Food Freedom

Let Them Eat Organic

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Hey you! Is that organic?

Sure, they're keeping Manhattan's greenmarket well stocked, but can organic farmers feed the world?

The question is hotly contested. Right now, about two percent of the world's farmland is organic, so there's long way to go. Still, some say it's do-able, citing stats about the high productivity of small organic farms. But the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which has every PR and political motivation to agree with organic boosters, reluctantly declared that the world simply can't get by on organic farming alone in the near to mid-term.

"We should use organic agriculture and promote it," [Dr. Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General] said. "It produces wholesome, nutritious food and represents a growing source of income for developed and developing countries. But you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers."

And the FAO isn't going it alone among world organizations:

In its annual World Development Report, the World Bank noted this year, that "low fertilizer use is one of the major constraints on increasing agricultural productivity in Sub-Sahara Africa"….Much of African soil suffers from constraints such as acidity and lowered fertility and is greatly in need of soil amendments and nutrients.

More on the organic food fight here and here.

NEXT: You scumbag, you maggot / You [delightful same-sex couple]

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  1. , but can organic farmers feed the world?

    Are conventional farming methods currently feeding the whole world? Has hunger been eradicated and I missed it?

  2. I could live on oraganic food–if I wanted to double the amount I pay at the grocery store for basically the same damn thing, that is. Organic food is little more than status symbol.

  3. The human race produces enough food to feed to whole human population.

    The problem is a distribution problem; generally governments that interfere with their citizens’ freedom to trade.

  4. Organic food is little more than status symbol.

    Or an obsession. My aunt has gotten to the point that she won’t even eat her own mother’s homemade food that she ate for her entire fucking life if the ingredients aren’t organic. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds as she only refuses the food when she is going to go home and make her own organic food, but it’s still insane.

  5. “Are conventional farming methods currently feeding the whole world? Has hunger been eradicated and I missed it?”

    Yes because millions starving to death in places like Zimabwe or say the Ukraine in the 1930s is completely the result of a world food shortage and nothing to do with communism and horrible governments. Come on Tom you are not that stupid are you?

  6. Organic obsessions are a little like religious obsessions:
    a little truth mixed in with a whole lot of bullshit.

  7. “Organic food is little more than status symbol.”

    By status, of course, you mean it’s the gastronomical equivalent to the “oooh. pshaw. I never watch television. In fact, I don’t even own one.”

    🙂

    and the contemporary equivalent to the DODGE STRATUS, the Toyota Pius.

    grins.

  8. Are conventional farming methods currently feeding the whole world? Has hunger been eradicated and I missed it?

    No and no. Let’s ask a different set of questions.

    Are conventional farming methods currently producing enough to feed the whole world?
    Yes.
    Has the underdeveloped world created rational, economies that facilitate food distribution?
    No.

  9. I am not a food nazi, but I question the sense of trying to remake African agriculture to produce essentially European products that have been shoehorned into a milieu where they don’t belong.

    There’s a reason that Africa’s “oil suffers from constraints such as acidity and lowered fertility and is greatly in need of soil amendments and nutrients” in order to grow European and Central American food crops. It’s Africa, not Europe or Central America. Why create an African agriculture built around producing crops that aren’t suited to the continent? Why not try free-market agriculture based on the local crops first? Because free market agriculture has not really existed in Africa – in most cases a colonial system was replaced by a statist system [not necessarily collectivist, but definitely not free]. Private land ownership is still extremely rare, as are free market pricing systems for local crops. How about we try THAT, and see what happens?

  10. “Because free market agriculture has not really existed in Africa – in most cases a colonial system was replaced by a statist system [not necessarily collectivist, but definitely not free]. Private land ownership is still extremely rare, as are free market pricing systems for local crops.”

    Add to that the fact that the West keeps sending Africa food for free and insuring that no one can make any money growing food there. In addition, the industrialized world has terrible protectionism of their agricultural sectors so African farmers can’t sell their crops in foreighn markets. Let them grow and sell whatever crop the land is best suited for and they could buy their own damn food. Who says Africa needs to grow its own food? New York City sure doesn’t and no one seems to have a problem with that. The problem is not lack of food so much as it is lack of freedom to make a living.

  11. Lets not forget that one reason sub-Saharan African society never got much beyond the neolithic stage is because the native suite of plants and animals are not well suited to domestication.

    If you’re going to feed as many Africans as we now have, I would bet you’re going to have to do it with non-native crops.

  12. Yeah, those native African plants are tough to control. They’ll stampede you if you’re not careful.

  13. Do the greenies consider Soylent Fertilizer to be approved for organic farms?

  14. Africans are better off starving than eating horrible, chemical-tainted, non-organic food.

  15. Better to starve than have food at sold in irresponsible amounts at irresponsibly low prices and suffer the effects of obesity. The Africans just don’t know how good they have it.

  16. Organic obsessions are a little like religious obsessions: a little truth mixed in with a whole lot of bullshit.

    Kind of, I guess. To me “organic” is a convenient shorthand for “farmed sustainably.” Which may or may not be true, but is likely more true than not. It also tends to stand for “not beholden to Omnibus Farm Bill Subsidies.” Which, again, may or may not be true, but is likely more true than not. Finally, it tends to stand for “locally produced,” which may or may not be true, but is more likely true than not. I don’t mind quite so much paying 50-100% more for a radish if I know it goes directly into the pocket of Farmer Dan down the road.

