Why Don't Organic Farms Back Up Their Safety Claim
A Debate In England Highlights The Paucity of Evidence
September 17, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-The British House of Lords released a fascinating report earlier this year on organic farming in Western Europe.
The lords' report states, "There is no conclusive evidence that organically produced food is safer or less safe than that produced conventionally."
The organic industry dislikes the results and keeps telling the lords that its foods are safer than those produced with pesticides or through biotechnology.
But when pressed for evidence, the industry claims that the costs and complexities of obtaining such evidence have largely prevented the necessary studies being carried out.
That's pretty funny. Organic farmers have been making these claims for 50 years. Isn't that enough time for testing?
In fact, some scientists say that the organic farmers should have done the safety and nutrition studies before making the claims!
Even more amusing is that one of organic farming's most outspoken leaders is the wealthy Prince Charles. Why hasn't the prince funded studies to prove his claims? Or asked the Royal Agricultural College, of which he is patron, to conduct them?
The reality is that organic farmers (and other researchers) have been doing such studies for decades. Some of them have even been published. But since they don't show any advantage for organic food, they are ignored.
The lords' report criticized organic farming practices like using copper sulphate. How does that fit into the organic farming ethic of (supposedly) putting safety and purity first?
The report failed to comment on the dangers of the deadly E. coli bacteria found most often in animal manure and killing thousands of people each year around the world. The organisms resist the relatively low heat of composting used by organic farmers.
The House of Lords' study claims, "There is a great deal of evidence that higher numbers and a greater range of species of birds, invertebrates and wild plants occur on organic farms."
The lords' report contains much evidence about trivial organic impacts on biodiversity.
The Institute of Arable Crops Research in Harpenden, England, studied a farm in Gloucestershire that was shifting to organic farming. "It was found that there were greater numbers of butterflies, and more species, in organically managed farms," the report says. "There were also larger numbers of spiders in organic crops." But the study offers no numbers.
"During conversion to organic farming, there was a change in the floristic diversity of field margins," the report states. "Wildflowers associated with high soil fertility declined, but they were gradually replaced by a mixture of plants considered to be more aesthetically desirable."
But considered more desirable by whom? And if this change is being driven by lower soil fertility, what does that say about the ability of organic farming to feed a more populous world?
The British Trust for Ornithology in Thetford, England, told the lords that 13 specialized farmland bird species had declined in population by an average of 30 percent since 1968. "There is increasing evidence that this loss of biodiversity on farmland is associated with intensification of agriculture," says the lords' report.
How true. But Britain should blame its farm subsidies, not chemical fertilizers, for the loss of biodiversity.
Before 1972, Britain had some of the least-subsidized agriculture in the world, because Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand were allowed to export farm products to English consumers.
Most English farmland was kept in a low-intensity rotation of wheat and pasture. Thick hedgerows to keep in the sheep surrounded the fields and also harbored birds, insects and small animals.
After Britain joined the European Union in 1972, EU subsidies doubled prices for British farmers. Southern Britain's farmland quickly shifted to continuous grain production. Grain farmers don't need hedgerows.
The EU offered a subsidy for hedgerows, but a thick hedgerow has to be laboriously hand-woven. Current British hedgerows are too often skinny imitations of the real thing.
The Institute of Arable Crops Research told the House of Lords, "Any farming system, whether it be conventional, integrated or organic, can achieve the environmental benefits that organic farming aims to achieve."
A related project, the Rothamsted experimental farm in Harpenden, notes it has "seen no decrease in bird numbers" over recent years despite its use of fertilizers and pesticides. Neither side mentioned conservation tillage (big in North America and Australia but rare in Europe), which encourages the proliferation of earthworms and spiders.
If Europe truly wants lots of birds and butterflies and wishes to protect its citizens from kidney damage from E. coli, it should quit spending $150 billion per year on farm price supports and organic farming subsidies.
Europe would get safer food and more wildlife diversity by offering its farmers payments to plant more butterfly bushes and wildflowers and to hand-lay their hedgerows.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.