The Colossal Hoax Of Organic Agriculture

The Colossal Hoax Of Organic Agriculture
By Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen

Consumers of organic foods are getting both more and less than they bargained for. On both counts, it’s not good.

Many people who pay the huge premium—often more than a hundred percent–for organic foods do so because they’re afraid of pesticides. If that’s their rationale, they misunderstand the nuances of organic agriculture. Although it’s true that synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act, while most “natural” ones are permitted. However, “organic” pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – JUNE 13: A label stating ‘Produce of USA’ is wrapped around a bunch of organic carrots at a farmers market on June 13, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Another poorly recognized aspect of this issue is that the vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume are in our diets “naturally” and are present in organic foods as well as non-organic ones. In a classic study, UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” Moreover, “natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests.” Thus, consumers who buy organic to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on just one-hundredth of one percent of the pesticides they consume.

  • Some consumers think that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) requires certified organic products to be free of ingredients from “GMOs,” organisms crafted with molecular techniques of genetic engineering. Wrong again. USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free. (In any case, the methods used to create so-called GMOs are an extension, or refinement, of older techniques for genetic modification that have been used for a century or more.) As USDA officials have said repeatedly:

Organic certification is process-based. That is, certifying agents attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices which meet the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the [National Organic Program] regulations . . . If all aspects of the organic production or handling process were followed correctly, then the presence of detectable residue from a genetically modified organism alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation. [emphasis added]

Putting it another way, so long as an organic farmer abides by his organic system (production) plan–a plan that an organic certifying agent must approve before granting the farmer organic status–the unintentional presence of GMOs (or, for that matter, prohibited synthetic pesticides) in any amount does not affect the organic status of the farmer’s products or farm.

Under only two circumstances does USDA sanction the testing of organic products for prohibited residues (such as pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or antibiotics) or excluded substances (e.g., genetically engineered organisms). First, USDA’s National Organic Production Standards support the testing of products if an organic-certifying agent believes that the farmer is intentionally using prohibited substances or practices. And second, USDA requires that certifying agents test five percent of their certified operations each year. The certifying agents themselves determine which operations will be subjected to testing.

The organic community, including the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), supports the USDA’s lenient testing protocols and opposes more frequent mandatory testing of organic products for prohibited and excluded substances.

The organic community and USDA offer two explanations for such minimal testing. First, they emphasize that organic farming is process-based, not product-based, meaning that what counts for organic certification are the approved organic system (production) plan and the farmer’s intention to comply with that plan as reflected through record-keeping obligations.

Second, widespread testing would impose substantial costs on organic farmers, thereby increasing production costs beyond the already greater expenses that organic farmers incur. Organic farmers offset these higher productions costs by earning large premiums for organic products, but there is always a price point beyond which consumers will shift to cheaper non-organic.

Few organic consumers are aware that organic agriculture is a “trust-based” or “faith-based” system. With every purchase, they are at risk of the moral hazard that an organic farmer will represent cheaper-to-produce non-organic products as the premium-priced organic product. For the vast majority of products, no tests can distinguish organic from non-organic—for example, whether milk labeled “organic” came from a cow within the organic production system or from a cow across the fence from a conventional dairy farm. The higher the organic premium, the stronger the economic incentive to cheat.

Think such nefarious behavior is purely theoretical? Think again. USDA reported in 2012 that 43 percent of the 571 samples of “organic” produce tested violated the government’s organic regulations and that “the findings suggest that some of the samples in violation were mislabeled conventional products, while others were organic products that hadn’t been adequately protected from prohibited pesticides.”

How do organic farmers get away with such chicanery? A 2014 investigation by the Wall Street Journal of USDA inspection records from 2005 on found that 38 of the 81 certifying agents–entities accredited by USDA to inspect and certify organic farms and suppliers—“failed on at least one occasion to uphold basic Agriculture Department standards.” More specifically, “40% of these 81 certifiers have been flagged by the USDA for conducting incomplete inspections; 16% of certifiers failed to cite organic farms’ potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics; and 5% failed to prevent potential commingling of organic and non-organic products.”

Speaking of trust and faith—or lack thereof–in organic foods, there was the example of holier-than-thou Whole Foods importing large amounts of its supposedly “organic” produce from China, of all places. Those imports even included Whole Foods’ house brand, “California Blend.” (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Organic agriculture is an unscientific, heavily subsidized marketing gimmick that misleads and rips off consumers, both because of the nature of the regulations and cheating. The old saying that you get what you pay for doesn’t apply when you buy overpriced organic products.

As can be seen from the popularity of rip-off artists like Whole Foods markets, organic foods are popular. The U.S. market for organic produce alone was $12.4 billion last year.

Some of the devotion from consumers attains almost cult-like status, which is why a recent article by Stanford University researchers that was dismissive of health or nutritional benefits of organic foods created such a furor.

The study, by researchers in the university’s Center for Health Policy and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was a meta-analysis in which results from the scientific literature were combined but no new, original laboratory work was conducted. Data from 237 studies were aggregated and analyzed to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.

The investigators themselves were surprised by the result. “When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” according to physician Dr. Dena Bravata.

