A New Year’s Resolution: No More Organic Food

Joe Fattorini writes in The (Glasgow)Herald about his new year’s resolution which is to give up eating organic food:

It’s self-indulgent, wasteful and frankly immoral. But you know how it is. I was swept along with the trend, and it felt good at the time. But I don’t want to be a hypocrite. So I’m giving up organic food in 2006.

The incident that stiffened my resolve was a white rubber-banded wrist thrusting across me to grab organic apples. Here was someone who professed solidarity with the world’s hungry. Yet they support a farming method that would starve over half the world.

The world was farmed entirely organically as recently as 1900. Since then the global population has increased over 3.5 times.

Unfortunately, the area cultivated for food has merely doubled. Even so, collectively we’re better fed. In the past 50 years, the number who are starving has halved as the population has doubled. This almost miraculous turn of events is down to nitrogen fertilisers.
When it comes to basic needs such as food, the most important development of the last century has been the creation of nitrogen fertilisers. By replacing the nitrogen lost when a crop is harvested you can continue to plant the same plot of land each year without losing productivity. This means the same area of land produces anything up to double the quantity of food.

… So I know what you’re thinking. “Yes, but I don’t want to feed the world organically. Just my precious family.” I’m sorry, but that’s rather along the same lines as: “I know they guzzle petrol like there’s no tomorrow and are far more likely to kill pedestrians. But my family is special. I really need a beast of an SUV with spinning alloy wheels and DVD players in the headrests.”

At the very least, in a country like ours that produces excess food, organic farming robs land that might otherwise be used to promote bio-diversity. That’s because organic fields need to be left fallow, growing leguminous crops or livestock whose faeces can be used to return nitrogen to the soil. Yes, you read that correctly. The inefficiencies of organic land use make it less environmentally friendly than conventional farming whose efficiencies mean we can return land to nature. But there’s a more sinister perspective. In our lifetime we’ll see global population top 10 billion. We’re lucky it won’t be more.

That alone means finding 35% more calories to feed the world. On decreasingly fertile land. But if we are self-indulgently to insist that we are so important that we should be fed organically, with its yields some 20% to 50% lower, that can only put an additional, unnecessary strain on feeding the planet. Every organic mouthful makes it more difficult to feed the most vulnerable. As the distinguished Indian plant biologist CS Prakash put it: “The only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is that it sustains poverty and malnutrition.”

Now if this all makes you feel a little gloomy, then I’m delighted to report that like all the best resolutions, giving up organic food makes you feel better almost immediately. I already feel freed from the hypocrisy. Organic food sales have doubled since 2000. According to Mintel the greatest growth is currently among “lower-income consumers” and those concerned about the health impact of pesticide use in conventional farming.

But wait a minute. Organic food – because it’s so inefficient to produce – is considerably more expensive than conventionally farmed food. Yet it brings no health benefits and doesn’t even taste better. If it did, then the Advertising Standards Authority wouldn’t have upheld complaints against the Soil Association for describing organic as “healthier” than conventionally farmed food. Or as the Food Standards Agency put it in 2004: “Organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally.”

… I can see a few hackles rising at the suggestion that organic food is a “middle-class indulgence”. And you’re right. It’s more a brand, or perhaps a religion. “Organic” sits up there with McDonald’s, Microsoft, Starbucks, Tesco, Shell and Lucky Strike as one of the great brands of the twentieth century.

Read the full article here: http://www.theherald.co.uk/features/53522.html
Published in the Glasgow Herald on 3rd January, 2006

25 Responses to A New Year’s Resolution: No More Organic Food

  1. Phil Done January 4, 2006 at 12:36 pm #

    But it’s what the hallowed market wants isn’t it?

    In terms of “Yet they support a farming method that would starve over half the world” – but the reality only a small amount is produced in this fashion and is likely to stay that way.

    If you want to run the “unequal” and “if everyone did this” line we’d have to ban western civilisation as we know it.