    Then again, I don’t obsess over it. I try to buy from the farmer’s market, which is usually not organically grown, but it is at least local.

  17. I have to note that like rho, I like to buy organic produce and meat and milk because when I do, I am reasonably sure that a producer local to my state is getting the sale and not some douchebag in Nebraska or Kansas. Screw you, Midwesterners!

    I’m also not buying any California cheese! Hit the bricks, Happy Cows!

  18. To me “organic” is a convenient shorthand for “farmed sustainably.”

    Farmed sustainably is an interesting term. My family has been farming in Western Kansas for over a hundred years and generally has used every agricultural technology available. It is interesting how it is so unstainable.

  19. Better to starve than have food at sold in irresponsible amounts at irresponsibly low prices and suffer the effects of obesity. The Africans just don’t know how good they have it.

    Or the North Koreans. But Ted Turner knows.

  20. I try to buy from the farmer’s market, which is usually not organically grown, but it is at least local.

    I know what you’re saying. I mostly drink Michigan wines (when I drink wine).

  21. To me, “organic” is a throwaway term that food packagers put on their products to lure the gullible into paying more for it. The term is not regulated by USDA (not that it should be), so unless it actually says “chemical free” or “free range” or whatever the current concern is, the term is meaningless.

  22. crimethink wins the prize. I worked in a health food store as a teenager and learned from the owners that “organic” didn’t mean jack shit, or at the very least it might mean something coming from California because they actually have requirements for the use of the term.

    I also learned that incredibly dumb people liked to buy granola (how stereotypical) because it was “healthy”. I wanted to tell them it was a carb load fried in shit oil–essentially french fries–but didn’t think that was a good idea.

  23. To me, “organic” is a throwaway term that food packagers put on their products to lure the gullible into paying more for it. The term is not regulated by USDA (not that it should be), so unless it actually says “chemical free” or “free range” or whatever the current concern is, the term is meaningless.

    Uhm, that’s just not true.

    See Here
    And here

  24. Organic foods are just a means of status consumption.

    Wealthy people have always consumed high quality produce raised on boutique farms while the rest of us made do with lower quality mass produced foodstuffs. The only difference today is that wealthy people now claim they are more virtuous than the rest of us because they spend more money on their elitist “organic” food

    I don’t mind that people with money choose to spend that money on high quality ingredients. I do the same when I can. I do resent being told that their wealth makes them morally superior because they follow some fad.

  25. Uhm, that’s just not true.

    They must have started doing this around the turn of the millenium, because it was definitely true some years ago.

  26. Farmed sustainably is an interesting term. My family has been farming in Western Kansas for over a hundred years and generally has used every agricultural technology available. It is interesting how it is so unstainable.

    Traidionally, “sustainable” farming methods include doing things like rotating crops or mixing crops in order to replenish the soil naturally of its nutrients without having to use more and more fertilizer. It also may include not using pesticides in order to protect beneficial soil microorganisms.

    It does not mean “doing whatever it takes” to keep crops growing on a piece of land.

  27. From CT’s link:

    Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.

    Anybody here raise their hand if they can’t drive a truck of agricultural pesticides through that loophole.

  28. …unless it actually says “chemical free” or “free range” or whatever the current concern is, the term is meaningless.

    I agree that the labels “organic” and, even moreso, “natural”, are nebulous, but that doesn’t preclude comparing ingredients lists. It is no coincidence that the natural & organic products rarely contain high fructose corn syrup (subsidies, anyone?), whereas the conventional products load up whenever possible. Also, the higher-priced natural & organic foods contain much less petroleum-derived preservatives and additives (potassium benzoate (==>benzene), BHT, etc.) than conventional products. Also, what’s involved in the catch-all (by gov’t labeling regulations) “natural and artificial flavors” category? Ignore the labels, but only pay (vote) for the ingredients you want to ingest.

  29. Chicago Tom-

    No industrialized, capitalist nation has ever had a famine in peace time. Not once.

    Its the governments in African, not the amount of food availible.

  30. I don’t get the hate for organic among the libertarian crowd…is it the petuli?

    From the UN article:

    Organically-grown products generally attract higher prices than conventionally grown ones and therefore represent a good source of income for farmers. However, they must meet certain farming and quality standards and require capacity-building, large investments and efficient organization along the production and marketing chains, which puts them beyond the reach of most resource-poor farmers of developing countries.

    This seems to be talking more about organic as a business model than actual tonnage of food produced, no?

    From the pro-feed with orgainic article:

    A comprehensive review of a large number of comparison studies of grain and soybean production conduct by six Midwestern universities since 1978 found that in all of these studies organic production was equivalent to, and in many cases better than, conventional (Welsh, 1999). Organic systems had higher yields than conventional systems which featured continuous crop production (no rotations) and equal or lower yields in conventional systems that included crop rotations….They are also more likely to have livestock on their farm, which provides a variety of animal products to the local economy and manure for improving soil fertility. In such farms, though the yield per acre of a single crop might be lower than a large farm, total production per acre of all the crops and various animal products is much higher than large conventional farms (Rosset, 1999). Figure 1 shows the relationship between total production per unit area to farm size in 15 countries. In all cases, the smaller farms are much more productive per unit area- 200 to 1000 percent higher – than larger ones (Rosset, 1999). Even in the United States, the smallest farms, those 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms (US Agricultural Census, 1992). Conversion to small organic farms therefore, would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide.

