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reader comments: organic food & farming

4 October 2011

Dear Sir:

I truly feel that you are very uninformed on GMO's along with the effect of chemical pesticides on people and the environment; instead of believing there is any validity in Rodales teachings, you have embraced Monsanto's, and without really investigating the lack of scientific claims this company and others like it make.

A link is provided for your review on this subject.   There are many other sources of information, but I have found that discussing this subject with someone with your attitude does not do much good.  If you don't truly investigate fraudulent claims of the biotech industries before saying they are good for us, then there isn't much hope in changing your perceptions on this subject.  However even several USDA scientists have spoken out against the approval of recently released GMO crops such as Roundup Ready Alfalfa.


The link above is for reading and from the daughter of Rodale himself.  This newspaper has many archives on this subject by other authors too.  Again there are many references on organic foods and their claims and I hope you take more time to reflect on them and give them better coverage than the one given at your website for "organic food and farming."


reply: Your kind and warm note, full of charm and obvious experience at the art of persuasion, has moved me to respond in kind. I don't know what you consider "investigation," but you seem to think that anyone who disagrees with you hasn't investigated the subject. I list all my sources. The article you link to doesn't cite a single source. We must take on faith that what she says is not only true but that the studies she says have been done were done properly and were justified in their conclusions. I think someone interested in investigation would require more than faith.

Also, you fail to note that others besides Monsanto have concluded that organic is not necessarily safer or healthier. I await the evidence that we can feed 8, 9, or 10 billion people using only organic methods of farming.

You might also like to know that organic farmers were the first to genetically modify crops. How do you think we got from that tiny ear of maize to the current delicious type of corn we now enjoy?


13 Jan 2010

You've helped create a monster!

I seem to have fallen into the role of organic farming skeptic in the state of Maine. I can credit your entry on organic food/farming with helping to put me on this path. (We had a friendly exchange in your Readers Comments section.)

I was interviewed on Maine Public Radio here:

I just had an editorial appear in the Portland Press Herald:

This has been quite a journey. It has taken me a couple of years of reading and experience to get up the gumption to speak out, but I'm glad I am.

Here's an irony: I still practice farming methods that could be called "organic," but I no longer make the claims that the organic farmers make. I now just call my methods "traditional small farm practices."


Mike Bendzela

reply: Cheers yourself!


18 Dec 2007
In your response to my comment on "organics," you recommended Dick Taverne's "March of Unreason." Thank you for that! I continually like  to keep a "skeptics" reading on my bed stand.

Some thoughts about it:

The information on organic farming is fascinating. Like your column, the critiques are sound and devastating. I'm glad to know this  information.

But like your analysis, Taverne's analysis pretends the immense fossil fuel subsidy upon which commercial agricultural depends doesn't exist!
There is one brief mention of "fuel," but no mention of "oil" or  "natural gas" anywhere in the chapter.

Taverne seems to have no clue that ammonia-based "synthetic fertilizers," whatever their drawbacks or virtues, are produced using hydrogen molecules from DEPLETING NATURAL GAS reserves. Taverne's England is becoming a NET NATURAL GAS IMPORTER. In the US, gas supplies are in such decline that fertilizer manufacturers have moved overseas.

There is no mention that depleting OIL supplies are the feedstocks for chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides and provide the energy for the mechanical "labor" involved in conventional farming.

I don't believe the word "energy" ever appears in the chapter. "Growth" and "energy" are the two keys concepts that everyone misses,  even the hokey wing of the organics movement itself! As geologist  Jeffrey Brown says, "You can't have infinite growth against a finite resource base." This is as material and empirical a statement as one  can imagine.