    So I guess the question is – how wasteful is it? How much area are we really talking about.

    And do we gain any valuable comparitive insights into issues like decline in soil microfauna and microflora which may be behind yield decline/plateau in some of our conventional managed crops (e.g. sugar). The technology/inorganic method only holds up if the agronomic efficiencies from fertilisers, pesticides and plant breeding (inc. GM) also holds up. Are yields contuing to increase or are we at the limit?

    Of course there are also the lesson from the Green Revolution in Africa – whereby western farming systems do not always translate well to the developing world. As soon as the tractor or fancy implement breaks down the whole farming system breaks down. It’s called appropriate technology.

    And do we want to exterminate a whole area of conversation that we can bag our more green friends about at parties. πŸ™‚

  2. rog January 4, 2006 at 4:39 pm #

    There is plenty of food – Africas problems are political.

    India has finally tired of socialism with its inherent famine, poverty and inequality, now it is Africas turn.

    Of course greenies believe poverty is enobling, that is why they only travel in 3rd world countries (and because it is dirt cheap).

  3. Phil Done January 4, 2006 at 5:14 pm #

    Try growing crops in the Sahel.

  4. rog January 4, 2006 at 6:03 pm #

    If you could get a job at a call centre why would you bother?

  5. rog January 4, 2006 at 7:11 pm #

    As an example of politics hindering development;

    “Bluntly put: Back in 1945, the Middle East was at the same level of development as South Asia; where are, today, the economic β€œdragons” of the Muslim world?”

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com-1_4_06_TC.html

  6. Phil Done January 4, 2006 at 7:40 pm #

    So you’re a pretty serious sort of guy Rog.

    We seem to have traversed from could you hydridise organic methods to reverse the yield decline to quasi semi-hegomonic neo-con evolution of society vis a vis Islam blog.

    I myself was just working on the soil microflora and green manures. But nevertheless I found your reference strangely interesting. I find myself increasingly drawn to the appeal of the right wing.

    You have to ask yourself things like do right wingers have more fun. Was herbal tea dangerous anyway. I was buying a unnecessary western consumer item for the kitchen in KMart today and IT FELT REALLY GOOD !! I feel like shaving my head (again) and getting a gun (again). OK can I join you guys. What do we do next.

  7. Robert Cote January 4, 2006 at 11:35 pm #

    Darn. This is a tough act to follow. You see I like Trader Joe’s brand “Blue Corn Tortilla Chips.” Unfortunately they only come in an organic variety. Maybe I can rationalize by eating the foods I like grown by the best available practices. And I promise not to recycle the plastic bag they come in either.

    Anyway, I wanted to add to your comment; “miraculous turn of events is down to nitrogen fertilisers.” Not just fertilizers but energy intense farming and distribution methods. Tractors, refrigeration, transportation, etc. Oh, and selective breeding both GM and traditional methods. In other words, science and technology.

  8. rog January 5, 2006 at 9:16 am #

    Please dont allow me to distract you from your important work on green manures Phil, here is a tad more on the subject;

    http://www.newfarm.org/columns/research_paul/2005/1205/fert.shtml

  9. rog January 5, 2006 at 9:22 am #

    I guess the next question is; using organic techniques may reduce GHG but are GHG relevant and is the world heating or cooling or what?

    In the hated Murdoch press Don White said “heatwaves were becoming less frequent and anybody who believed the heatwave was linked to global warming should “go back and look at the records”, which would show hotter days in the past.

    In the 1940s, Sydney had 10 days of 40C or higher. From 1955 to 1980 there were seven such days, and from 1981 to 2005 there were five.

    Between 1939 and 1964, Sydney recorded 37.8C, the old 100 Fahrenheit, on 18 days, but registered the mark only nine times, including on Sunday, since 1965.

    Sunday’s heatwave was the result of a combination of unusual conditions, Mr White said.

