Destroy the Planet: Buy Organic

I’m halfway through The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley, an English science journalist. The book covers 200,000 years of human history, but this blog posting concerns just one chapter “The feeding of the nine billion”.

Have you chuckled at the apparent inconsistency of a neighbor who drives a 7,000 lb. pavement-melting SUV to Whole Foods and then buys organic produce? It turns out that there is no inconsistency. She is destroying the planet with her SUV and with her purchases of hard-to-grow organic food.

Ridley notes that with genetically engineered crops, synthetic fertilizers, and Roundup to control weeds, the trend of feeding ever more people with less land could be continued. The biggest obstacle to returning land to its wild state is organic farming. Currently we are using 38 percent of the Earth’s land for growing food or grazing animals; at 1961 levels of productivity we would need to be using 82 percent of the land.

Organic farmers won’t use genetically engineered crops, so they spend a lot more time and energy fighting pests. Organic farmers won’t use Roundup and other herbicides, so they plow the weeds under, which kills a lot of small animals and loosens the soil enough that it erodes (or sometimes they resort to flame-throwers). Organic farmers won’t use standard fertilizer, but only manure from cows, which means we’ll need a lot more cows running around.

Organic cotton is an especially hard-on-the-Earth product, according to Ridley. Standard industrial cotton has Bacillus thuringiensis (“bt”) genes mixed in and these kill pests, cutting the need for sprayed pesticides in half.

Who knew that “sustainable” would mean a polyester shirt and a bag of Fritos?

[Update: Just a few days after this posting, a German E. coli outbreak that killed 22 people has been blamed on organic bean sprouts (story).]

28 thoughts on “Destroy the Planet: Buy Organic

  1. Except of course factory farming is not sustainable. We’re running out of oil, will eventually run out of Phosphate (used to make fertilizer), and perhaps most importantly… we will run out of soil. The Midwest has already lost 1/2 of its topsoil, and is losing more every year.

    Organic farming in contrast can be sustainable, and surprisingly, just as productive, but it does take a lot more effort & know-how to do so. I recommend reading the third section of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for an excellent example of how this can be achieved.

  2. Perhaps the SUV-driving Whole Foods-shopping yuppie is actually doing his part for the planet, albeit indirectly: he aims to slow down runaway population growth by driving up the price of food.

  3. 1. I know you are just adopting the standard meaningless cliche, but there is no question of “destroying the planet”. That’s the sort of nonsense journalists babble. Human beings are not even threatening to destroy the biosphere, or their own enivornment. They are merely trying to make it uninhabitable, or much less friendly, to themselves and their own kind.

    2. Organic food may be more expensive to grow, in narrow artificial accounting terms. OK, it may well take more resources to grow. So what? Beef obviously is more expensive than Soylent Green, but we don’t really want to limit our diet to the latter. The real underlying problem is that there are already too many people, and there will soon be many more. Worse still, the human race has no mechanism (and I am happy to support this proposition) to prevent its own numbers from choking it to death.

    No, in fact there is no evidence for intelligent life on earth.

  4. I quite like the typo I made there: “enivrornment”. It’s halfway to the French “enivrement” (intoxication) which is what human beings are systematically doing to their own life support systems.

  5. I haven’t read the book so I can’t refute the specific claims of the author. There are many good things about organic food. Overuse of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer have damaged top soil and left behind nasty chemicals for generations to come. Monsanto is a poster boy for short term greed over long term stewardship. Which is better: less land that is potentially more poisoned or more land that is sustainable?

    On a related note, I’m skeptical of municipal single stream recycling programs. I haven’t been able to find real data about the net environmental benefits. The system reeks of NIMBY, “pay someone to take away my problem” bourgeois hypocrisy. Does the author also examine recycling?

  6. Fabian: Thanks for the Omnivore’s Dilemma suggestion. I have read the book. I don’t know enough to say which perspective is correct. I just thought Ridley’s was an interesting one and decided to relate it. It does seem plain that we need genetically modified crops for disease-resistance and better yield. If the organic movement had started in 1900 and we were locked into growing 1900 varieties of food in 1900 ways it would be very tough indeed to feed the 7 billion humans who are on the planet now (on the other hand, we wouldn’t have an obesity problem!).

