Recently, Slate Magazine’s Will Saletan wrote an article which essentially castigated those who think organic agriculture has beneficial attributes when compared to conventional agriculture. The article also aimed to shame people who express broader concerns about some of the primary tools used by biotech companies: namely synthetic pesticides and herbicides and genetically engineered crops, aka GMOs (an umbrella term which includes cisgenic, transgenic and other gene-altering technologies).
It’s a well-researched and well-written article that’s definitely worth a read (apparently it took the author and several interns a year to write). Unfortunately, it’s also wrong and/or misleading on several critical points.
The most glaring hole is the article’s third claim “Organics are not safer” than conventionally grown foods. The author cites the commonly used bioinsecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) as the sole supporting evidence for this sweeping generalization.
At best, this argument construct might be called a part-to-whole fallacy or “fallacy of composition.” At worst, it’s cherry-picking a single data point in order to construct an argument that would not hold up to broader scrutiny.
So, let’s take a closer look to see if good scientific research supports this broad claim.
Conventional vs Organic Food & Food Production
First, let’s take a look at Consumer Reports’ recently released analysis of the huge array of pesticides you’re likely to find on conventional grocery store produce and not on the equivalent organic produce (which is why the average American has 29 different pesticides in their bodies). Click here to view the full report.
Using 12 years of USDA data, Consumer Reports analyzed 48 different varieties of common grocery store produce and broke each one into different risk categories depending on the type and amount of pesticides found. If you don’t want to read the full report, their conclusions can be summed up by these statements:
“Experts at Consumer Reports believe that organic is always the best choice because it is better for your health, the environment, and the people who grow our food… We recommend buying organic for any produce-country combination in the medium or higher risk categories. We found that all organic produce falls into the low- or very low-risk categories.“
As noted in the report, exposure to many of these pesticides are especially risky at key stages in prenatal and early childhood development. When you also factor in the combination of multiple pesticide interactions and long-term exposure, that further increases health risks.
Meanwhile, in the highly esteemed British Journal of Medicine, Barański et al. published a meta-analyses in September 2014 combining data from 343 other peer-reviewed research studies to quantify any measurable differences between organic and conventional produce.
Their findings are well-summarized in the paper’s abstract:
“…statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods. Most importantly, the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods, with those of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins being an estimated 19 (95 % CI 5, 33) %, 69 (95 % CI 13, 125) %, 28 (95 % CI 12, 44) %, 26 (95 % CI 3, 48) %, 50 (95 % CI 28, 72) % and 51 (95 % CI 17, 86) % higher, respectively. Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies. Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd. Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g. minerals and vitamins) compounds. There is evidence that higher antioxidant concentrations and lower Cd concentrations are linked to specific agronomic practices (e.g. non-use of mineral N and P fertilisers, respectively) prescribed in organic farming systems. In conclusion, organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons.“
So, when you look beyond the single biopesticide Bt, as the author(s) of the Slate article failed to do, you get a much different picture of organic vs. conventional foods. It’s quite clear that there are indeed far greater risks of pesticide exposure from eating conventional versus organic produce, despite claims to the contrary. Not to mention, organic foods come with the added benefits of offering greater nutrient density without the risk of Cadmium (Cd) poisoning. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, this means you get more nutrition from less calories when you eat organic foods, the opposite of “calorie inflation.”
The reasons for the benefits of organic food aren’t magical in origin. If you have a basic understand of soil ecology and the differences between the way organic farmers and conventional farmers treat their soil and grow their plants, you understand why plants grown in well-managed organic soils teeming with microbial life are going to inevitably produce healthier, safer foods.
In aggregate, organic farmers are better utilizing the biological systems that allow forests and other functional ecosystems to grow better, stronger, more resilient and more biodiverse each year with zero human input. The plant’s DNA operating within that system is an important part of the equation, but it’s not the solution to the equation.
We generally agree with the overall point of the article that there is a lot of unnecessary and/or unsubstantiated hysteria around GE/GMOs. This doesn’t help the cause of those rightfully seeking to transition civilization’s agricultural model from the destructive, chemically-intensive/dependent industrial model to an ecologically rational, regenerative agroecological/permaculture model. (In our opinion, these are the best approaches under the broad “organic” umbrella.)
Personally, we don’t want to support rapacious agricultural practices, so our food comes from one of three sources:
- certified organic food at grocery stores,
- food from farmers we know and trust, or
- food we grow using permaculture methods or food we wild forage.
By default, that means that GMO foods don’t end up in our grocery baskets. GMO plants/seeds are not permitted under USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines and there are currently no GMO home gardening seeds available. If you live in the US, can’t grow your own food, but want to avoid GMO foods, simply buy USDA certified organic foods.
All but a tiny fraction of genetically engineered foods in this country are Roundup-Ready corn and soy, and most of those products go to feed our cars (ethanol) and to quickly fatten the sick, antibiotic-laden animals at Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), one of the worst design errors humans have ever conceived of. The GE corn and soy grown for human consumption mostly goes into making the “cheap” highly processed junk and fast foods that you shouldn’t be eating much (or any) of anyway.