    “It was like a batsman scoring a century even though he averages only 10 or 15 … suddenly everything was perfect.”

    http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,17723427-29157,00.html

  10. Phil Done January 5, 2006 at 10:32 am #

    I’m upset – they won’t let me have a gun. Reckon I’m a dangerous person or something under sedition laws and have strange views – why is that?

    Anyway .. ..

    Murdoch press is right in some respects. One swallow doesn’t make a summer – but lots might. Again people don’t understand the in and outs of climate change implications.

    I’d like to see the stats on NSW extreme days – is there a statistical trend at all – anyone got a graph ?

    Also – early days in the global warming – no where near double CO2 yet – don’t expect too much too early.

    Realclimate themselves have a fascinating article on the statistics and psychology of extreme events. You will get new records occasionally in a CO2 stable climate.
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=175

    {This is the type of quality discussion that contrarians aren’t up to making of course}

    One event doesn’t show that much – it’s when the frequency of them is changing or there is a definite trend that there is an issue (like with mean temperatures or perhaps upper storm strengths).

    P.S. Also a lesson in being a REAL sceptic

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=210

  11. rog January 5, 2006 at 10:48 am #

    I cant be bothered with all this number data stuff, particularly after reading this;

    “..If you take a number of samples of a random variable and put them in order of magnitude, the extreme values are the largest and smallest. These extreme values exhibit special distributions of their own, which depend on the distribution of the original variate and the number of ranked samples from which they were drawn. The fallacy occurs when the extremes are treated as though they were single samples from the original distribution….”

    http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/extreme_value_fallacy.htm

  12. Phil Done January 5, 2006 at 12:19 pm #

    Well Rog – if you can’t bothered – give up on criticising what you don’t understand then. Shouldn’t have run away from school !

    Unfortunately climate change detection involves statistics. The article I gave you simply says that you would expect some extreme events whether we have climate change or not. “some”.

    BTW – Numberwatch is utter rubbish. Just more non-serious b/s pseuodo-criticism to create more and more fog. Read about being a serious sceptic in my url above as opposed to being just a political ragger.

  13. rog January 5, 2006 at 1:24 pm #

    Are you certain that numberwatch is absolute rubbish?

    I may have to take an expert opinion on that.

  14. Paul Williams January 7, 2006 at 9:40 am #

    Here’s numberwatch’s article on “Chartmanship”
    http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/chartmanship.htm

    And here’s the IPCC graphic on variations in the world’s surface temperature.
    http://www.ipcc.ch/present/graphics/2001syr/large/05.16.jpg

  15. Phil Done January 7, 2006 at 2:47 pm #

    So ?

  16. Paul Williams January 7, 2006 at 3:17 pm #

    Oh, I thought it was interesting. Draw your own conclusions.

  17. Ian Mott January 7, 2006 at 5:23 pm #

    You seem to turn every topic int a global warming issue, Phil. This string is about organics, remember. And of course, organics are highly dependent on manure and this manure demands farm animals. And these farm animals do not justify their existence on the basis of their delivery of manure alone. Ultimately someone will have to eat them. And that wouldn’t be very cool at all. So even organic food has bad karma.

  18. Phil Done January 7, 2006 at 5:47 pm #

    No Rog did – see my first comment.
    See other discussions with yourself.

  19. Phil Done January 7, 2006 at 5:51 pm #

    Does organic = vegetarian. I’ve seen organic beef down the supermarket.

    And are there not different facets of “how organic”.

    Ian – my intial point is that perhaps yield decline in some of our crop lands may benefit from incorporation of “organic methods”. I was hoping for a discussion on the possibility/interest/utility/futility of combining best aspects to produce a sustainable result or even more profitable result.

  20. Louis Hissink January 7, 2006 at 9:09 pm #

    My family stocked my mother’s fridge with food for me for my Xmas, whoops, Happy Holiday, festivities – organic beef which looked and tasted like expensive dog food, free-range chicken which remain frozen in Mum’s fridge, and Greens like not ICE BERG LETTUCE, which is boring, so I am told.

