Man with pitchfork. Poking holes in SciAm‘s take on organic ag.As Grist readers know, “mythbusting” Scientific American blogger Christie Wilcox took on organic agriculture recently in “Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.” Now, I do agree that there should be no sacred cows — we should examine everything with a critical, if not jaundiced, eye. And indeed Wilcox brings up issues surrounding organic ag about which many people may not be aware. But sadly, her analysis goes quickly and seriously off the rails.

First the good points: Organic ag does use pesticides, sometimes in large quantities. This is not a new revelation: There are a set of pesticides approved for organic use, including copper and sulfur anti-fumigants and the naturally occurring Bt toxin. Copper and sulfur in particular are often overused, especially among fruit growers. While these chemicals can be used by any scale of farmer, it’s a particular problem among so-called “industrial organic” farmers.

As the organic industry has taken off, many large-scale farmers have in essence adapted the industrial agriculture mindset — with its monocropping, its focus on inputs and outputs and maximizing productivity — if not all its techniques. Tom Philpott has written about the problematic nature of this phenomenon; for a deep dive on the subject, I recommend Sam Fromartz‘s excellent Organic, Inc.

Wilcox should also be commended for her point that the main criteria for allowed organic pesticides are simply that they be “naturally occurring” rather than synthetic. As she says, “just because something is natural doesn’t make it non-toxic or safe.” Too true.

So far so good. Next up, she knocks down health claims about organic food; this is where the problems start. While this issue is actually very much in flux, Wilcox doesn’t treat it as such. Instead, she cites a 2010 review paper that concludes “any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money.” Wow — pretty clear cut, right?

But science isn’t nearly at a place where anyone can definitively make that claim. Some evidence shows conventionally grown food is decreasing in nutritional quality, and we’ve collected credible data showing organic food is more nutritious. Wilcox might have mentioned a recent study from Washington State University that examined conventional vs. organic strawberries. As Grist reported, “organic methods resulted in strawberries with increased antioxidants, vitamin C, and total phenolics … The study emphasized the importance of vitamin C and antioxidants in relation to human health.” There was also a recent study in the Journal of Dairy Science that showed clear evidence that organic milk was more nutritious than conventionally produced milk.

It’s simply going too far to suggest the science on the matter is settled, and thus unfair to call the health evidence “mythical.”

But Wilcox’s worst offense came with an attempt to bust the “myth” that “Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment.” Her bizarre claim defies even a cursory understanding of how agriculture (conventional or organic) works, but rather than attempt to defend it, Wilcox immediately declares that the “solution” to all our problems lies with GMOs:

GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use …

And with that, Wilcox moves from science to science fiction. Grist has documented the hype and the risks of GMOs before, and it pains me to have to do it again. But here goes.

None of the fabulous features she claims for GMOs exist commercially — and most don’t even exist in the lab. In fact, strong evidence demonstrates that, despite Wilcox’s claims, even GMOs’ basic productivity lags behind non-GMO crops. She does not observe (or perhaps know) that conventional, advanced breeding techniques can achieve similar or better increases in yield and even nutritional quality than GMOs. Moreover, she doesn’t even acknowledge the debate surrounding one of her key examples of GMOs’ promise: “golden rice” — rice genetically modified to contain Vitamin A. This BBC report from 2003 does just that, suggesting that its benefits are a “mirage.” It quotes Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, who says, “Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be … the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century.”

And her embrace of “therapeutic” food is chilling. In her vision, genetic modification is all benefit and no risk. And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as the elimination of risk. It’s crucial we fully understand the implications of futzing with animal and plant genes before we introduce them into the environment, much less feed them to people. And we simply don’t know as much as industry and government want us to think we know.

In fact, the reason that the science behind GMOs is shockingly thin is that it’s almost entirely performed by the biotechnology industry or by industry-funded scientists. Independent scientists are either not allowed access to the patented technology behind GMOs or are restricted in what they can study, e.g. they can’t get access to the seeds unless they promise not to look at the human health effects of these seeds.

And even the things that GMOs can do — like produce pesticides or resist herbicides — are beginning to fail. This report from India shows that the country’s cotton crop is being devastated by insects — even genetically engineered Bt cotton, which produces its own pesticide. (So much for the “magic” of a GMO seed that needs no additional chemicals.) Even scarier: The pesticide produced by these kind of crops is turning up in the blood of women, despite biotech industry promises that such a thing simply could not happen.

While we’re at it, check out the latest issue of Weed Science, which researches the rise of superweeds — a phenomenon resulting in large part from the broad planting of GMO crops resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate. Their “success” in the marketplace has led to a massive increase in the application of glyphosate and, as evolution dictates, the weeds that survived the chemical have taken over farm fields across America. If this is the futur
e of agriculture, we’re all in deep doo-doo.

Don’t get me started on her “feeding the world” argument, given that conventional ag, which has already almost entirely made the transition to GMOs (especially where grains are concerned) has utterly failed to do so. In fact, that BBC report on golden rice contained this brutal quote from Steve Smith, a Syngenta biotechnology scientist who died in 2003. “If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not … To feed the world takes political and financial will — it’s not about production and distribution.”

I am not one to argue that the future lies solely with “organic” ag as we practice it here, and in that way I agree with Wilcox’s point that it’s not “all or nothing.” That said, the true experts in the field would argue that the future lies in “agro-ecological” techniques, not in high-tech, patented technology with unknown risks. (The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s new Save and Grow program forcefully advocates this.) Agro-ecology does allow some use of pesticides but fundamentally relies on natural, ecological systems that enhance productivity and combat pests. Evidence is strong that these practices represent our best way forward.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate agricultural myth to be busted: that the true future of food production lies along any other path.