Does Organic Measure Up?

Does Organic Measure Up?
September 24, 2012

Mischa Popoff

Mischa Popoff is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Is it Organic? He earned a B.A. from... (read full bio)

A study reported in the journal Nature shows it’s time to put the thirty years' war between organic and conventional agriculture behind us.

Just like the real Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) in which Catholics fought Protestants on ecclesiastical grounds, the organic-versus-conventional war has been an entirely pointless undertaking.

A handful of organic activists have made outlandish claims against conventional and biotech food, giving consumers the false impression that paying double or more for organic groceries is the only way to feed your family safely. Meanwhile, the majority of salt-of-the-earth organic farmers have ignored the battle, appreciating that it’s not their place to “beat” their neighbours, but rather to simply offer an alternative to consumers.

The report − “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture” by Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty and Jonathan Foley − indicates that organic crops yield 25 percent less overall than conventional crops. But speaking as an organic inspector, I must report, regrettably, that things are actually a lot worse for the organic activist mob.

First of all, the study does not account for residual, synthetic fertilizer in organic fields. Second, and of far greater significance, the authors fail to consider that isolated organic fields benefit from all the pest-protection being carried out by neighboring farmers, which makes it difficult if not impossible for insects, bacteria and fungi to even reach organic fields.

But of greatest significance is the issue of fraud. If only a few organic farmers were cheating, the results of this study might be accurate. If, however, just 20 percent of organic farmers cheat by using synthetic ammonium nitrate, thereby doubling or tripling their yields, then this handful of charlatans could easily rival the combined production of the rest of the organic industry!

I communicated with Seufert and Ramankutty right after their study came out. Seufert insists that fraud could not possibly have influenced her results because she relied “on data from experimental stations of research institutes where the management practices were controlled thoroughly.” Fair enough.

But, in the same breath she admits, “We also included data from farm surveys,” and this, I pointed out, is where fraud would most certainly have an impact on her results. I also explained that while organic plots owned and operated by experimental stations remain organic on an effectively permanent basis, many organic farmers routinely rotate their organic fields in and out of organic status, underlining the aforementioned point above about residual, synthetic fertilizer.

Naturally, Seufert insists that “management practices were strictly controlled and all inputs documented,” but this brings us to the crux of the single biggest challenge facing organic agriculture: You can document all you want, but it does not guarantee compliance. Bernie Madoff proved that.

Since organic certification in the United States and Canada is all done on paper without any field testing, one could very well ask whether side-by-side comparisons of this sort can even be done. Still, it’s a long-overdue study thoroughly debunking claims by organic activists that organic yields can equal or exceed conventional yields,  a patently absurd notion.

It’s not that the authors of the Nature article deliberately overlooked the issues discussed here. Most people simply aren’t aware of the complete lack of field testing in the multi-billion-dollar organic biz. So, no one should be upset if I suggest that the results of this study are taken with a grain of salt, or maybe even a whole tablespoon of salt.

In the meantime I will continue to believe what I saw with my own eyes while carrying out over 500 organic farm inspections: that organic yields are closer to half what conventional and biotech yields are, which is perfectly fine because, after all, organic agriculture is all about quality, not quantity. And anyone who attempts to promote organic agriculture as an alternative to conventional and biotech agriculture would do well to keep that in mind.

This brings us full circle to the inescapable upshot of this study: organic farming is most certainly NOT part of the solution to feeding the world. It remains a perfectly valid, alternative food-production system for those willing to pay more for quality, hopefully in the form of purity and nutrition; emphasis on “hopefully” because, as mentioned, there’s no field testing.

We need to start guaranteeing that organic food is genuinely organic each and every time. Otherwise, consumers will continue to be duped by a phony political agenda.

Mischa Popoff worked for five years as an IOIA Advanced Organic Inspector and is the author of Is it Organic? which you can preview at www.isitorganic.ca. Portions of this article appear on the Nature website in a piece Popoff co-authored with Dr. Robert Wager, Biology Department, Vancouver Island University, Robert.Wager@viu.ca. See “Comments” in Nature 485.

Mischa Popoff

Mischa Popoff is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Is it Organic? He earned a B.A. from... (read full bio)