Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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The Myth of Organic Agriculture

STANFORD – Organic products – from food to skin-care nostrums to cigarettes – are very much in vogue, with the global market for organic food alone now reportedly exceeding $60 billion annually. The views of organic devotees seem to be shared by the European Commission, whose official view of organic farming and foods is, “Good for nature, good for you.” But there is no persuasive evidence of either.

A 2012 meta-analysis of data from 240 studies concluded that organic fruits and vegetables were, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts; nor were they less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or salmonella – a finding that surprised even the researchers. “When we began this project,” said Dena Bravata, one of the researchers, “we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food.”

Many people purchase organic foods in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides. But that is a poor rationale. While non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, the levels in more than 99% of cases did not cross the conservative safety thresholds set by regulators.

Moreover, the vast majority of the pesticidal substances found on produce occur “naturally” in people’s diets, through organic and conventional foods. The biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues have found that “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods.”

The bottom line is that natural chemicals are just as likely as synthetic versions to test positive in animal cancer studies, and “at the low doses of most human exposures, the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.” In other words, consumers who buy expensive organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides that they consume.

Ironically, in both Europe and North America, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic bureaucratic construct – and it makes little sense. It prohibits the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, with some pragmatic exceptions. For example, the EU’s policy notes that “foreseen flexibility rules” can compensate for “local climatic, cultural, or structural differences.” When suitable alternatives are lacking, some (strictly enumerated) synthetic chemicals are allowed.

Similarly, in the US, there is a lengthy list of specific exceptions to the prohibitions. But most “natural” pesticides – as well as pathogen-laden animal excreta, for use as fertilizer – are permitted.

Another rationale for buying organic is that it is supposedly better for the natural environment. But the low yields of organic agriculture in real-world settings – typically 20-50% below yields from conventional agriculture – impose various stresses on farmland and increase water consumption substantially. According to a recent British meta-analysis, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, and nitrous-oxide emissions per unit of output were higher in organic systems than in conventional agriculture, as were land use and the potential for eutrophication – adverse ecosystem responses to the addition of fertilizers and wastes – and acidification.

An anomaly of how “organic” is defined is that the designation does not actually focus on the food’s quality, composition, or safety. Rather, it comprises a set of acceptable practices and procedures that a farmer intends to use. For example, chemical pesticide or pollen from genetically engineered plants wafting from an adjacent field onto an organic crop does not affect the harvest’s status. EU rules are clear that food may be labeled as organic as long as “the ingredients containing [genetically modified organisms] entered the products unintentionally” and amount to less than 0.9% of their content.

Finally, many who are seduced by the romance of organic farming ignore its human consequences. American farmer Blake Hurst offers this reminder: “Weeds continue to grow, even in polycultures with holistic farming methods, and, without pesticides, hand weeding is the only way to protect a crop.” The backbreaking drudgery of hand weeding often falls to women and children.

Of course, organic products should be available for people who feel that they must have and can afford them. But the simple truth is that buying non-organic is far more cost-effective, more humane, and more environmentally responsible.

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  1. CommentedRanjit Kundu

    Reading a few of the articles by Mr Miller - along with critical comments - in the margin. Overall - I get the impression that there is this 'superior science' approach, mumbo jumbo that this column subscribes to. The Critical posts are quite damming (!!) - being a Paid Big Biz Pro Tobacco lobbyist in disguise.. that's not easy to dissociate !
    Apart from the BIAS inherent in this article - there are the Unsubstantiated comments near the end - which posit (without evidence I may add) the Writer's Bias quite clearly, when it asserts - (Quote) Of course, organic products should be available for people who feel that they must have and can afford them. But the simple truth is that buying non-organic is far more cost-effective, more humane, and more environmentally responsible. (UNQUOTE) Show us the evidence Mister ! Sloppy assertions.

    I do believe the comments by / from Kreol RDC, CommentedDouglas Costello, Filomeno III Sta. Ana, later ones by Bertrand Monin, Shishir Basant , John Kronenwetter, temesgen abate, Tarun Sharma, Donna Diane , - NAIL the sloppy conclusions / assertions made in this article.

    Looks like Mr Miller has his work cut out for him -trying to turn the tide.

    The practice of farming Organic - has tended to establish exactly the opposite of what Mr Miller is asserting. Scientists, apart from Bias & Corruption, are prone to being TOO CLOSE UP to the studies / data, they do not see the forest for the trees. Data, Statistics.. and Lies.. And Nothing more potent than BIG DATA.. in the Black BOX mode.. and all the mumbo jumbo about it being ALL SO COMPLICATED etc etc ad nauseum. Show us the DATA. Work Transparently. And demonstrate what you are asserting - Unequivocally.

