Feed on

Where’s the Rage?

Organic farming is not good for the environment. Even if one assumes that yields on organic farms are identical to the yields achieved on conventional farms, organic farms have a distinct biological disadvantage when compared to others – they need to get fertilizer from organic sources. The organic code rejects fixing nitrogen from the air and it rejects acquiring nitrogen from other chemical processes.

Nitrogen is vital for plants to develop chlorophyll and without it they’d not be able to convert the sun’s energy into energy for themselves. Organic farms typically need biological agents to supply the needed nitrogen. Two common agents include trawled fish (yes, you read that right) and animal waste. In each case a large swath of land or ocean resources are required to be farmed, fished, or mined to secure the nitrogen needed to fertilize these organic fields. When you read about “organic yields matching conventional yields” the data is completely misleading. What you are being shown is how much food per acre of land where crops are grown. What you are not being shown is how much food per acre of land used to promote the growth of said crops. And this number is considerably smaller than the former. Indeed, it is not unlikely that “fully loaded” organic yields are half that of conventional yields.

Now there are many more points to make about large scale conventional farming versus organic farming, but that is not where I want to take this. Hold that constant for now. So, it turns out that organic farming is actually harmful to the environment – it probably uses more resources to produce a particular quantity of food and it definitely dramatically increases the amount of land under plow or sea under net in order to support itself. Indeed, we don’t have a planet large enough to feed 7 billion people using organic methods.

Furthermore, the cost of organic food is (especially off-season) higher than conventional food. Furthermore, there is an increasing trend to create “sustainability indexes” for cities or states or countries that include a measure of organic farming as a positive sign of “sustainability.” Furthermore there are organic farmers who benefit a great deal from educational efforts to promote organic, from video and television misinformation about the virtues or organic, and certainly from concerted efforts by organizations (such as university dining facilities) to purchase more organic foods. Not only that, university teachers and researchers gain a good deal by securing research grants to study organic farming and to promote it and teach about it. Special interest groups benefit by promoting organic farming and have used the political process to do exactly this (my students might remember the mailing I received from the government promoting local organic farms).

So if organic farming is more expensive (which disproportionately harms the poor) and if organic farming is bad for the environment, and if special interests have a stake in “screwing” the rest of us to benefit themselves, then how come folks are not absolutely enraged about this (and really about the rest of the “E”nvironmental movement – notice I did not say the “e”nvironmental movement). Where’s the rage? On what grounds do you let this insanity continue while you sleep soundly advocating for more of it? Inquiring minds want to know. I honestly think the simple answer is, “Because for some people the environment is not about the environment.” Otherwise, do we really want to go to sleep at night thinking that hundreds of millions of people are too stupid to recognize this? In either case the implication is sobering. So, dear readers, please help me come up with a third explanation that will lighten up my load of cynicism for the day!

13 Responses to “Where’s the Rage?”

  1. sherlock says:

    I truly believe that hundreds of millions of people don’t understand the concept of “scarcity”. These people think chemicals=bad and “natural” fertilizers= good. Skipping the whole “scarcity” problem in between.

  2. sherlock says:

    Seriously, one of my friends, whenever a food isn’t “local” says, “Ewww, chemicals.” And that’s the extent of her thought process.

  3. Harry says:

    Well said, Wintercow.

    I did not know that organic purists were against fixing nitrogen from the air. Maybe that is the view of some.

    In any event, when one grows a Beefmaster tomato plant, its genes determine its composition. It extracts from the soil what it needs. It makes no difference what the source is.

  4. Speedmaster says:

    >> “honestly think the simple answer is, “Because for some people the environment is not about the environment.” Otherwise, do we really want to go to sleep at night thinking that hundreds of millions of people are too stupid to recognize this? In either case the implication is sobering. ”

    I often wonder the same thing. I call the question: “Cretin, or Crook?” Are they really that ignorant? Or that malevolent? Not sure which is worse.

  5. Speedmaster says:

    >> “Seriously, one of my friends, whenever a food isn’t “local” says, “Ewww, chemicals.” And that’s the extent of her thought process.”

    And scarier, this person’s vote counts the same as yours. 😉

  6. Rod says:

    Buying local produce is supposed to promote the prosperity of local farmers and thereby preserve the open space that the organic vegans desire. They don’t want to see farmers cash in on that farmland in Yorktown Heights, NY. This theory assumes that farmers can’t add and subtract.

    Here in Upper Hanover Township there are now zero dairy cattle and only a few farmers who grow hay, corn and soybeans. I would say that only about half the land that’s available for growing crops is actually farmed intensively, the way all farmers did forty years ago. The people who farm our land are real farmers, and they plan to grow soybeans and, eventually, hay on our tillable acres. At their home farm, they grow produce and sell it at a roadside stand. Their sweet corn is the best around, and they use herbicides to kill the weeds and pesticides to kill rootworm, a caterpillar that digests some of each ear and makes most people say, “Ewwwwww!” Because all of the herbicides are neutralized once they hit the top half inch of the soil, I never worry about them; and because the pesticides are applied and incorporated into the soil when planting, I feel confident that each ear of corn is yummier than the rootworm caterpillar.

