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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Thought for the day

“Organic farming has been put forward as one of the major pillars of a new, more-sustainable human society that would be “kinder to the earth”. Unfortunately, organic farming cannot deliver on that promise. In fact, organic farming is an imminent danger to the world’s wildlife and hazard to the health of its own consumers.”

Dennis Avery, quoted in Fearing Food, (page 3) by Roger Bate and Julian Morris.

Something for George Moonbat to ponder, I reckon.

28 comments to Thought for the day

  • In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg lucidly realised that an “organic society” would see cancer rates skyrocket, especially amongst the poor due to the massively increased cost of produce. Still, the greenies have to harp on about something. Who cares if they claim to champion the people they would also inflict cancer upon? Blatant hypocrisy is allowable – they’re preaching the new religion.

  • James

    What we should be encouraging is for homeowners, as part of their ‘ecological duty’, to use some of their back garden to actually grow some of this stuff. After all, they must play their part, right? That’ll take the wind out of the organic crowds’ sails a bit. Let them fret when this takes a bite out of their lucrative overpriced market.

    I’ve been growing tomatoes this year along with squashes (carrots still to come). I though organics were supposed to taste better? I can’t tell the difference.

  • Julian Morrison

    James: nonsense. Division of labour and specialization makes food production efficient. Home-farming is just an expensive waste of time, unless it’s an actual hobby you do for its own reward.

  • Sometimes, I find this organic vs GM as unnesessary.

    We have enough food for all. What we don’t have is distributive efficiency.

    Even if GM were to be grown everywhere, without distributive efficiency, there will still be hunger.

  • It is really very simple. With artificial nitrogen based fertilisers the world can feed its population. Without it it either can’t do so or requires vastly more farmland, and the environmental consequences of this are profound and bad.

    One of science’s greatest achievements of the last 150 years is to have made agriculture dramatically easier and more efficient. To reject using this science as somehow immoral is not just stupid but really, truly offensive.

  • It is still very nice to grown ones own vegies.

  • Tim

    I personally welcome it, but in a positive way, not in a “confront the evils of mainstream production”. People should have the choice.

    I buy some organic produce. Not because of the organic nature of it, but for the flavour and lifespan. Buy local, and they are picked ready to eat, not sooner, so they are ripe.

    To be honest, the organic part of it isn’t the clincher. But, some of the better organic food is produced by people with a lot of love. So, you’ll get cheese that’s been matured properly, beef butchered properly, ale that’s got nothing added (although most local microbreweries have this attitude). The worst thing is that some of the organic stuff isn’t about that “do it right” philosophy, it’s about getting certification at minimum standards, and hence it’s tasteless.

    Incidentally, the best bacon I buy is not organic. But the farmers producing it have a lot of belief in the “do it right” philosophy. So, the pigs can roam about, eat properly and it’s cured properly.

  • Midwesterner

    Back in the eighties my dad and I grew, sold and distributed organic produce to many area supermarkets for three years. He and I both viewed organic as a marginal method to achieve goals that were at that time difficult with conventional agriculture.

    The non-emotional benefits of organic come down to three basic features. Pesticide contamination is reduced, fuller spectrum of micro-nutrients are available, and cropland quality is more sustainable. (I challenge this last one, but it’s often stated).

    I believe pesticide contamination can best be eliminated with higher tech agriculture. (I don’t believe GMOs are necessary although, with adequate testing, they can be useful. Any technology can be done well or done recklessly.) Probable technology based solutions include controlled environment (indoor) agriculture, mechanical weed and pest suppression, mechanically assisted multi-cropping and nurse cropping. In short, robotics. Robotics has yet to be seriously applied to agriculture. When it is, even more massive changes in quality, quantity and price of product will come very rapidly.

    Sidebar: For those of you who think we’re crying “wolf” over agricultural contamination, you probably aren’t living in a county where a substantial percentage of your drinking water is contaminated with nitrates (from over fertilizing) and atrazine (a corn pesticide). Here is a PDF file from one state with a problem. http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/dwg/gw/pubs/gwmp_b.PDF (Link)See document pages 21 & 22 which are pdf pages 27 & 28

    Micro nutrients are also easily and best solved with chemical fertilizers not animal s_. Fresh manure, while very effective, is NOT an environmentally friendly product! At best, it should be well processed before use. On our own (non-organic) hay land we had stressed crops that after testing turned out to be shortages of boron and sulphur. We chemically supplemented and that problem was solved. That did, however, suggest possible additional shortages of other micro-nutrients that we did not have the capability to access.

    Technology will best solve this when mobile equipment can continuously spot test and spot supplement for a very wide range of micro-nutrients. More robotic assist.

    As for sustainability, I think this argument is a crock that can only be made by lumping incompetent agricultural in with conventional agriculture. On well managed conventional croplands, crop yields, organic matter, erosion, even nutrients can be and routinely are improved every year. Modern tillage techniques can almost eliminate erosion, which in turn improves water retention, and reduces the need for most pesticides. More applied technology will only help this. By comparison, I’ve seen badly mismanaged organic cropland that was over run with weeds gone to seed, further increasing weed pressure. Mismanaged organic land can easily become a reservoir of weeds and diseases.

