Comparing organic farming to conventional. Is one better for the environment?

Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, estimated we could feed four billion people if we used organic farming. The earth now is home to seven billion people and will probably go to nine billion before leveling off and declining, according to the United Nations. Organic farming means 50% of our world population would die horrible deaths. Who should decide who lives?

Alternatively, we could double our farmland and cultivate over 80% of our earth’s land. Goodbye, rainforests.

Yes, there is another alternative, to lower population growth, but that is already occurring. The answer is not less food but more food and wealth to have that trend continue. (See this animated chart at Population growth is plummeting. Not one country has a higher birth rate now than it had in 1960. “Most environmentalists still haven’t gotten the word,” writes Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame), “On every part of every continent and in every culture (even Mormon [his words]), birth rates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep dropping.”

Why is it that organic farming cannot support as many people that conventional farming can? It turns out that pesticides and fertilizers both cut down on losses to pests and boost growth of the plants. Fossil fuels allow conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. “By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best,” writes Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of the scientific journal, Nature.

Organic farming is less efficient than conventional farming; as a result, the earth suffers. Without pesticides and fertilizers boosting yields, we have to press more land into production, land that was forested before being pressed into agricultural use.

Converting land to agricultural use is the prime cause of deforestation, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) . Let me repeat that because it bears repeating.

Converting land to agricultural use is the prime cause of deforestation.

Conventional farming needs fewer acres. There is real environmental degradation in organic agriculture because it requires an average of 30% more than conventional agriculture.

“We have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That’s land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty.- Stephen Budiansky

That means we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and rainforests from being cleared for agriculture.English: Organic farming

The earth cannot afford organic. We cannot afford organic. The ineluctable tradeoff comes down to land for agriculture versus land for wildlife. We should always pick nature and habitat over ‘natural’ food and terroir. Agriculture, whether organic or conventional fragments and diminishes habitat, displaces wildlife, and uses toxic pesticides (yes, organic farmers use “natural” pesticides).

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New Year’s Resolution: Eat Healthier. Does that mean organic food?

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps you have decided to toast the New Year with organic champagne or an organically produced high-gravity craft beer because organic is better, not just for you but for the planet. After all, you have made a New Year’s resolution to eat better and healthier while caring for the environment.

So, is organic superior to conventionally raised food? Well, some of my friends say there is. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far, there is not only little extraordinary evidence, there is zero extraordinary evidence that organically grown food is any better for you than conventionally grown food. Nor is there solid evidence that it tastes better.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.

The United States Food and Drug Administration and Mayo Clinic are not alone. An article published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, on the basis of a systematic review of studies, says:

[T]here is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.

A major independent research project released 30 July 2009 and conducted by the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on behalf of the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency, concluded that organic food is no better for health than food produced by more advanced agricultural techniques. The study was the biggest of its kind ever conducted, reviewing all data collected on the topic over the past 50 years. In its conclusion the report says:

No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.

The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality.

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake of the nutrients identified in this review which are present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

For a copy of the UK government’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit report (pdf) click here.

In addition to its own research, Great Britain’s Food Standards Agency cite studies by the French Food Safety Agency and another by the Swedish National Food Administration:

In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds no nutritional benefits of organic food.

Findings published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition say much the same:

Studies comparing foods derived from organic and conventional growing systems were assessed for three key areas: nutritional value, sensory quality, and food safety. It is evident from this assessment that there are few well-controlled studies that are capable of making a valid comparison. With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients… While there are reports indicating that organic and conventional fruits and vegetables may differ on a variety of sensory qualities, the findings are inconsistent…There is no evidence that organic foods may be more susceptible to microbiological contamination than conventional foods. While it is likely that organically grown foods are lower in pesticide residues, there has been very little documentation of residue levels.

Conclusion, toast to the New Year in with anything you wish. But, if your resolution is to eat healthier by making better choices, grab a vegetable or fruit instead of a bag a chips for a snack.

What about organic being better for the environment? Surely, the earth is better for organically raising food and fiber without artificial pesticides and fertilizers? We will look at that tomorrow.

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Timberati’s Weekend Postcards: Maryland, Washington D.C., Delaware

Last weekend the Weekend Postcard was of our trip to the east coast of the USA. This week the postcards hit some of the high points of our 3 month stay. From mid-state New York to Richmond, Virginia must hold some of our country’s most uptight people. The drive east is rather easy and low stress. In New York state, the  tempo of traffic picks up tremendously. More cars on the road, more aggressive drivers, angrier people, more horns. But, they do have a sense of humor about it all; the state of New York has signs advising drivers that they need to yield to blind people. Now, that’s funny.

I am sure that the state motto of New Jersey is ‘Get out of my f***ing way, a**hole. Hey, what are you looking at? Did you hear what I said?’ The state bird is the middle finger. The state song is a car horn.

I was in the Washington, DC area to use the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. We found a place to stay within a mile of NA II. The original plan was for me to bike in. The roads and the traffic called that plan into question.  I took a shuttle bus between the Archives buildings to get into DC.

Inside “The Beltway” of highways that ring Washington DC,  it seemed that not one day went by without some sort of road rage-ish behavior. In Washington, D.C. we watched a cab pull to a curb at a corner, after which a Mercedes blared his horn, just behind the cab, for thirty seconds. Then, he pulled up along the cabbie and screamed obscenities at him. The Mercedes drove off, stopped with a screech of brakes, backed up yelled again at the cabbie, and finally he careered away into the DC traffic.  Duuude, easterners take free speech very seriously.

A number of the photos were snapped while I was in the bus, so you may see some reflection from the shuttle’s window. My advice to anyone wishing to visit Washington, DC: take public transit and take a Valium. One look at L’Enfant’s plan for DC should dissuade anyone from driving in that city.

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