Fair warning: this post will “burst your bubble” regarding the perceived virtues of organic food.
I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, lately. I have a lot of friends who are really into the organic food movement, many of which often insist that it’s the only moral/ethical way to eat. On the other hand, I also have access to persons who understand why not all farming is done organically. The conclusion I’ve come to is that, in its current incarnation–notwithstanding future changes–the methods of farming, marketing, and distribution employed by the purveyors of organic food are grossly unethical for humanitarian reasons (i.e. hunger), and unconscionable in their reliance upon the ignorance of the public. This is not to say that organic farming can’t become a wonderful thing, and ultimately replace more mainstream methods; but for now, I submit my thesis that it’s nothing more than a “feel good” hobby for those with disposable income.
Organic ≠ Sustainable
Most people who are into organic food have something to say for it, in terms of “sustainability.” Let’s take a look at that word.
Sustainable1: capable of being sustained2 a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture>b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>
If by “capable of being sustained,” we assume that we want to continue to be able to support the current population (and unavoidable population growth) with a given method, for an extended period of time, we must admit that “sustainable” also means sustaining humanity–not just nature. So, if a method cannot sustain humanity at its current level, with expected population increases, then it’s not “sustainable.”
Ending World Hunger
Let’s take a look at why we use pesticides, in the first place. Circa the late 1800s, we set out to find a way to feed everyone reliably, at minimal cost, so that everyone could afford adequate food. In well-developed countries, we’ve very nearly accomplished this goal. Doing so, however, required us to find ways of farming very efficiently and reliably, and chief among farming efficiency concerns is crop yield per acre.
Pests: weeds, insects, animals, fungi, and others are the single largest threat to crop yields. If you don’t get rid of the pests, you won’t get much food. In fact, you can lose entire crops due to pests, causing famine. This is where pesticides come in: once about 30% of the plants in a field are affected by a particular pest (or broad type of pest), common practice is to apply whatever type of pesticide will remove (kill or otherwise hinder) the pests. This more-or-less minimizes the use of pesticides (and the costs associated therewith), and ensures that the entire field won’t become affected, destroying the yield. Most organic farms use pesticides to limit the effects of insects and fungi on yield–but do very little in the way of anti-weed care. In fact, many large organic farms don’t do anything at all to remove their weeds; they just let the fields sit, and hope that there’s something to harvest when the time comes.
Organic yields are between 5% and 35% lower, on average, than mainstream methods. The loss is dependent on what’s being grown: some plants don’t need a whole lot of non-organic care to thrive, but others–like grains (the staples of diets around the world!) take the biggest hit. Of course, during bad years, pests can get out of control and take even more away from the crop. When left untreated during an especially bad year, it’s possible that nothing, at all will be harvested.
Some organic farms get around this by using good, old-fashioned manual labor to get rid of weeds. Like most eaters of organic food, I’m strongly favor of this–so long as I’m not the one doing it. Usually, large farms make heavy use of migrant farm workers, who work 12-hour days, don’t get overtime pay, and typically only make minimum wage. This might sound almost-reasonable…but if you ever spent a day pulling weeds in 90-115F weather, you’ll quickly change your mind. (I can attest to this, personally.) So, again, we see that this organic movement isn’t really a movement, so much as a market for those with enough money to pay someone else to do the hard work.
So, if we don’t want to do the work, ourselves, and find it unconscionable to have others do such hard labor for such long hours and little pay, where does that leave us? For the most of the world, the answer is “starving.” Even with this current labor force in place, 1 in every 100 people (according to the farm advisor I spoke to)–throughout the entire world, including “suburbia,” would have to quit their jobs and become farm workers–working 12-hour days for crappy wages in order for everyone to be able to eat organic-only diets. Or, to ensure decent quality of life for the workers, 1 out of every 50 people would have to do the same. Of course, the wages would still be terrible, but the work days would be closer to what we’re used to. So, how about it? Are you willing to quit your job and get to work? For most of my readers, the answer is a resounding “no.” This might induce some people to feel a wee bit hypocritical…which is exactly the point I’m making with this part of the essay.
This means that we’re back to the problem of inhumane treatment of those in the lowest rung of society, and non-organic food for the rest of us, until those with disposable income decide to get their hands dirty.
