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?