    On a different plane - the REAL ISSUE(S) - beyond the Science of making a 'better GE /mousetrap' - is the CENTRAL CONCERN and underlying SOCIAL / SOCIETAL concerns - as well as Economic considerations societally. What is the essence of it all. More Big Sc, Big Biz - Big Corp funded dogma & doctrinaire findings- that (PAT) conclude whatever the Big Boss wants them to find ?? That has already been tried out and has failed - in the USSR in the 1930s. It was called Lysenko-ism -and was anti-scientific in temper, tradition and bias. A sure recipe for disaster. Lead to wrong conclusions because the rich and powerful there /then wanted a particular outcome. Doesn't work. Stick to the evidence.
    Also - this BIG AGENDA - BIG BIZ - Yank - led - Corporate Rat Pack - running in the scientific hen-coops, or in Agriculture -where millions make their living, - WHY should the practices that monopolize, control Power / knowledge concentration in a few Corporate hands be allowed to happen ? We have seen what Monsanto assisted by the USDA , FDA, The US State department have tried to do to force open access to countries which say - Nothing Doing ! Done behind closed doors, arm-twisting. HARMonising working relationships.. etc etc.

    Enough - is what these people say !
    No unproven BLACK BOX STATS from BIG DATA ! We need the entire caboodle - data .. raw.. and verifiable - before the assertions which tend to sound hollow, pompous.. and a bit like Humbug.

    And let us sort out the Social Issues -NOT the TRADE ISSUES - which these cabals have stitched up good and proper.... almost... always falsifying and doing things IN SECRET, we note.

    Sorry - that's the PLAIN TALK. No disrespect intended. (I am a trained scientist too). Danke.

  2. CommentedHarlan Green

    Why would Hoover Institute--which is source of much conservative propaganda--want to debunk the organic label, when organic label is now used by almost all food producers?? It has almost nothing to do with being pesticide-free, or grown locally, such as in farmers markets, or stores like Whole Foods? Sounds like he is defending commercial interests that use pesticides, rather than focusing on what people really want.

  3. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    The conclusion is largely a non-sequitur. Furthermore I don"t see why an American comments on European rules where we don't use the US term "organic" and motivations may be quite differently. Many persons would buy organic food for other reasons than health.

    "concluded that organic fruits and vegetables were, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts"
    What cheap propaganda, debunk something that no one ever claimed.

  4. CommentedRichard Sorenson

    Dr. Miller, respectfully your argument ignores the use of antibiotics in farm animals. With the rise of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, doesn't it make more sense that the resistance is coming from the Ag Industry where animals are kept on a steady stream of antibiotics to keep them disease free until slaughter, rather than from the Medical industry where people are only taking them when they are sick? Obviously, some percentage of bacterial resistance can be attributed to the use in humans via the Medical Industry, but to ignore antibiotic use in agriculture in your article ignores the costs being born in the medical industry related to treatment related to antibiotic resistance that likely comes from the agriculture industry.

    Also, it seems that your argument ignores the fact that pesticides add to a plants natural resistance, that you cite as also having a carcinogenic qualities, thus potentially magnifying the carcinogenic effect that can effect the epigenome and genome of living things. Plant foods typically have offsets, in that some of the nutrients prevent cancer; consequently, when we add the pesticides we tip the balance toward cancer causing potentially. Furthermore, epigentics is a rather new branch of genetics and we do not now what we are doing to our epigenome let alone the epigenome of the plants we treat with pesticides, do we?

    Is it possible cancer metrics correlate with increased use of and improvements to pesticides?

    1. CommentedDouglas Costello

      It depends on which country you are in. In the US certain groups or feed producers are constantly seeking to be allowed to use antibiotics in their prepared rations, in some countries such as China the laws are circumvented. In the Eu it isn't permitted, nor in Australia or NZ are antibiotics given en masse to animals. This has been the situation for years and yet we still see this myth appear that antibiotics are feed continuously to animals.

      Organic growers should rightly feel proud that they have produced produce without the aid of manufactured inputs such as fertilisers or chemical sprays. But by the same token their output is also lower and for some this is achieved only at higher costs.

      Chemical free chicken is great except that in the processing plant they all have to be put through a chlorine bath so in effect they are no longer chemical free. But this is a food hygiene safety issue for without that bath the entire chicken or turkey carcase is contaminated with salmonella and E coli. If they do not have such a bath in place and in use when inspected the business and legal consequences as swift and serious.

  5. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Mr MIller,

    Tonight is the night when I surrender. Please do not feel obliged to answer me as I have discovered by myself that Chlamtac and Richter research on which I was focusing is not very solid either. By comparison I know understand that Bruce Ames research is far more recognised.

