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No, Organic Foods Aren't the Bee's Knees.

While organic foods are still wildly popular, they are dying a slow death, and should.

Unveiled in the fall of 2002, organic certification in the US could be considered a wild success. Organic foods are now available in around 20,000 health food stores across the country and about 75% of all grocery stories. Conventional foods are looked upon with scorn, and multi-national movements arose to oppose new biotechnological methodology. Public demand for “handmade”, “stone-pressed”, and “locally grown” anything skyrocketed, perched upon the back of buzzwords like “sustainable” and “farm-to-table”. As a PR platform, organic foods were unbeatable.

Recently another article was posted on The Rapidian entitled, “Prices on locally grown organic food reveal hard truth”, in which the author explored the surface of the organic agriculture market in West Michigan. While the piece was fairly written in many aspects, it’s important to take the perspective of those interviewed into consideration. Setting aside the fact that the organic farmers have a financially vested interest in promoting their own product (a common bias that’s a yellow flag at least), the numbers provided are startling, though not entirely surprising when examining the organic food industry as a whole. For example, The Guardian published another investigation piece which uncovered similar findings- though organic sales were increasing, the market had largely hit the threshold of what consumers were willing to pay for a product. Without raising costs by a percent that would turn consumers away, farmers couldn’t reasonably meet their own costs.

While much of our agriculture industry is subsidized in some way (as it should be), I find it particularly disturbing that Orttenburger reported in The Rapidian that Groundswell “strives” to pay its employees minimum wage (which implies that they don’t always), and that New City Urban Farm found that farm workers averaged $6.66 an hour-- why this isn’t investigated by MI LARA is beyond me. Arguments could be made all day about how minimum wage isn’t nearly enough to meet the rising cost of living, but even our most hardline conservatives would be loath to say that those providing our nation’s food supply deserve less than seven dollars an hour. Meaning no disrespect, this is completely unacceptable.

Two different aspects of operations need to be considered to see why this dire financial situation exists: crop yield and pesticide use. Both of these are directly correlated with ecological sustainability, but also with profitability and “compensationability”. Regarding the former, a plethora of studies have examined crop yields (supply per acre) over the years, with varying results. This isn’t surprising, as the complexity of regional climate and soil differences account for much of the discord in findings. What has been consistently true, however, is that crop yields are always notably higher with conventional farming. Published by Nature in 2012, Verena Seufert et al. found that while organic compared reasonably well with legume and perennial crops (i.e. beans and fruit trees, respectively) at just a 5% loss, the shortfall was massive for staple crops such as soy or corn- nearly 25% less per acre.

Pesticides have certainly been a hot topic online over the last few years, but it’s probably best to clear up a common misconception first. Orttenburger states, “Not using chemicals for pest and weed control means you have to have more hands on deck removing pests and weeds from the crops.“ This statement is only half true. While organic doesn’t always rely as heavily on synthetic pesticides, pesticides do decrease the amount of labor needed to maintain crops. Yes that’s right, it is true that organic farms use synthetic pesticides. A list of usable substances is available here. You may be indirectly familiar with a popular one, copper(II) sulfate (CuSO4), which is used agriculturally as a fungicide, and is otherwise also used as an herbicide. It’s indirectly responsible for algae blooms (partially responsible for why some residents complain of their tap water tasting like dirt) due to increases in nitrogen and phosphorus and is one variable in a larger process known as eutrophication in certain waterways. It’s important to note that organic farmers aren’t a major part of the problem here as many normal citizens also use this and similar products to clean up weeds along waterways on their property, but it can have major consequences (for example, it contributes to the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” that ranges in size from that of Rhode Island to the size of Connecticut). The other correction worth noting regarding pesticides is the “arms race against nature” referenced towards the end of the piece. More accurately, the arms race is to eliminate pesticide use altogether. While conventional crops still rely on pesticides as a primary means of protecting crop yields, transgenic farming methods seek to genetically codify resistances within the plant, while maintaining the same chemical integrity of the crop. Yes, I’m talking about GMOs. Before I’m labeled a shill for Monsanto (which I’m not but I’m open to the idea), I’d like to note that meta-analysis (a study which summarizes the results of a majority of literature over the years) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development found that GM farms used 37% less synthetic pesticides while maintaining a lead in crop yields, and increased farm profits by a remarkable 68%.

While this accounts for the differences in compensation, it’s also important to consider the impact this has on our environment. It follows that if we were to pursue organic as our main form of production, it would be necessary to create anywhere from 5%-25% more farmable space, taking away from our local wildlife and fauna. Conventional, being the predecessor to GM crops (which may soon be replaced by cisgenics, but that’s for another time), may produce more yields than organic, but GM crops are the environmental equivalent to taking 12 million cars off of the road annually. These things matter when destruction of habitat is still far and away the number one reason for our loss of wildlife, and we’ve halved the world’s total wildlife population since 1970.

It’s also relevant to consider the consumer’s perspective here. Currently, the median household income in the US hovers around $51K, spread across the year at about $140 per day for two adults. Knowing that housing and utilities take up nearly 30% of income ($41/day), spending roughly $10 per person on a single meal, especially if you have children, is untenable for most people. Organic food culture is steeped in fear mongering tactics that are on par with the war on drugs, the war on terror, or the concerning the efficiency of vaccines (where there actually is significant demographic overlap amongst the naysayers). The primary argument is that organic supports the local community and is entirely sustainable, even though that’s not always the case.The reality is that pro-organic rhetoric denigrates or outright ignores the realities of living in modern America. It’s a particularly despicable form of classism that would not be acceptable in any other context.

At a time when nearly 43% of organic foods are failing to meet certification and Greenpeace is razing field trials of transgenic crops across the globe, it’s past time we look at how capitalistic and idealistic forces have corrupted a well-intending movement into something that’s likely beyond grace at this point. At the heart of this issue is the question of how we can feed and provide nutrition to an ever-growing population (after all, anywhere from 650-1,200 children begin suffering blindness due to vitamin A deficiency every day), and how we can best protect the environment in doing so.  Looking beyond both the marketing practices and anti-scientific rhetoric will provide a much more realistic perspective of the challenges that lay ahead of us, and help to provide for a world where someone is born every 8 seconds and someone dies every 13 seconds. While the evidence is overwhelmingly clear  (and yes, that includes the bees)that our scientific endeavors are improving our agricultural yield and profits, consider the statement by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman: “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food quality. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgement about nutrition or quality.” And that’s the thing—organic foods can be (and sometimes are) healthier, but the label provides no meaningful guarantee. You can (and should) still buy local whenever you can, as our farmer’s markets are a fantastic asset to our communities nutritionally and economically, but think critically and forget about the hype.

That said, I think that the organic tomatoes I’ve had taste better too.


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