Politics & Policy

Organic Farms, Wasting Water and Land for Far Lower Yields

(Berna Namoglu/Dreamstime)

The organic-products industry, which has been on a tear for the past decade, is running scared. Challenged by progress in modern genetic engineering and state-of-the-art pesticides — which are denied to organic farmers — the organic movement is ratcheting up its rhetoric and bolstering its anti-innovation agenda while trying to expand a consumer base that shows signs of hitting the wall.

Genetic-engineering-labeling referendums funded by the organic industry failed last year in Colorado and Oregon, following similar defeats in California and Washington. Even worse for the industry, a recent Supreme Court decision appears to proscribe on First Amendment grounds the kind of labeling they want. A June 2015 Supreme Court decision has cleared a judicial path to challenge the constitutionality of special labeling — “compelled commercial speech” — to identify foods that contain genetically engineered (sometimes called “genetically modified”) ingredients. The essence of the decision is the expansion of the range of regulations subject to “strict scrutiny,” the most rigorous standard of review for constitutionality, to include special labeling laws.

RELATED: The Beginning of the End of Anti-GMO Hysteria?

The industry has suffered more defeats. Chipotle’s “G-M-Over It” marketing blitz was roundly excoriated by editorial boards and publications across the political spectrum for promoting pseudoscience. And Chipotle is now being sued in California for false advertising, because its soft drinks and cheese contain ingredients from genetically engineered organisms, and the meat they serve is from animals fed genetically engineered grains. None of these products would pass muster if the company were to seek USDA organic certification or quasi-official “non-GMO” (genetically modified organism) status.

But Chipotle is far from the only disingenuous basher of genetic engineering. Academics Review, a nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive review last year of hundreds of published reports about consumers’ views on organic products. It also examined more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods. The report concluded that “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes,” and that this is due to “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

#share#Consumers might be catching on. Even as retailers scramble to offer more organic choices, a wide-ranging study conducted this year by the consumer research firm Mintel Group shows that organic sales “have hit something of a plateau” and that about half of consumers think an organic label is just an excuse to charge more money. The image of organic food has not been helped by revelations that Whole Foods’ supposedly organic house brand for produce, “California Blend,” was imported from China.

RELATED: GMO: Gimmicky Marketing Obfuscations

Organic agriculture has become a kind of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a far cry from what was intended: “Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool,” said then secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman when organic certification was being considered. “It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” That quote from Secretary Glickman should have to be displayed prominently in every establishment that sells organic products.

Organic farming is an affront to the environment — hugely wasteful of arable land and water because of its low yields.

The backstory here is that in spite of its “good vibes,” organic farming is an affront to the environment — hugely wasteful of arable land and water because of its low yields. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage recently analyzed the data from USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified-organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop, state by state. His findings are extraordinary. Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap” — poorer performance of organic farms — in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61 percent less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; carrots, 49 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less.

RELATED: A Faustian Bargain on Food Regulation

These findings are important. As Savage observed: “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.” Organic agriculture wastes not only land but water, an important consideration for much of the drought-plagued western United States.

As superior genetically engineered varieties become more and more prevalent, the yield shortfalls of organic farming will increase.

Genetic engineering is providing consumer-friendly as well as agronomically important traits.

Genetic engineering is providing consumer-friendly as well as agronomically important traits. Recently, the USDA and FDA approved genetically engineered potato varieties that are bruise-resistant, reducing the high percentage of waste for those crops. The potatoes also contain much less asparagine, a chemical that is converted to acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures. The Arctic Apple variety is also resistant to bruising, music to the ears of parents who know that the slightest brown spot on the cut surface of an apple will elicit a “yuk” from most children.

Genetically engineered papaya varieties have saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from devastation by the papaya ringspot virus, and the technology is being used to develop citrus varieties resistant to the “citrus greening” disease that is crippling the citrus industry in Florida, Texas, and California. We’d like to see farmers try to produce organic papayas and citrus under those environmental stresses. (Fifty-dollar glass of organic O.J., anyone?)

Like the buggy-whip manufacturers who ridiculed and reviled the horseless carriage, the organic industry is on the wrong side of history.

— Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Julie Kelly is a food writer, cooking instructor, and owner of Now You’re Cooking in Orland Park, Ill. You can reply to her on Twitter @Julie_Kelly2.

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