Three strikes and you’re out: the attack against organic food, and why it’s wrong

From Anna Lappe at Civil Eats:

News flash: the chairman of the board of one of the largest food companies in the world—whose tripling in profits from 2009 to nearly $43 billion in 2010 was generating from selling mainly processed foods produced with inputs from industrial, chemical farms—is “skeptical” of organic food, reports FastCompany.com.

Don’t you think someone who made $10.7 million in 2010 from a company whose profit primarily depends on chemical agriculture might have a bias in the matter? Yes, it would be understandable to think Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, might. It also might be understandable to want to know what others, those without such a financial interest in the food status quo, think about the viability of non-industrial agriculture. But in the FastCompany.com article, like other press that pooh-poohs organic farming, those who disagree, if they’re mentioned at all, are portrayed as marginal or unqualified to speak to the issue.

In FastCompany.com, the other side is represented by unnamed (and unquoted) “nutrition professors and some food scientists.” No offense to nutrition professors and food scientists, but what if you had, instead, learned that the viability, efficiency, and safety of industrial agriculture is being questioned not only by professors and some food scientists but by countless agronomistsfood security expertseconomistsepidemiologistspublic health experts all around the world? What if instead of “nutrition professors and some food scientists,” you heard about the numerous peer-reviewed and meta-studies that contradict Brabeck-Letmathe’s claims.

You’d be more informed, that’s for sure, and you might just begin to see the spin behind Brabeck-Letmathe’s messaging. He has three main talking points to defend fossil fuel-, chemical-, and water-intensive industrial agriculture. Brabeck-Letmathe raises each with strategic discipline: First, he claims that organic farming is a luxury; secondly, that it doesn’t produce food that’s any better for you; and finally (and much worse) that organic food can kill you.

This three-part spin-doctoring should start sounding familiar. I’ve been hearing it reported by uncritical media for more than a decade, dating all the way back to a 20/20 episode with John Stossel in 2000 and to the op-ed pages of one of Canada’s top newspapers, the Globe and Mail. In 2008 Brabeck-Letmathe told the paper, “We cannot feed the world on organic products.” That same year he delivered the same line to the Financial Times. Today, he tells FastCompany.com: “There’s no way you can support life on earth if you go straight from farm to table.”

Yet, numerous studies on the efficiency and future viability of industrial agriculture—especially in an increasingly resource-constrained and climate-unstable planet—keep proving the opposite is true: we cannot support life on earth unless we shift away from industrial agriculture systems.

Consider that in the United States alone, 27 percent of our nation’s farmland is dependent on fossil water from the Olglalla aquifer and we’re depleting it at a rate so fast that in a few decades there could be none left.

Or, consider that chemical runoff from industrial farms throughout the Midwest, especially synthetic fertilizer, creates a Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico every year that kills off aquatic life on the ocean floor and can grow to the size of New Jersey.

Or, consider that one of the three macronutrients industrial farmers rely on for fertilizer, phosphorus—found in the phosphate-bearing rock mainly in Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States—is increasingly rare. Some experts suggest we’ve already passed peak phosphorus; we will find it increasingly difficult to mine for the stuff. And, every ton that we do secure produces five tons of radioactive waste. Today, the U.S. is home to more than one billion tons of this waste now stored in 70 locations, some towering as high as a 20-story building and some as large as 720 football fields.

Meanwhile, studies have found that ecological farming practices, of which organic agriculture is one, can significantly improve water usage efficiency and eliminate farmers’ dependence on petroleum-based chemicals and synthetic fertilizer ingredients, including phosphorus.

And what to make of Brabeck-Letmathe’s second talking point: “From a nutritional point of view studies show no nutritional difference from bio [or organic] to other foods.”

