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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 16, 2012

Is Organic a Scam? – Biodiversity, Soil Health, Carbon Sequestration, Bee Activity, and Worker Health

By Mark Sisson
50 Comments

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

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 Health

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).

Bee Health

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.

Worker Health

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.

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50 Comments on "Is Organic a Scam? – Biodiversity, Soil Health, Carbon Sequestration, Bee Activity, and Worker Health"

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Diane
Diane
3 years 11 months ago

I think we can make a valid comparison between the health/biodiversity of the soil and the health and biodiversity of the human gut. Humans don’t work too well without healthy gut flora — the soil is probably similar in it’s need for a health biota. Plus, a healthy soil biota will support our gut biota.

Paleo Bon Rurgundy
3 years 11 months ago

Eat more dirt

Diane
Diane
3 years 11 months ago

Actually, you don’t need to over-wash your organic produce so you CAN eat more dirt. Mud Pies anyone?

Leyla Nisaa
Leyla Nisaa
3 years 11 months ago

Where is my like button!!!! Sweet Child of Mine used to eat dirt when he was younger. He never got sick. Dirt is healty for you. 😉

Primal Toad
3 years 11 months ago

Leyla Nisaa – You mean like literally eat dirt? Or just play around in the dirt and thus consume bits and pieces accidentally?

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
3 years 11 months ago

Save money otherwise spent on probiotics.

Taco
Taco
3 years 10 months ago
Penn and Teller in a documentary noted that if we fully converted to that if we went to all organic food, we would only be able to feed 4 billion people, or less than 2/3 of the world’s population. The only practical solution due to this overpopulation is genetic food which is not bad for health, the environment, etc. It’s necessary, and it’s beneficial. The real problem is overpopulation. You can either let nature take care of it or undergo forced sterilization problems. Sadly, this is an extremely controversial thing but it needs to be done. What compounds the problem… Read more »
Jeff
Jeff
3 years 11 months ago

Similarly to the way we scrutinize the quality of the food we eat, I think it’s important we pay attention to the inhabitants of the dirt we eat. My sister got a delightful case of pin worms when we were kids living on base in Japan (well you know how toddlers have to taste everything they find).

I’ve come to like my dirt cooked at least medium clean (no wriggling riders).

Elena
Elena
3 years 11 months ago
I´ve been wondering about that. My son loved sucking on stones. (His favourites were the “soft” flintstones he found on a vacation in Denmark.) My daughter, when she was the same age, ate sand as if it was going out of style. I swear I found sand in her diapers! We were, and are, feeding them good quality stuff but I always thought they might want for minerals. But maybe it´s just one way of mother natures smart ways to “inflict” all sorts of funny bacteria into the young childs gut? They DO stop this of their own accord when… Read more »
Paul
Paul
3 years 11 months ago
There are some flaws in the references for Soil Health in this article. The longterm study from Nature compares conventional, intensive-tillage vs organic farming. Conventional (non-organic) farming does not need to be intensively tilled, and the study omits this important control – conventional, no-till farming. Conventional no-till soil far outperforms organic farming in terms of soil erosion reduction and carbon sequestration. The abstract does not state the type of organic farming that has taken place. Is this a small-scale family farm that weeds by hand? If so, then they are no-till farming. If they are a large-scale organic farm that… Read more »
Stacie
3 years 11 months ago
Thank you for this. I couldn’t help but question some of the studies as I was reading, wondering what types of organic farms and “conventional” farms were studied, or what even constitutes a “conventional” farm. I don’t have time to read the studies and PDFs of the research, but you addressed several of my concerns in this post. Even non-organic farmers use crop rotation and grazing on their fields. They HAVE to, otherwise, as Mark says, the quality of the soil diminishes substantially and then crop yields decrease. No farmer, organic or not, wants this to happen. Non-organic farmers have… Read more »
Primal Toad
3 years 11 months ago

Maybe. Mark recommends organic local and then conventional local and then organic.

So don’t think that he is trying to say that non organic farmers are bad. It just depends.