    This seems to be saying that distributed food production is more efficient than a large centralized food production system.

    As a bias, I like distributed solutions over centralized solutions. But if a centralized partnership between big business and government produces the best results…who could argue with the logic of that model?

  31. Organically-grown products generally attract higher prices than conventionally grown ones and therefore represent a good source of income for farmers.

    Like farmers don’t get enough of my money in the form of subsidies and ethanol already.

  32. ChicagoTom,

    It also may include not using pesticides in order to protect beneficial soil microorganisms.

    You know absolutely nothing about farming or, apparently, biology. Pesticides are neurotoxins targeted at insects. They don’t effect microorganisms in the least because they don’t have nervous systems.

    The idea of “sustainability” is a big lie. Advocates have simply declared ex nullo that modern farming techniques are “unsustainable” despite the very readily apparent evidence that one can farm the same land forever using such techniques. Traditional farming techniques turned wide stretches of the earth into desert or heath. Modern techniques leave the earth vibrant and alive. When someone shuts down a modern farm, nature comes roaring back in a matter of months.

  33. Its the governments in African, not the amount of food availible.

    Cesar, I don’t disagree.

    But traditional farming has also decreased the variety of foods / agricultural products available. Traditional farming methods tend to favor the fastest and most productive plants leading to a lower variety of foods available.

    Personally, I am not a zealot. I think that the market has a place for both.

    I just can’t stand the people who are so fucking sure that organic and sustainable farming is a crock of shit and nothing but a “status” symbol or a scam.

    Modern techniques leave the earth vibrant and alive

    That is complete bullshit. Soil erosion is a real problem, regardless of your saying it isn’t. It requires higher amounts of inputs (water, fertilizer, pesticides ) in order to maintain tillage levels — especially in cases where the same crop is planted over and over and over.

  34. Like farmers don’t get enough of my money in the form of subsidies and ethanol already.

    Cesar, I suspect you’re joking.

    But in case you’re not it’s worth noting that produce farmers generally receive nothing in the way of subsidies, except possibly some financing guarantees.

    The exceptions are the growers in CA who get massively subsidized water for irrigation.

    As to the question of organic gardening it is likely that any superiority that might exist does so because of the added care that organic farmers put into there peoduce and its freshness in local markets.

    But for a person to buy a processed food product that has been shipped across the country (or across the world) and think that it is superior to conventional because it has “organic” stamped on it is just absurd.

  35. But traditional farming has also decreased the variety of foods / agricultural products available. Traditional farming methods tend to favor the fastest and most productive plants leading to a lower variety of foods available.

    that’s not evident to me. i shop produce stands, farmers’ markets, and stores like berkeley bowl. the array of produce grown conventionally is staggering, something i couldn’t have imagined ten years ago.

  36. rho and Fluffy —

    Sorry. The organic label exists primarily as a marketing tool that large “agribusiness” uses to 1) sell products at a premium price and 2) EXCLUDE SMALL BUSINESSES FROM THE MARKET. There is much debate over the value of organically labeled food vs. normal stuff (and thus the validity of a higher price for organic food), but I’ll put that aside and focus on how the organic label is specifically designed to favor large businesses.

    ? Pesticides may be used, but only on the perimeter of a field and only with a buffer (~10 ft?) of space between the pesticide application and the soil on which the food is growing. This buffer space requirement means that a small plot will lose a large proportion of its area to the buffer if the farmer wants to spray the perimeter, but that a vast field will lose a much smaller portion to the buffer. Interestingly, standard integrated pest management (IPM) calls for maintenance of vegetation and arthropod (insects, spiders, etc.) populations around the perimeter of a field, not for blasting them with chemicals.

    ? Extensive paperwork is required to attain and maintain the organic certification. For a small operation, the manpower required to complete the paperwork represents a substantial increase in the overall overhead of a farm, whereas for a large operation the cost is easily absorbed.

    ? There is a multi-year time delay between using exclusively “organic” practices and obtaining an organic certification. The conversion to organic practices requires a sizable investment in terms of learning new techniques, buying new equipment, buying new seed, etc. It also entails an immediate drop off of harvest quantities. Thus the conversion requires a big payout and a drop in harvest, multiple years before a farm will be granted the organic certification that enables it to charge enough to make up for its lower yields. Family farmers do not have the resources to absorb this cost, but large companies do.

    There are a range of other reasons “organic” is largely bull. There is no requirement for crop rotations, for example, and what many people think of as a nice little farm growing a few squash and a few radishes is in reality vast, 10,000-acre fields growing a single plant. Furthermore, consumers have NO reason to expect organic food travels a shorter distance “from farm to fork.” For an organic food producer/distributor, shipping is just another cost to weigh against income as it is for any other company.

  37. I’ll add that the three bullets I listed have ostensible validity for the organic agricultural ideals. Maybe. Just don’t be fooled that organic food comes from small farms or local farms.

  38. I just can’t stand the people who are so fucking sure that organic and sustainable farming is a crock of shit and nothing but a “status” symbol or a scam.

    When I have to pay twice the price and see no difference at all in the taste, I’m going to call it a scam. People who think theres something different about it are “eating the label”, so to speak.

  39. Shannon Love —

    Pesticides are neurotoxins targeted at insects. They don’t effect microorganisms in the least because they don’t have nervous systems.

