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Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sacred Cows

Folks who know me are aware that I am something of a fan of technology. This may come from my long experience with science fiction or just a certain predilection towards gadgets but, whatever the origins, I am intrigued by the possibilities presented by science and new inventions. This, of course, serves as my own particular hubris: confronted by a new problem my mind almost always seeks to solve it with appropriate engineering. As you might guess, this is not always the best way to deal with a difficulty.

Nevertheless, I do think that a careful assessment of the relevant science and appropriate application of technology is frequently a good idea. And along similar lines, I think that wishful thinking and poor logic about science and technology are very dangerous. Poor logic gives us nonsense like the anti-vaccine advocacy of Mary Tocco which places us all at risk. Questionable thinking about science and technology has given us wasteful electric cars and ethanol fuel initiatives which, in addition to not solving our energy woes, are causing real hardship for the world's poor. And iffy logic has also produced a new potential problem: organic foods.

Oh, I know the arguments: organic foods are supposed to be healthier, and safer for the environment, and more sustainable. They are in every way superior to modern agriculture. To this I respond: bullshit. You may prefer them, they may make you feel all warm and gushy inside, but nothing comes for free and there are certain to be drawbacks with these foodstuffs. Hell, if nothing else, it's worth considering that the human race engaged in organic farming exclusively for the first few thousand years our civilization and switched over pretty readily as new technology became available. Perhaps that was because those humans realized that- just maybe- the new ways were better.

And you know what else? The U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agrees with me. A report on their recently completed life cycle assessment of organic and conventionally grown produce is enlightening to say the least. Below are a few of the "myths" about organic farming and some of the potential issues that arise from studying them:

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment

The study of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for the UK, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should concern anyone who buys organic. It shows that milk and dairy production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain.

Also, organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle – and methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Meat and poultry are the largest agricultural contributors to GHG emissions. LCA assessment counts the energy used to manufacture pesticide for growing cattle feed, but still shows that a kilo of organic beef releases 12 per cent more GHGs, causes twice as much nutrient pollution and more acid rain.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) relates food production to: energy required to manufacture artificial fertilisers and pesticides; fossil fuel burnt by farm equipment; nutrient pollution caused by nitrate and phosphate run-off into water courses; release of gases that cause acid rain; and the area of land farmed. A similar review by the University of Hohenheim, Germany, in 2000 reached the same conclusions (Hohenheim is a proponent of organic farming and quoted by the Soil Association).

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable

Organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertiliser production, but need more fossil fuel for ploughing. A hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one.

Heated greenhouse tomatoes in Britain use up to 100 times more energy than those grown in fields in Africa. Organic yield is 75 per cent of conventional tomato crops but takes twice the energy – so the climate consequences of home-grown organic tomatoes exceed those of Kenyan imports.

Defra estimates organic tomato production in the UK releases almost three times the nutrient pollution and uses 25 per cent more water per kg of fruit than normal production. However, a kilogram of wheat takes 1,700 joules (J) of energy to produce, against 2,500J for the same amount of conventional wheat, although nutrient pollution is three times higher for organic.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

The proponents of organic food – particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon – say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for 50 years.

If there is a "cocktail effect" it would first show up in farmers, but they have among the lowest cancer rates of any group. Carcinogenic effects of pesticides could show up as stomach cancer, but stomach cancer rates have fallen faster than any other. Sixty years ago, all Britain's food was organic; we lived only until our early sixties, malnutrition and food poisoning were rife. Now, modern agriculture (including the careful use of well-tested chemicals) makes food cheap and safe and we live into our eighties.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier

To quote Hohenheim University: "No clear conclusions about the quality of organic food can be reached using the results of present literature and research results." What research there is does not support the claims made for organic food.

Large studies in Holland, Denmark and Austria found the food-poisoning bacterium Campylobacter in 100 per cent of organic chicken flocks but only a third of conventional flocks; equal rates of contamination with Salmonella (despite many organic flocks being vaccinated against it); and 72 per cent of organic chickens infected with parasites.

This high level of infection among organic chickens could cross-contaminate non-organic chickens processed on the same production lines. Organic farmers boast that their animals are not routinely treated with antibiotics or (for example) worming medicines. But, as a result, organic animals suffer more diseases. In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against 4 per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often.

Disease is the major reason why organic animals are only half the weight of conventionally reared animals – so organic farming is not necessarily a boon to animal welfare.

There are, of course, other "myhts" they attack but I urge you to read the article for yourself.

So does this mean that I think we shouldn't permit organic farming? Nah. I think there's a place for it. That said, however, I think that if my hubris is viewing technology too favorably, this research suggests that it is indeed possible to err in the other direction. Technology is imperfect but, nevertheless, it often works quite well and provides us with many benefits. Rejecting it may make us feel more "natural"* or in tune with nature but, in the final analysis, will sometimes do more damage to nature than our regular old clanking machines do.

And sometimes we have to ask ourselves whether it's worth slaughtering that sacred cow in order to genuinely help the environment.

* I find it frankly hysterical that people don't regard our use of technology as "natural." Seriously, people, what the hell do you think our enormous brains and hands are for, anyway? For humans, the use of tools is as natural as the use of claws is for tigers. To claim otherwise is just silly.

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Blogger said...

Sixty years ago, all Britain's food was organic; we lived only until our early sixties, malnutrition and food poisoning were rife. Now, modern agriculture (including the careful use of well-tested chemicals) makes food cheap and safe and we live into our eighties.

I myself am a fan of good logic, and so statements such as this make me pretty skeptical. To assume that the elimination of pesticides is in any way responsible increases in life expectancy is a major fallacy, to say the least.

I'm not saying this debunks the entire argument, but does show a willingness on the part of the authors to present information in a deceptive light so as to put their point across.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008 8:04:00 PM  

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