    Basically, I have just understood the very concept of impact factor of a scientific publication journal. Clearly pnas is one of the most respectable journal and this field and therefore I believe your demonstration is very convincing and it kind of change my perspective on organic food being safer from a medical point of vue than conventional food.

    I think that explaining to the large public (maybe in your Forbes' op-ed) the concept of impact factor and how to identify a publication that is respectacle will help people to distinguish by themselves between junk and trustworthy science and help preventing much of the paranoia on those sensitive science-related subject.

    I hope I have not annoyed you too much (nor the readers of this article) and I sincerely thank you for taking the time to answer me.

    In the end I think your article is very convincing, at least regarding the harmless effect of synthetic pesticides residue in conventional food.

  6. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Well anyway, I guess that Mr Miller would really help the debate in saying if yes or no Chlamtac and Richter work is worth anything as we are now at least two readers to seem to care about this.

    If Mr Miller says this is rubbish again, I swear I will not post a single post on this subject again! Except to say thanks.

  7. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Mr Weaver, I had not seen your previous comments. Thanks for your various replies and thank you for commenting on the Chlamtac and Richter research on which you say that "We happened to have evolved resistance to a lot of these [natural] toxins via the same mechanisms we use for destroying man made chemicals entering our bodies", my understanding of Chlamtac and Richter research is (contrary to what you are saying) that whereas evolution has enabled humans over the age to forge the biological mechanics to destroy natural pesticides in our daily diet, this is not necesarily the case for all man-made pesticides (ie selection effects would not apply on certain synthetic pesticide...), which could potentially result in dangerous medical consequences for human beings even at very low quantity.

    Don't you have the same understanding?

    Thank you.

  8. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Mr Miller,

    I was just checking whether you had answered my last comment. I see that you have not bothered to do so. I understand that I have largely discredited myself by mentioning rubbish work research, and I cannot blame you for not wanting to answer me anymore.

    However, I want you to know that I sincerely think that you have helped me in better understanding this debate and I believe our conversation was a tremendous case in point of debunking junk science.

    You would sincerely achieve to fully convince me (and probably all the readers that have followed our conversation) in giving your opinion on Chlamtac and Richter work (as you have done helpfully on Saneff's and Seralini's) Is it rubbish as well? I am sincerely asking you in good faith?

    This is important again because you will agree that the meta-analysis that you are mentioning does conclude that "The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues [is] lower among organic than conventional produce", and that your demonstration of the "Myth of Organic Agriculture" (at least from a safety point of vue) relies on the fact that the quantity of those pesticide residues in the average diet are undoubtedly harmless, and you quote Bruce Ames' work to support this demonstration.

    Again Chlamtac and Richter research seems to specifically refute Ames's work and question this harmless quantity. If their work is serious that would seriously affect your demonstration. This can be found on pubmed (database of the US National Library of Medicine) a source which is said to be reliable by the National Institute of Health.

    I sincerely think that if you tell me that their work is also junk science (I don't even ask for proof that I would not understand...) you will convince me.

    Please note that I have stopped quoting further research as you are right to say that I am particularly bad and unskilled for that, however there is still this research that you have not given your opinion on. As you specialize in debunking junk science I hope that you will accept, just one last time, to enlight me.

    I have never failed to respect you through my posts. I have been honest in aknowledging the fact that I was ignorant enough to quote Saneff and Seralini's work. As I see that you keep on reading those commentaries, would you please tell me (and probably the other readers that have followed our conversation) if Chlamtac and Richter work is junk science?

    Just one word: YES or NO.

    Thank you.


  9. CommentedKreol RDC

    Mr Miller,
    You are free to give chemical food to your own children.

    The future generations will forget you among the greedy employees of the ecological slaughter...

    The past was neolitic and the future will be biolitic, there is no other alternative.

    1. CommentedDouglas Costello

      I have read that article and I have to salute anyone who can sit behind a desk and product such a distorted view of the benefits of GE crops to producers. it is a disappointment.

      Where does one start.

      1. Mr Miller claims that a significant number of farmers in the developing world use GE crops. Maybe in Brazil and Argentina if you stretch the developing envelope. They don't because they can not afford the money to purchase the seed stock.

      2 GE is so beneficial to farmers that there are now some 11 million acres of farmland in the US mid west infested with chemical resistant weeds.

      3. If Mr Miller had done his basic research he would have found the material on yield levels for GE crops, they do not outperform their non GE brethren and actually under produce them.

