Is Organic a Scam? – Biodiversity, Soil Health, Carbon Sequestration, Bee Activity, and Worker Health
At first glance, these may seem inconsequential to the casual reader. Biodiversity? That sounds like some fancy newspeak conjured up by Greenpeace! Soil health? How can soil be healthy? It’s just a collection of inanimate bits of dirt and clay and sand! Bee health? What do I care about a lousy bee? All those things have ever done is sting me, vomit up fructose, and make annoying buzzing noises. Carbon sequestration? Carbon dioxide is a mythological compound! It doesn’t even exist. Worker health? I dunno about you, but it looks like they’re getting a great workout to me, and what’s healthier than that?
Although I’m exaggerating these reactions, of course, the fact is that a lot of the potential benefits of organic farming are lost on consumers because they fail to immediately impact your health in the here and the now. You might be vaguely aware that biodiversity, the health of the soil, the role of bees, the ability of soil to sequester carbon, and the health effects of conventional farming on farm workers are “important” to consider, but are they important enough to nudge you toward consuming organic?
Following the recent Stanford study and the accompanying media frenzy that set this series of “Is Organic a Scam?” posts off, in the last couple weeks we took a look at fetal and child development, antibiotic resistance, and the nutrient differences between conventional and organic farming. This week, let’s take a look at a these five additional facets, so that you can make an honest appraisal of where organic fits in your life and budget.
Biodiversity refers to the degree of diversity of animal, plant, and microbial life in a given biome. The large bulk of the available literature suggests that organic farming increases biodiversity, partly because it avoids the usage of ample chemicals whose express purpose is to kill select members of the biome, and partly because organic methods like crop rotation, mixed crop usage, and hedgerowing add more species to the mix. Ultimately, the best organic farmers are trying to simulate the natural biome as best they can while maintaining production, and what biome is more biodiverse than wild nature? It’s a natural consequence of doing things, well, naturally.
Personally, I’m inclined to suggest that biodiversity is its own reward, if only for aesthetic value. Where would you rather live, walk, or hike through – sprawling, sterile fields of soy and wheat monocrops as far as the eye can see, or lush wild-looking green spaces full of bugs, bees, small animals, and birds overhead? Even if it had no effect one way or the other on nutrition, yield, or physical human health, I’d pick the wild diverse garden every time. Forest bathing, anyone? Never heard of cornfield bathing. Also, I like coming across deer, seeing lizards dart across my path, and hearing the unmistakable rattle of a rattlesnake off in the bushes. But not everyone values that. Most, in fact, want to know how this increased biodiversity will actually benefit them in tangible, objective ways:
The biodiversity of microbes in organic soil is usually superior to that of conventional soil, and this has major effects on the viability of the crops. Soil microbes are responsible for nitrogen fixation (they grab atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into nitrogen that plants can use), denitrification, and pesticide degradation. They degrade organic matter and turn it into even more soil. They suppress plant diseases (PDF) and crowd out pathogens (similar to how eradicating gut flora can leave us wide open to colonization from bad bugs). When people talk about “living soil,” they’re mostly talking about the microbial life present. The more diverse the microbial life in the soil, the better they’re able to perform their roles. If microbial life is stricken from the soil or limited to a few select species, the soil and whatever you grow or plant to grow in it suffers. In the literature review linked above, researchers report that out of nine papers examining the difference in soil microbial diversity in conventional and organic farming, eight found increased diversity in the organic farm and just one found no effect.
Biodiversity in general also improves pest resistance. As shown in the review, organic systems create favorable conditions for “natural biocontrol of pests,” whether it’s crop-munching herbivores being swarmed by stinging, biting, and generally dissuading pests that would have otherwise been killed by chemicals, or the pitting of natural enemies against each other in a kind of noble warfare.
Soil is, of course, a dynamic collective of living organisms and dead organic matter. And so, while “soil health” does not refer to the blood lipids, blood pressure, and abdominal obesity of the soil (although organic soil tends to have low triglycerides, excellent BP, and a trim figure, for what it’s worth), it does refer to the ability of a soil to support plant and animal life, resist erosion, and prevent runoff. Most importantly, healthy soil should be able to maintain that health; it should be sustainable. So, does organic farming tend to produce healthier soil?
Conventional agriculture promotes nutrient runoff, which harms the environment and even contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Organic has far less nutrient runoff, and a longterm study found that organic farming was more effective than the conventional system in reducing soil erosion and maintaining soil health.
