Organic food is not as “green” as you think


To Hindus, cows are sacred. Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and Muslim dietary laws (halal) prohibit pork consumption. Traditional Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Religion and food have forever been intertwined. Food is deep, emotional stuff.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that devotees of organic food often embrace with quasi-religious fervor the practice of growing food without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. [See, for example, my blogpost about Maria Rodale.] But if we want to understand impact of organic agriculture on the planet and on our health, science and not faith ought to guide us.

New scientific research points to a key drawback of organic agriculture, unfortunately: It is typically less efficient and productive than conventional growing methods. That’s a problem for fans of organic because the world has a limited supply of farmland, a billion or so undernourished people, a growing population, an expanding middle class and therefore a vast appetite for affordable and nourishing food. If, in fact, organic methods are less productive, scaling up the production of organic food at will require more land, contribute to deforestation and cost more than growing our food using conventional methods. That suggests that organic methods alone can’t feed the world in a sustainable way. [click to continue…]

Steve Savage: Organic food is not the answer

Sunday mornings, after my weekly long run, I enjoy visiting the Bethesda Central Farm Market. I’ll buy some organic greens, tomatoes, peaches or whatever’s in season from Bending Bridge Farm or Twin Springs Fruit Farm, enjoy coffee and a danish, maybe see friends or neighbors and look forward to some good, healthy eating. Sure, the food’s pricey, but I feel good that I’m protecting farmworkers from chemical pesticides,supporting local growers (well, sort of local, since Twin Springs is 70 miles away) and — most importantly — helping the environment.

Steve Savage says I’m fooling myself.

Steve is a Stanford-trained biologist with a PhD in plant science from the University of California at Davis. He’s a prominent critic of those who make big claims on behalf of organic agriculture. (See, for example, yesterday’s blogpost, Maria Rodale: Why organic food is the answer) Organic agriculture won’t save the planet, he says. What’s more, and this is important, it won’t feed the planet.

Steve Savage

A couple of things to know about Steve. He’s a consultant for the agriculture industry, as well as for investors, so he’s got a stake in what advocates like to call “modern agriculture,” i.e., pesticides, chemical fertilizers and biotech crops. But he’s by no means a defender of the status quo and, in fact, he’s got his own interesting thoughts about how to make agriculture more sustainable. One problem, he notes, is that so much U.S. farmland is rented, and he suggests restructuring farmland leases to give farmers a long-term stake in building soil quality on the land they rent about which more below.

But first, organics. Organic agriculture is small–very small, when measured as a percentage of farmland in the U.S. As Steve writes here, despite the oft-repeated claim that organic is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, only about 2.5 million acres of US cropland were certified as Organic in 2008, the year in which USDA did its most comprehensive survey of organic farmers. That’s 0.7 percent of the 370 million acres of US cropland. At current growth rates, organic will cover less than 3% of U.S. cropland in 2050. So organic food is a niche, plain and simple, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, given the price premium that growers need to keep farming organically.

“I never have any problem with anybody farming, including organic farming,” Steve says, “just as long as people aren’t under the illusion that they’re saving the planet that way.”

“A less than 1% solution after 30 years isn’t a big solution, and we do need a big solution,” he adds.

Of course, organically acreage would grow faster if more people bought organic food. That’s why Maria Rodale wrote her Organic Manifesto. So is that where we need to go as consumers?

No, says Steve, for a couple of reasons. First, organic food as a rule costs more. (See this pro-organic website, and this 2008 New York Times story and this USDA data set for specifics.) In recession-era America, asking mainstream shoppers to pay a premium for their food is asking a lot. “If the economics were more favorable to organic agriculture, you’d see more organic agriculture,” he says. Or, as an NGO exec I know once put it: “Organic food is like private school–nice if you can afford it.” [click to continue…]

Maria Rodale: Organic food is the answer

Maria Rodale

“If you do just one thing–make one conscious choice–that can change the world, go organic….No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater positive repercussions for our future.”

That’s a bold statement. Is eating organic more important than avoiding meat, stopping coal plants, biking instead of driving or donating to worthy causes?

Yes, declares Maria Rodale, the CEO of the Rodale Inc. publishing empire (Mens Health, Prevention, Runners World) and author of the aptly-named Organic Manifesto: How Organic Food Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World and Keep Us Safe (Rodale Books), from which the quote is drawn.

“There’s so many benefits that come from that one choice,” Maria explains. “You’ve removed a bejillion pounds of dangerous, synthetic, disease-causing environment-destroying chemicals from the soil, the water our bodies. We would all immediately be healthier. Our children would be healthier.”

Farmers and their families and farm workers would be better off, too, she goes on: “And our kids would be smarter. There are actually studies that show that a lot of these chemicals do reduce intelligence.”

I arranged a phone interview with Maria after meeting her last spring during Cooking for Solutions, a great conference and food fest on sustainable agriculture and fishing organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d read her book and wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding organics. Tomorrow, I’ll offer a dissenting view from Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant who is dubious about many of Maria’s claims. [click to continue…]

Is organic food the answer?

Well, that depends on the question.

Of all the things I write about – energy, the greening of business, the politics and policy of climate change, geoengineering – food is by far the most emotional. With near-religious fervor, people debate the merits or demerits of, broadly speaking, two ways to produce food.

The first can be described, depending upon who’s talking, as big, fast, modern, conventional, industrial, intensive, chemical, genetically-modified, processed and global. It’s the system that delivers most of the food that most Americans eat.

The second is described as organic, sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural, agro-ecological and slow. It’s driving the growth of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as Whole Foods, and it’s increasingly being taken seriously by big companies like Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s.

As shoppers and as eaters, most of us partake from both worlds. But make no mistake about it- the advocates of conventional food and those pushing reform are deeply polarized, as I’ve seen first-hand lately. [click to continue…]