Mike Bendzela

reply: You claim that our analysis pretends the immense fossil fuel subsidy upon which commercial agricultural depends doesn't exist and that you can't have infinite growth against a finite resource base. You want us to be "empirical" but we have to be realistic. Population is likely to keep on growing and people around the world are probably going to continue to demand an improvement in the quality of life. Will the world be lucky and have another "green revolution" that allows us to feed billions more people on pretty much the same amount of land as we are now using? Will we come up with alternatives to fossil fuel or cleaner ways to burn gas and coal? Will we be able to synthesize foods, avoiding agriculture altogether? Who knows? But even if we could stop population growth or reduce the overall population, there will still come a day when there is no more oil or natural gas. Maybe you misunderstood our arguments, but all we are saying is that whatever our problems in feeding future generations, they are not going to be solved by organic farming. In fact, the problems we will face will probably be exacerbated if we went totally organic. Think of how much more land we would have to use to feed the world's population. Where is this land going to come from? Clear-cutting rainforests?

In June 2009, Mike wrote:

Bob, you may remove all my comments from the section on "organic" farming.

You may remember that I agreed with all your criticisms about the excessive claims of some in the organics movement, but that I believed a downscaling and localization of farming--and building soils with recycled materials instead of applying amendments--would be necessary in the coming era of resource scarcity.

I no longer believe that.

Neither organic nor conventional farming is sustainable. In fact, I now agree with Jared Diamond that agriculture is the biggest mistake humans have made. Whether we reap the harvest with have sown in our lifetimes remains to be seen.


Mike Bendzela

I'm too lazy to remove Mike's comments. I didn't know that Jared Diamond has said that agriculture is the biggest mistake humans have made.

December 3, 2007
You state:

"I have to say that I am underwhelmed by the studies I have reviewed that claim to have found organic foods are more nourishing or healthy than conventional fruits and vegetables."

This is also my view, 100%. It is also my view that you have completely missed the urgency of our current agricultural predicament.

You swat a fly while ignoring the buzzard circling your head.

reply: True, but I keep a hatchet hidden in my vest should the buzzard attack.

It is a cold fact that conventional farming requires enormous fossil fuel inputs to plant, cultivate, fertilize, harvest, process, and ship foodstuffs to the ends of the world that it now does. It is another cold fact that world population now stands at over 6.5 BILLION and is increasing. Given this predicament, "zero population growth is gonna happen," as physicist Albert Bartlett puts it (1).

reply: If we wait long enough, I suppose just about any prediction will come true. Remember Paul Erlich?

Fossil fuel supplies cannot grow forever. In fact, there are signs that the supply of oil in particular has stopped growing (2). It is the contention of many respected analysts (3) that rising population coupled with declining energy stores equals worldwide catastrophe unless we choose to downscale our way of doing everything, now.

reply: We can downscale, but I don't think too many of those folks driving the tanks, huge trucks, and SUVs are going to give up their vehicles. We can begin investing in alternative energy sources, which is already happening and will continue to happen of necessity.

The shocking quantities of fossil energy used in conventional farming is summarized in geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer's essay, "Eating Fossil Fuels," where we learn that "Fossil fuels now represent 90% of the exosomatic energy used in the United States and other developed countries. The typical exo/endo ratio of pre-industrial, solar powered societies is about 4 to 1. The ratio has changed tenfold in developed countries, climbing to 40 to 1.

And in the United States it is more than 90 to 1." (4)

Our dependence on oil and gas to feed us leads directly to war; for when supplies of these energy sources begin to decline, the struggle to maintain our high-energy agricultural system becomes a zero-sum game, "a black-mass remake of the loaves-and-fishes miracle," as Richard Manning puts it in "The Oil We Eat" (5).

reply: Our dependence on energy sources also leads us to innovation and discovery in many fields, including agriculture.

"Organic" farming is one way of dealing with the end of growth. Richard Heinberg makes the startling claim that the United States needs "fifty million farmers" because "the era of cheap oil and natural gas is coming to a crashing end" (6).

reply: Yes, organic farming could feed the world if population stopped or receded, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Conventional farming of genetically modified crops may be the only hope for feeding the billions more that are likely to be added to world population within the next 50 years.

It is tragic that traditional farming techniques -- that is, preferring compost fertilizers over chemical ones and human labor over machines -- are now associated with the organic/green mumbo-jumbo promulgated widely in pricey "whole" supermarkets.

