Organically-grown food not necessarily better for you

By John K. Carlisle
web posted June 19, 2000

The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) proposed rule to allow producers of organic food to place a USDA organic seal on their products should be rejected because it misleads consumers into believing that organic food is safer and better for the environment than conventionally-produced food.

In announcing the proposed rules, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman stated that the USDA certification is not meant to convey to consumers that organic food is "superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food." 1 Likewise, Katherine DiMatteo, director of the Organic Trade Association, says that organic products are not safer or more nutritious than other foods. 2

Yet, a poll comissioned by The National Center For Public Policy Research found that two-thirds of the public would be misled by the proposed USDA seal. The poll, conducted by International Communications Research, showed that 68 per cent of respondents would interpret a product labeled "USDA Certified Organic" to be safer to eat than non-organic foods. Similarly, 69 per cent said that organically-labeled foods would mean that they are better for the environment than conventionally-produced foods. 3

Clearly, the proposed USDA seal would only spread misinformation and confusion among consumers. Most disturbing, it would use government auspices to give an unfair market advantage to organic producers over conventional growers by making consumers believe that all non-organic foods are somehow inferior. In particular, consumers who seek to buy environmentally- friendly products would be misled into believing that by buying organic they are aiding the environment.

This is simply not true.

Advocates argue that organic farming is better for the environment because it doesn't use the pesticides and herbicides required by conventional farming. But, while organic farming yields certain environmental benefits compared to conventional farming, organic farming also presents some striking environmental disadvantages.

Because organic farmers eschew pesticides and herbicides used by conventional farmers, they cannot use modern conservation tillage techniques that have been extraordinarily successful in reducing soil erosion. As a result, compared to conventional farming, organic farming is woefully inadequate in controlling soil erosion. A study by UCLA sedimentologist Stanley Trimble examining the effects of modern conservation tillage techniques in Wisconsin's Coon River Watershed illustrates just how beneficial modern farming is for soil preservation.

Dr. Trimble found that modern techniques had reduced soil erosion to a mere six percent of the soil erosion rate of the Dust Bowl-era 1930s. There is no way organic farming could have produced such impressive gains in soil preservation. 4

But the most glaring environmental disadvantage of organic farming is its exorbitant need for land.

Organic farming is only about half as productive as conventional farming, which means organic farming requires far more land to feed the world than modern methods. In his book, Saving the Planet With Pesticides, Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues estimates that modern high-yield farming has saved 15 million square-miles of wildlife habitat. Avery calculates that if the world switched to organic farming, 10 million square- miles of wildlife habitat would have to be converted for green manure crops such as clover and rye. That is an area larger than the total land area of the United States and Europe. 5

The prestigious Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) also has concluded that organic farming has mixed environmental results. For example, the SCRI criticized organic farming's use of a copper-based fungicide, "Bordeaux Mixture," as unhealthy and damaging to the environment. Although it is considered by many organic farming advocates as a hallowed and time-tested application, the SCRI concludes that "Bordeaux Mixture" is "not at all environmentally-friendly." It concludes that the copper levels required for the "Bordeaux Mixture" to be effective in repelling slugs and snails are environmentally toxic: so much so that the European Union will ban it by 2002. 6

Concludes Roger Bate, director of the European Science and Environment Forum: "Not only is organic farming not better for the environment, but if you scale it up I believe you can even damage the countryside." 7

There are also increased safety risks to consuming organically-raised foods. A recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Georgia revealed that organic foods have alarmingly high levels of potentially deadly E-coli bacteria cells. Comparing organically grown lettuce to conventionally-produced vegetables, researchers found that the non-organic lettuce had 1,000 E-coli cells per gram while the organic alternative had 100,000 cells per gram. Says Professor Michael Doyle, who headed the study: "Our research raises questions about the safety of organic produce." 8

Far from educating the public, the proposed USDA organic seal misleads consumers into believing that organic food is safer and environmentally better than conventionally-raised food. Since scientific research shows that, in many respects, the opposite is true, the USDA should set aside its labeling proposal.

Footnotes:

1 Karen Masterson, "Department of Agriculture Releases 650-page Standard for Organic Food," The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 8, 2000.
2 Interview with Katherine DiMatteo, ABC News 20/20, February 4, 2000.
3 "Organic Labeling Study," Conducted by International Communications Research, May 12-16, 2000 for The National Center For Public Policy Research, available on the Internet at http://www.nationalcenter.org/OrganicLabel500.html .
4 Dr. Stanley Trimble, "Decreased Rates of Alluvial Sediment Storage in the Coon Creek Basin, Wisconsin, 1975-93," Science, August 20, 1999.
5 Dennis Avery, "Saving the Planet With Pesticides," Hudson Institute, 1995.
6 "Organic Farming: Science and Belief," Scottish Crop Research Institute, 1999 Annual Report.
7 Roger Bate, Director of European Science and Environment Forum, "Separating Fact From Fiction: Organic Food," BBC Online.
8 Paul Kendall, "Organic Food in E-Coli Safety Alert," Daily Mail, May 15, 2000.

John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to JCarlisle@nationalcenter.org.

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