    Gasoline is hydrocarbons used to explode in the cylinder of internal combustion engines. You don’t have an internal combustion engine, therefore if you drink gasoline it won’t interact with your body in any way.

    I mean, go ahead…

    Also, “pesticides” are things that kills “pests.” Insecticides kill insects. Many other forms of pesticides exist, mainly fungicides (some of the most noxious pesticides) and herbicides. And if you think a toxin meant to kill a given organism won’t hurt other organisms, you know absolutely nothing about biology.

  40. Where I live they are a touch neurotic about “locally grown”.
    Exactly how far away is still “local”?
    If it’s on this planet, it’s local in my solar system, right?

    As far as the poor rich people. I think I understand their pain. Once, I had a few extra dollars coming in. I thought where should I splurge? How about food? Let those poor farmers get to Aruba once in a while, maybe they’ll be nicer to the animals. So I bought more expense cuts of meat. This became my “normal”. Then I’d walk into a supermarket that was more mainstream. I’d look at the prices and think, OMG what happened to that item? Did that cow get hit my a truck? Is it roadkill? How else could it be that inexpensive? You really must beware of your sense of “normal” getting skewed.

  41. When I have to pay twice the price and see no difference at all in the taste, I’m going to call it a scam. People who think theres something different about it are “eating the label”, so to speak.

    You don’t “HAVE” to do anything, do you?

    Why do other people’s choices bother you so much?

    People who get so upset at other people’s choices are (rational or not) are busybodies.

    I may think people who pay a premium for a Hummer H2 are suckers too, but I am not gonna sit around and post disparaging messages about it and telling owners of it that they are fools. I’m just not gonna buy one.

    It is my right as a consumer to choose to pay a premium so that I could support a smaller farmer rather than ConAgra. (Voting with my dollars) I also personally find the products superior in taste. And you know what else, unless challenged, I don’t really tell people about it either. How’s that for elitism.

  42. I may think people who pay a premium for a Hummer H2 are suckers too, but I am not gonna sit around and post disparaging messages about it and telling owners of it that they are fools. I’m just not gonna buy one.

    Chicago Tom, As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, you posted the above. 😉

  43. Cesar,

    When I have to pay twice the price and see no difference at all in the taste, I’m going to call it a scam. People who think theres something different about it are “eating the label”, so to speak.

    Sometimes there is no difference in taste.
    Sometimes there is…(think tomatoes).

    Just because you don’t notice the difference doesn’t mean others are being scammed.

  44. Just because you don’t notice the difference doesn’t mean others are being scammed.

    Hey, if they think theres a difference thats great. Some people swear brand name Cheerios taste different from Kroger brand Cheerios.

    Why do other people’s choices bother you so much?

    They don’t. I’m just expressing the opinion I think “organic” is a scam in my opinion. I also think its probably a fad we’ll all be making jokes about in 10 years. Its my opinion, feel free to keep buying organic until your hearts content. Its your money, not mine.

  45. Modern techniques leave the earth vibrant and alive.

    Right, and all the runoff from over-fertilizing ends up in the Chesapeake Bay, causing toxic algae blooms from the hypernutrient levels, decimating the marine ecosystem, along with the local crab, oyster, and fish industry. Also, notice the progressively earlier development of the busty Georgia farm girl? That couldn’t be the result of excess hormones applied in the dairy and poultry industries ending up in the water table.

    “But, goddammit, we’ve done been growin’ corn on this here plot for the last hundred-aught-four years! How’s that fer sustainable?!”

    You fail to take into account the tragedy of the commons.

  46. The only problem I have with the “orgos”, as my Australian farmer friend calls them, is with those who are seeking mandates.

    It is worth remembering that California had a ballot initiative to ban the use of pesticides a few years ago. Given the ignorance of many folks and the pure emotionalism that drives them, these things have a good chance of passing. Luckily the ban didn’t pass (or maybe didn’t even make it onto the ballot – can’t remember which).

  47. I also think its probably a fad we’ll all be making jokes about in 10 years.

    It’s already been around for ages. It started to become all the rage in the 60s.

    Don’t count on it disappearing.

  48. I don’t get the hate for organic among the libertarian crowd
    I, too find this puzzling.


  49. You can’t just tell libertarians that you know what is good for them. Libertarians are notoriously hard to impress. You can’t just tell them something is good, you have to prove it.

    If they can’t taste that’s it isn’t improved: it’s a no go.
    If you can’t show that they were somehow poisoned prior to organics: it’s a no go.
    Your poisoned run-off in the commons: might have a shot but you’re going to have to provide links.

  50. Are conventional farming methods currently feeding the whole world?

    Uhm, geez, what a patently ignorant thing to say. Perhaps you’re being willfully ignorant of what’s being said here.

    “Conventional” farming: Feeds everyone who’s being fed currently.

    “Organic” farming: Wouldn’t come close to feeding the numbers we’re feeding now.

    I don’t get the hate for organic among the libertarian crowd

    We don’t hate organic farming. We hate organic farming hyperbole.

  51. Also, notice the progressively earlier development of the busty Georgia farm girl?

    Kind of hard not to but in this age of child abuse hysteria it is best not to let on.

  52. It’s already been around for ages. It started to become all the rage in the 60s.

    Funny, I didn’t notice it in my neck of the woods until about 2002.

  53. One comment – if it’s really organic, in the sense those who like organic mean it, it’s almost certainly local. Without preservatives, organic food tends to spoil quicker.

