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A friend's arguments against organic -- need your thoughts please

1374 Views 19 Replies 15 Participants Last post by  magnoliablue
A friend and I have been having a discussion that has lead us to get into organic farming. She is a technical writer for the agricultural industry - and thus has a very different opinion than what I have encountered here. I have to admit, I'm a newbie to all of this - I've been trying to buy organic because it makes sense to me from all the info I've found thus far - but her email is written from a totally different perspective, and it makes sense too.

I'd love to hear thoughts from those of you who are really aware of the issues surrounding this choice - so that I can respond at least semi-intelligently! Thanks:

Her email:

Well, I think I take a very environmental approach to chemicals. I don't have
the chance to look at this site now, or to get you the stuff I've written, but
here's where I am coming from.

I know that agriculture takes from the earth. However without modern
fertilization practices, we'd need double the land to feed the world.
Therefore we would have to destroy wildlife habitat, forests, and community
green zones just to produce the food we need. In terms of "chemical"
fertilizers -- there is really no such thing. Nitrogen is nitrogen, whether it
comes from cow manure or is manufactured -- it is manufactured using natural
substances, it is not a chemical substitute. Now, the manufacturing process
causes pollution, but it can't compare to the amount that efficient agricutlure
puts back into the environment through such things as carbon sequestration.

The same argument goes for chemicals and pesticides -- without them we could
not farm as efficiently as we need in order to keep people in food. And you
would not BELIEVE the process that ag chem companies have to go through to
proove that their products are safe. It is WAY more stringent than even the
pharmaceutical industry because of bad experiences in the past. And now with
the advent of genetically modified seeds, we are able to use way less
pesticides and herbicides. And we have been "genetically modifying" crops for
a millenia (tomatoes are naturally the size of a plum -- the big juicy ones
were genetically bred a century ago) -- but the media ignores that fact in
their fearmongering about "frankenfoods."

Quite frankly -- I find organic farming to be very environmentally
irresposible -- you can't sustain the land this way. Fertilizing "organically"
is gross because of all the parasites and other nasties in animal waste.
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As a person who buys organic whenever possible I'm not buying your friend's arguments.

For one thing, in the past they did genetic engineering by breeding a tomato with a tomato. These days genetic engineering means inserting genes from jellyfish into a tomato. Frankenfoods seems like an accurate descrption.

Secondly, I'm interested in social justice. Pesticide residues my be withing acceptable levels on produce, but what about agricultural workers? I't my understnding that in concentration the chemicals are bad news for the folks who work in the fields.

Third, in the old days the edges of fields were wildlife habitat. Now the edges of fields are poison. It would take a lot of alternate set-aside area to make up for that habitat loss.

The issue of whether intensive agriculture is needed to feed the world is a red-herring. Probably it is, but that doesn't mean that all agriculture should be industrial agriculture. "Organic" is a meaningless term (there is no legal definition) but in general it implies small scale local production without using the agricultural chemicals produced by big corporations. The benefits of orgainc are:
-lets lsmall scale farmers make a living without getting in debt to agricultural corporations
-preserves heirloom varieties
-makes the food taste a lot better (If you don't believe me, try switching ot organic for a while then seitch back)
-is not dependent on oil prices or supply
-keeps chemicals off agricultural workers and out of my food.

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<<She is a technical writer for the agricultural industry >>

And if she were a technical writer for, say, the health industry, would that mean that the 'research' and 'information' she has on issues like natural chilbirth, VBAC, breastfeeding & circumcision are going to make her opinions 'correct'?

My father farms, so I get to read his journals and the focus is always on things like increasing profitability (i.e. yield) and 'developing' new varieties which will be resistant to all the chemicals used. Sometimes an article on a 'great new' variety which has been developed to have more vitamin X, etc.
I can't ever remember seeing an article on healthy soil for healthy food.
Also, how much healthier do you think 'sludge' is as opposed to natural fertilizers like manure.
What about recent research showing that not only do organics have fewer residual chemicals (even considering effects of drift, etc.) but they often also have more vitamins/minerals--without having to engineer them!

And just a quick note that my father--who does do conventional--gets very frustrated with some of the other farmers he knows who do not apply their chemicals correctly. Yes! They need the right paperwork to buy them, but then they determine what is necessary in their situation, mix up and apply their own chemicals. And just like imitation breastmilk--the companies have a vested interest in convincing you to use their product and then keeping you using it. Use Round-Up to control your broadleaf weeds. Lower-than-expected yield? Try the new Round-Up-Ready seed beans! Weeds developing 'resistance'? We've got a nother product for you! And of course, once your soil is depleted of natural, organic nutrients, (like so many urban lawns, it's addicted to chemicals) we'll sell you a special fertilizer for that, too!