Cows in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). Image credit: original uploader was SlimVirgin at en.wikipedia – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 7 Office, Kansas City, KS. “What is a CAFO?”, Public Domain, Link
Whether you’re vehemently for or against GMOs, if the option is available to you, we highly recommend growing some of your own food. The hands-on knowledge that can only be obtained through actually growing food (rather than approaching the subject abstractly) seems to be something that is sorely lacking by those most vocally shouting from the sidelines on both sides of these often heated discussions.
Yes, even highly specialized industry scientists have their minds blown (and changed) once they experience the soil food web working firsthand. On the other side, frothy-mouthed urban environmentalists may realize that growing large quantities of food isn’t as simple as slapping a seed in the ground and coming back to harvest it a few months later.
Contrary to the narrative of the Slate article, fringe environmental groups aren’t the only party guilty of hysterics. Claims made by conventional ag proponents have been equally outlandish over the years. The track record of the major industry players (initial safety and performance claims vs. long-term findings by independent researchers) would be enough to embarrass the much-maligned Food Babe, and certainly enough to make any critically thinking person a little suspicious of new claims made by the same parties.
Claims versus reality
The general pattern is this:
1. New product/tech is launched with massive PR campaign and little/no/insufficient independent testing conducted (other than internal tests done by those selling the product).
2. Independent public sector/university scientists find a huge previously unrecognized problem with the product often as a result of new/better understandings of complex biological systems – often many years (or decades) after the product has been in public use.
3. Company and/or industry groups launch smear and fear campaigns against the scientists and their findings, often using the same public relations and marketing firms that honed their craft defending the cigarette, oil, asbestos, lead, etc industries from public scrutiny.
4. A decade or so later, the product is unceremoniously removed from the market and replaced with a “new and better” miracle product. Then the cycle repeats.
See Dust Bowl and the “rain follows the plow” claims that perpetuated the worst man-made environmental disaster in US history, DDT, Agent Orange, atrazine, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, neonicotinoids, etc. for a handful of examples of this pattern.
This isn’t necessarily because the people/companies creating these things are evil or bad. They probably mean well and have very noble aims, even if they’re being driven by management’s relentless drive to increase quarterly earnings for their shareholders. As Dr. John Vandemeer (Evolutionary Biologist at Michigan) and others have pointed out, these preventable mistakes often result from specialists working within a reductionistic framework—e.g. they can’t see outside of their specific area of expertise in order to grasp the larger context in which they’re operating or the damage they’re causing in areas they know nothing about.
A Genetic Analogy
The Human Genome Project — in which the full genome of human beings was mapped for the first time — was an incredible and very important scientific feat. However, relative to its initial hype, it was also a rather colossal failure.
At the time, many geneticists thought that decoding the human genome would unlock a cure for virtually every human disease and illness imaginable. Companies begin buying and patenting human gene sequences (yes, really) that they thought held the cure for certain diseases. Oops.
DNA in digital format. Image credit: Unknown, Public Domain, Link
Short of discovering a few genetically linked diseases, the project’s greatest discovery was the understanding that we humans (and our diseases) are much more complex than our DNA. Yet people (including some scientists) still cling to this unscientific and reductionist belief that belies the complexity of dynamic, biological organisms and their interactions with even more complex, dynamic environments made up of trillions of other organisms.
Acknowledging the Complexity of Dynamic Biological Systems
The “GMO revolution” certainly offers enormous potential and discoveries. However, proponents and practitioners of industrial/conventional ag often completely ignore the broader growing systems/environment in which the plants’ genes are operating. DNA can not fix the bad system designs endemic to industrial ag. At best, it might be able to postpone the inevitable, at the expense of creating more downstream problems in the process.
When you erode 6 pounds of topsoil for every one pound of food you produce; when it takes you 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to create a calorie of edible human food; when you systematically kill your soil microorganisms that feed, nurture and protect your plants; when you apply synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that induce systemic imbalances and select for ever-stronger diseases and pathogens; when you produce 25-50% of the greenhouse gasses that are causing massive climactic changes rather than sequestering those gasses in your once-living soils; when your pesticides cause the mass die-off of critically important insects, birds and amphibians; when your rivers and oceans are poisonous dead zones; when the result of all of these activities is a human population with the second worst morbidity ratings of any society in modern history with obesity, overweight and chronic preventable diseases far more common than good health—then you are not deserving of accolades or rewards. You are certainly not worthy of public trust. And you should not be shocked when that trust is not easily granted.
These are systems problems that must be solved by systems thinking; not the continued reliance on reductionist approaches operating under extractive economic models that ignore basic ecological realities.
We still have a very primitive understanding of how biological systems work, whether we’re willing to acknowledge that or not. New understandings of epigenetics is making us rethink our understanding of genetics; the discovery of the microbiome is making us rethink whether we should consider ourselves to be autonomous lifeforms or superorganisms.
