Today’s challenge is to read this, follow the logic – then actually act on it…. that would help a larger number of the world’s worse off than most charities ever achieve.
Organic food is great business, but a bad investment: Bjorn Lomborg
Bjorn Lomborg5:45 p.m. EDT August 11, 2016
Despite best intentions, organic farming is harming, not helping, the environment.
The food at your supermarket is changing. The biggest food giants are investing more in organic produce. French multinational Danone just spent $10 billion buying WhiteWave Foods, an American producer of dairy alternatives and organic foods. Stressing the importance of organics, the Danone CEO says: “The reality has changed on the shelf.”
Organic food has become the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. food industry, with sales that increase by double digits annually. That’s a lot of kale flying off the shelves. Buying it makes us feel like we’re helping ourselves and the planet.
But here’s the truth: There are no health benefits from eating organic food. And it is likely worse for the environment.
An organic label sends our skepticism and good sense out the window. Consumers in one study were given two sets of absolutely identical food items, with one set marked “organic” and one not. They declared the food they believed to be “organic” to be lower in calories and more nutritious, and were willing to pay 16% to 23% more. It’s called the “health halo” effect.
Back in 2012, Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy did the largest comparison of four decades worth of research comparing organic and regular food. They expected to find evidence that organics were nutritionally superior. Their conclusion: “Despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious than conventional alternatives, we did not find robust evidence to support this perception.”
A brand new review this year shows the same thing: “Results of scientific studies do not show that organic products are more nutritious and safer than conventional foods.”
That’s fine, many people will say. I don’t eat organics because of the health benefits but because I care about the planet. But this is even more misguided.
Yes, organic farming will mean that in one field, a farmer will use less energy, create fewer greenhouse gases and have less nitrogen leaking.
But consider the bigger picture. Organic farming is much, much less efficient than regular old farming. Our farmer needs more fields to grow the same amount of produce. Not just because going organic means less fertilizer and more bugs and pests, but also because the land needs to lie empty or be planted with legumes to rebuild fertility between crop cycles.
A big study in Europe found that to produce the same gallon of milk organically, you need 59% more land. To produce meat, you need 82% more land, and for crops, it is more than 200%. That adds up to a lot of forest and nature being turned into farms for people in Portland, Ore., or Providence, R.I., to feel better about their choices at the supermarket.
If U.S. agricultural production were entirely organic, it would mean we'd need toconvert an area bigger than the size of California to farmland. It is the same aseradicating all parklands and wild lands in the lower 48 states.
Moreover, by eating something organic, you are actually responsible for about as many greenhouse gas emissions as if you had chosen a regular product. Those are the gases that cause global warming. And organic products mean more of some other bad environmental things: about 10% more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification, while contributing almost 50% more to nitrogen leaching.
At least going organic means that we avoid nasty pesticides, right? Wrong. Organic farming can use any so-called natural pesticide. This even includes copper sulfate, which Cornell University describes as “highly toxic to fish” even at recommended rates, and which has caused liver disease in France. Or Pyrethrin, which is “extremely toxic to fish," “highly toxic to bees”, and has been linked to an increase in leukemia among farmers.
Of course, conventional, non-organic foods carry a higher risk of pesticide contamination. Rough calculations suggest that all the pesticides used in America could cause about 20 extra cancer deaths per year. You have a similar chance each year of being mauled to death by a cow.
Compare this with the deaths from going organic. If the entire USA were fed on organic produce, it would cost $200 billion more annually. This is money we couldn’t spend on things that matter. When a nation becomes $15 million poorer,research shows that it costs one statistical life. For example, people who are worse off are less likely to pay for a doctor’s visit. What this means is that going fully organic would kill more than 13,000 people each year.
Think about organics beyond the USA. The world’s poorest inhabitants need cheaper food, which means more efficient farming. Better access to regulated fertilizers and pesticides is needed, not less.
Organics are not better for your health, worse for nature and the planet, and terrible for the world’s poor. What it boils down to is the world’s richest people spending their cash to support less efficient farming practices, to feel better about their choices. An organic label should inspire a dose of healthy skepticism.