Don't even get me started on beef cattle--which are intended to be grass-fed, but for purposes of economy, convenience, and--surprise, surprise!--yield, are fed silage instead. No wonder beef is now so unhealthy and the Americans who eat so much of it are low in their EFAs and other important nutrients. But the beef industry is a whole 'nother can of chemically treated worms!

It's not just farmers who are focused strictly on profits, the chemical manufacturers advertise heavily, provide their own 'research' and promote the indispensibility of their products.
It's about the same as the imitation-breastmilk companies, and their paid-for medical supporters who hand out samples to unquestioning parents.
I have no problem paying more for organic foods--it might cost a bit more in the short term, but, IMO, in the long term it's a much better thing (for my family, the organic farmers' pockets, and the land) and well worth the expense.
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If you are not eating organic you are missing out on many nutrients and minerals. Modern non-organic farmers are required to only put back in 3 nutrients in to the soil and are allowed to use sewer sludge as fertilizer. The food that is produced this way has decreased nutritional value.

I think she has been well trained from the agricultural standpoint but behind that is a very greedy and profit orientated pharmaceutical producing these chemical fertilizers.

FOOD FOR PEOPLE NOT FOR PROFIT is what organic gardening is all about.

Has she tried a taste test? I would suggest a banana or apple test. Has she ever eaten an organic Macintosh apple? Or ask her why non organic food lasts much longer that organic. It's because the microorganisms and digestive enzymes have been destroyed through irradiation and make our body work double time just to get it digested. And when it is digested, the nutritional needs of the body ARE NOT MET.

Food is your fuel, your fuel comes from the earth, do you want that earth saturated with artificial chemicals?
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Here's an exerpt from an article I wrote about pesticides and children:

Feed children organically grown food whenever pos-sible. Infants are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. Children experience rapid growth in a short period of time, and their brain and immune systems are immature. Safe dosage levels of pesticides are calculated based on adult tolerance, not children's. Crops are often treated with more than one chemical. The effects of these combinations are also untested. Pesticides are designed to kill insects or make them sterile so they can't reproduce. What effect might they have on your growing child?

Also, as MaryTG said, organic foods have been shown to have more nutrients. There is also a problem of nitrates in carrots, spinach, etc. with chemically fertilized soil.

And I totally agree with AmyB about the genetic engeineering - what is being done not is not anything like what has been done for 100's of years.
And the whole argument about having to use all the chemicals to grow enough to feed the world is crap. American farmers consistently overproduce; there was a great article in the New York Times last week linking rising obesity rates with rising corn production (which means food manufacturers can afford to supersize everything, because their raw materials are dirt cheap). We have price supports in place for agriculture because otherwise the marketplace would put farmers out of business when they can't get anyone to buy their crops because the silos are overflowing.

Also, we don't feed the world with what we produce. In fact, our price supports for our overproduction means that African farmers starve because they can't export their crops to us, and our overproduction rots in warehouses rather than feeding hungry people around the world (or even in this country.)

Or, even worse, we feed all this grain to cows and pigs, thereby turning a lot of protein into a little protein and causing huge pollution problems while we're at it. We truly could feed the world if we'd stop eating grains in the form of beef and pork and provide them to hungry people instead.

And don't get me started on what pesticides and fertilizers are doing to our groundwaters, lakes, rivers, and bays- the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused by fertilizer runoff, and the Chesapeake Bay (among many others) is dying because of fertilizer runoff as well.

Oh, and let's not forget all the beneficial insects, small birds, and mammals that die when a farmer carpet bombs his crops with poisons.

Your friend is just brainwashed, pure and simple.
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Both you and she should read Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire." He was the guy that wrote last week's NYT article Jane talks about. In the book he talks all about Monsanto, GMF and organic farming. I'm pretty sure he says that organic farmers actually produce more per acre and make more money than their traditional counterparts. It's a very easy and enjoyable read.
Thank you all so much for your replies. They go along with what I feel in my gut - but it is so hard when you are so new to something - and are faced with someone who sounds so authoritative and knowledgable, but who sits on the other side of the fence.

I'm going to have to read through all these replies a few hundred more times and see if I can formulate some sort of response.