      4. Monoculture production which GE products encourage is highly dangerous. Nature has a surprising capacity to respond with its own adaptations circumventing any brief advantage we have. Traditional agricultural practices of crop rotations and break crops to halt pest and disease cycles. Research at U Minnesota has found that farmers moving away from maize-soya rotation to maize-soya-wheat-wheat-pasture-pasture, used only 10% of the fertilizer of the other rotation, far less chemical sprays and strangely were more profitable. A case of reality disproving the GE developers argument that intensification is the only way to survive.

      GE unfortunately is a Dopeler proposition for those who may not have encountered this expression here is the definition.
      Dopeler effect (n): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

    2. CommentedFergus Kane

      Henry Miller. I've just read your GM article, which you posted in response to Kreol's comment. Do you have a link to a version of your article with references (and for this article too). Without a referenced version, it's very difficult to check your claims.

      It should now be standard practice for all experts to provide referenced versions of their articles (the internet makes it so easy).

    3. Portrait of Henry I. Miller

      CommentedHenry I. Miller

      This article might help to convince you why your comment is ridiculous: http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2013/05/23/debunking-the-big-lie-about-genetically-engineered-crops/. (Although I doubt that it will...)

  10. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Mr Miller, thanks again for your answer. I must say that I feel a bit ashamed for posting links to research that are actualy rubbish. I have enquired further about Saneff only to realize that her work seems to be very dubious indeed, and so is the journal in which she has published her research, the so called open source Entropy. I will stop polluting this commentary column with further crappy research.

    I recognize my ignorance and this is good lesson. However the reason why I was sceptical is that again, it it one think to debunk junk science (you have just helped me doing so), but it is another to use research to say that organic food is useless. Indeed when I read the research you quote, it rather suggests that organic food is safer (I quote: "The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce") and also the other research that you quote to support your demonstration about the supposedly harmless quantity (in weigth) of synthetic pesticides residue in food seems to have had (credible?) refutation years after it was published (since it is somewhat old now...). The study from Chlamtac and Richter that I am referring to can be find on pubmed and it seems like it is a reliable and recognized sources of publications recommened by the national institute of health.

    Thank you.

    I hope I have not discredited myself too much so as you you won't answer briefly to this point, because it is actually my very point from the beginning.

  11. CommentedSven Erik Topp

    Good. Nice when someone can bust some myths.
    One mistake, though: Going organic IS good for nature: The less food we produce, the more people die of starvation. And dying is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint. Cynical, yes. But true. Should someone tell this to the organic fanatics.

  12. CommentedFilomeno III Sta. Ana

    I am aghast that Project Syndicate will publish a person with vested interests. See this: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Henry_I._Miller:
    A 1994 memo written by the Apco Associates PR firm (now called Apco Worldwide) for Philip Morris (PM) discusses plans to create a European branch of the PM-backed "junk science" front group The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. The memo states,
    Specifically, we recommend that a European TASSC be formulated to do the following:
    Preempt unilateral action against industry.
    Associate anti-industry "scientific"studies with broader questions about government research and regulations • Link the tobacco issue with other more "politically correct" products.
    Have non-industry messengers provide reasons for legislators, business executives and media to view policies drawn from unreliable scientific studies with extreme caution.
    The memo specifically cites Henry I. Miller as a "key supporter" who might be willing to assist in the execution of the project:
    For example, Dr. Henry I. Miller, Visiting Fellow and Visiting Scholar of the Institute of International Studies of the Hoover Institute of Stanford University, is one example of a key supporter with strong academic and international credentials who might assist us in this project.
    [2][Italicized emphasis added.]
    An undated TASSC newsletter (called "The Catalyst") contains an article stating that TASSC member-scientist Dr. Henry Miller, ("a visiting scholar from the Hoover Institution)," helped draft the 5 Guiding Principles of TASSC. Listed along with Miller as another TASSC member who helped draft the Guiding Principles is James E. Enstrom, a scientist whose work was cited in The U.S. Government's racketeering case against Big Tobacco as having assisted the tobacco industry in perpetrating fraud and deception upon the American public.

  13. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Mr Miller, thanks again for your answer. I have given you a more elaborated answer below your comment.

    Readers, you will find a lot of alternative opinions to Mr MIller's, from the scientific community on this website.
    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture

    1. Portrait of Henry I. Miller

      CommentedHenry I. Miller

      Monsieur Monin, Forgive me, but you are way out of your depth. You have no ability to discriminate between bona fide research findings and what (chemistry) Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed "the science of things that aren't so." You have found and cited more examples of that in the "research" of Seneff and the consistently baseless, agenda-driven views of the Union of Concerned Scientists. (See this send-up of Seneff, who lacks any research expertise in this area: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamar-haspel/condemning-monsanto-with-_b_3162694.html.) The fundamental problem with your quest for "truth and health" is that you seem to have no idea which sources are reliable and which aren't, and you seem to have an unerring ability to find the latter. You might find it useful to review some of my articles, links to which are at http://www.hoover.org/news/daily-report/by-author/10000.