But while the label "organic" is largely a marketing ploy to be viewed with a jaundiced eye, I continue to learn so-called organic farming techniques because local, traditional farming is the future -- whether it produces "better" food or not, whether we like it or not.

reply: Local, traditional farming may be the future in a wealthy country like the U.S., where population in relation to arable land is somewhat manageable, but I don't think it's the future for every place on the planet.

It's time you had an entry on either "peak oil" or "growth paradigm." You are going to have to choose sides in this debate sooner or later.

reply: I think the choice will be made for me by others. It's my hope that those others are of the same fiber as Norman Borlaug. For an alternative view to the view of the authors you cite, I recommend reading Dick Taverne's The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism (Oxford University Press, 2006).

1. Bartlett, "Arithmetic, Population and Energy," 2. Oil Supply Update, 3. See Hatfield, Deffeyes, Goodstein, and Simmons, 4. Pfeiffer, 5. Manning, 6. Heinberg, "Fifty Million Farmers,"

Mike Bendzela

Mike also writes that the website of The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association "seems to thoroughly contradict what you say about the "safety" of pesticides use."

reply: They've been selective in their presentation. Their approach is too common: scare people about pesticides; point out that organic farming doesn't use manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides;  and conclude by asserting or implying that conventional farm products are dangerous, while organic products couldn't harm anybody. That's too simplistic, I think.

If you are basically a healthy person, the amounts of pesticides you are likely to ingest and accumulate in your body's cells produce a negligible health risk when weighed against the benefits of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.

If you are not a very healthy person and you ingest many different kinds of pesticides and herbicides, it is possible that an accumulation and interaction of substances would do cell damage. We already know that we cannot know that nobody will ever be harmed by pesticides, natural or manufactured. I think it is carrying the precautionary principle too far to let such possible effects be our guide as to whether to eat conventional or organic foods.

In conclusion, stay away from organic tobacco and white lightning.

November 13, 2007
Although I agree with the organic article, I think the big 21-year Swiss study which was published in Science in 2002 deserves at least a mention. It found "We found crop yields to be 20% lower in the organic systems, although input of fertilizer and energy was reduced by 34 to 53% and pesticide input by 97%. Enhanced soil fertility and higher biodiversity found in organic plots may render these systems less dependent on external inputs." (Mäder et al., Science
, vol. 296, p. 1694 - 1697)

I also heard some data about organic food containing more salicylic acid. I could only find one article in the not very prestigious European Journal of Nutrition (Baxter et al, vol 40, p. 289-292), but I like the reasoning of the authors, so I mention it:

"Salicylic acid is a chemical signal in plants infected by pathogens and it is responsible for the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin. Patients who take aspirin have a reduced risk of developing atherosclerosis and colorectal cancer, both of these pathologies having an inflammatory component. Dietary salicylic acid may help to prevent these conditions. We wondered if foods made from organically-reared plants might have a higher content of salicylic acid than those made from non-organic plants, since the latter are more likely to be protected from infection by the application of pesticides."

"Salicylic acid was present in all of the organic and most of the non-organic vegetable soups. The median contents of salicylic acid in the organic and non-organic vegetable soups were 117 (range, 8-1040) ng · gm1 and 20 (range, 0-248) ng · gm1 respectively. The organic soups had a significantly higher content of salicylic acid (p=0.0032 Mann Whitney U test), with a median difference of 59 ng · gm1 (95 % confidence interval, 18-117ng · gm1)."

Martijn ter Haar

reply: Thanks, Martijn.

October 26, 2007
Several readers have responded to the initial posting of this entry.

My wife and I recently visited a new Whole Food market here in Cupertino, California. What took me by surprise was the extremely huge vegetables and fruit that are allegedly organic. I have never seen such monster-sized food. Are they cheating with hormones or something? I remember organic food being small and ugly. These are large and beautiful.

reply: There's no reason why some organic fruits and vegetable shouldn't be large. Size is affected by the genetics of the seeds and environmental factors like the soil, fertilizers, water, and sun available to the plants. Practices like thinning also affect growth.