  54. Look, it’s the www spammer…

  55. But if a centralized partnership between big business and government produces the best results…who could argue with the logic of that model?

    IF only we could get the right people in office …

    IF only all those socialist countries didn’t have weather-related crop failures, year after year, starting right after they went socialist …

    Big IF in that assumption, Neu Mejican.

  56. I don’t get the hate for organic among the libertarian crowd

    I don’t hate organic. Some organic food is noticeably tastier, and IMO worth the extra price. Some tastes the same as the regular food.

    I think the hate is more towards the statist, socialist tendencies of the people who gravitate toward organic, rather than the food itself. Kinda like people who hate Hollywood stars, but still watch their movies.

  57. Yeah, the hate for the organic is about the fact that the “wrong sort” of people buy it.

    There can’t possibly be any value in organic methods – they can’t possibly have environmental or economic benefits – because the people who buy organic food think they’re better’n you.

  58. One comment – if it’s really organic, in the sense those who like organic mean it, it’s almost certainly local. Without preservatives, organic food tends to spoil quicker.

    No, sorry again. First of all, whether food is labeled and sold as “organic” has [as] little [as monetarily possible] to do with “the sense those who like organic mean it.” That is, the whole point here is that people think they’re buying something when they purchase organically labeled food, but in fact they’re not buying that at all.

    Specifically on the issues of transport, spoilage, and local-ness — Nope again, and sorry again, but nope, again. Remember that an organic product must have only 95% organic ingredients. Most preservatives exist at much lower levels, more like around 1/2 percent. This includes all those weird metal complexes like EDT. Also, the 95% mark does not include SALT, a major preservative in most preserved foods. Moreover, if we’re talking about produce instead of prepared foods, distributors have a huge arsenal at their disposal for transporting and storing food over long distances and long time scales. Refrigerator rooms the size of a concert hall, with oxygen levels down to almost zero, for example. Produce is often harvested before it’s ripe, kept in storage for months (up to almost a year for once-a-year domestic crops like apples), and then artificially ripened by exposing it to various gasses. None of this violates organic rules, and all of it allows an industrial-scale operation in which the food you eat originated nowhere near your dinnertable in the space-time continuum.

    Or did you think those organic bananas you can buy in Illinois in February came from somewhere close by?

  59. It’s a good thing no one who partakes of the niche, boutique ideology of libertarianism ever claims moral superiority for having done so.

  60. I should add, I guess, that lots of organic food (e.g. cereal) is separately labeled as being preservative-free. But keep in mind that this still doesn’t include salt — or being dried, sugared, etc., which are nothing more than preservation methods (dating back thousands of years) with taste components so we don’t always think of them as preservatives.

  61. Ventifact,

    If there wasn’t so much hostility to organic foods among libertarians, they might notice that the private sector has done an excellent job of creating reliable, understood certification groups, whose icons are used on organic-labeled food in order to address exactly the problem you describe.

  62. Well, we do have this board to argue about libertarianism…

    I think for me personally, I’m willing to say that some organic products have value (better taste, nutrition, or environmental impact). Pesticide-free cotton, for example, is probably worth paying for. But there is such a relatively small value for most organic stuff and organic enthusiasts are so in love with it, it’s hard not to be a little eager to pick that phenomenon apart.

    I suppose everything I said still applies to libertarians…

  63. joe,

    That’s wrong.

  64. Most of what I’ve said in this thread has been specifically about the fact that most organic enthusiasts misunderstand what the label means. I do recognize that the market has responded, but it is not giving people what they want, it is letting them think they are getting what they want (e.g. local food) without doing any such thing.

  65. Thus libertarians observe that the market has responded to a yuppie desire for moral superiority, not for anything concrete.

    I mean, who could fail to realize that bananas probably are not coming from just down the road in the dead of a Midwestern winter?

    But, still, I will say that libertarians are HUGELY into moral superiority also. Hmm.

  66. You can’t simultaneously make the argument that organic-food buyers are delusionally thinking that their purchases are promoting better agricultural practices AND claim that they are only interested in moral superiority.

  67. The desire is for something concrete. You even acknowledge that yourself, when you imply that people buying products which, you claim, aren’t actually produced in a more sustainable manner, are being fooled.

  68. “delusionally”

    Thanks for that word. Done.

    They don’t use any critical thinking or research to evaluate whether what they can observe of the organic industry actually does indicate that it is helping the environment (etc.). Thus they delude themselves that organic stuff is better for the world, because their real goal is moral superiority.

    Now, that’s a blanket statement and I only think it’s true as a trend, not a black-and-white absolute.

    Bush and other neocons often strive for what seem to observers to be contradictory goals. E.g., many people say it’s impossible to fight violence through warfare. Just because an observer sees someone’s various actions/attitudes as contradictory, doesn’t mean a given person won’t be that way.

  69. Honestly I’m not sure what claim you are making. All moral activities must exist in some concrete form. Organic enthusiasts link sustainability, local food, etc. with morality, duh. But they’re not getting those things. Most people tend to strive for a moral life. What strikes me as funny is the utter lack of critical thinking applied to the organic food world. Most people, when they learn how different a reality is from a perception, enjoy pointing out the discrepancy, so why should I be any different about food? Bush talks about limiting spending, but he does no such thing, and Dems rightly criticize him for that and try to point it out to Repubs.