Keep the info coming - I am learning a lot!
I wish I had time right now to read all the replies...Her arguement that we couldn't feed the world is ridiculous! There is no shortage of food, never would be even if all agriculture was organic. Any starvation is related to greed, simple as that. There are storehouses of rotting food that certainly could have been used to feed people, but the bottom line, is the bottom line. Grrr, she's clearly bought into the propaganda that she's been fed in her line of work. Open her eyes!
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your friend sounds uneducated (& perhaps willfully ignorant about this topic) so she could benefit from exposure to the information you find. if one thinks Tide is the only detergent that's out there, one is shocked to find out how sinister Proctor & Gamble is. just because it's common doesn't mean it's 'right.' is she not familiar with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring? good grief.

there's much more to be said than her reductionist arguments, or even the small points we've all briefly touched on here. there are many books on this topic, including Diet for a Healthy Planet. her 'points' about needing to clearcut to make room for sustainable crops turns a blind eye to the amount of land that cannot be used for growing crops because of our preposterous dependence on beef. those agrichemicals are about grow it bigger, grow it faster, and big agribusiness. supporting small, family farms is what we like to visualize when we buy vegetables at the supermarket, but in fact, those family farms are being buried by the ConAgras with their frankencrops. buying organic is both about making healthy choices for your family and ethical decisions about the practices & people you support with your dollars.
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My friend is a Certified organic farmer, which, to have that title in NJ is to undergo VERY strict guidelines to keep that Certified title. They do inspections on his farm more often then they probably do a conventional farmer. He has a roadside stand run by the honor system and many area restaurants buy his produce. He works very hard, and yes, he probably has smaller produce, his yield may or may not be smaller, I'll ask him..but his produce?? Out of this world wonderful. And as to your friend's assumption as far as waste product residue on the produce.. He has to completely spin the produce.. he actually uses a washer/drier setup to make sure all residue is off. I eat his stuff right from the stand and would NEVER do that with conventional produce. Please buy and keep using organic, the more of us that do so will not only help the earth's resources... but it will lower the prices of organic.. it is good to see that many conventional markets now carry organics, howver their prices are very high. Coops are cheaper, as well as straight from the farm in season. In the words of Joni Mitchell..." Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, PLEASE!!"
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I am just so

about your friends ideas, I don't know where to start. Commercial fertilizers and pesticides are leaving entire once-rich agricultural areas barren, leaching chemicals into groundwater, and poisoning fieldhands and nearby residents. They are destroying heirloom crops within windreach. They are producing flavorless, nutrient-deficient foods (as compared to organics). The list goes on and on. And to say that fertilizing organically is "gross", well that just shows who you're dealing with and how little she knows about how organic fertilizers come to be. So does she or doesn't she believe her statement that "nitrogen is nitrogen"? She holds conflicting views, I guess. Very few nasty things can survive the composting process, which reduces things to their basic elements. Perhaps she should say, "Nitrogen is nitrogen unless it comes from something I think is icky."
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Doesn't organic mean free of chemicals and pesticides that can possibly hurt our bodies? I would prefer a little worm than cancer or another illness. We purchase produce from a LOCAL farmer who farms organically. His corn has worms in it, but is free of dangerous things that could hurt me or my family.

I'm not buying her arguement either.
oops, double post. Not my day today.
The green revolution (ie, pesticide and fertilizer use) is not going to save the world. It is responsible for soil losses and requires the continuing use of these additives to maintain yields. It's not the panacea it was supposed to be.
I wrote out my feelings on organic for a co-worker of my husband who wanted to know what to feed his infant. It's related to this subject, so I'd like to post it.
I'll note that I am in the organic business, I am responsible for the organic division at my workplace.