    In summary, I think organic food production is a cost laden solution to problems that can be obviated with a careful but generous application of better technology. Testing services that verify product quality rather than method of production will avoid accidentally providing incentives for inefficient agriculture.

  • Verity

    James writes: “What we should be encouraging is for homeowners, as part of their ‘ecological duty’, to use some of their back garden to actually grow some of this stuff.” No! No! No! Homeowners have no “ecological duty” and it is not your business or the town council’s business or the government’s business to be telling homeowners what to do on their own damn’ property! Butt out!

  • James

    James writes: “What we should be encouraging is for homeowners, as part of their ‘ecological duty’, to use some of their back garden to actually grow some of this stuff.” No! No! No! Homeowners have no “ecological duty” and it is not your business or the town council’s business or the government’s business to be telling homeowners what to do on their own damn’ property! Butt out!

    Verity:sarcasm, my dear. Jeez…

    People aren’t going to start converting their back gardens; they want their pretty flowers and shrubs and decks and water features. They’d much rather someone else take care of all that messiness and just let them calm their conscience by buying Swampy’s Own Organic Chopped Spuds or some other gimmicky crap.

    Plus, even if it were to happen, sooner or later you’d have the main organic growers going on about how their produce is “more” organic than yours. It’d be like washing powder; ‘Now 50% more organic than the leading organic brand!’

    Where would you get the idea that I of all people would be advocating the governments involvement in what people do in their back yards?

  • Just sitting here wondering what inorganic gardening might be like: a rock garden?

  • Verity

    From your post? It came across as a memo from Central Planning. Glad to hear it was not advanced as a serious argument.

  • John East

    Michael Jennings, you say “It is really very simple. With artificial nitrogen based fertilisers the world can feed its population.”
    So what will be the responce of “the world” (humanity) to this. It will be exactly the same as that of every other species since the pre-cambrian era, the population will grow until the resources match the numbers.
    6.5 billion now to perhaps 10 or 15 billion then?
    What will be your very simple solution when we reach these population levels?

  • J

    Many people assume that being able to feed everyone is somehow a good thing. It isn’t. Me being able to feed me is good, and it’s good if all the people who supply me good and services are fed too. After that I don’t care. It’s not that I’m callous – it’s just none of my business.

    If we (globally) just stop producing more food, then the population might stop increasing. And that would be fine by me. I recognise I’m in a minority on this point.

  • John East

    J, “I recognise I’m in a minority on this point.”

    Don’t worry, there’s at least two of us.

  • Check out JunkScience.com’s 1999 article on the increased E-coli risks associated with organic farming.

  • Julian Taylor

    If we (globally) just stop producing more food, then the population might stop increasing. And that would be fine by me. I recognise I’m in a minority on this point.

    Yes, you are. Perhaps if you said, “if we all stop making love then the population might stop increasing” then that might have been better. Of course I sincerely doubt that you would be one of the volunteers to undergo death by starvation though.

  • Johnathan

    John East, J: you are overlooking one current significant global trend: declining birthrates. Birthrates are falling not just in the affluent West, but even in other parts of the globe. As soon as humans achieve levels of prosperity that no longer require them to have big families to assure them of support in old age, birthrates decline. Policymakers are currently fretting that countries like Italy are depopulating at an alarming rate.

    So I don’t think that there is going to be a problem in keeping up with population growth in terms of future food supply. I haven’t space to attack the various delusions of today’s neo-Malthusians, but in a nutshell, they are plain wrong.

    If people want to grow or eat organic veggies, fine. Some may do so for taste reasons. I have eaten organic and non-organic veggies and sometimes one tastes better than the other, and vice-versa. And organic “hobby farmers” are welcome to have a go at the market. They often tend to be rich ex-stockbrokers who dream of living in a Thomas Hardyesque bucolic idyll. Few of them make a serious profit, though.

    I grow a few fresh herbs but that is because it is convenient to have a load of them right handy for the kitchen.

  • llamas

    I used to write for the largest subscription magazine for farmers and ranchers in the US. I did, on occasion, take the Averys and the Hudson Institute to task for some of their wilder statements. However, in this particular case, Dennis Avery is spot-on. ‘Organic’ farming, and by extension, the use of ‘organic’ produce, is nothing more than a feelgood fad for those who have enough disposable income to afford to indulge their delusions. For those who don’t have enough food to go round, it is a death sentence. One writer, far better than I, accurately describes it as ‘fancy-food porn’, and he’s right.



  • J

    ” I haven’t space to attack the various delusions of today’s neo-Malthusians, but in a nutshell, they are plain wrong.”

    They’re wrong? Oh, I didn’t realise, thanks.