    2. Commented

      Monsieur Monin,

      Forgive me, but you are way out of your depth. You have no ability to discriminate between bona fide research findings and what (chemistry) Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed "the science of things that aren't so." You have found and cited more examples of that in the "research" of Seneff and the consistently baseless, agenda-driven views of the Union of Concerned Scientists. (See this send-up of Seneff, who lacks any research expertise in this area: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamar-haspel/condemning-monsanto-with-_b_3162694.html.)

      The fundamental problem with your quest for "truth and health" is that you seem to have no idea which sources are reliable and which aren't, and you seem to have an unerring ability to find the latter. You might find it useful to review some of my articles, links to which are at http://www.hoover.org/news/daily-report/by-author/10000.

  14. Portrait of Henry I. Miller

    CommentedHenry I. Miller

    Monsieur Monin, Your comments are, I fear, misguided in many respects. I will address only two. First, the studies by Seralini et al that you cited have been thoroughly, completely, and repeatedly discredited by both individuals and associations within the scientific community; see, for example, http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2012/02/22/the-science-of-things-that-arent-so/ and http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2012/09/25/scientists-smell-a-rat-in-fraudulent-genetic-engineering-study/. he has a clear agenda, and bends his experimental design and data to support it. It is at the very least disingenuous to cite such rubbish. Second, as to your concerns about "the quantity of conventional food that is consumed daily. 1% is already very significant: we are talking about people, human beings, and basically what this study shows is that 1 in an 100 will be exposed to an unsafe level of nocive [sic] pesticide residues each time they eat conventional food," you fail to take into consideration that regulators set pesticide tolerances in food six orders of magnitude lower than any perceptible effect -- hardly, "unsafe" levels.

    1. CommentedBertrand Monin

      Mr Miller, I sincerely appreciate the fact that you take the time to answer me.

      I am not a scientist, I am not even an "orgnic food activist" and I first want to apologize to the readers of this respectable website (and you Mr Miller) for posting a link to a research that has indeed been widely contested by the scientific community. Thank you for correcting this.
      I am writing here as a mere citizen and I guess my only concern here is my health and that of other people on this planet.

      Still, as far as scientific research is concerned, what I wanted readers to have their own opinion about and/or have your reaction about Mr Miller, is that:
      (i) the 2012 meta-analysis that is the subject of your article, to my mind again, rather shows that organic food is safer than conventional food (however not more nutritious I agree), that's in the 3-liner conclusion of the abstract;
      (ii) the other research by Bruce Ames that you mention was published in 1990, and since then it has apparently been refuted in a dedicated 2002 research by the Hebrew University (Chlamtac and Richter, are they rubbish as well?) ;
      (iii) It is widely admitted that Seralini's work on Monsantos' Roundup herbicide residues on health is rubbish, what about this recent one by Stephanie Seneff from Masachussets Institute of Technology on the same subject, that also link Monsanto's Roundup residues in food to cancer and Parkinson's, I quote the artilce "[Roundup Residues] enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease. Is it rubbish as well? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/25/roundup-herbicide-health-issues-disease_n_3156575.html

      As I am not a scientist maybe I was naive enough to pick the most controversial research (Seralini's...) but I guess my point is that you seem to use scientific research in a partial way. I am happy to be proven wrong, and I thank you again for your correction as again, I am only focusing on truth and health in this debate.

  15. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Sorry to insist, bu the more I read researches on the subject the more I find this article biased, and may I even say, dangerous.

    Please read the following 2008 research (University Caen, France) abstract for another view on the subject, the conclusion is cristal clear: "The adjuvents in Roundup formulations [an herbicide produced by Monsanto made of various types of glyphosates and widely used in agriculture] are not inert. The propietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in food derived from Roundup formulations treated-crops".

    Source:
    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/tx800218n

    1. CommentedDallas Weaver, Ph.D.

      Bertrand,
      You have to go to the primary research articles, but when you do and actually read them from the viewpoint of a peer reviewer, then you find that most of the stuff coming out of the activist pro-Organic camp is pure marketing nonsense.

      Pulling out quotes like: ""The adjuvents in Roundup formulations [an herbicide produced by Monsanto made of various types of glyphosates and widely used in agriculture] are not inert. The propietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in food derived from Roundup formulations treated-crops" demonstrates a pure spin operation. It is true, the "adjuvents" in roundup are not "inert", they have been added for a reason. The first thing required is agents to change surface tension and allow the material to spread on the weeds. This agent we commonly call soap or detergents and the can and do kill cells, especially bacterial cells -- why washing your hands works. Note that the Ogranic farmers are big in using soaps and detergents for killing bugs (by wetting their surface and drowning them) and killing "cells".