    If you’re going to skip herbicides, you have to cultivate the corn. A cultivator acts very much like a hoe, scraping off the weeds between the corn rows and throwing soil over the weeds in the corn rows to retard their growth. You cultivate once when the corn is about a foot high and then once at the point where the axles of your tractor wheels won’t knock over the corn. It’s a skilled job, and you have to be prepared to do the second cultivating on time, whether or not you’d rather cut out and go to the beach. I only cultivated corn fields where the spray company did not nuke the weeds before they got bigger than an inch high. Not only does it take time, but it takes a lot of gas, and cultivated fields are much more vulnerable to erosion.

    Of course, if you want to go the third world route, you can just send out hordes of Chinese peasants into the fields and let them pull the weeds by hand. Obama would like that kind of job creation.

  7. Harry says:

    And then when the corn (for the benefit of Wintercow’s UK readers, we are talking maize) is harvested thousands of tons are fermented and distilled (and denatured, so you can’t drink it, and sold as fuel. Even Al Gore has said the biofuels mandate is counterproductive, but only with a whisper. His latest essay in the WSJ was an embarassment.

    I went around pricing beef for Christmas day, finding many outlets touting grass-fed, sometimes “organic” beef tenderloin. If you want a really lean tenderloin that is from a grass-fed animal, buy a Holstein tenderloin from a grass-fed steer grown by a poor hobby farmer in the beef business. Call it “steak Francoise”. Hold the sauce Berenaise, and you will have an experience.

  8. Brent says:

    OK, so I agree- buying “organic” has to rank up there with the ole “buying local” as a back asswards modus operandi. I buy local beef only because all the e coli outbreaks are usually a feature of a large scale national operation. I only buy organic apples because what they spray on all others creates a nasty sensation when I eat them. That is my only selfish rational for anything organic. So what do we think of the near death grip of which Monsanto has on its seeds? Is that good corporate policy- or a war on the small farmer? Or, is this, like most of our endeavors, just screwed up? And be reminded, cynicism is faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

  9. Brent says:

    By the way, yet another reason to never end the blog…

    The Union for Concerned Scientists says in order to feed all 7 billion people crop yields must increase…
    “””The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies, and universities increase research and development for proven approaches to boost crop yields. Those approaches should include modern conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs. The report also recommends that U.S. food aid organizations make these more promising and affordable alternatives available to farmers in developing countries.”””

    Maybe you should take the mantra- “Spread knowledge- not manure…” There is a lot of work to do Wintercow…

  10. See Brent above. I buy organic, etc., through local cooperatives because it is best for my long term health All I care about is me. If “Pascal’sWager” makes any sense, how can organic food be a bad bet?

    Myself, I am all about science and empirical evidence and even so I err on the side of caution. Better without pesticides, even if preservatives might be preserving us.

  11. Harry says:

    I am all for buying local when you can do it; even better is growing your own, especially where certain items, like really good tomatoes are unavailable even at the local stand. I would even buy organic milk if it tasted good, but not because it was grown according to organic protocols, like feeding cows soybean meal that was certified non-RR. Better milk comes from healthy cows and from farms that have high standards of cleanliness, not because they are fed expensive feed.

    I would not blame a farmer for producing “organic” milk if he could fetch a premium price. He could even capitalize on his milk being “local”. The smaller the dairy, the more control one has over bacteria, leucocytes, and, in the spring, the taste of grass.

  12. Rod says:

    Apple trees are sprayed in the spring, before the tree blossoms, to kill a bacterium that causes the apples to fall onto the ground before they are ripe. As for the worms in the apples, you have to combat the moths that lay their eggs on the trees. It wouldn’t matter much if you sprayed the apples themselves for bugs because they’re already inside the apples, gnawing away.

    I had an excellent hired man on our farm back in the seventies who was a skilled mechanic and a devotee of organic everything. He had friends at Rodale Publishing, and his friends asked him to be an actor for a commercial promoting local, organic apples. (He looked the part: he had long hair and a mustache and liked to wear bib overalls.) His mission was to take a bite out of an organic apple and say, “Mmmmm, that’s good!” When the day came to shoot the commercial, the Rodale folks brought along a couple of bushels of apples, but they could not find a single apple that did not look perfect enough to appear yummy in the commercial, so they went to Dan Schantz’s farm stand and bought an apple of unknown origin. So they bought local, but the organic part had to go by the wayside.

    There’s a beef farm on a road I travel frequently, and a couple of years ago they had the cattle in a pasture where they had posted a sign saying, “Fresh Beef.” Fresh, indeed!

Leave a Reply