Monday, June 05, 2006

The Organic Menace

A few weeks ago, I reported that Kenneth P. Green of the American Enterprise Institute had very selectively quoted a letter by Canadian scientists to support his contention that scientists were finally becoming "sensible" about global warming, and had stopped calling for "silly" reductions in emissions. In fact, as I demonstrated, the letter urgently called for immediate reductions in emissions. Green was simply lying.

Fresh from that rhetorical triumph, Green sets out to debunk three "myths" about organic farming. His dishonesty isn't quite as brazen this time around, in that anyone who wishes to check his facts has to look at several primary documents, instead of a single letter. Still, he's cobbled together an ungainly collection of lies and half-truths that would make a cat laugh.

[L]et's look at whether or not going vegan would stabilize the climate. Two vegetarian researchers recently published an article estimating that the typical American with a mixed diet puts out 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide each year than do people who consume only plants, which adds up to about 6 percent of U.S. emissions, but only 1.6 percent of worldwide emissions. But U.S. greenhouse emissions are a shrinking part of the world's inventory, as China and India are growing quickly. Whatever benefit that might come of American's going vegan would barely be noticeable, and quickly erased by emissions of developing countries.
It's interesting that Green apparently accepts the estimate of 1.5 tons of CO2 (which appears in this study). It'd be easier to quarrel with that number, I'd think, than to argue that if a specific action can't "stabilize the climate" in and of itself, there's no reason to pursue it as one strategy among others.

More to the point, Green conveniently ignores the study's findings on other greenhouse gases, such as those produced by manure lagoons:
[L]ivestock production and associated animal waste also emit greenhouse gases not associated with fossil-fuel combustion, primarily methane and nitrous oxide. "An example would be manure lagoons that are associated with large-scale pork production," Eshel said. "Those emit a lot of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere."
In my earlier post on Green, I pointed out that he uses the extent to which climate change has been allowed to proceed unchecked - thanks to the efforts of people like him - as an argument against taking anything other than adaptive action. (He's a bit like a doctor who tells you that you absolutely, positively don't have cancer - no matter what the tests say - and accuses you of being a hypochondriac and an hysteric. And then, once you finally get a correct diagnosis from another doctor, he says "You're too far gone. Treatment won't help, and even if it would, you couldn't afford it.")

Here's Green's next "myth":
Organic food sellers claim that organic farming is better than traditional farming because it uses less energy and chemicals to grow food. Some even claim that research published in Science showed organic farming was 50 percent more efficient than traditional farming. But what organic food purveyors don't talk about is that the same study showed crop yields were 20 percent lower. When you factor that into the equation, organic farming was only found to be about 19 percent more energy efficient per unit produced than traditional farming.

Or is it? As science writer Ron Bailey points out, the comparison wasn't really apples to apples. State-of-the-art organic farms were compared to older methods of traditional farming, not modern systems.
By "modern systems," Green means no-till farming; this would be a somewhat valid point, if it weren't possible to use no-till methods on organic farms. As usual, ideologues like Green like to pretend that there can be or will be no innovations in sustainable agriculture.

As for "science writer Ron Bailey," he writes for Reason magazine, and "was the 1993 Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute." (You may remember the CEI from their mindboggling pro-CO2 ad campaign). The article to which Green refers appeared in 2002. In 2005, however, researchers at Cornell University cast some doubt on his argument:
Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes.
Further, a 2004 study found that organic crops seem to have higher yields under drought conditions, and are better at capturing water runoff. There's also some evidence that the yield of organic crops is comparatively stable year to year.

Now, on to Green's last - and lamest - point:
The Institute of Food Technologists, an international, not-for-profit scientific society points out, "Organic foods are not superior in nutritional quality or safety when compared against conventional foods, yet organics do have the potential for greater pathogen contamination, and therefore greater risk of food poisoning."
In an earlier post on Kristin Gerencher - who also praises the "independence" of the Institute of Food Technologists - I noted that this group's corporate sponsors have included the Coca-Cola Company, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Given that the consumption of organic vegetables has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last decade, one would expect to see an accompanying uptick in food-poisoning cases attributable to organic produce. But there seems to be little evidence of this, and the FDA's food safety site has no special handling instructions or warnings for organic produce. The Wall Street Journal recently said that contaminated produce is a growing problem, but doesn't mention organic farming as a cause:
Several factors are responsible: the centralization of produce distribution, a rise in produce imports, as well as the growing popularity of pre-chopped fruits and vegetables.
Also, research conducted in 2004 found that "the E. coli prevalence in certified organic produce was 4.3%, a level not statistically different from that in conventional samples," a finding that infuriated the anti-organic think-tank illiterati:
According to Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, the report's chief author and faculty member at the University of Minnesota, "I had a very heated discussion with Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute. They were very dissatisfied with our findings and told me that our interpretations were not 'correct.'
You can read all about Alex Avery here.

All in all, it seems as though Green is one of those Chicken Littles the Right always complains about...the kind who tries to advance a political agenda by scaring the bejesus out of the consumer. And ultimately, that may be one of the best reasons to buy local, organic produce whenever possible: Unlike agribusiness and factory farms, the people who sell organic produce at farmers' markets probably won't donate any of their profits to pathologically dishonest think-tanks like AEI and CEI.


Anonymous said...

Green is just a corporate toady.

He gets paid by corporate-sponsored "independent" think-tanks and NGOs and such to...well, basically just to keep the bullshit flowing. To make sure that all the people who really don't want to embrace organic foods even though they know they should can sit around the microwave in their break-room on Monday and say "you know, I just read a piece that says organic food isn't really even any better for you...."

I guess it's just a means to keep the sideliners on the sidelines.

Another excellent post Phila! Fight the Good Food-Fight!!!

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for your thoughts on this. It was very thorough and concise. I'll let you know that I've found all of your information to be very helpful and will be using some of it in a debate tomorrow.