      The devil is in the details and that is buried in real science. Statements like what you quoted are pure propaganda spin. No numbers, no concentration, no specific chemicals, etc.

  16. CommentedBertrand Monin

    If anyone is still interested in what I am writing, I would also like to add the following regarding the research mentioned in paragraph 4, according to which 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves:

    (i) It is a common strategy of some industry lobbyists (notably biotech, tobacco, etc.) - and I am not pretending that Henry Miller is one here as I don't know his curriculum - to fund or use researches in order to support the idea that nature in itself contains elements that are carcinogens when tested on animals in high-dose and that therefore their synthetic products cannot be blamed even if also proved carcinogens. To my mind this is, per se, a fallacious strategy: if someone is burnt ("naturally") at the stake, you won't help him by spilling a few oil in the flames. Now let me elaborate:

    (ii) 99.99% is a sensational number. Actually in Bruce Ames research, we can read that 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticides are consumed daily out of a total of 1.5 g (synthetic and natural). The real question is what quantity of synthetic pesticides can be consumed daily without harming health: is it 0.09 mg? twice that amount (still 0,02% of persticides consumed). The research suggests that “at the low doses of most human exposures, the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant", however...

    (iii) This research was written in 1990 (that should be mentioned in this article!!!) More than 20 years later, 2 strong arguments come to weaken Bruce Ames research and therefore Henry Miller's demonstration:
    1 - New researches have refuted Bruce Ames research: I will only mention a publication in 2002 by Richter and Chlamtac (Hebrew University), among other things it claims that: "even low doses from ingestion of produce containing [synthetic] pesticide residues can cause tissue injury, which could itself promote cancer" or "exposures from bioconcentrations of biopersistent organochlorines in the food chain create particular risks for meat-eaters, who have higher cancer risks than vegetarians", all those arguments are a direct refutation of Ames' - somewhat outdated - work. Please read the following http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11843442
    2 - The quantity (in weight) per acres of synthetic pesticides used (in most intensive agricultural countries) has drastically increased in the past decades and it would be very interesting to re-run Bruce Ames study nowadays to see if synthetic pesticides are still at 0.09 mg per day in the average American diet. Just to give you a hint, a recent research shows that when we were promised that GM crops would reduce the use of herbicides 20 years ago, it has on the contrary increased herbicide use by 7% during the 1996-2011 period: http://www.enveurope.com/content/24/1/24

    Hope you will find this interesting.

    1. CommentedDallas Weaver, Ph.D.

      Being aware that the nastiest of toxins are all "nature" produced and man, with conventional breeding, has produced strains of everything from celery to potatoes that had to be pulled from the market for their natural toxins producing real harm to farm workers and customers, makes me think Ames had a point. Plants can't run away so they poison those who what to eat them.

      We happened to have evolved resistance to a lot of these toxins via the same mechanisms we use for destroying man made chemicals entering our bodies. We also avoid eating the same thing all the time, diluting any specific toxin. Interesting, marine carnivorous fish don't have good resistance to land based plant toxins and their is a whole group of nasty chemicals in crops like soy beans now classified as "anti-nutritional factors" that gene jockies are trying to eliminate from soy beans fed to salmon. Of course, a lot of the algae based toxins will kill, paralyze or put holes in our brains -- chemicals that gave inspiration to the movie "the Birds", where marine birds go crazy from the toxins.

  17. CommentedBertrand Monin

    Dear readers (thanks for your enriching comments) and Henry Miller,

    I have read through the abstract of the meta-analysis (the link is transparently provided by Henry Miller in this article in paragraph 2) and, in my opinion, contrary to what Henry Miller argues, the research tends to show that organic food is safer than conventional food. Let me quote (or just follow the link...):
    - "The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce (risk difference, 30% [CI, −37% to −23%])"
    - "The risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork (risk difference, 33% [CI, 21% to 45%])"
    - Conclusion of the abstract:"Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

    In my mind, this should only strengthen people in the idea that organic food is safer than conventional food.

    Now, 3 things before concluding:
    1.) The research indeed concludes that "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." However: (i) it is not clear that people primarily chose organic over conventional food for its nutritional superiority (I personally don't) (ii) this conclusion says that organic food is not significantly nutrionaly superior to conventional food, but it is silent on whether it is superior or not (even just little), (iii) I would be interested to know out of what context has Mr. Miller taken his quote by Dena Bravata (one of the researchers who produced this meta-study) in paragraph 2, when says that "we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food" I would bet that she only refers to the nutritious superiority.

