Organic can be the right choice for fruit, sometimes

This “Green Chain”column will be published in the Lake County Record-Bee on Tuesday.

The National Organic Program administers the O...

The National Organic Program administers the Organic Seal to products that meet the requirements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes.

Forgive me please for starting this month’s column with the same John Maynard Keynes’ quote as last month’s. But new facts have been brought to light.

I have long maintained that it is wrong-headed to always choose organically-produced foods over foods produced using synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels. I have previously pointed out the use of fossil fuels to produce pesticides and fertilizers and run machinery allows conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. And, when taken in aggregate worldwide, we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and sundry open spaces from being cleared for agriculture. Had farmers continued to use organic farming methods, they would have needed to exponentially increase the acreage under cultivation in order to increase production to meet demand. And since agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation, more acres under cultivation means a loss of biodiversity, which is the last thing proponents of organic agriculture want.

A newly published report in the journal Nature shows that I am incorrect, if only slightly. This new paper forces me to revise my statement. The new statement: it is generally wrong-headed to always choose organically-produced foods over foods produced using synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels.

The report is titled, “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture.” While I have admittedly only been able to access the abstract, the authors find that organic farming methods are indeed less efficient than conventional ones: anywhere from 5 percent to 34 percent less efficient. But they also state, “Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields.”

Those “nearly match” crop types they refer to are not, sadly, vegetable and grain crops, which provide most of the calories for the world’s populations. Organic yields for vegetable and grains generally fall one-third below the yields of conventionally grown crops. On the Nature website Melissa Gilbert paraphrases lead author Verena Seufert, “Cereals and vegetables need lots of nitrogen to grow, suggesting that the yield differences are in large part attributable to nitrogen deficiencies in organic systems.”

Some fruits, on the other hand, under ideal circumstances can produce up to 97 percent of the amount of conventional yields if they are planted in rotation with nitrogen-fixing legumes to replace the critical nitrogen in the soil. Still, this 97 percent only counts the yield of the fruit crop. It ignores the need to harvest a legume instead of fruit every other rotation. There is no such need with conventional methods, which can bring double the yield since farmers would not necessarily need to rotate to a legume.

We often wax nostalgic for the good old days. Somehow, those days were better and technology, on the whole, has been bad. We downplay the benefits. Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of Nature, writes that due to the use of technology “…the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.”

So, if you are concerned about preserving forests, wetlands, and open space, it is usually, but not always, wrong-headed to always choose organically produced foods over foods produced using synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels—if we’re talking about certain fruits, that is.

Biello, David. ”Will Organic Food Fail to Feed the World?” Scientific American. April 25, 2012. ( accessed 04/25/2012)

Budiansky, Stephen. “Math Lessons for Locavores.” Published: August 19, 2010. ( accessed 07/31/2011)

Gilbert, Melissa. “Organic farming is rarely enough: Conventional agriculture gives higher yields under most conditions.” Nature News & Comment. ( accessed 06/13/2012)

Seufert, Verena, Navin Ramankutty, and Jonathan A. Foley. abstract for “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture.” Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11069 ( accessed 06/13/2012)

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Dr. Whatsforlunch or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chemicals


Some rationally optimistic thoughts from Matt Ridley are in this video.

Consider this: when we compare the farm yields of the 1960s to the yields at the end of the 1990s, we find that conventional (aka intensive) farming has, in effect, saved 44% of earth’s land from going under the plow.


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Resolved to go organic in 2012? Consider these 10 points.

Over at Eco Women: Protectors of the Planet! you can find eight resolutions for 2012. A few of them make sense: turn off any unnecessary appliance; choose tap water over bottled water; cut down on meat. These are, if not necessarily environmentally sensible, at least economically sensible. I have quibbles with their list but it has modest merit.

#4 on their list “Start buying the locally grown organic version of one thing you consume…Choose one product off your shopping list and commit to finding the locally grown or produced organic alternative” is wrong on all levels. Here are 10 reasons:


  1. There is no difference in nutritional value between organically grown and conventionally grown food. (see this by the Mayo Clinic)
  2. There is no difference in taste or texture between organically grown and conventionally grown food.
  3. There is no difference in food safety between organically grown and conventionally grown food. (see this by the Mayo Clinic).
  4. While some studies indicate similar safety, some studies indicate organic may be less safe than conventionally grown food. A UK Independent story notes, “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.” And a post on the Scientific American site notes, “Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens.”
  5. Both organic and conventional systems use pesticides. Organic farming is allowed to “natural” pesticides such as calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, sodium hypochlorite, calcium polysulfide, copper hydroxide, copper oxide, soluble boron products, copper oxychloride, lignon sulfate; silicates of zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and cobalt, and host of other items. (The full list is available here in PDF)
  6. The pesticides used by organic farming can be worse for the environment. Whereas conventional farming can use synthetic pesticide that targets specific pests, organic farmers are left with choices that don’t discriminate and kill a broader spectrum of species. We know how this worked out for antibiotics.
  7. Studies show that eliminating pesticides diminishes yields. Eliminating pesticide use could cut corn yields by 30 percent, rice by 57 percent, soybeans by 37 percent, and wheat by 24 percent. That means to maintain our current level of food, it needs more land (forest or grassland) to be plowed up.
  8. Organic farming needs more land to grow its food and fiber.
  9. Organic farming needs more energy. More land takes more energy to cover. And, since they don’t use herbicides, organic farmers needs to plow more. Farmers plow to primarily control weeds (plowing harms wildlife, earthworms and such, in the soil).
  10. “Locally grown” is an arbitrary boundary. Why not eat only food that you produce in the window sills of your apartment if you want really local food? We’ve covered local grown before here. Buy stuff that makes sense. If someone is selling locally grown bananas near my place in Northern California, we know from the outset that it may well have taken lots of energy to produce—much more energy than growing it in its native habitat and shipping it to me.



Watch the video where Penn& Teller explain organic food. This is a piece from their show, Bullshit! (R-rated language)


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