  70. Farmed sustainably is an interesting term. My family has been farming in Western Kansas for over a hundred years and generally has used every agricultural technology available. It is interesting how it is so unstainable.

    “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

    Pesticides end up somewhere. Artificial fertilizers end up somewhere. Whether these things are harmful is certainly debatable. That they don’t solely end up in your family’s drinking water is not.

    Sorry. The organic label exists primarily as a marketing tool that large “agribusiness” uses to 1) sell products at a premium price and 2) EXCLUDE SMALL BUSINESSES FROM THE MARKET.

    I’m sorry, was I unclear? I was careful to say that “organic” is not always an assurance that the food is what it purports to be. Your bets tend to be better, though, among the organic brands, especially if they come from local co-ops or similar organizations.

    “Organic” is not a magic incantation, and I do not utter it to save my soul or my health. But it’s usually a good place to start.

    Oh, and people who say “Sorry, blah blah blah” are also usually full of shit. On the one hand, John says his family farm hasn’t imploded as proof that he farms sustainably. On the other hand, you insist that the “organic” label is completely worthless. Neither of you follow that the past is not necessarily an indicator for the future.

    “Organic” now may not always mean what people think it does. Free people will eventually figure this out, and push the “organic” farmers to either relabel or change their practices. My local co-op, however, does a good job vetting this for me. Again, this is how the market works. You simply do not understand it. Or, perhaps, you’re a fool. I’m not prejudiced–I allow for the fact that fools must be tolerated.

  71. For the haters, refer to noted libertarian farmer Joel Salatin’s book.

  72. rho-

    As I’m becoming self-conscious about posting so much on this thread, I’ll try to end it after this post for now. First of all, you are right about sustainability. Mainstream modern techniques are not sustainable. The carbon and nitrogen content of U.S. soils has, for example, been continuously declining since those soils were put to agricultural use. Many people don’t realize it, but the carbon lost from natural soils after the soils became agricultural has contributed a major chunk of the overall anthropogenic atmospheric carbon spike that is getting us into global warming right now.

    As sustainability goes though, I maintain that the value of organic food is debatable. Other practices such as no-till agriculture show more promise, at least to my knowledge.

    Also, as what most would consider a very moderate libertarian in favor of public lands etc., I agree with what you say about pesticides and fertilizers ending up somewhere. Honestly I believe that this and similar issues with analogous atmospheric phenomena (coal smoke, e.g.) make it clear that an absolute notion of private property is untenable, and furthermore that a more moderate notion of private property requires recognition that one person’s runoff hurts another person and his property, thus requiring appropriate regulation by the government. I can’t stand on my own land and shoot my rifle randomly, and then bear no responsibility if a bullet happens to leave my property and kill a neighbor — so with pollution.

    As for the value of “organic” labeling with regards to local-ness, from what you are saying I would suggest that the real benefit you are deriving is from paying the premium to have co-op members vet products for you, not to simply find items labeled as organic. If the organic label went away, co-op managers would still go through the same process of receiving/finding info about food products from vendors who specialize in that kind of food. If your co-op is buying items specifically because of the “organic” label, it’s off the mark, and if it isn’t, then at best the label is as you say a good place to start. For the majority of folks getting groceries from supermarkets, they really are just buying something for the organic label without investigating further.

    (Also, I apologize (I’m sorry?) if the word “sorry” came off snide. I meant it. I always feel guilty about breaking people’s organic bliss when I tell them the reality about organic labels. But now I feel pompous, like I’m some grand messenger of truth… By the way, when I refer to “organic bliss” I don’t mean to suggest you in particular are enthralled by the organic label, but many people are; they speak of organic food with a face of rapturous satisfaction, and I feel obligated to explain that it’s not so appropriate to feel that way.)

    Also, I never ‘insist[ed] that the “organic” label is completely worthless.’ I commented, for example, that I consider organic cotton to be worth buying. I suspect you think I disagree with you much more than I actually do. I happen to consider myself somewhat more knowledgeable about these and similar issues than the average consumer so I try to point things out that others might not know or think of. This is a message board for basically that purpose, I thought.

    Finally, I’m not sure why you make certain claims about my understanding of the market. For the many consumers mindlessly buying organic food under the assumption it is better but without knowing that fact in any reliable way, the market has finished responding: it is giving them their bliss, and little more. It would be difficult to imagine the organic label improving in meaningfulness while it is being enthusiastically patronized by so many people. Maybe you don’t understand the market?

    It is good to know, by the way, that you are not prejudiced, and that you are willing to tolerate fools such as me. Also, it’s good to know you would get so indignant about me saying “sorry” and then call me names. It makes me glad to be a fool, considering the apparent alternative.

  73. There can’t possibly be any value in organic methods – they can’t possibly have environmental or economic benefits – because the people who buy organic food think they’re better’n you.

    joe, there’s so much bullshit in that paragraph that it could fertilize about a million acres of organic crops.

  74. You wrote WAY too much for me to even bother reading.

    Not to say that a pithy quip completely makes any argument, but a total lack thereof reeks of self-justification. I suspect you’re trying to validate your entire socio/political philosophy, whereas I simply like to buy tomatoes that don’t suck.

  75. no, hunger hasn’t been solved with chemical fertilizers either. it just makes people more money and is easier to stadardize

  76. Pesticide-free cotton, for example, is probably worth paying for.

    Why? (seriously, why?) Given that the boll weevil will wipe out a crop and hence the grower’s livelihood for at least a year, why?