Happycyclegirl
Happycyclegirl
3 years 11 months ago
Thanks for this post Mark. Worker health is often overlooked. And yet these farmers and workers are very much affected by the use (often long-term) of pesticides, fungicides etc. One further note on bee health–it is common practice to move thousands of bees across the country to pollinate mono-crops of items like blueberries and almonds. Bees are suffering not only from the travel but also from harvesting pollen from only one source rather than the diversity they would collect from if their hives were not located in the center of a mono-crop. (Having difficulty explaining this. Very tired today–brain not… Read more »
ravi
3 years 11 months ago
A big thanks Mark for a very good overview of what organic farming means to each of us beyond a higher price tag. I want to emphasize to all of us in the paleo/primal path who say “i don’t do much produce” that Marks expose impacts you all just as much if not more than it does vegetarians – and that is because our meat eats what agriculture grows and then becomes…. our meat. Any sin committed in conventional ag is multiplied in the meat we all love to eat (if we eat conventional meat) – our meat animals eat… Read more »
Luke DePron
Luke DePron
3 years 11 months ago

Really enjoyed this one for some reason

Ed
3 years 11 months ago

I remember mixing pesticides and herbicides up on the farm. Had to wear a respirator and if I got any on me I had to run to the garden hose to since it off…once it dawned on me that I was spraying this on stuff people were to eat soon it really gave me a different perspective. I was only 18 when that happened!

Wayne
3 years 11 months ago

When organic produce is reasonably priced then I try to buy organic but often is is just so freaking expensive. Normal broccoli is $1 a pound where as organic broccoli is $5 a pound! I am already spending so much money on food that I just don’t want to spend 5x more on fruits and vegetables. When it is like 20% more expensive then I buy it.

HopelessDreamer
HopelessDreamer
3 years 11 months ago

+1

doghug
doghug
3 years 11 months ago

+1

Camille
Camille
3 years 11 months ago

I’ve read that broccoli is a low pesticide vegetable, as pests don’t like it much. So save your money for organic something else!

Aria
Aria
3 years 11 months ago

My main worry is that mass-produced organic products will ultimately be just as damaging as non-organic. And unfortunately, the money problem is significant. The few organic things available in the grocery store are priced okay, but when I go to the local health store and the organic cucumbers are 4 dollars compared to 2 dollars at the grocery store, well… I have my priorities and the primary one is grass-fed beef.

Nicky
Nicky
3 years 11 months ago

For an insight into the rise and politics of the organic food movement, I suggest reading “Organic, Inc.” by Samuel Fromartz. He chronicles the historical origins of organic food and discusses how it fits into big agribusiness, the technical and legal issues, and how all this affects how we buy our food. His approach is pretty balanced and the book was a fascinating read.

Dawn
Dawn
3 years 11 months ago

I don’t like hearing the rattle of a rattlesnake in the bushes — avoid stupid mistakes!

Charles
Charles
3 years 11 months ago
Rattlesnakes are one of nature’s most polite creatures. Unless you have an idiot dog or a child with severe mental problems, you don’t need to worry about a rattlesnake that’s rattling, because the rattlesnake does not want to bite you and is letting you know where it is so you can avoid it. The irrational fear of rattlesnakes is actually making them more dangerous to us, since the ones who rattle almost invariably get killed, the ones who don’t rattle are much more likely to live and pass on their genes, while making them much more likely to get stepped… Read more »
Carly
Carly
3 years 11 months ago
agreed! actually we had a few around our old place in far northern california that didn’t rattle but we found them regardless and killed them. coincidently my husband found a rattling one by the house (thanks to the dogs coming in a little too close), he managed to catch it into a shoebox which he taped shut, and he tossed the box (opened) up as far back on our property as he could via my quad. he didnt mind them at all, if they rattled. they were nice to keep the rodent population down. Now we are back in Australia… Read more »
Kitty =^..^=
Kitty =^..^=
3 years 11 months ago

Charles, I never thought of rattlesnakes that way. There are no snakes where I live (New Zealand) so I am ignorant of them. However, I’ve seen various docos on T.V. that always seem to sensationalise the danger and horror of snakes. It’s great to hear people such as yourself put a different perspective on things.

Charles
Charles
3 years 11 months ago

Poisonous snakes are dangerous, but like guns, knives, cars, and other dangerous objects and animals, a little common sense and understanding goes a long way. I tend to find that journalists are generally deficient in both, so I try to just flat ignore anything that seems sensational. Here in the US, we were told that we were in the midst of a “Summer of the Shark” during a year where there were actually fewer total shark attacks and fewer attacks resulting in death than the previous year.

Heather
Heather
3 years 11 months ago

Journalist Barry Eastbrook reported on pesticide causing horrific birth defects in immigrant tomato farmers’ children in Florida. One child, Carlos, was born with no arms, no legs. Link below:

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1033178/chemical_warfare_the_horrific_birth_defects_linked_to_tomato_pesticides.html

Ailo
Ailo
3 years 11 months ago

I like the sound of rattlesnake in the bushes, makes me feel primal, and they taste like chicken!

kiran
kiran
3 years 11 months ago

If you can make the time/space to grow a small garden you can get a lot of fruits and veggies that you eat often or more expensive ones and only have to buy a few quality ones from the store throughout most of the year. You don’t get much more local than this. Combine this with hunting and fishing and your grocer may think you are a complete stranger. Just a thought.