Many devotees of organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides. But that’s a poor rationale: Although non-organic fruits and vegetables do have more pesticide residue, more than 99 percent of the time the levels are below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators – limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.

Ironically, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic construct of bureaucrats that makes little sense. It prohibits the use of synthetic chemical pesticides – although there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act – but permits most “natural” ones (and also allows the application of pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer).

These permitted pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a September 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones. No matter what anyone tells you, organic pesticides don’t just disappear. Rotenone is notorious for its lack of degradation, and copper sticks around for a long, long time. Studies have shown that copper sulfate, pyrethrins, and rotenone all can be detected on plants after harvest—for copper sulfate and rotenone, those levels exceeded safe limits. One study found such significant rotenone residues in olives and olive oil to warrant ‘serious doubts…about the safety and healthiness of oils extracted from [fruits] treated with rotenone.’” (There is a well-known association between rotenone exposure and Parkinson’s Disease.)

There is another important but unobvious point about humans’ ingestion of pesticides: The vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume occur in our diets “naturally,” and they are present in organic foods as well as conventional ones. In a landmark research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Bruce Ames ( and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (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 of Ames’ experiments: “Natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.”

In other words, consumers who buy overpriced organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides they consume.

There seems to be confusion about these issues even at the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), which in October released a report that appeared to endorse organic produce because of its lower levels of pesticide residues, while at the same time admitting, “in the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease.”

Perhaps the most illogical tenet of organic farming is the exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants – but only if they were modified with the newest, best, most precise and predictable techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another – often as a result of seeds being irradiated or genes being moved from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. But because genetic engineering is more precise and predictable, the technology is at least as safe as – and often safer than – the modification of food products in cruder, “conventional” ways that can qualify as organic.

There are examples of new varieties of plants, including two varieties each of potatoes and squash and one of celery, that have sickened or killed consumers, but all of these were the result of conventional genetic modification – which would qualify for organic farming.

The organic community remains unswayed by either biology or history, however, and modern genetic engineering remains prohibited from organic agriculture. This bias against genetic engineering in organic agriculture makes recommendations such as those of the American Association of Pediatrics especially dubious because as genetically engineered “biofortified” foods with enhanced levels of vitamins, antioxidants and so on appear, none of them will be available to organophiles.

Another rationale for buying organic is that it’s supposedly better for the natural environment. But the low yields of organic agriculture – typically 20-50 percent lower than conventional agriculture – impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis published in September of this year in the Journal of Environmental Management identified some of the environmental stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as was “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”
“Sustainable” has become a buzzword that is applicable not only to agriculture and energy production but to sectors as far afield as the building and textile industries. Some universities offer courses or even degrees in “sustainability.” Many large companies tout the concept and boast a sustainability department, and the United Nations has hundreds of projects concerned with sustainability throughout its many agencies and programs.

But as with many vague, feel-good concepts–“natural” and “locavorism” come to mind–it contains more than a little sophistry. For example, sustainability in agriculture is often linked to organic food production, whose advocates tout it as a “sustainable” way to feed the planet’s expanding population. According to the Worldwatch Institute, “Organic farming has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.” This is wishful thinking, if not outright delusion.

What does “sustainable” really mean, and how does it relate to organic methods of food production, compared to the more advanced methods of today’s modern farming practices? Definitions vary widely; a typically subjective and circular definition comes from Dr. John E. Ikerd, extension professor at the University of Missouri:

A sustainable agriculture must be economically viable, socially responsible and ecologically sound. The economic, social and ecological are interrelated, and all are essential to sustainability. An agriculture that uses up or degrades its natural resource base, or pollutes the natural environment, eventually will lose its ability to produce. . . a sustainable agriculture must be all three–ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible. And the three must be in harmony.

The organic movement touts the sustainability of their methods, but its claims do not withstand scrutiny. For example, a study published earlier this year in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season. But organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched with plant demand.

The study found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. Especially with many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought and aquifer depletion–which was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on November 16–increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a mark of sustainability.

Moreover, although composting gets good PR as a “green” activity, at large scale it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases (and is also often a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops).

Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones. The low yields of organic agriculture–typically 20%-50% percent lower than conventional agriculture–impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Management (2012) addressed the question whether organic farming reduces environmental impacts. It identified some of the stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”

Lower organic crop yields are largely inevitable, given the systematic, arbitrary rejection of various advanced methods and technologies in organic farming. Organic affords limited pesticide options, difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and the lack of access to genetically engineered varieties. If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and on water supplies, both of which are serious environmental issues.

Stanford University’s Sustainable Choices website defines sustainability this way: “the ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.”

That definition is compatible with the notion that sustainability is favored by maximizing human ingenuity and the quest for progress—that is, for processes and products that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment. Organic food producers need not apply.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Richard Cornett is the communications director for the Western Plant Health Association, a nonprofit agricultural trade group based in Sacramento, Calif. 


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One Response to The Colossal Hoax Of Organic Agriculture

  1. Linda Barga says:

    Good article…..Stossel also did a show on organics…..they tested some in stores and found that 3 in 5 items labelled organic were actually organic. So it is a crap shoot at best….but no, I am not a fan of massive pesticide spraying and huge conglomerate growing practices anyway……


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