Sorry, That Won't Wash
October 26, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
I’ve never been quoted in a national magazine cover story before. Unfortunately, my quote was a trivial part of a truly dangerous article (“Should You Buy Organic?”) in the September 30 issue of Newsweek.
The story concludes that, “an organic ethic could be the very key to our survival.” That’s a pretty strong endorsement from a major media voice. In justification, Newsweek’s reporters trotted out the usual pro-organic claims that modern farming results in too much soil erosion and that our crops are becoming “chemically dependent.”
But conventional farmers are now using conservation tillage (with herbicides for weed control). This cuts soil erosion by 65 to 95 percent of the levels suffered by “bare earth” farmers (including all of the organic farmers) who use plows and hoes to combat weeds.
As for pest resistance, we now have a whole phalanx of different pest control chemicals—with differing modes of action—that can be wheeled out in rotation to attack voracious pests.
In fact, the organic food industry is facing a more serious pest control problem than conventional farmers, because critics are targeting their use of highly toxic copper compounds to control fungus diseases. Copper sulfate isn’t even “natural” and it is more toxic to people, birds, and earthworms than synthetic alternatives. The copper and sulfur from which it is made are also permanent soil contaminants.
So where do I come in? The Newsweek writers quoted me as saying that E. coli O157:H7 is “perhaps the deadliest risk in our modern food supply, and its primary hiding place is the cattle manure with which organic farmers fertilize food crops.” The article kisses off that problem by saying, “So wash your produce, but don’t let it scare you.” Actually, E. coli doesn’t wash off. The vicious O157 strain has even been proven to infect crops like lettuce and spinach through their roots—and then lurk inside the leaves.
The elephant in the organic living room is fertilizer; or, actually, the shortage of it. As we told the Newsweek authors, an organic farming global mandate would cost the world most of its food supply, forests, and wildlife.
The first precept of organic farming is to reject the natural nitrogen that conventional farmers take from the air. (The air is 78 percent N, but the organics still categorize it as “synthetic.”) The Newsweek authors say modern farming is “making our crops chemically dependent”—but actually they are that way by nature. Growing plants all take nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash (plus 26 trace minerals) out of the soil. Our failure to replace those lost soil nutrients led to the “worn out” farms and to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
A Danish government technical report from 1999 says an organic mandate would cut its farm production by 47 percent, mainly due to the shortage of organic nitrogen. The U.S. government estimates we have less than one-third of the organic nitrogen needed to support America’s crops. (This despite returning billions of tons of straw, cornstalks, and treated sewage sludge to the fields.) That’s why U.S. farmers use about 11 million tons of nitrogen from the air each year to restore soil fertility.
Dr. Vaclav Smil, author of Enriching the Earth (MIT Press, 2001), estimates that the United States would need the manure from an additional 1 billion cattle if we quit using atmospheric nitrogen. It takes two to thirty acres to grow the forage for a cow, and America has only 2.1 billion acres in the lower 48 states. With all-organic farming we’d have no room for forests or food.
The rest of the world would need another 7 billion cattle to replace its current atmospheric nitrogen fertilizer use, or about 500 large, hungry, plant-eating mammals per square mile of world forest.
Is this a rational way to save the environment? Is this a reasonable way to avoid the safety-tested pesticides that have helped add thirty years to our life expectancy?
I’ve always feared that it would take human starvation to awaken well-fed Americans to the need for high-yield farming. Unfortunately, the current starvation deaths in organically fed southern Africa seem not to be close enough to home.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on September 30, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.