    David: Nothing about recycling so far. I think he is particularly passionate about organic farming because he is an enthusiast for genetic modification (he previously wrote the book Genome) and the organic movement rejects the modern genomics industry (though they plant a lot of stuff that was brutally mutated in the 1950s, e.g., with various nuclear techniques). Also, recycling isn’t crucial to our survival as a species. We can live surrounded by trash (as in Wall-E!), but we can’t live without food.

  7. I was reading the Guardian’s review of the book and read,
    “Then we modern humans arrived, and within 100,000 years or so not only devised fish hooks and farming, but steam engines, cellophane and one-click buying.”
    Congratulations on your great contribution to humanity.

  8. I’ve taken classes in agroforestry and permaculture, and there is peer-reviewed research that indicates that organic agriculture and permaculture techniques can outperform monoculture farming, from both a yield-per-hectare and profit-per-hectare standpoint.

    It is more labor-intensive and requires much more planning, but does much more to protect against erosion and maintain soil nutrient levels. It’s the difference between long and short-term outlook. The efficiency of a farming technique becomes a moot point over the long-term, if the farmland itself become untenable after a few generations.

    Genetically modified produce also increases the financial burdens on the farmer, due to higher seed costs and risk of litigation. Each GM strain is patented, and in our increasingly litigious society, the patent-holders have shown their willingness to protect their intellectual property. A properly managed agroforestry treatment includes natural pest management that has proven to outperform expensive Roundup-ready crops.

  9. Fabian Gonzales – we’re not running out of oil. Our ability to produce oil is limited by politics, not by availability. U.S. oil shale deposits could sustain current U.S. consumption rates for roughly two centuries at a lower price per barrel then we’re paying now. Coal can be processed and refined to oil and we have something on the order of 4-5 centuries worth of coal. Not to mention if push comes to shove and we have to do it, it is feasible to literally extract CO2 from the air, break it down to carbon and oxygen, and use the carbon as a feedstock to produce any form of liquid hydrocarbon we desire. The input energy for this process can be either nuclear or solar.

    The #1 use for oil is to power transportation. While I don’t see anything on the immediate horizon which can replace the internal combustion engine for price/performance, I highly doubt we will be using oil for transportation fuel by the end of this century. Take that out of the equation and there’s enough oil in the ground for farming and industrial production for many thousands of years.

    I’m not nearly as well versed on the issues of phosphates or top soil, but my gut reaction is to doubt those claims as well. Every decade someone declares we’re about to run out of something. And the following decade we actually have more of it available.

    The human population, as large as it is, is a drop in the total mass of living things which currently exist, and an even smaller drop in the total mass of living things which have existed. Common sense tells me if the Earth were capable of running out of anything necessary to support such a massive amount of life, that it would have run out a long, long time ago, and we wouldn’t be here having this pleasant conversation.

  10. So if the Gregory Clark view is correct, then by insisting on organic we’re prematurely enforcing Malthusian limits, and possibly providing a buffer and reserve which can be used when those limits are hit.

    Of course the other assertion, and one that I don’t know the facts behind, is that the technique of organic “grass farming” combined with modern automation (tractors, etc) are in fact efficient enough that though the skilled labor components are relatively high, the overall arable land used is similar to the more conventional farming if you include the externalities of petroleum production and fertilizer and pesticide runoffs.

  11. My hot-button is not using bovine growth hormone. By not using it, one needs to have more cattle…

    One reference:

    “According to the new study, if U.S. farmers injected their dairy cows with bovine growth hormone, it would take just 843,000 cows to produce the same amount of milk as one million untreated animals, potentially saving 2.3 million metric tons of feed—and therefore 540,000 acres (219,000 hectares) of cropland…”

    Note I do NOT believe in man-made global warming, but this data helps my argument. 🙂

  12. FWIW: Matt Ridley was at the helm of the Northern Rock bank when it went under, (see his Wikipedia entry) which doesn’t say much for his predictions.

  13. Have you actually read any scientific articles on this topic? Conventional agriculture not only introduces tons of chemicals and toxins onto the soil. These are then washed into streams, rivers, and oceans when it rains and create huge dead zones. The energy inputs in conventional farming are far greater than those involved in organic farming. Gas and oil are used to power farm equipment and natural gas is used o create synthetic chemical fertilizers. GMO’s are your solution? The fact that there is no scientific study of the effects of GMO’s on human health or the environment makes them a potential hazard to human health. Organic farming not only improves soil quality over time but it is also shown to be equally productive in a 20 plus year study by the Rodale Institute. This study also shows that in a severe drought year the organic system actually outperformed the conventional system 30 bushels to 18 bushels.