You may be surprised to know that many commonly used–and sometimes dangerous–pesticides are derived from nature. One example of this is the insecticide Pyrethrin, which comes from Chrysanthemums. This nerve agent is one of many pesticides permitted for use in organic growing. It’s considered one of the safest insecticides out there, since it (supposedly) biodegrades quickly. Nevertheless, users are warned:
Care should be taken to observe direction labels when using this substance around humans and animals. Overdose and toxicity can result in a variety of symptoms, especially in pets, including drooling, lethargy, muscle tremors, vomiting, seizures and death. Toxicity symptoms in humans include asthmatic breathing, sneezing, nasal stuffiness, headache, nausea, incoordination, tremors, convulsions, facial flushing and swelling, and burning and itching sensation. The latest information regarding toxicity of piperonyl butoxide has determined that it can pose a distinct health risk when it becomes airborne and pregnant women are exposed during the third trimester. This leads to delayed mental development in young children.
Others include the bacterium, Bacillus Thuringiensis, which produces deadly BT toxin, and causes the innards of insects to rupture–but is sort-of safe for human use. Organic farmers use the microbe, directly (spraying it on crops), which is eaten by pests, causing it to release BT toxin. Non-organic farmers use the BT toxin, directly. It’s assumed to break down equally well in both cases, before it reaches your dinner table…but you may want to wash those organic veggies, anyway, since they’re probably still covered in Bacillus Thuringiensis. Monsanto recently began to sell genetically-modified corn seeds, wherein the plants’ cells produce BT toxin. This is somewhat different from spraying it topically, but in either case, you’re probably still going to be eating it.
So, let’s see a (metaphorical) show of hands: how many of my readers knew that “organic” food is sprayed with “chemicals?” (Technically a “chemical” is anything made of atoms…but the term is used to mean “pesticides” when speaking of organic food. Similarly, “organic” technically means “containing carbon atoms,” or “relating to life,” but is used differently when referring to food products.) Do they put this on the label of the $8/pound grains, fruits, and vegetables you’ve been buying? Of course not–because if they did, they could no longer get away with charging such a premium price.
So, what is “organic food,” really? Marketing.
The essence of the perfect marketing campaign is to imply everything, but state nothing. Yes, it’s grown differently–but not in the way people think. Words are simply redefined, and standards formulated to let people think what they want to about the “product.” “Natural” doesn’t mean safe–not by any stretch of the imagination!–but it does imply safety. “Sustainable” sounds like it means that we can grow food this way indefinitely, without negative consequences–but it actually means dumping harmful stuff onto crops and into the ground–but only certain harmful stuff–and relying on the modern equivalent of slave labor to pull weeds, in the rare occasions that they bother to do so. Additionally, “organic” implies GMO-free–but these farms aren’t regularly tested for cross-pollination, and the farmers have very good reason to avoid testing at all costs.
The sad truth about the inefficiency of organic farming is that they have financial incentive to keep it inefficient. The price of any good or service is subject to the Law of Supply and Demand. If supply increases without demand increasing, price goes down. When that happens, each hour of work or unit of currency you’ve spent on producing the product will bring back less than it otherwise would have. So, if you want to maximize profits while minimizing expenses, you have to keep your product scarce. This means that when you buy organic food in the store, there are several reasons why it costs so much:
1) Marketing: people will pay more because they believe in the product.
2) There’s more demand for it than there is supply.
In fact, most large organic farms produce mostly non-organic crops, and use their organic crops as a sort of “side gig” for bringing in a few extra dollars with a bare minimum of investment. I’d be very surprised if the major organic producers in Butte County, CA produce even a tenth of the organic food that they produce in non-organic food. The major farms with which I’m familiar (i.e. the ones with lots of acreage–not the tiny, local communes) produce most of the area’s organic food, but produce about 100 times that much via mainstream methods.
Conclusion: It’s No More Ethical Than Mainstream Food
In terms of plant products, organic food is no more ethical than non-organic food. In fact, I believe I’ve made a strong case for it being markedly unethical, as presently constituted. Despite this, I trust that in time, we’ll see a shift toward better organic practices, and much wider adoption. Until then, though, I’m going to buy whatever’s cheapest, unless the more expensive food (1) tastes/feels substantially better, and (2) is still within my price range. I won’t support a trend that doesn’t work as advertised.
You may have noticed that this post didn’t cover animal products. This is a very different matter in some ways, but in others it’s much the same. Issues of hunger, dishonesty, pesticides (by any other name), and so on still come up…but free-range animals are definitely a lot happier than caged or “cage-free” ones. (Note: “cage free” animals are crammed in butt-to-nose, wade through their own feces all day, and live in warehouses where their dead siblings sometimes rot on the floor. I question whether this is at all ethical.)
Let’s produce an organic movement that’s worth having by removing our rosy glasses and seeing the ugliness of what we have now. Only through seeing how things really are can we hope to change them for the better.
For further reading on how “organic” foods might kill you, go here.