RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Scientific American recently published an anti-organic post on its website, claiming to debunk the benefits of organic. Researchers at Pesticide Action Network (PAN) lay out the facts in the commentary below. The rebuttal originally appeared on PAN's Ground Truth Blog.
Scientific American fact-checkers on holiday?
by Heather Pilatic, PhD, codirector of Pesticide Action Network of North America
It’s the only explanation. Historically, Scientific American has been unafraid to confront right-wing attacks on science of the climate change denier and creationist sort. So when a blog appears under the SciAm masthead claiming to “bust" various myths of organics, citing industry-funded studies and commentary from fringe right-wingers like Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute, one wonders what happened.
Christie Wilcox's "Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture," published last week, has already elicited rebuttals from food and ag writers at Mother Jones, Grist, and more. As Mother Jones' Tom Philpott notes, the piece is so predictable in its rehearsal of industry talking points as to warrant a big yawn. But it's in SciAm and will no doubt serve as link bait in the ongoing debate over the future of global food and agriculture; so we find that a few basic corrections are in order.
First, the "myths" Wilcox claims to bust: 1) Organics don’t use pesticides; 2) Organic foods are healthier; 3) Organic farming is better for the environment; and 4) It’s all or nothing.
We’ll take each in turn.
Correction #1: The realities of pesticide use.
Claim: Organic farmers use pesticides, often more intensively than do conventional farmers. Her words: "shockingly," the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness.”
Facts: Definition of a pesticide: Pesticide is a functional description–any substance that kills a pest (insect, weed, rodent, fungus) is a pesticide. Mustard can be used to fumigate soil prior to planting, and salt to kill bugs: In these instances, they would be considered pesticides. In most cases, pesticides used in organic farming are less toxic and less persistent, in no small part because they aren't petrochemically derived.
• Use data: Pesticide use data is not kept in the U.S., period. (See Karl Tupper's recent "flying blind" post.) Our national pesticide law, FIFRA, expressly forbids EPA from requiring applicators to report use (section 11(d)), so the only data we have are at the aggregate level and California’s use data. Had Wilcox looked at actual national use data (inadequate though it is), she would have found that the overwhelming majority of agricultural pesticide use in the U.S. consists of two herbicides that are not allowed in organic production: glyphosate (active ingredient of Roundup) at 180–185 million pounds, and atrazine at 73–78 million pounds in 2007. Both are endocrine disruptors linked to birth defects and a host of environmental harms including, in the case of atrazine, the "chemical castration" of frogs. Not incidentally, glyphosate use (as well as aggregate herbicide use) has increased in step with the commercialization of genetically engineered RoundupReady crops.
• Residue data: USDA keeps residue data, which we sort and cross-reference with toxicity data (because not all pesticides are created equal) in PAN’s online tool, WhatsOnMyFood.org. There, Wilcox would have found that in almost every instance where statistically significant residue data is available, organic food has negligible pesticide residues, if any.
• Net effectiveness: Wilcox cites a study from the University of Guelph (of the now-famous faulty clothianidin study) on the question of whether organic-certified pesticides work well enough to have a smaller net environmental footprint. In the 5 years leading up publication of this study, the research team received funding from a number of (conventional) growers groups, Bayer CropScience (maker of clothianidin), Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, BASF, and DuPont (a.k.a. the "Big Six"). No independent studies that we know of have proven that organic-certified pesticides are "more ecologically damaging" than synthetics.
Wilcox does make a number of valid points: Natural does not mean safe, for instance. But the fundamental assertion of this first myth-busting exercise—that organics use pesticides that are as dangerous and damaging as the synthetics used by conventional agriculture—is simply not borne out by the facts.
Perhaps the next time a consumer is contacted by a pollster on this topic, they/we should more properly say, "I buy organics because they don't use the kinds of pesticides that create public and environmental health hazards, harm pollinators and other indicator species, make farmers and farmworkers sick, and/or persist for years in the environment accumulating up the food chain." Noted.
Correction #2: The nutrition science is still coming in.
Claim: "Science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than nonorganic ones—and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years."
Fact, State of the evidence: The science on the nutritional value of organic is contested and evolving. The Organic Center responds to the study Wilcox cites here. Takeaway: the study she points to uses old science that fundamentally confounds their results. For instance, studies prior to 1980 didn’t have the analytical techniques needed to report total phenolics or antioxidant capacity (since these nutrients were just being discovered). And since 2008, more than 15 new studies have been published, most using better design and analytical methods based on criticisms of older studies.
In sum, the nutritional superiority of organics is not at all established, but neither is it a myth.
Note from Rodale.com editors: And there's more to healthy food than just its nutritional content. The absence of toxic chemicals is important too. A difference in nutritional quality may be the least important reason to choose organic. See The REAL Reason to Eat Organic Food by Maria Rodale.