Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Give up organic food as your 2016 resolution

Stephan Neidenbach - welovegv@gmail.com


“ Environmental protection was not the original motive for advocating organic methods a century ago, so these environmental limitations embedded in the organic standard today should not be surprising.”

1. Protecting the monarch butterfly

Can I let you in on a dirty little secret? Organic farmers use pesticides too. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone. Weeds reduce yield, can harm livestock, compete for water, use valuable nutrients, and steal sunlight. [1] Glyphosate is currently being blamed for a decline in the monarch population because it just happens to be the most commonly used herbicide, and an easy target by anti-GMO activists because of its connection with one of the most common genetically modified crops. But even if we had a worldwide ban on glyphosate today, farmers would just use something else to kill weeds. The glyphosate tolerant pest management system just happens to reduce the amount of herbicide needed.

What about that pollen drift from bt crops? Studies have shown that monarch larvae exposed to pollen from bt crops does harm them. Only the caterpillars on milkweed in close proximity to the fields are at risk. One solution in the works is to move the gene into the chloroplast genome, which should remove it from the pollen.[2] The fact remains though that bt is deadly to the caterpillars. Organic farming uses bt as well, they just have to be even more careful because they are spraying it[3] rather than having it already built inside the plants they are seeking to protect. If conventional farmers gave up bt crops monarch butterflies would be at even more risk with increased spraying.

2. Reducing fertilizer runoff

Living in Maryland I am fully aware of mankind’s impact on water. I grew up in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. My children are growing up spending many summer days playing on its shores. Baltimore, Annapolis, and Norfolk are three of the largest cities found on it. I still remember being in elementary school and spray painting “No Dumping” with my class on storm drains all over the area. With all of the urban pollution, it is agriculture that is causing the most damage to the Chesapeake Bay. But contrary to what the organic and anti GMO activists are screaming, I never hear about pesticide run off being much of a problem. The leading contributor to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is fertilizer, both synthetic and natural.

Fertilizer is a necessity in farming. The lack of it created the Dust Bowl. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are needed for plants to grow. Plants do not create these nutrients themselves and rely on the soil.[4] Synthetic fertilizers are needed because we don’t have enough animals producing manure. Replacing synthetic fertilizers with manure would require countless more acres of farmland for the animals, and even more farmland to feed those animals.

Fertilizer runoff creates excess phosphorus and nitrogen, upsetting the natural balance in bodies of water like my own Chesapeake Bay. Algae loves to snack on that stuff. This creates algal blooms which then blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plant life. This upsets an entire food chain resulting in dead zones.[5] So once we recognize that synthetic fertilizer is not going anywhere out of necessity to feed seven billion people, what can be done to limit it? Cover crops, fencing animals away from streams, forest/grass buffers, and no-till farming are all methods organic and conventional farmers can practice to limit fertilizer use and runoff.

No-till farming is the key here. Tilling has been used since the beginning of human history to control weeds. Unfortunately tilling the soil promotes erosion, runoff, and the release of greenhouse gasses. Sixty-three percent of farmers surveyed between 1996 and 2001 stated that the herbicide tolerant crop system was a key factor in reducing tillage or going to a no-till system.[6]

Farmers are going to till the soil, use herbicides, or use flame weeding. Farmers are going to use fertilizers. Tilling the soil promotes fertilizer runoff which is a much greater threat to the environment than glyphosate. Flame weeding is not meant to be a standalone method and is going to require tillage or herbicides anyways.[7] Organic farmers are not allowed to use any synthetic herbicides, making no-till farming almost impossible for them.

3. Fighting climate change

A further advantage of no-till farming that biotechnology has given us is the reduction of greenhouse gasses produced by agriculture. This system stores more carbon in the ground, which helps both the soil and the atmosphere. Reducing tillage also means less fuel being used by farmers.[8] Organic herbicides themselves only kill the part of the plant that comes in to contact with the herbicide, requiring more to be sprayed and more trips into the field to spray them.[9] Farmers using glyphosate do not need to cover the entire plant because it attacks an enzyme only found in plants. They can spray less herbicide, and use less fuel by using a more effective herbicide.