    You should have impartial scientific data to back up your posts!

  14. Your reasoning is a little backwards. Organic farming or not there is rampant over-consumption of resources so we either rape the land with organic farming techniques or poison the ecosystem with chemicals. Either way you’re fucked and the only way forward is to reduce consumption levels to sustainable levels.

  15. Like you say, an interesting idea every three months. Not necessarily a well thought out and balanced one. It’s true, organic farming is less intensive and yields significantly less than pre ‘green-revolution’ farming methods. Is this an excuse to vilify it just because parts of south Asia are experiencing 4% population growth annually? There are only so many pesticides & GM crops you can throw at that particular problem before you get bitten by diminishing returns…

  16. PhilG: “If the organic movement had started in 1900 and we were locked into growing 1900 varieties of food in 1900 ways it would be very tough indeed to feed the 7 billion humans who are on the planet now.”

    If that scenario were the case, we wouldn’t have had the Green Revolution and might not have reached 7 billion people.

  17. GM crops may be more resistant to specific diseases, however I’d wager organic crops (which are more biodiverse) are more robust against all diseases, current and future.

    The way to tell for certain would be to create an experiment exposing GM crops and a large (monotonically increasing?) variety of organic crops to a variety of antigens over a large number of trials. When GM crops reliably outperform organics in this test of resilience is when we can claim to have triumphed over nature.

    Because this has not been done, this is reason enough to be thankful for all those irrational consumers paying more for organic food. The risk of extinction of major GM crop species is underestimated or not considered, even though the extinction of species is rising.

  18. Sustainable doesn’t mean a polyester shirt and a bag of Fritos. Sustainable means living simply, abolishing industrial agriculture, and scaling down society. Everything else is simply addressing the symptoms instead of the causes.

  19. It’s been interesting reading through both the article and the comments too. Speaking as someone currently completing their PhD in applying microbiology in agriculture I’d like to make a few points:

    1) Debate on agriculture always places GM crops and organic agriculture at polar opposites when the combination of the two approaches could provide stronger sustainability outcomes of productivity, profitability and reduced environmental impact. As an example, the incorporation of particular GM crops with organic management systems could improve their productivity and profitability. This could be of particular importance in expanding the reach of crop production into drier environments.

    2) Rising oil prices have led to more research on lower inputs in intensive agriculture. Recent examples in Australian research have shown that smaller, targeted applications of fertiliser during the wheat growth season led to both higher yields and profitability. Given the nature of the experiment I would also expect that pollution via nitrous oxide production and groundwater eutrophication would also be lower.

    3) There’s a saying about GM crops: GM crops will make a good farmer great and a bad farmer good… for a while. Roundup-ready GM crops are a great example. The misuse of roundup during production cycles by some farmers is leading to faster rates of herbicide resistance developing in important weeds. Herbicide resistance is becoming as big a problem in agriculture as antibiotic resistance is in medicine.

    In the end there are too many of us on this planet for traditional organic and permaculture to support us on a large scale. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that GM crops are going to provide us with the second green revolution we need to keep supporting our population. I really don’t want to see what the world is like next century.

  20. Phil, From my perspective, you made my point. The story of the potato and especially the banana show just how important it is to foster biodiversity as a hedge against Mother nature’s comeuppance.

    It’s quite possible the banana could be functionally extinct as a food source within the next 20 years. The root cause of this is really due to economic optimisation, from ancient times to the current.

    It will take a major food crisis for our society invest in what are now quaintly called heirloom vegetables, but were once just wild fruits and vegetables growing all over the earth.

    Our current politicians are just too anti-science to pro-actively offset this risk in a meaningful way. Here is a link about what one group is doing about the potato:

  21. Eric: I’ve heard that a consumer of 100 years ago would spit out our current bananas because the Gros Michel banana, then prevalent, tasted so much better. the topic reasonably well.

    What makes you think our current politicians are anti-science? If their main goal is to win reelection, accumulate power and wealth, enrich cronies, etc., I wouldn’t expect them to have any interest in science at all. A lack of interest is not antagonism. Do we complain that a ballet dancer is “anti-science” because she doesn’t subscribe to Nature? If I were a politician ladling out trillions of dollars in favors to my cronies I would certainly not waste time reading Nature!

  22. Incredible how such opinio is actually Seen as consistent. I’d rather state that becoming vegetarían has a much higher and positiva influence than buying polyester shirts. And is much healtier!

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