    My stay in Sydney was highlighted by the passing of Kerry Packer – I discovered he and I would have been culinary compatriots.

  21. Paul Williams January 8, 2006 at 8:40 am #

    Wild shot venison is organic. Too bad “they” won’t let you have a gun, Phil.

  22. detribe January 9, 2006 at 8:39 am #

    I agree that in principle a discussion of manure and organics is worthwhile. Some organic ideas are good and a focus on better management of soil health is really worthy. An example is the concept of low input farming, also conservation tillage.
    But there is a problem. Many organic people try and ban and demonise alternatives, before even knowing what the best path forward is. How can we ever know without experience and trials?
    They have rules like “no synthetic fertilisers” ” no synthetic pesticides” which don’t have any justification, but then exclude synthetic pesticides like copper from those rules for no good reason. Apparently, synthetic pesticides from earlier centuries are Ok, its only 20th century chemicals that are bad. Their rule seems to be “nature knows best” when in reality nature can kill and cause cancer with the best of us.
    Also it doesn’t follow because they have “good intentions” their rules actually work. There is evidence that when you adjust for poor crop yield, they can be more water polluting with N and P runoff. The ability to time synthetic N when the crop most needs it can be a better way, and N release from manure is slow. Claims of “higher food nutrients” aren’t backed up with data, because, with few exceptions, its the process not the outcome they judge. Buying organic also doesn’t make certain they stick to their rules or that the food actually gives you meaningful benefits. It’s really a “branding exercise” to appeal to rich customers who want to “feel good” about a “clean and green, alternative image”.
    Organic manure nitrogen is “subsidised” from synthetic fertiliser used on feed and pasture eaten by the cows/sheep/goats/chickens. Without this extra synthetic N organic fertiliser manure supplies would be stretched.50% of total crop N comes from synthetics so this subsidy is big.

  23. Phil Done January 9, 2006 at 11:57 am #

    Detribe – I think we’re plateauing out yield wise in some of our systems with “conventional practices” – deep rip and anhydrous N. Issues with soil flora and fauna and compaction I suspect.

    There maybe some other hybridisations of technologies (not necessarily ideologies) we can learn from. So having some organic systems around is fine for a bit compare and contrast.

    The following would have been heresy intially:

    minimum tillage, green trash blanketing, and controlled traffic.

    Of course some of the resistance to adoption of doing less is from love of recreational tillage.

    I agree we ingest many insecticidal plant chemcials in our diet (natural ones, much more than a small amount of synthetic pesticides), and that decrying all synthetic pesticide use isn’t necessarily logical. Looks like you have a store of Paris Green under the house.

  24. Thirsty for a reliable overview January 9, 2006 at 8:37 pm #

    Can anyone (kindly) point me to an objective review of the long-term productivity ie: calorie outputs per input of land/water/labour (considering that intensive use of labour is good in undeveloped countries); fallow v’s degraded land area, and N & P issues?

    I’m aware of the complex issues involved but I don’t want to support corporate intensive farming. People have been forced off the land from medium-sized Australian farms. Too much mechanisation (often subsidised by govt policies, therefore artificially cheap) undermines rural societies.

    I think there’s a good case for low-impact medium-scale farming (not strictly organic, yet neither large-scale industrial). I’ve read in academic articles that small landholders (subsistence farmers) in developing nations get the highest crop yields per unit of land *and* per unit of fertilisers/pesticides.

  25. Phil Done January 9, 2006 at 10:08 pm #

    Thirsty – interesting point. I don’t know but we should look.

    In cotton farming “very” high yields come from getting everything right – weeds, fertilser, pests, watering, the right machinery for the job, timeliness and precise timing of the inputs. A sort of “total quality control” job. Some call it broad-scale horticulture! Oh – and you have to have some luck with the weather of course, and not waste inputs in water-limited drought years.

    Bad management with good inputs won’t give you the best result.

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