    Anyway, I’m pleased to hear that the population may stop increasing for reasons other than food shortage. That means we will be able to stop chemically assisted farming, which will make the countrysider nicer for people like me. I think many people on the left think that organic farming is good because it’s “nice to mother nature” or “respects the earth” or something. I support for selfish reasons it because it improves my experience of the countryside. I like lakes that aren’t polluted by nitrates, I like to see fields that aren’t monocultures and have weeds in, I like there being lots of insects, rather than them being killed by insecticides. I’m dubious about the health aspects of organic farming, and I think freshness and locality makes far more difference to taste than organicness. However, I think Britain would be a nicer place to live with more organic farming. And I simply don’t see why I should be concerned with ‘feeding the world’. The world can use as many chemicals as it wants, so long as they don’t reach me.

  • John East

    Johnathan, I am very familiar with the neo-Malthusian fallacy, and I agree with you to the extent that advanced/wealthy societies always experience falling birth rates. However, when you consider the 70%-80%? of the world which is undeveloped, much of which is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, then I would maintain that the laws of classical animal breeding science still largely apply. For example, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa only 30 years ago was 325 million. It is now around 680 million, and I don’t think that this population increase was caused by immigrants looking for a better life (they come here for that). It was more likely the result of a few good harvests and Bob Geldofs’ efforts.

    If one accepts that wealth and security are prerequisites for a falling population, as we seem to, then it is still a mystery to me how we are going to get there on a world scale. I’m sure it’s going to take a bit more effort than investing in organic veggie farms.

  • llamas

    Alan K. Henderson wrote:

    ‘Check out JunkScience.com’s 1999 article on the increased E-coli risks associated with organic farming.’

    The ‘increased e.coli risk’ part of the story was attributed to the US CDC, which subsequently strenuously denied having made any such finding.



  • My wife is adamant about organic gardening. Seems to work okay so far. The big advantage I’m seeing is that the fertilizer runoff from next door, where the neighbors always apply WAY too much, produced less burn on our grass, and if I have less than stellar produce in a given season (we had a bumper of tomatoes, plums were a disaster), I can still get to the grocery store.

  • John East and J: make that three.

    I buy exclusively organic most of the time simply because I like to consume as little poison as possible. It seems to me that there are both advantages and disatvantages for the rest of the world with both organic and conventional agriculture. Regardless, the rest of the world will have to to care of itself. I wish I could help, but I seriously doubt it.

  • Johnathan

    John East, so what is your solution then? Ban sub-Saharan Africans from breeding? Halt economic development there?

    J: to bring about the kind of lightly populated, organic utopia that suits your fancy, one suspects would require a fairly catastrophic fall in the birthrate and drastic controls that would hardly square with any sort of individual liberty.

    Back to the original comment that I quoted: I cannot see, from what I have read, how the current global population can be decently sustained by purely organic farming. A lot of the support for this stuff seems at its core to be emotional and aesthetic rather than based on reason.

  • John East

    Johnathan, in response to your question, “John East, so what is your solution then? Ban sub-Saharan Africans from breeding?”
    I think I have accurately described the situation, but it is unfair to demand a solution from me. The great and the good have failed totally to even halt the decline in this part of the world, so why should I have all the answers?
    At least I believe I am asking the right questions, and until we address the right questions we have no way of solving anything.
    For example, I assume you share my dismay that sub-Saharan population more than doubled in the last 30 years. Banning sub-Saharan Africans from breeding is difficult to contemplate from a moral or practical point of view. So do we throw our hands up in despair and continue contributing to Bob Geldof. Far from being a solution, this will more likely exacerbate the problem.

  • Nate

    Many developing countries have experienced a rapid increase in population not from birth rates but rather extended life-span. It may be a one-time phenomenon as the developing world gains access to “advanced” medical technologies like anti-biotics, clean water, etc.

    Also, I don’t believe that famine is an issue of “efficiency” of delivery. Supply chains, shipping, etc. can be incredibly efficient. If it were only a matter of moving the food to where it’s needed, the problem would be solved. However, complicate the issue with civil wars where hunger is used as a weapon and infrastructure is destroyed by in-fighting, e.g. Somalia and food delivery becomes a rather-significant problem.

    (The peace-nik types here in the US love to sport these bumper stickers “Food Not Bombs” which I think is incredibly naive.)

  • John East

    Whether it is rising birth rate, or falling death rate these huge population increases alongside the same old grinding poverty cause me great distress. I wish I knew what we could do to help, but there appears to be no simple answer.

    The conventional food aid and UN bandwagon is just a way of easing the guilt of touchy feely liberals, funding a bloated bureaucracy, and supporting a multi-million pound charity industry.

    Many of us give a few pounds to charity every now and again, get a warm feeling of smug satisfaction when Blair increases foreign aid, and continue supporting our governments and the EU who erect trade barriers and import tarrifs against the third world.

    I suspect any effective solution will have to involve a very serious and expensive long term commitment from the West, and necessitate intervention on social and governance levels. But these are taboo topics, and most people are happy to maintain the status quo. Even trying to open such a debate usually brings down angry accusations of imperialism, racism, and elitism on ones head.

    We should be ashamed if we continue to pretend that we are concerned and helping the third world. In the absence of any meaningful initiative it might do less harm if we just left the third world to its own devices and got on with our own lives.