    2.) I was frankly shocked by Mr. Miller sentence: "While non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, the levels in more than 99% of cases did not cross the conservative safety thresholds set by regulators": thanks God no more than 1% does not cross the safety thresholds !!! It is already a MASSIVE shame !!! 1% is not just a mere statistics, can you imagine the quantity of conventional food that is consumed daily. 1% is already very significant: we are talking about people, human beings, and basically what this study shows is that 1 in an 100 will be exposed to an unsafe level of nocive pesticide residues each time they eat conventional food, that's more than 3 million people in America at every meal!. I hope that another later study will not show that it was rather 3 or 5%...

    I think that other readers have also provided good arguments against the idea that organic food causes more damage to the environment than conventional food. Thanks to them.

    Mr. Miller, the true challenge I believe is to make organic food cheaper and avaiable to the most, where and when possible, adapted to modern society, because it is indeed safer, and tastier ;)






  18. CommentedShishir Basant

    I have to say this writer does little (if not nothing) about farming. He sounds so biased towards biotech and engineered solutions for farming and increased productivity.
    First, 20-50% difference in yield is a ridiculously large range to quote- and anyone who practices organic - gets a yield which is lower by 10-20% (in the first season - it gradually grows- as the soil life is enhanced, its ability to break down nitrates grows and the soil grows richer every year).
    If you are claiming for anything beyond that (25%), then your control is pretty screwed up already (meaning to say, you must be highly dependent on GM, pesticides, fertilizers already.
    Talking about irrigation, does the author realize there is something called as moisture retentivity and organic content in soil - which is enhanced by organic farming methods.
    I'd agree and appreciate if someone points out that organic farming helps a local ecosystem -especially in terms of water - only if we are growing crops suited to the local climate - trying to grow traditional crops as much as possible.
    Talking about drudgery by women farmers, there is no scientific proof suggesting weeds are a result of organic farming. Weed growth can be controlled by understanding plant and soil ecology - in simple words, getting the right combination for inter/mixed cropping.
    And I still haven't touched upon nitrate contamination of groundwater - salinity in soil.
    Somebody here pointed out that the article is worth appreciation because it raises a critique on a trend and we could use it to better fit the organic farming methods in the ecosystem. I agree - but only because I am already aware of the challenges with the organic market and I know a bit about farming systems.
    However, for a layman, for an organic consumer reading this, can completely buy this claim this article is making - The "Myth" of Organic Farming - It's a false and sensational claim.

  19. CommentedGed Buffee

    It was up to organic’s so-called leadership - the join-at-the-hip International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) and self-proclaimed global leader of organic research, FiBL - to refute this with evidentiary, science-based counter arguments. However, true to form with their slow moving, foot-dragging approach, IFOAM and FiBL’s failure and screaming silence to generate a timely and credible response to Stanford University’s analysis, has also left organics’ perceived image and value in tatters. Today’s “consumptogenic” society is increasingly asking for the scientific evidence to justify why they are shelling out more money for an organic label with the majority of Americans (59%) in a March 2013 Harris poll representative of U.S. adults, agreeing labeling food or other products "organic" is just an excuse to charge more. After enjoyed a slew of uncontested, 0rganic’s “mediagenic” days are over. Media is cancelling the free ride organics has enjoyed for years, and now asking tough questions. Flipping this around it means, based on the inconclusiveness of pro-organic arguments assembled over the years by the likes of IFOAM and FiBL the media and consumers, are now concluding organic food doesn't provide any health benefits over conventionally-produced food. Clearly, it’s the lack of relevant and accurate organic agricultural science and information on all levels, from policy through research and extension services to farm level that currently restricts the uptake of organic farming.

    Therein lies the problem. Stultifying mediocrity is endemic within organics’ leadership. Here the new descriptor “ineptocracy” is appropriate and to be fair, far more suited for the joined-at-the-hip European-Swiss cabal than their US counterparts. Organics’ slide is not just the result of ineptitude, but also stems from institutional failure, lack of strategy or coherent policies, absence of any competitive capacity and learning iteration cycles. The clear-eyed assessment then is that organics’ story is emphatically more about epic failure than success. Stuck at under 1% of global farming organics is just treading water - which is the same as drowning for those looking for growth. As organics suffers the severe consequences of its leadership gap, the sector needs to find the resolve to make the right hard choices. Guilty of neglectful oversight and gullibly abiding non-leaders as leaders, starry-eyed organic proponents need to shake off their unwarranted optimism, denialism and false hopes. Organic proponents must realize it madness and a toxic choice to let the people who’ve set the course for organic’s failure to stay at the helm. The process to rid organics of those who’ve brought no results, needs accelerating.

