by Marion Nestle
Feb 21 2012

Jim Prevor on Organics, Crop Yields and Food Politics

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 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 than 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 US government:

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

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

No wonder 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

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

We think most at USDA would dispute her characterization of the agency, saying instead that its responsibility is to promote US agriculture, and since 99% 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 USDA doesn’t want to help organic farmers. As Professor Nestle notes, there is now an “agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. to recognize each other’s organic standards, thereby opening the European market to American organics. USDA reports that the organic industry is delighted with the opportunity for new market possibilities.”

Although Professor Nestle sees a problem in 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 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% 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?

  • http://www.usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com Parke

    What a fascinating exchange. You two (Jim Prevor and Marion) are a model of how to debate this issue from across a wide philosophical divide.

  • Jon

    Mr. Prevor said:

    “We think most at USDA would dispute her characterization of the agency, saying instead that its responsibility is to promote US agriculture, and since 99% 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.”

    “As long as organic is a tiny and insignificant industry, it could probably make its own rules without much interference.”

    Marion said:
    “According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales totaled nearly $27 billion in 2010, and constituted 11% of produce sales. Is this “tiny and insignificant”? I don’t think so.”

    You are not talking about the same things, and actually misrepresenting Mr. Prevor’s statement by taking it out of context. Mr. Prevor was talking about organic agriculture as a percentage of the entire agricultural industry, not the subsection that of organic agriculture that would be considered “produce”.

    Otherwise, this was a very interesting dialogue.

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  • http://quipstravailsandbraisedoxtails.blogspot.com Michele Hays @QuipsTravails

    My biggest source of frustration with both these articles is this: where is the middle ground? We can endlessly debate whether or not conventional or organic farming is better/greener/more productive/more efficient, etc.

    I would agree that conventional agriculture seems to be shortsighted at best, and the appearance of superweeds and superbugs would tend to bear out that theory. However, the assumption that the only solution is to jump from ultra-high-yield GMO, Roundup, and restricted-use pesticides all the way to not-terribly-well-regulated organics seems excessive.

    How were crops grown before GMO? Can we just step back a few paces (although not back into the highly toxic pesticides of the 1970s, please) and try slightly-less invasive (and slightly-less-productive) farming? Is this really an all-or-nothing discussion?

  • Cathy Richards

    @Parke – completely agree. We can still hold our beliefs, and our beliefs don’t always need substantiation (eg. religions are faith based, not information based) to hold some validity, but every issue in the world is nuanced and complicated, and is best served by these types of discussion, not propaganda or slings & arrows.

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  • NYFarmer

    @Michele Hayes Exactly. is there no middle ground. One need only fly over America and look down and you will see plenty of middle ground: farmers who practice extensive conservation practices, farmers experimenting with heritage seeds, dairy and beef farmers making extensive use of grasslands management. Its not all one big bad evil CAFO pesticide-hormone-pumped factory cows versus with little certified organic guy. Urban writers need to get out and talk with the farmers of the middle, attend ag conservation conferences, meet the graziers and grassland managers, walk with the crop scouts who scout for bugs and weeds in Integrated Pest Management. This one or the other approach is very detrimental and downright foolish.

  • Harry Hamil

    Was the creation of the NOP a mistake? Thanks very, Dr. Nestle, for asking this very important question. My answer is a clear, emphatic, “Yes, the NOP was a huge mistake! The never ending fights over the standards in the NOP are sapping our movement’s strength and diverting our limited resources and political power from other, much more important issues like the impact the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will have on the growth of our production. We need to establish our own clear, private brand with well enforced standards. Something like ‘Rodale Certified.’”

    I was not active in the local food movement when the process to create the NOP began so I have no direct knowledge as to the rationale of those not initiated it. Nor have I ever heard of any document laying out the what, how and why. If someone knows of one, I would appreciate very much receiving info of it. If anyone knows of one, please write me at healthyfoodcoalition@gmail.com with info about it.

    I do have 17 years of engaging thousands of consumers through farmers tailgate markets, our store for local, healthy food and our political battles. Not 1 in 10 actually knows what “certified organic” means. Probably, at least 3/4 believe “organic” means ZERO fungicides and pesticides. Many are appalled when I tell them what it really means. And the media spread this deception without batting an eye. Why should they, when USDA Sec. Vilsack demonstrated he thought it meant no pesticides when announcing the creation of the garden at USDA headquarters? Why should they, when I’ve never seen a case of a supporter of the NOP correct a journalist’s error?

    There are many additional reasons for the healthy food movement to abandon the standard and create a new, better, private brand which I will gladly discuss with anyone who contacts me at the above email address.

  • phil

    @ Jon – the 99% agriculture of Jim includes tons & tons of commodity crops, which include corn-into-ethanol and many other things that are not food in any reasonable sense of the word.
    the 11% produce of Marion is all food, mostly good food and with plenty of room for improvement, within that 11% and beyond it.
    And yet, the boogeyman of 9bn to feed by whenever is always invoked by Jim’s friends …
    You can play with numbers as long as you want. What matters is our actions, their motives and consequences.
    NOP is worth defending and fighting for. It’s just the foundation of a better edifice, organics & beyond.

  • http://www.abesmarket.com/ StephenB

    Arguments like this seem to really permeate our lives as Americans. You can see the same argument with regards to ethanol vs. oil or LEED manufacturing vs. ‘conventional’ building techniques. It seems like such an age old plight, fighting against established yet less efficient and environmentally detrimental entities in favor of the green, sustainable alternative. It is unfortunate that progress towards more sustainable food sourcing is perpetually halted by more profitable but visibly environmentally unfriendly, already established food production method like what is mostly employed in our country today. I echo @Michelle Hays, there is a middle ground, it’s just not necessarily profitable for the corporations controlling food sources today.

  • Chuck Benbrook

    Jim Prevor and others raise an important point re the feasibility of organic production — some perishable fruits and vegetables are much harder,if not virtually impossible, to grow organically on a commercial scale in some regions of the country. In general, organic production is easiest where it is hot and dry, and the weather boring and predictable. It is most difficult in places like New England where it can rain anytime and often does at bad times, and can be hot and muggy. it is very hard too in the Southeast, where a long growing season plus lots of rain promotes incredibly lush weed growth and supports rapid growth by almost every insect and fungus that attacks plants. On the other hand, there is 10-X more land in hot/dry regions than needed to produce all the tea in China, and all the apples in Safeway+Whole Foods+all other stores, but this practical reality runs counter to the local food movement’s desire to grow most everything, in season, most everywhere. Choices have to be made, and ultimately consumer demand will drive the train. For most grain and row crops, the technology is available to produce ample supplies organically or conventionally. To switch large acreage to organic, however, the U.S. would need 1-2 generations of different food system and agronomic investment patterns in supportive infrastructure, since, e.g., the fertilizer and pesticide plants supporting conventional ag will have to be scaled back, and replaced with other types of industrial infrastructure, such as plants making pathogen-free composts and soil amendments from regionally accessible organic materials and wastes.

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