’t particularly important to a guy like Cummins, who believes that American consumers “aren’t smart enough to know what they want.” Based on the facts, of course, most of us won’t pay hefty premiums for organic meat. So Cummins strives to raise unwarranted fears about mad cow disease. That’s the only way he can achieve his goal of getting consumers to pay “twice as much for their meat.”
For those who think that eating organic food will somehow protect us from mad cow disease and bring about world peace, learning that manure-grown spuds come from large enterprises might be a bit of shock. But as Miller points out, “one of the dirty secrets of organic farming” is that “it’s big business.”
Although the organic movement has humble origins, today most of its food isn’t produced on family farms in quaint villages or even on hippie communes in Vermont. Instead, the industry has come to be dominated by large corporations that are normally the dreaded bogeymen in the minds of many organic consumers. A single company currently controls about 70 percent of the market in organic milk. California grows about $400 million per year in organic produce — and about half of it comes from just five farms.
The high-priestess of organic-only eating, Joan Dye Gussow, has complained for years about business interests intruding on her church. “When we said organic we meant local,” she wrote in 2002. “We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality.”
Gussow claims that she views food choices in terms of ecology. She should read Miller’s article. He notes that, if anything, organic food is worse for the environment:
The very worst thing about organic farming requires the use of a word that doomsaying environmentalists have practically trademarked: It’s not sustainable. Few activities are as wasteful as organic farming. Its yields are about half of what conventional farmers expect at harvest time. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his agricultural innovations, has said, “You couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people” on an all-organic diet.
If organic-food consumers think they’re making a political statement when they eat, they’re correct: They’re declaring themselves to be not only friends of population control, but also enemies of environmental conservation. About half the world’s land area that isn’t covered with ice or sand is devoted to food production. Modern farming techniques have enabled this limited supply to produce increasing quantities of food. Yields have fattened so much in the last few decades that people refer to this phenomenon as the “Green Revolution,” a term that has nothing to do with enviro-greenies and everything to do with improvements in breeding, fertilization, and irrigation. Yet even greater challenges lie ahead, because demographers predict that world population will rise to 9 billion by 2050. “The key is to produce more food,” says Alex Avery of CGFI. “Growing more per acre leaves more land for nature.” The alternative is to chop down rainforests so that we may dine on organic soybeans.
And what about the health risks from eating those manure-grown sprouts? Here’s one final excerpt from Miller’s article, where he describes the organic brand of fertilizer creating a:
… luscious breeding grounds for all kinds of nasty microbes. Take the dreaded E. coli, which is capable of killing people who ingest it. A study by the Center for Global Food Issues found that although organic foods make up about 1 percent of America’s diet, they also account for about 8 percent of confirmed E. coli cases.
Organic food products also suffer from more than eight times as many recalls as conventional ones. Some of this problem would go away if organic farmers used synthetic sprays — but this, too, is off limits. Conventional wisdom says that we should avoid food that’s been drenched in herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Half a century ago, there was some truth in this: Sprays were primitive and left behind chemical deposits that often survived all the way to the dinner table. Today’s sprays, however, are largely biodegradable. They do their job in the field and quickly break down into harmless molecules.
What’s more, advances in biotechnology have reduced the need to spray. About one-third of America’s corn crop is now genetically modified. This corn includes a special gene that produces a natural toxin that’s safe for every living creature to eat except caterpillars with alkaline guts, such as the European corn borer, a moth larva that can ravage whole harvests. This kind of biotech innovation has helped farmers reduce their reliance on pesticides by about 50 million pounds per year.
Organic farmers, of course, don’t benefit from any of this. But they do have some recourse against the bugs, weeds, and fungi that can devastate a crop: They spray their plants with “natural” pesticides. These are less effective than synthetic ones and they’re certainly no safer. In rat tests, rotenone — an insecticide extracted from the roots of tropical plants — has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has described pyrethrum, another natural bug killer, as a human carcinogen. Everything is lethal in massive quantities, of course, and it takes huge doses of pyrethrum to pose a health hazard. Still, the typical organic farmer has to douse his crops with it as many as seven times to have the same effect as one or two applications of a synthetic compound based on the same ingredients. Then there’s one of the natural fungicides preferred by organic coffee growers in Guatemala: fermented urine. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to order the “special brew” at your local organic java hut.