    But there is such a relatively small value for most organic stuff and organic enthusiasts are so in love with it, it’s hard not to be a little eager to pick that phenomenon apart.

    You’ve summed it up perfectly.

  77. prolefeed,

    Big IF in that assumption, Neu Mejican.

    I guess you forgot your sarcasm decoder ring today.

  78. Another quick comment (I’m so full of shit):

    We should also bear in mind that the world produces much more food than is necessary to feed its population. However, because much of the vegetable food we produce is fed to animals which are in turn eaten, we end up (through the second law of thermodynamics) with much less food available, at higher prices, than could be available on the world market if people ate no or less meat. After all, a given ecosystem will sustain fewer lions than gazelles.

  79. I always like the point in an exchange where someone declares another person has made too much of an argument to bother considering it. Less is apparently way more.

    You can suspect all you want about what I wrote. Apparently you haven’t read it. You seem to be validating my claims about ignorance on the part of organic consumers…

    By the way, I thought I did put a few nice quips in my post. My favorite was:

    It would be difficult to imagine the organic label improving in meaningfulness while it is being enthusiastically patronized by so many people. Maybe you don’t understand the market?

  80. Organic cotton is feasible, a claim I base on the fact that non-coerced producers are selling it for prices that are barely higher than regular cotton. Conventional cotton production involves massive pesticide and fertilizer application levels, well beyond even the industrial scale of chemical application typical for other crops. To sound a little dorky about it, it’s not good for the earth. Also, it is a dangerous positive feedback that will not be sustainable (“implosion”).

    Low-pesticide (or pesticide-free) crop production has certain benefits even in the realm of pest control itself. Did you know the proportion of yields lost to pests (~1/3rd) has remained essentially constant since before the Green Revolution (the modernization of agriculture as we see it) until today? Still, of course, absolute yields are many-fold higher, so it’s not a simple comparison.

    Pests evolve rapidly in response to pesticides, rendering the pesticides increasingly ineffective. At the same time, slower-evolving organisms such as predators of pest organisms are being wiped out by pesticides, leaving fields even more susceptible to infestation. With a functional ecosystem non-existent because of the chemicals constantly dumped onto the fields, the only organisms that can exist are precisely pest organisms which can feed on the cotton. Maintaining vegetated perimeters on a field is one way of maintaining pesticide activity in the form of parasitoids and predators that keep pest populations in check (they must have this unfarmed perimeter so they can live on when the field is fallow and when the pests are not in season) but this practice is not used in conjunction with heavy chemical application. Conventional cotton production also relies heavily on chemical fertilizers as soils become increasingly depleted, and this too must be turned around.

    I mentioned cotton because it is a particularly grievous example and in balance it is probably worthwhile going in for the organic variety. I am a moderate libertarian and am fully willing to ignore the ostensible fact that farmers have their own interests available as incentive to maintain the health of their land. (They have no such incentive, also, to consider what happens to the polluted runoff from their farms.) Also, organic cotton functions as less of a status symbol than organic apples (for example); it is, you might say, easier to keep your intentions clean by participating in that particular part of the industry. Ooh, now I’m in trouble: I’ve strayed back to commentary on the pretentiousness of buying organic. Most libertarians are pretentious too…

  81. Ventifact,

    Paying for vetting of products…
    Are you saying those hippy co-ops are actually libertarian free-market solutions?

    egad

    I take issue with the premium everyone talks about.

    I spend less by shopping at farmer’s markets, my local coop, and, occasionally, Trader Joes than going to the local supermarket. But I also cook rather than buying prepared foods…maybe that’s the difference.

  82. Ventifact,

    Many people don’t realize it, but the carbon lost from natural soils after the soils became agricultural has contributed a major chunk of the overall anthropogenic atmospheric carbon spike that is getting us into global warming right now.

    Assuming that it drives somehow instead of lags warming, how does it go: ground (farm plot) -> corn -> gut (me) -> ground (septic tank) -> atmosphere?

    However, because much of the vegetable food we produce is fed to animals which are in turn eaten, we end up (through the second law of thermodynamics) with much less food available, at higher prices, than could be available on the world market if people ate no or less meat.

    Ruminants can digest things that humans can’t, and much of those things grow better than human food crop in the same place with the same effort. Buffaloes love them grasslands. Similarly, a form of sugar cane that doesn’t make much sugar makes better fuel than other canes. Animals may be currently fed too much human food crop than is optimal, but does that mean that we couldn’t feed the same amount of cattle as now with other means? Not automatically, it seems to me.

    What strikes me as funny is the utter lack of critical thinking applied to the organic food world.

    I feel like that lack is very pervasive today, and I can’t explain or get away from it. Thank God for H&R. I seriously love you guys.

  83. For me I’d much rather eat something sprayed with a nice sterile chemical fertilizer than something smeared with cow shit.

  84. Neu Mejican–

    Yes, I am definitely saying that: hippy co-ops are actually libertarian free-market solutions. I am just not so willing to say that organic certification is also a free-market solution success story. As I said, any co-op buying its stuff just because of an organic label is not doing its job, at least not the way its customers (members) expect.

