A Brief Summary of my Thoughts on the Subject of Organic Agriculture and Its More Conventional Alternative

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

We’ve been trying to get an episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else on the subject of Organic Agriculture together for quite a while. But, as this is a very complicated topic, and I am very busy, we haven’t recorded it yet.

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Bluemoose via Wikipedia

My friend Ali (who you may remember from the LUEE episodes Leaving Faith Behind and Justice and Hate Crimes) asked for my thoughts on the subject, specifically focusing on the question, “Is organic agriculture more environmentally friendly?” And so, here are my thoughts. I’ve tried to keep them brief. But I’m not very good at that. I also tried to stay on topic. But I’m not very good at that, either.

Is “organic” better for the environment? The answer to that seems to be: it depends. Probably, but it’s very complicated.

There have been several large studies that seem to show that the production of organic foodstuffs is no more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture (and may in some cases be more harmful). See this recent study, for example.

These summaries of the evidence, by Brian Dunning, are pretty good in my opinion:

Organic Food Myths
Is it a revolution in health and the environment, or a counterproductive fad?

Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture
Is organic agriculture truly safer or better for the environment than modern farming?

Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick also did a pretty good job with this Q&A: Ask Surly Amy: Genetically Modified Plants.

My provisional view on the matter is that when it comes to safety or health, there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between organic and conventional agriculture. When it comes to environmental concerns, I tend to lean more toward conventional agriculture, as I am persuaded by the argument that centralized distribution is more efficient, and by the argument that while yields may not be substantially bigger with conventional crops, they tend to be hardier and require fewer “inputs” (fertilizer, etc.). My concerns come in when you have large and aggressively litigious agribusiness companies controlling large swathes of the food supply (which we now do), who have patented certain organisms and who force farmers to be completely dependent on them for seeds year-by-year. This is bad, for a plethora of reasons, most of which should be obvious.

I’ll conclude with a few stray observations about “organic” foodstuffs.

Turning to safety, there was recently a completely terrible study published claiming that GE corn resulted in cancer in rats. For a lengthy discussion (and takedown) from a skeptical oncologist, I recommend reading this. Additionally, a large meta-analysis was recently published, finding no significant nutritional benefits from organic produce.

I am annoyed by the “organic” label, because the term “organic” has a very rigorous and well-defined meaning in chemistry, but not so much when it comes to agriculture. But that’s mostly just me being a linguistic prescriptivist, and I recognise that this position is untenable. (On a side note, the French term, “biologique”, translates as “biological”, which is even worse.)

I am supportive of the “free range” movement. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell “free range” isn’t a regulated term, so there’s no guarantee that the animals involved are actually better treated.

I am concerned that use of antibiotics in livestock may be excessive, and are in some cases used to “enhance productivity” instead of to “target an identified pathogen”. The issue is complicated, however. (This whitepaper has some fairly good summaries, in terms of antibiotic use in agriculture; it does disclose that the conference that generated it was partially funded by Pfizer, etc.)

Also, I advise against using terms like “GMOs” (Genetically Modified Organisms), because every agricultural product is genetically “modified” in some way, via hybridization and/or artificial selection (either intentional or unintential). Instead, I prefer to speak about “GE” foodstuffs (Genetically Engineered).

So, in my mind, there may be good reasons to avoid the products of big agribusiness companies like Monsanto: but these criticisms tend to have more to do with big business and less to do with science.

There remains, of course, much more to be said (about the various things that “organic agriculture” can mean, for example, or the several disparate ideologies that may motivate some people to choose organic), but that incomplete (and probably flawed) analysis of this complex topic will have to stand. For now.