We certainly need more studies assessing the nutritional differences between food items, but research is already turning up positive results—for organic foods. We already know, for instance, that studies of children’s consumption of organic versus conventional foods found those eating organic foods had lower detectable pesticide metabolites. We also know that last year’s President’s Cancer Panel noted that many chemicals used on industrial farms are known or suspected carcinogenic or disrupt our hormone systems, mimicking testosterone or estrogen. The Panel’s recommendation? Stay away from foods raised with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. Without calling it by name, the panel was saying: Be safer, go organic….”

Read it all on Civil Eats.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Three strikes and you’re out: the attack against organic food, and why it’s wrong

  1. The same thing holds true for the milk companies out there who go to meetings at Yale University under the facade, “Sustainable Agriculture.” All the politicians are there, including Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the US, Kethleen Merrigan. They support big business. Big business supports them. Some of the dairy farms have the nerve to go to Organic meetings. They even advertise in Organic organization’s publications because they have the money. Many organic organizations accept from them because they are desperate for funds. It is sad. The milk processors bring into their facilities milk from all farms and co-mingle the milk and sell it under private labels. A list too long to mention. Just go to their meetings and you can see this. “They” go to all of our meetings, you can be sure of that.

    Get rid of the corrupt politicians. expose them and you have a chance. Otherwise you do not have much of a chance.

    Milkmen USA

  2. Pingback: Three strikes and you’re out: the attack on organic food, and why it’s wrong « tastecheese.com.au

  3. Ah yes. The tired old “can’t feed the world” argument.

    I disagree that organic methods produce less food in the first place, but for argument, let’s say they do produce 30% less than food that is soaked in fossil sunlight. What’s going to happen as fossil sunlight goes into decline, causing prices to spike? Governments are falling because of high food prices — the “big ag” model Brabeck-Letmathe espouses is totally dependent on cheap energy, and is doomed to failure as soon as the next few years, or certainly within a decade.

    People on this list may not like it, but more people are going to be more involved with their food. Fossil-sunlight-agriculture companies like Nestle face a downward spiral in revenue as more people cannot afford good food, and turn to growing it in their back yard. In Russia, 45% of food is being produced on 7% of the land — by ordinary people. THAT is what he doesn’t want you to think about! THAT is what gives “big ag” food executives nightmares!

    Of course organic “can’t feed the world.” But neither can big ag based on fossil sunlight. The world is going to have to re-learn how to feed itself.

  4. tal

    from 2007:

    Organic farming can feed the world, U-M study shows
    http://ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=5936

  5. Tal, it looks like the U of M study assumes many more people working the land in organic farms on third-world nations.

    Which is basically what I said. I don’t see anything in the U of M study that indicates that industrial agriculture — whether chemical, or organic — can “feed the world.” Rather, the study indicates that poor people in poor countries can feed themselves using organic techniques — without tractors!

    This is Coming Soon To An Industrialized Nation Near You as fossil sunlight goes into terminal decline. Before fossil sunlight, it took FIFTEEN people on the land to support ONE in the city. Today, a single farmer can support hundreds in cities. This will not continue!

  6. great post, thank you for a sensible analysis! On the nutritional value to organic food – its not just the chemical residues, the food from industrial agriculture contains less nutrients (ie minerals and vitamins) because the chemical fertilizers etc destroy soil microbes that make these available to the plants. And as for feeding the world, Joel Salatin has proven that natural farming methods (not strictly organic in the government regulated definition) can be used to increase the carrying capacity and fertility of farmland, using modern technology. The only reason this isn’t widely recognised is that most studies are not a fair comparison (ie compare using no chemicals to using chemicals isn’t the same as proper organic methods, or comparing carrying capacities from the 1900s prior to modern tractors, PVC piping and electric fences that allow us to get so much more out of organic methods). I recently went to a chemical engineering conference in which the food engineers were very pleased to have helped increase world food production! I don’t understand how processing food INCREASES the amount of food! It may allow us to store it longer, but it clearly still doesn’t get to the right places as people are still starving. Farm to plate is the way to go and even better – grow your own!

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