Local production, contrary to to what most believe, is not even beneficial to the environment. Steven Sexton estimates that corn acreage would increase by 27 percent, soybean acres by 18 percent, fertilizer use by 35 - 54%, and fuel use would increase by between 23 percent and 34 percent.  A localized production system would dramatically increase greenhouse gasses, destroy biodiversity, and significantly increase pollution. [10] Busses may get less gas mileage, but they are the most efficient means of travel because of how many people can fit on one bus.[11] The same is true of food. Per pound of food, bulk transportation from the other side of the planet actually has a smaller carbon footprint than a pickup truck traveling a short distance.[12] The increase of costs due to this inefficiency would even impact human health by making fruits and vegetables more expensive. There is a reason why fruits and vegetables are currently cheaper than at any other point in human history.[13]

4. Land conservation

By using more efficient inputs conventional farmers are able to produce more food on less land. Organic methods of production in Europe and the United States are only able to yield a fraction of what conventional methods are able to yield. More land would need to be cultivated for organic farms to match conventional farms in production potential. Land equivalent to all of the remaining forests in France, Germany, Denmark, and Britain would need to be converted to agriculture for Europe to feed itself using organic production methods. The land required for organic production is the single greatest risk to the environment it carries.[14] Genetically modified trees in South America are even promising to protect the rainforest by reducing the amount of land needed to grow eucalyptus trees. These new trees produce 20% more wood and come to harvest much quicker. [15]

5. Increased biodiversity

Under the old way of thinking a growing population would require more cultivated land to feed it. This would result in more forests cut down, the destruction of entire food chains, and a resulting loss of biodiversity. My friends, that is what organic farming on any massive scale would bring us. With increased yields from modern farming, we can feed a growing population using less land. This means biodiversity being saved off of the farm, where it matters most. Organic activists like to cite studies where organic farms have more weeds and insects as evidence that they promote biodiversity. All those weeds and insects just mean that even more land needs to be cleared for production. Some studies have even shown that bt crops, because of their precision, have a direct benefit over organic farming for aquatic ecosystems.[16]

My family will avoid organic food in 2016. Yours should as well. It costs more, offers no nutritional benefit, and is worse for the environment. There is nothing organic farmers can do for the environment that conventional farmers can’t, and many things conventional farmers can do that organic farmers can’t. If you have the disposable income and want to support those local organic farmers, go for it. Everyone needs a hobby. Just don’t bother giving yourself a pat on the back.



[1] http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/weeds/weeds/why/impact.html
[2] http://bsp.med.harvard.edu/node/79
[3] http://www.todayshomeowner.com/using-bt-for-organic-caterpillar-control-in-your-garden/
[4] http://home.howstuffworks.com/question181.htm
[5] http://www.cbf.org/about-the-bay/issues/dead-zones/nitrogen-phosphorus
[6] https://soygrowers.com/asa-study-confirms-environmental-benefits-of-biotech-soybeans/
[7] http://cropwatch.unl.edu/archive/-/asset_publisher/VHeSpfv0Agju/content/4963643
[8] http://www.ctic.org/media/pdf/Biotech2003.pdf
[9] http://westernfarmpress.com/management/do-organic-herbicides-work
[10] http://freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/
[11] http://www.theicct.org/blogs/staff/planes-trains-and-automobiles-counting-carbon
[13] http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/224301/err55.pdf
[15] http://www.nature.com/news/brazil-considers-transgenic-trees-1.15769
[16] http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0104270

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Great post. I like the way of your writing. After read this blog, I am planning to start taking organic foods. Let me know how to find difference between organic and conventional foods. Thanks for sharing useful information. Keep blogging.

    Sathish from Baby Products Online India

    ReplyDelete