by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

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?

Feb 16 2012

The endless controversy over organics

I am a big fan of the Perishable Pundit, Jim Prevor, whose opinions on the produce industry I think are always worth reading whether I agree with them or not.  I check his site regularly.

I am also a big fan of organics.  I think research shows that organic production methods are kinder to soil, climate, and animals than industrial production methods.

So I was interested to read Perishable Pundit’s interview with Dr. Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant in San Diego.

Q: Your detailed analysis of U.S. organic crops rattles the generally accepted notions about the size and potential growth of the organic market. Based on the latest USDA-NASS data, you make four key points:

  • Organic is a very small part of US agriculture.
  • Organic is significantly less productive on a per area basis.
  • Organic acreage, and to a greater extent, organic production, is skewed to the dry, Western states.
  • Farmers are paid higher prices for organic commodities, but when combined with lower productivity, gross income per acre is not always much higher and even sometimes lower.

Dr. Savage backs up these statements with additional data in a slide show from USDA.  You can look up both links and decide for yourself if you agree with his conclusions.

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.

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 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.

She just announced 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.

Experts can argue whether organics are slightly or substantially less productive but they are demonstrably better for soil and the environment.  I think that matters.

Comments are welcome.

Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

Apr 25 2011

Do farm pesticides reduce kids’ IQs?

The Environmental Working Group announces the publication of three studies finding a correlation between diminished IQ and blood levels of pesticides.

The studies were done separately by groups of researchers from the Mt Sinai School of Medicine, University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  All were published in Environmental Health Perspectives and are available at that site (although sometimes with a delay and you have to look hard for the pdf of the whole article).

All three studies examined levels of organopesticides in the blood of pregnant women.  All looked at one or more measures of IQ taken when the children were 1 to 9 years old.

The Berkeley study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year Old Children, examined Latino farmworkers and their children.  Researchers found a difference of 7 IQ points between children with the highest and lowest levels of organopesticides.

The Mt. Sinai study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood, was done with a prenatal population in New York City.

The Columbia study, 7-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide, also was done on an inner-city population.

It has been difficult to demonstrate demonstrable harm from agricultural pesticide use except among farmworkers exposed to very high doses.  These studies mean that lower doses experienced by people who merely eat agricultural products also can cause harm.

The study will undoubtedly be criticized for not adequately controlling for socioeconomic variables that influence IQ—they were all done with low-income populations—and, more importantly, for not explaining precisely how pesticides might influence childhood learning and achievement.  And some will surely argue that a 7-point IQ difference is well within experimental error.

But at the very least, pesticides are a marker for poorer cognitive outcome.  The fact that three independent groups of investigators arrived at similar conclusions means that the results need to be seriously considered.

Organic vegetables anyone?

And just for the record, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s list of the foods with highest and lowest levels of pesticides:

Highest Levels Lowest Levels
Celery
Peaches
Strawberries
Apples
Blueberries
Nectarines
Bell Peppers
Spinach
Cherries
Kale/Collard Greens
Potatoes
Grapes (imported)
Onions
Avocado
Sweet Corn
Pineapple
Mangos
Sweet Peas
Asparagus
Kiwi
Cabbage
Eggplant
Cantaloupe
Watermelon
Mar 5 2011

Update on organics

On March 02, USDA announced that it was revoking its accreditation of two certifying agencies, Certified Organic, Inc. (COI) and Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency (GOCA).

USDA says COI failed to

  • Communicate with hired inspectors about proper procedures or ensure they were adequately trained
  • Adhere to internal procedures according to their operational manual
  • Keep confidentiality agreements on file for all employees with knowledge about certification applicants or operations
  • Indicate on certificates the effective dates for organic certification,
  • Ensure adequate training for employees about the regulations
  • Provide clients with cost estimates including inspection fees
  • Clearly identify the company’s responsibility to pay for any required pre- or postharvest testing
  • Verify organic system plans against the actual practices of their certified operations

GOCA’s problems had to do with “persistent noncompliance,” including such things as “failure to require clients to use defined boundaries and border zones as required by the organic standards.”  This mayall  sound absurdly bureaucratic but it means the certifiers could be overlooking producers’ violations of organic standards.

You can track down the records of such things on the USDA’s website, and see the handful of other such enforcement actions at the National Organic Program’s site.

I’d say this is progress.  Organic producers are supposed to follow the rules of the National Organic Program, and to be inspected to make sure they do.  If the inspectors aren’t doing their job diligently, you won’t be able to tell whether the organic foods you buy are worth the premium prices.

This is a key point of a recent FoodNavigator story on the market for organics.  The U.S. industry is expected to go from $21.1 billion in 2010 to $36.8 billion in 2015.   How come?  Because of “the government’s monetary and regulatory support and increasing acceptance of organic food in the country.”

People will pay more for organics if they think the producer is credible.  Organics are about credibility.  That is why the USDA needs to fiercely enforce organic certification.   Doing so protects the industry.  The more of this sort of thing, the better.

Jan 28 2011

USDA approves controversial GM alfalfa

In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.

The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly.  The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.

Secretary Vilsack said:

After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.

…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.

…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
  • Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post).  Skeptics, take note.

The USDA is providing more information about this decision online .  It also has issued a Q and A.  Here’s the Federal Register notice.

Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa – a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation
Jun 16 2010

Bard College’s Prison Initiative: organic food politics!

Earlier this month, I went to New York State’s Woodbourne Correctional Facility to accept the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College and to deliver a brief commencement address to incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative.

Bard’s program is one of the few privately supported prison education programs in the country (the New York Times recently discussed a similar program at Sing Sing).

Bard started the program after the government cut off funding for prison education programs in the mid-1990s.

Bard has awarded liberal arts associates’ and bachelors’ degrees to nearly 200 men and women inside three long-term maximum security prisons and two transitional, medium-security prisons (Woodbourne is medium security).

None of these graduates—not one—has returned to prison after being paroled.

Why me, why there, and why discuss it here?  Participants in this program started an organic garden and are growing food for the prison with the surplus going to local food banks.

In my speech, I said:

“John Dewey was a passionate champion of liberal democracy.”

“Dewey argued that education is good for individuals, but that it also has an important social purpose—that of encouraging students to become active and effective members of a democratic society….”

“In growing a garden and producing food for yourselves and for others under these particular and peculiar circumstances, you are carrying out John Dewey’s ideals better than he ever could have imagined.”

I was not kidding when I said that no award has ever meant so much to me.  It was a privilege to be there.

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