The Perishable Pundit on Organics, Crop Yields, and Food Politics

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Jim Prevor responds to Marion Nestle's article about organic food production, discusses the downside of the community's deal with USDA.

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I don't ordinarily reprint or comment on discussions of my work but Perishable Pundit Jim Prevor's response to my recent post on organics is worth a read. I reprint his piece with his permission. Skip the flattering comments about my work and scroll right down to his discussion of the downside of the organic community's deal with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Our piece, Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World, brought many letters and public comments, including an article from one of the most prominent food analysts writing today.

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and the author of many food and food policy related books, is often perceived by many in the trade as an enemy of the food industry. We find her enormously thoughtful and willing to ask many questions that are sometimes uncomfortable for the trade to address. We don't always come down on the same side as her, but we always find reading her to be a wise investment of our time.

She recently wrote a piece titled "The Endless Controversy Over Organics," which focused on our interview with Dr. Steve Savage. As usual, Professor Nestle was open to the evidence presented -- in this case regarding the relative yield between conventional and organic production. In the end, though, she threw up her hands at the conflicting research:

"What impresses me about research on organic productivity is that its interpretation can be predicted by who is doing the interpreting. I've seen, and review in my book, What to Eat, plenty of research demonstrating that organics are only slightly less productive than industrial agriculture and at much lower cost to soil and the environment."

We think this is where most people will end up. The problem is that it is relatively easy to do research that will show organic production to be competitive. This is because as long as organic has only a tiny share of production, producers have the option to grow organic in a location that is optimized for organic production.

The yields in these optimized locations can sometimes be competitive with those of conventional production. This has, though, almost no relationship to the question of whether if all production was converted to organic, would the yields be competitive.

Here at the Pundit, we are in touch with too many growers who have tried to grow organic to have many doubts. Most of these growers were very motivated, they tried to grow organic because they thought they could make money doing so. Yet the results are in ... demand or not, East Coast organic apples will remain a rarity.

This issue is not a trivial one. Professor Nestle highlights that organic growing operates at "much lower cost to soil and the environment." This is controversial. Organic growing utilizes all kinds of substances, and it is not easy to establish that utilizing, say, copper, is more beneficial for the environment than synthetic substances.

Even if true, however, the environmental benefit would depend crucially on the ability to use the same area of land to raise food. If we were compelled to, say, destroy the rain forest to increase acreage for food production, it would be very difficult to make the case that the net benefit of organic production was beneficial to the environment.

One area we find ourselves in sympathy with Professor Nestle is in her critique of the interactions between the organic community and the U.S. government:

"The USDA has long been an uncomfortable host for The National Organic Program. This agency's job is to support industrial agriculture, and organics are indeed small in comparison.

But organic production is an explicit critique of industrial agricultural systems. Organics get higher prices. And their sales are increasing.

No wonder the USDA and representatives of industrial systems don't like organics much and do everything they can to find fault with it.

Sure there are faults to find:

  • Weak and inadequately enforced standards.
  • Endless pressure to add industrial chemicals to the approved list and further weaken the standards.
  • Expenses that few small farmers can afford.
  • Inadequate protection from contamination with genetically modified crops.
  • Suspicions about the equivalency of standards for imported organic foods.
  • Bad apples who make things difficult for farmers who are doing things right.

The USDA ought to be doing all it can to work with organic producers to fix these problems. To its credit, the USDA recruited undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan to try."

We think most at the USDA would dispute her characterization of the agency, saying instead that its responsibility is to promote U.S. agriculture, and since 99 percent of that agriculture is not organic, it should mostly promote the agriculture we actually have, rather than the agriculture organic advocates might wish we had.

That doesn't mean that the USDA doesn't want to help organic farmers. As Professor Nestle notes, there is now an "agreement between the U.S. and the EU to recognize each other's organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics. The USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities."

Although Professor Nestle sees a problem in the USDA hosting the program, we would say the organic community made a deal they will find difficult to live with in asking the government -- any agency of the government -- to manage this effort.

Obviously, organic advocates could have gone out and registered a trademark and could have kept organic standards pure and enforcement rigorous.

The minute the government is involved, though, politics is involved. And in politics, the organic community faces a difficult state of affairs. As long as organic is a tiny and insignificant industry, it could probably make its own rules without much interference. After all, who would care enough to fight?

Yet as organic grows, it becomes a more significant business opportunity and then General Mills, Kraft, etc., become more interested. As they become more interested, they also will look to see that the rules established meet their needs.

Now, obviously, there is no upside for them in tarnishing the organic "brand" -- after all they want to profit from the brand. Still, over time, if organic becomes a substantial part of the food business, since organic growers are not the most powerful political force in the food industry, we will see the standards and enforcement change in a way that will benefit larger, more politically powerful companies.

This is not a function of the USDA misbehaving. It is a function of tying one's hopes to political forces. Of course, we don't have to lecture to Professor Nestle on that subject ... she is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales totaled nearly $27 billion in 2010, and constituted 11 percent of produce sales. Is this "tiny and insignificant"? I don't think so.

Is the National Organic Program really a pact with the devil? Organic producers worked long and hard -- fully 12 years -- to get organic standards codified in 2002. Was this a mistake?

Image: Straight 8 Photography/Shutterstock.

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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