If you don’t take charge of your own life Something will.

Mad Am Flintstone
Mad Am Flintstone
3 years 11 months ago

Permaculture permaculture permaculture. Polyculture, permaculture.

Heather
Heather
3 years 11 months ago
In Australia, our soils are very old, and somewhat degraded. Yet agribusiness is a huge chunk of our GDP. As a small scale farmer of heritage sheep, the pros and cons of organics verses conventional can get complicated. For example, the last few years we have had some of the wettestest summers in living memory, with floods and drenching rain, which for me has created huge problems with worms in the livestock. With little opportunity to spell a paddock or two (too wet), and the threat of loosing priceless genetics, we have to drench. We breed our animals with resilience… Read more »
Rio
Rio
3 years 11 months ago

Biodiversity should also be valued intrinsically…because it is, not because what we can get from it (aesthetically or otherwise).
When Biodiversity is lost, there is little to no way to recover it…and this would have a devastating effect not just on agriculture, but life as we know it.

Sorry to get all ‘environmental warrior’ on you 🙂

Alyssa
Alyssa
3 years 11 months ago

+1

Diane
Diane
3 years 11 months ago

When people say “I can’t afford it” at some level I think, wow, look how poor we’ve become. Real food used to be commonplace. Now it’s a luxury? It’s a luxury to have healthy soil, healthy bees, healthy farm workers? That’s really messed up. We’ve been screwed by somebody out there, that’s for sure.

Camille
Camille
3 years 11 months ago

Yeah, people are eating huge amounts of bland, toxic food. They used to eat reasonable amounts of quality food. Food is cheaper now, so we can all get fat and sick- yeah for progress!

Rachel
Rachel
3 years 11 months ago

Very timely post, Mark. There was an article on MSN today about the high rate of chronic kidney disease in the laborers working in sugar cane fields. They think it might be partly the hard work and dehydration, coupled with the fact they tend to suck on the sugarcane, but also pointed to pesticides (which are generally also tainted with arsenic) as a potential cause. They’re still struggling to figure it out. My money’s on the chemicals.

Leila
Leila
3 years 11 months ago
I appreciate this article. Yet I understand the dilemma. I generally buy all fruit organic but am often not willing to pay the money for organic vegetables, esp if the cost is double– our food budget is stretched as is. As a paleo/strict primal enthusiast who does best on 11-12 servings of produce a day, I tend to think “better twice the kale conventionally grown than half the kale organically grown.” But, my husband and I are hoping to become pregnant soon, which makes me rethink my philosophy. Due to the cost of organic, better less pesticide exposure and fewer… Read more »
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[…] of dirt and clay and sand! Bee health? What do I care about a lousy bee? All those things […] Mark’s Daily Apple Related Posts:Is Organic a Scam? – Nutrient DifferencesHome Remedies for Bee StingsIs Organic […]

Anon
3 years 11 months ago

What we don’t read yet is that people exposed to these high levels of farming chemicals are getting obese.
I worked on an orchard in the 1970s and came down with CFS after lindane exposure (that was extreme even by the standards of the day). My co-worker was losing his vision.

BT
BT
3 years 11 months ago

Paul Chek has a youtube video which gives the “whole dirt story” it is essential watching..enjoy

Julian
Julian
3 years 11 months ago

Finally!

It’s taken you a while Mark, but at last decent a post about the foundation for everything – basically, putting the environment first!

SH
SH
3 years 11 months ago

On the opposite edge of the spectrum: Did anyone else read the article on CNN that told how the US farmers could no longer afford Corn for their cattle and were buying expired Candy to subsidies the feed?
High Fructose Corn as feed for livestock is a sure way to make a cow diabetic not to mention the byproducts in the Milk or Meat. And the average consumer has no idea!

Jessica
Jessica
3 years 11 months ago
Great post Mark! I am so happy to see you bring up biodiversity! (and soil health, and carbon sequestration!!! and of course human health!) The earth functions on so many complicated interconnected levels, its so important to educate people on how everything we do has an impact. The idea of biodiversity and its importance on the overall health of the planet is a really hard sell to the general public. It’s great to bring it up here where everyone is a little more in tune (or trying to be) with the natural world. We all need to act as stewards… Read more »
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3 years 11 months ago

[…] TODAY’S BLOG is organic a scam ? […]

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[…] thoughts on it: Huffington Post sounds off. LA Times editorial And of course, Mark Sisson has something to say regarding this. Share this:Print Friendly Version!MoreEmailPrintFacebookTwitterStumbleUpon Cancel […]

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