    Anthro–

    The carbon in plants comes from the air (where it exists as CO2), not from soil. The carbon that is in soil originated as plant debris — roots, leaves, etc. that died and decayed. When this debris is in the soil, it is decaying and soil organisms are turning this debris back into CO2, as humans and cars turn their own food into CO2. Here is an overview:

    air–>plants–>soil–>air

    (Note that some of the carbon that goes into plants also gets eaten by bigger animals and goes elsewhere, possibly eventually into the soil as poop or dead animals etc.)

    Now, the carbon-bearing compounds in soils are in a state of slow, perpetual decay, as they are consumed by soil organisms and eventually converted to CO2, at which point the energy contained in those compounds is exhausted and the CO2 escapes through pores into the soil, entering the atmosphere. The decaying carbonaceous soil matter is replenished by continual additions of dead tissue as organisms die and return to the soil.

    So the overall amount of carbon in soil is a result of a balance of inputs and losses. (A common term for this is a “carbon budget.”) This equilibrium can be shifted toward increasing carbon “storage” in a soil if conditions change to increase carbon additions to soil, e.g. by increasing the amount of dead plant matter that goes into the soil, or by decreasing the rate of decomposition of carbon-containing (ORGANIC*) compounds in the soil.

    Conversion of a soil from a natural state to agricultural use shifts the equilibrium point of carbon storage way down; in other words, it favors an overall decrease in soil carbon levels, resulting in a net emission of CO2 from soil, until a new, lower equilibrium point is reached. Agriculture does this by both decreasing the amount of plant debris that goes to the soil, and by increasing the rate of decomposition. Harvesting crops is the reason less plant material goes to the soil — in a natural state, no one comes along right at the end of the growing season and removes almost all above-ground vegetation (at least not without shitting most of it back out nearby) as is common for major crops like alfalfa, wheat, and corn.** The reason carbon also decomposes faster in farmed soil is mainly because of tillage, which stirs up soil and in so doing exposes buried organic matter, which decomposes very slowly underground where there is little available oxygen, and exposes that material to surface air, allowing decomposers to break it down much faster.

    As for the question of meat vs. vegetable production — you are right that herbivores can digest plant matter that we can’t eat (cellulose, specifically). However, the current meat industry is not at all based on a practice of grazing animals sustainably on non-arable land. It is mostly about using land that could feed 10 people to produce enough animal feed to raise livestock that can feed 2 people, in the process tightening the overall food supply and raising international food prices. Very little meat is produced in a way that makes the greatest use of our planet’s food-producing capacity, rather than in a way that diminishes it. Also, much of the cellulosic feed (the stuff humans couldn’t eat) that is used is leftover plant matter from crops harvested for human consumption; e.g. pea vines, wheat straw, corn silage. This goes back to the earlier issue of carbon loss from agricultural soil systems. The overall dynamic to note here is that the predominant methods of meat production squander Earth’s food production capacity.

    Now, all that is not to say I consider eating meat to be robbing poor people of food. Everyone from above has been more to the point in addressing economic problems in countries that lack food. This is just another facet of the problem to keep in mind, even if it’s not the main one.

    * Hah! This is what the word “really” means…

    ** Also, although plants do not get carbon from soil, they get everything else from the soil. So they take up other nutrients like nitrogen from the soil, but those nutrients are trucked off every year at harvest instead of being returned to the soil as plants die or are eaten. Thus soils become depleted.

    Cheers.

  85. Katherine Mangu-Ward,

    Why are you choosing to use an 8 year old article to represent the pro-organic side, when a recent Univ. Michigan peer-reviewed article is available?
    http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=5936

    “Researchers from the University of Michigan found that in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms. In developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods, said Ivette Perfecto, professor at U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, and one the study’s principal investigators.”

  86. Sam-Hec,

    Nice job.
    Always good for the up to date data.

  87. That is cool. But keep in mind that at the end of the article the researcher is said to have defined “organic” on his own terms, not in commercial terms by which the label is currently administered and sold. Also, from the article and the linked abstract it is not clear he is comparing otherwise-identical farms that differ only in a choice of organic vs. non-organic. E.g. farms run organically in the third world might tend to be administered by large companies selling to the first world which can efficiently use the newest advances and efficiently manage harvest and distribution over larger scales.

    Also note that what the study implies is that organic farming makes better use of the chief capital used on undeveloped countries’ farms: human and animal capital. As those countries attain affluence and urbanize, food production will be forced to accommodate a much smaller farming population supporting a larger overall population. Then and there, as for now here in the first world, production will specialize and mechanize, rendering such practices as use of animal poop for fertilizer less appealing relative to the industrial alternative.

    Nitrogen fertilizer is actually an important contributor to global warming, both because of the significant chunk of energy used in its manufacture and because as much as a third of the nitrogenous fertilizer applied to soil will decompose chemically and escape into the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses such as N2O, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide over the long term (interesting overview of agriculture’s contribution to worldwide emissions). The other major contribution of farming to emissions is machinery operation, which can be cut more than in half by adopting no-till agriculture (it takes a lot of energy to drag a giant metal anchor/net combo through every inch of thousands of acres of land). No-till is not addressed by organic (as a commercial label) but is being independently adopted by many otherwise conventional farmers.

  88. Also (fun with the net!) here is another look at what I said about the use of resources to produce meat. You’ll have to scroll up a few lines to see the relevant caption (poor web design): the (US) food system consumes ten times more energy than it provides to society in food energy. It’s not clear, but I don’t think they mean “energy” to include inedible energy like that from diesel. The source material that website cites describes the western diet as “extraordinarily meaty.”

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