The complexity of even the simplest living organism is orders of magnitude more complex than any technology we’ve yet to invent. Yes, we’ve come a long way and we need to continue to innovate, explore, and expand our collective knowledge and practices. However, it would not surprise us in the least if new understandings and corresponding analytical technologies allow us to discover that we’re making significant mistakes with some of our GE tech that we didn’t foresee, once again.
For example, a 2017 study published in Nature Methods made a disturbing discovery about huge numbers of off-target, previously unknown mutations in genetically engineered organisms via CRISPR. As the study’s co-author, Stephen Tsang, MD, PhD, stated:
“We feel it’s critical that the scientific community consider the potential hazards of all off-target mutations caused by CRISPR, including single nucleotide mutations and mutations in non-coding regions of the genome.”
Dr. Tsang is the Laszlo T. Bito Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and associate professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University Medical Center and in Columbia’s Institute of Genomic Medicine and the Institute of Human Nutrition.
This is not a sweeping argument against all GE/GMOs. We are pro-technology and pro-science. However, when we see science and technology being abused, misused and/or mischaracterized, we feel the need to speak out and bring information to light that might help inform the public narrative.
In regards to the Slate article, the notion that conventional ag is superior to organic ag (especially agroecological/permaculture approaches) is one such instance where silence is not an option. We’ve stood in (and eaten) the efficacy of these approaches and seen meticulous independent, peer-reviewed research that affirms our own experiences.
The agricultural approaches we support, utilize, and promote have proven that they can indeed feed the world both now and into the foreseeable future. Even in large scale, side-by-side 30 year field trials, these methods have proven they can perform as well as or better than industrial models without any of the chemical inputs and none of the costly negative externalities. They can do so while preserving local cultures and cuisines; sustaining seed agrobiodiversity; putting a halt to the anthropocene extinction and global warming; creating more just economic models; reducing or eliminating our agricultural dependency on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; and ultimately optimizing the “growing environments” that produce healthy human beings.
To us, it’s not a question of “can we feed the world?” It’s a question of “what kind of world do we want to feed?”
When you ask the wrong questions, you’ll often get the wrong answers. Here’s hoping we all start asking and answering better questions.
1. In a conversation we had with Will Saletan (the author of the referenced Slate article) on twitter, he somewhat apologized/backed away from his article’s claim that organic food was no better/different than conventional, which was nice to see.
2. Another rather egregious flaw in Saletan’s piece (that we could write another entire article about) is “golden rice.” Saletan claims that environmental extremists have kept this life-saving product off the market, and are therefore responsible for millions of deaths around the world.
The problem is that this claim is completely false on two levels, as professors from Washington University in St. Louis School of Public Health have pointed out:
- For one: the IRRI, the developers of golden rice, are completely transparent in acknowledging that golden rice is still 3-5 years away from being commercially viable because it’s underperforming other rice varieties in the field (lower yields) and they’re still working out the kinks. Even if Filipino rice farmers were begging for golden rice (which they’re not), golden rice’s developers would not be able to supply it—for reasons that have nothing to do with the actions of environmental groups and aid organizations. This argument is akin to a Chevy fan blaming Ford that Chevy’s 2019 models haven’t come out yet.
- Secondly, during the years since they began developing golden rice, the problem of Vitamin A deficiency has already been largely solved using other strategies, so the notion that golden rice is somehow the only way to solve this problem is demonstrably false.
As the WUSL article states: “Golden Rice seeds arrived at IRRI in 2001 and began the long journey of being crossed into varieties that grow well in the Philippines. By 2008, IRRI (along with the Philippine Rice Inst.) was running confined field trials of two different versions of Golden Rice bred into four rice varieties. During 2011-2013, they focused on field trials of Golden Rice bred into the Green Revolution workhorse rice called IR64 and also a popular variety called “Peñaranda” (A. Alfonso, pers comm). But as of this writing, over 14 years after IRRI began trying to bring Golden Rice down to earth in the Philippines, the best varieties still exhibit a “yield drag”—i.e., lower productivity than seeds that are identical except for the Golden Rice trait (Dubock 2014; Eisenstein 2014; IRRI 2014). Contrary to claims that millions of children are dying worldwide because of Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice, the new strains simply are not ready and they have not even been submitted to regulatory authorities for approval. IRRI is quite clear about this, as a visit to their website will show. I visit IRRI regularly, and as of last month the word was that 3-5 more years of breeding would probably be needed.
Looking ahead, even if Golden Rice is brought up to speed agronomically, and it is approved, released, and adopted by farmers, the stated goal of saving millions of lives—or even having any significant public health impact—is probably unlikely. Nutrition programs have brought the incidence of childhood VAD from a peak of 40.1% in 2003 to 15.2% in 2008 (Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd). VAD figures from the 2013 national nutrition survey have not been released, but other types of malnutrition have fallen, and the VAD rate probably has too. Again, IRRI itself has been transparent, acknowledging that VAD is being effectively reduced without Golden Rice (IRRI nd).”