Is Organic Really Sustainable?

I heard a thought-provoking interview with Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he discussed his latest book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, and his related article “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers” published in Foreign Policy magazine. This interview was on Chicago Public Radio’s World View Food Monday segment.

Dr. Paarlberg offers some complexities around sustainable agriculture and challenges some assumptions that may equate organic agriculture to sustainable agriculture. He argues that they are not the same thing and that we must work to draw sustainable benefits from organic and science-based/industrial agriculture.

Much of Dr. Paarlberg’s concern centers around rich countries imposing limits on poor countries (such as African counties) who need agriculture productivity. In Africa, they are concerned with getting enough to eat. They desperately need improved seeds, nitrogen fertilizer, and investments in irrigation. He says that it is very important that we support local agriculture science in places like Africa so that local seeds can be made more efficient. Survival of rain forests and other native habitats and the animals that live on them could be improved with more efficient agriculture. There are many people in the US who believe that organic, local, and slow foods are better people, but this is the exact agriculture that poor countries already have. It doesn’t work for them. Along with their organic, local, and slow good system, they also have more disease and a less safe food supply. Many areas of Africa are not at all impacted by fluctuations in world food prices, because they have no means to refrigerate, store, and ship foods. Thus, they are totally excluded from world markets. More efficient crops could be absolutely vital to improving their lives and changing their decision making, since importing food is not a reality.

He also discusses the attacks on genetically modified crops, which have been on the market since 1995. All of the world’s top research institutes have yet to find risks to human health or to the environment from these crops. That includes the National Academy of Sciences, British Medical Association, Royal Society, French Academy of Science & Medicine, Research Director of the European Union, and the World Health Organization. There is a precautionary principle that is often invoked because of a fear of hypothetical situations on the impact of the environment that has never been observed. This precautionary principal has little impact on rich countries. We can afford “organic” foods that are low yield and higher cost. But, poor countries are not as fortunate. Traditional seed breeding (selection breeding) has mutilated crops for centuries. These techniques have changed our plants greatly. But, there are some changes, such as adding beta-Carotene to rice that cannot be done with traditional breeding that could have significant impact on poor countries.

But, Paarlberg does not just focus on global food supply. He also discusses our views on agriculture. For instance, he asks if locally grown food is going to produce fewer CO2 emissions than food grown in Mexico or California? He emphasizes that, It doesn’t depend on how far it travels as much as it how it is shipped. For instance, food that is shipped in bulk can move a long ways with a small carbon footprint per calorie of food when compared to some local foods that are transported by pickup truck or in family automobile. The local farmers’ market may not reduce carbon at all. (Although, it does support the local economy and provide other benefits.)

Here is a piece of his Foreign Policy article:

“Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe. Traditional food systems lacking in reliable refrigeration and sanitary packaging are dangerous vectors for diseases. Surveys over the past several decades by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that the U.S. food supply became steadily safer over time, thanks in part to the introduction of industrial-scale technical improvements. Since 2000, the incidence of E. coli contamination in beef has fallen 45 percent. Today in the United States, most hospitalizations and fatalities from unsafe food come not from sales of contaminated products at supermarkets, but from the mishandling or improper preparation of food inside the home. Illness outbreaks from contaminated foods sold in stores still occur, but the fatalities are typically quite limited. A nationwide scare over unsafe spinach in 2006 triggered the virtual suspension of all fresh and bagged spinach sales, but only three known deaths were recorded. Incidents such as these command attention in part because they are now so rare. Food Inc. should be criticized for filling our plates with too many foods that are unhealthy, but not foods that are unsafe.

Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.”

In the end, Dr. Paarlberg emphasizes the need for a balance between our capitalistic agriculture and organic agriculture. The over-simplified organic vs. non-organic debate misses the point. One is not better than the other. Both have strengths and weaknesses. The point is to take advantage of the strengths.

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