In general, I think there are three issues, pesticide residue, nutrition, and emotion.
Recent research has shown that organic produce has much lower levels of pesticide than conventional produce. However, the organic produce is not totally free of residues, a small percent have some small amount of residue (probably overspray from nearby fields) and a tiny percentage has significant residue (probably an error somewhere: field, store, or distributor). The good news is that a soap and water wash will remove virtually all residues from any produce. As long as you use soap, the end result is very clean produce. If you don't use soap, you remove very little residue, and might want to use organic produce. Any dishsoap will work, a good measure is 1 drop per gallon of wash. Commercial washes like "Fit" work well, too.
The latest research has shown that organic produce has more nutrients than non-organic produce. Even though organic produce tends to be lighter and smaller, there are more nutrients. For example, a 1/2 lb. organic apple has more nutrients than a 3/4 lb. conventionally grown apple, not just on a pound for pound basis. It probably has to do with nitrogen fertilization and water gain, but it's an interesting note. The differences are probably more interesting scientifically than nutritionally, they are measurable but not huge.
Thirdly, there is emotion. I like to support local farmers, often organic produce is grown locally. I also find the flavor to be superior, due to less transport and careful farming, probably. If it feels good to buy organic produce, I think it's worth it. I'm not sure the benefits are there when examined strictly for health or cost, but the emotional aspect makes it worth it to me.
Additionally, although it's off this topic, I wholeheartedly endorse buying organic processed foods. The restrictions on organic foods line up well with my personal beliefs about food additives. Organic foods do not contain artificial dyes, preservatives, synthetics, etc. I am not convinced that there is any danger from these ingredients, but since I have a choice, I prefer to buy fresher, simpler products.
Finally, if you have strong feelings about GMO (genetically modified organisms), organic products cannot be genetically modified. It is strictly prohibited. I personally do not think GMO foods are unsafe for consumption, so that is not a concern, but it drives many organic consumers. In the US, only GM
corn, papayas, tomatoes, and strawberries are licensed to be sold.

Hope this helps,
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Of all the ridiculous arguments in the OP, this one has to be the most ridiculous:

In terms of "chemical"
fertilizers -- there is really no such thing. Nitrogen is nitrogen, whether it
comes from cow manure or is manufactured -- it is manufactured using natural
substances, it is not a chemical substitute.
ummm....nitrogen, and nitrogen compounds, and fertilizers ARE in fact chemicals. Everything is made up of chemicals, even living things. Yes, nitrogen is nitrogen, but crops and soil do not live on nitrogen alone. The premise of organic farming is building a healthy soil, not just pumping nitrogen onto an inert substrate, the only purpose of which is to hold the plants in place. Soil is an ecosystem, and without healthy soil we cannot have healthy food. I read one organic farmer, I think it was Eliot Coleman, who said that he doesn't even apply organic fertilizers such as bone meal, fish meal, etc, because he believes in nurturing and building the soil through application of compost and minimal disturbance of the soil structure.
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There are many reasons to buy organic over conventionally grown food...As Apricot said, one reason is that organic is better for you, aside from the pesticide issue. I recieved a handout from my CSA regarding the Rutgers Univ. study showing the superiority of organic...the Rutgers team expected organic to be slightly superior but they were much more than that. One example is Spinach, conventionally grown spinach had (trace elements parts per million dry matter) 49pm, organic had 1584pm. Tomatoes; 1pm (conv.) 1938 pm (organic). They tested for Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Boron, Manganese, Iron, Copper, Cobalt, Phosphorus. every single time, the difference was astounding. So if your friend thinks organic farming is irresponsible, how can producing food stripped of its nutritional value be anything but grossly irresponsible?
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Only a few things to add here. Firstly I have read that we already produce enuf food to feed the world 1.5 times over. The problem is distrubution of wealth, not whether we can produce enuf food. Also things like the use of third world countries to grow cheapo crops for the west isntead of food to feed them. I'm not very lucid today as I have double trouble with the baby & the toddler. But I think try reading books like diet for a small planet. I'm sure there are more. Stolen Harvest I think is another.

The other thing I wanted to comment on that really p**s me off is the "we've been doing it for thousands of years" comment about GE. Do you know exactly how they get genes from the said jelly fish into the tomato ? They splice it to something like a virulent chicken cancer virus. A tad different to a bit of cross pollination I think.
Whew - and I thought my head was spinning before! I am SO glad I posted here - now, does anyone want to volunteer to summerize all this into a few paragraphs for me :)

I'm going to have to pick up some of the books you have mentioned and really start educating myself on this topic. Once I have more of a chance to read through the posts again, I'm sure I'll have some specific questions as well.

Thanks so much, I've taken in more info on Organic just from this post than in the last year!

Jeanette, I spoke to my organic farming friend, and he said he would be happy to answer any questions you or your friend may have about organics vs. conventional. He loves to share his knowledge and feels the less misinformation out there, the better farmers like himself are.. so he said feel free to call him.. I suggested email but being extremely is disilliusioned with junk emails and would rather just yap on the phone..if you'd like to discuss this with him , pm me and I will pass along his number to you. He has the actual statistical information on many of your friends views..I thought i knew my stuff but he taught me a few things today!
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