  20. CommentedSean Mac

    Ross Milton,
    Your saying "subsequent posts are so obfuscatory as to present an agenda. and not a well thought out one."

    Like you, I appreciated this article. But unlike you, I don't dismiss other comments on simply because they don't agree with the author of the article. As readers/consumers, we should welcome opinions from all angles to help us make the most informed and objective understanding. In short, please not stifle the free communication on the web.

  21. Commentedross milton

    A clear and cogent article. subsequent posts are so obfuscatory as to present an agenda. and not a well thought out one. Crap out people, your agenda is done. get some sense, some perspective.

  22. CommentedClyde Israel

    Some valid points, thank you. However I think you may be pushing some boundaries and doing your cause an injustice.
    Pesticides: the 0.01% - quantity does not reflect quality, think of the power of a small piece of enriched Uranium. Suggesting 0.01% has no effect is a stretch, also consider the processes behind the production of the 0.01% of pesticides - the bigger picture/carbon footprint and effect. Farming is a complex matter, aspects of yield are interwoven into a variety of supportive activities, summing them up in a sentence seems a little inadequate. Again, focusing on the bigger picture may assist in making my point: soil health and the law of diminishing returns - a problem with conventional farming is that it affects soil quality. Soil quality leads onto aspects of nutritional content: in order for food to contain all the macro and micronutrient required for healthy living, they are required to grow in a soil which provides them, thus, whether you are farming conventionally or organically, nutrient content is a complex science.

  23. Commentedtemesgen abate

    the meta-analysis of big data is now like reading a Rorschach blot.is this article a browbeating of organics and an angling for multinationals in a depleting markets? the epistemic template of the article is similar to those espoused by climate -change dissidents.they ferret for their denials numbers.i presumed ideology to be dead but now it meta-morphed in to this ferocious big -data-Rorschach blot test.

  24. CommentedTarun Sharma

    This article seems to be biased towards organic farming. I do not know much about organic or chemical farming but I do not think people opt for organic foods for their greater nutritional levels but more for safety issues. But then the author also says that they may not be as safe as people might think. May be or may not be. However, I would like the question: why have the cases of cancers have risen sharply in a past few decades, when in fact, according to the author naturally occurring toxins are found in greater proportions in cancerous cells? Although I do agree that organic farming should be probed well before coming to conclusions, otherwise it will soon pass as another fad due to biased articles like these. It comes as a great surprise to me that how people who are nowhere related to the actual agricultural practices can pass judgement such issues on the basis of a few studies and testimonies which could have been carried out on fundings of pesticides and fertilizer companies (just saying). So, I would rather suggest the author to go to various farms and see what are the various techniques of organic farming and compare them with each other and conventional farming and then come to any conclusion. It could also be a case of people not knowing the entire techniques of organic farming. On a serious note, we need neutral and dispassionate people (I want to be one of them in a few years) who can probe into practices and find what is beneficial and what is romanticizing.
    AND I would also suggest the author to read about the issue of Endo Sulphan in India. It is a pesticide that was used in Cashew plantations and it caused havoc in the surrounding region.

  25. CommentedDonna Diane

    The assumption by the author that the "conservative safety thresholds set by regulators" is good enough is only part of the problem with this article. People who choose organic, like myself, often believe those standards are not efficacious.

    If both naturally occurring and man-made chemicals equally cause cancer, then why should I expose myself to both when I can eliminate the man-made source?

    The argument of non-organic farming practices being more human is laughable. Women and children doing the weeding is a social issue. You can remove organic farming and the human race will still practice labor abuse.

    I wonder if you're one of the people who uses "safe" pesticides on your lawn, allows you pet to walk around on it, watches them lick their feet, and then wonders why, in three or four years, their dog or cat has cancer or some other horrible disease.

    I am a scientist.



  26. CommentedRoland Kupers

    Dear Sirs,

    This research paper quoted actually concludes that "research efforts and policies should be targeted to developing farming systems that produce high yields with low negative environmental impacts drawing on techniques from both organic and conventional systems.".

    Miller uses the paper to build an argument in favour of non-organic over organic farming, but that is rather misleading.

    It seems to me that the question should be what we can learn from the best global organic and non-organic practices, rather than comparing the averages in Europe only and then taking a global advocacy position.

    Roland Kupers - Amsterdam

    1. CommentedSean Mac

      No matter what, I appreciated this article because organic food, by concept, is a good idea but we need to ensure in practice it really yields the results it is expected--more nutritious and less toxic food, and environmentally friendly. Since we, consumers, have to pay much more to get organic food, we are entitled to know if it is really worthy of the price. Otherwise, we only benefit the organic food suppliers. This is the subject should be given more fact-based and in-depth scrutiny.

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