We have sunflowers around here that are nearly 20-feet tall, bred by harvesting the seeds of the tallest sunflowers over several generations. The current world record is 25 ft. 5 ½ in. (7.76m) tall grown by M Heijms in Oirschot, Netherlands in 1986.* I don't know if it was organic.

Some mutations in plants are caused by natural radiation from cosmic rays. This has been going on for millions of years, to the benefit of plants and the planet. Some plant varieties are the result of scientists irradiating seeds. It is a trial and error method, as is nature's way. Sometimes the results are positive. One study on alfalfa sprouts found "Compared with nonirradiated controls, sprouts grown from irradiated seeds had an increased vitamin C content and antioxidant activity measured by the ferric reducing antioxidant power (FRAP) assay both initially and after 21 days."* While organic food can't be irradiated in the U.S. and get the USDA seal of approval, I don't believe there is any such restriction on the seeds used by organic farmers.

Bigger isn't necessarily better, of course, but it's hard not to be impressed with giant pumpkins and sumo wrestlers.

You write: "GM crops are not released into the environment without rigorous testing."  Perhaps it would be better to say: "In the US GM crops are not released...". Who knows what happens in other parts of the world (China, for instance, where other kinds of pollution are rampant, might not be so diligent).

reply: You're absolutely right. Pushing for rigorous testing standards in all countries is necessary. China and India are of particular interest because they have the scientific researchers who can do GM work, whereas many smaller undeveloped countries rely on work done in places like the US.

There are some social issues that you didn't address regarding GM plants. The recent case in Canada Monsanto v. Schmeiser is an example. That is a larger problem in the third world where farmers are not allowed to replant crops from seeds grown from GM plants, which produces continued reliance on the owners of the patents.

reply: There are many issues I don't address regarding GM crops. I believe the references I cite in the further reading section of the 'organic' entry answer most of the important questions.

It is true that some GM producers developed seedless crops in response to the fears that had been raised by anti-GM forces about pollen escaping into the wild and causing widespread damage of some unspecified and unknown kind. The problem with the seedless crops is the one you note: you have buy a new supply of seeds for every planting.

You write: "Organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment than conventional farming." I've seen farming soils turned friable by the application of anhydrous ammonia used as a nitrogen fertilizer. While it's a less usual practice nowadays (it's been years since I've seen it anywhere except on a few rice farms in the Sacramento Valley), it does qualify as conventional farming, and it's definitely not good for the soil--in effect, it turns the farmland into a gigantic hydroponic garden that blows away readily when it's dry. Anhydrous ammonia is a reducing agent and is pretty toxic to just about any kind of life, including beneficial bacteria and insects--a lungful could be fatal to a human.

reply: On the other hand, there are horror stories about bacterial residues from feces and urine in organic soil. Most organic farms are not a problem, but the notion that it is impossible for farming that uses synthetic fertilizers and insecticides to be environmentally friendly is not backed up by the evidence. I'm not saying organic farms are not environmentally friendly or that conventional farms can't be environmentally unfriendly.

general comment: Some readers might be put off by some of the sources I cite. Dick Taverne is hated by many of the people he calls eco-fundamentalists. I find his evidence and arguments, on the whole, to be fair, sound, and convincing.

Penn & Teller and John Stossel are libertarians and that puts some people off, but their political philosophy is a separate issue from what we can learn from them about some of the popular myths still pervasive in the media and in the beliefs of the general public.

The National Center for Policy Analysis and The Hudson Institute are conservative think tanks whose agendas are repulsive to many and who are sometimes wrong about big issues like climate change and the role of religion in society. Even so, the evidence and arguments they put forth can't be ignored simply because of their positions on other issues.

Finally, there is my citing of Michael Crichton's comparing organic food with Holy Communion, which will offend some people because of their religious sensibilities and others because they think Crichton is wrong about most things regarding the environment. He probably is but I think the comparison is apt and I have to give credit where credit is due.



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