Carbon Dioxide Sequestration
There’s more carbon in soil than there is in the atmosphere and the global biomass combined; soil contains about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, which sounds incredible but makes perfect sense when you realize that carbon increases the water-holding capacity of sandy soil, contributes to the structural stability of clay soil, prevents nutrient leaching, and helps make minerals available to plants. In short, carbon is crucial for soil health. Whatever your views on the importance of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, it’s been shown that soil subject to organic farming methods sequesters far more carbon than conventionally-farmed soil:
Organic grazing techniques restore carbon to the soil, thereby improving sequestration and rejuvenating dry, arid landscapes (PDF). A massive review of the available studies comparing carbon sequestration in organic and conventional farming found that on average, organic soil sequestered 20% more carbon than conventional soil. Furthermore, biodynamic farming, which refers to organic farming with the use of composting and fermented manure/mineral mixes, was even more effective at 25% more carbon sequestered than conventional (PDF).
Bees. You know, the buzzy stinging bugs that pollinate plants, thereby enabling illicit sexual contact between lusty flora. Before you get all worked up, though, understand that pollination isn’t just about recreational plant sex; it’s about plant reproduction. If you’re at all interested in consuming the edible products of any of these popular crop plants (or honey), you should strongly support the right of pollinators to pollinate.
Unfortunately, some aspects of conventional farming are having a negative impact on bees:
Neonicotinoid, an insecticide, has been shown to significantly reduce colony size and reduce production of new queens by 85% when applied to sample colonies. The same insecticide has also been shown to increase bee mortality by impairing its homing ability. A wayward bee is a dead bee. And research suggests that “high proportions of conventionally managed and large crop fields threaten pollination and biological control services.”
Luckily, organic farming tends to promote bee health and activity:
Organic fields contain more bee-pollinated forbs (a type of herbaceous plant) than conventional fields. Plus, not using neonicotinoids (a prerequisite of organic farming) means the bees who come into contact with organic plants won’t be in danger of picking any up.
It’s one thing to worry about the pesticide residues on that nectarine in your hand, or the sheen of Roundup and methyl iodide adorning your flat of strawberries. You can wash some of it off – not all of it, but some of it – and at any rate, you’re supposedly getting exposed to levels deemed “acceptable” by the authorities (who, no doubt, care deeply about your health). But what about the workers? What about the people who spend backbreaking hours hunched over broccoli plants as crop dusters drone overhead? You think if they time it so that the dusters only hit the crops without workers working, that stuff doesn’t drift on over to the next highly populated crop? What about the workers who literally handle the chemicals, loading them, unloading them, unscrewing lids, heaving sloshing tanks around, and applying the pesticides to the crops?
Several negative health conditions have been linked to agricultural work:
US farmers and pesticide applicators were more likely to have cancers of the nervous system and hematopoietic system (like leukemia).
Workers with high levels of exposure to organochlorine pesticides (lindane and hepatachlor), organophosphate pesticides (dichlorvos), fumigants (methyl bromide), or triazine herbicides (simazine) have higher rates of prostate cancer than workers with low exposure levels.
For women who farmed shortly after pesticide application and who did not wear protective clothing, the risk of breast cancer rose.
Even when the risks of pesticide use are made available, protective clothing isn’t always worn, and workers often wear their pesticide-laden work clothes and boots home, bringing chemical residues with them. My hunch is that wearing protective suits on hot days is likely unbearable (PDF); just ask the crusaders how chain mail feels in the desert.
I’d personally prefer that agricultural workers not be exposed to dangerous levels of agricultural chemicals. I mean, as decent people, we’re going to look at that situation and feel kinda bad, right? This isn’t about politics at all. This is about human beings working long, hot days in the presence of airborne chemicals designed to kill pests and suffering the highest rate of chemically related illness of any occupational group. That’s really, really rough. I shoot for grass-fed and pastured animal products not just for the health benefits, but for the promotion of animal welfare and rejection of the ways CAFOs treat their animals. Buying organic because of concerns about conventional farm worker health is a similarly legit motivation, as I see it.
That’s it for today, guys. I hope I provided a few longer-term, alternative explanations for why some people might choose to buy organic beyond the usual reasons. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section and thanks for reading!
Next week, I’ll try to wrap up this series.