Organic foods are quite in vogue--they constitute the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. Food markets from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart are trying to capture part of this burgeoning market.
The reason for this is that the public thinks organic foods are more nutritious, less toxic, and better for the environment than conventionally produced foods. Alex Avery's new book will convince you that these claims are all false.
Organic Production Inadequate
Avery traces the roots of the organic movement to its earliest days, when all foods were organically grown. Prior to 1909, when the Haber-Bosch process first produced free nitrogen for agricultural application, and before science and technology gave us the fertilizers that now make our food both healthier and more plentiful, all foods were produced through the methods now called organic.
Prominent Agronomist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba tells us less than half the population of today's world could be fed even the inadequate diet of 1900 without today's manufactured fertilizers. Thus, more than half the humans alive today owe their existence to conventional fertilizers.
In turn, wildlife conservators should be equally grateful, Avery notes, for without fertilizer much of the world's wildlife habitat would have been sacrificed to grow crops and animal feed.
Health Benefits Unsupported
Organic foods are widely marketed by companies as healthier and better for you than conventionally produced foods. There is no scientific evidence to support those claims.
A considerable amount of research has been conducted on the nutrient content of organic versus conventional foods, and the results indicate no significant or meaningful nutritional differences between the two.
Avery quotes many prominent nutritionists, among them Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaugh, who said, "If people want to believe that the organic food has a better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows [this]. ... As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial or from decomposed organic matter."
Greater Health Risks
Perhaps the biggest myth about organic foods is that they are demonstrably safer than conventional foods. Available evidence indicates the opposite is likely true.
Heavy reliance on animal manure as a fertilizer can significantly increase food-borne bacteria. A 2004 study at the University of Minnesota found organic produce was six times more likely to be contaminated by generic E. coli than conventional produce.
Similarly, organic free-range chicken was shown to pose much greater risk of salmonella and other illness-causing bacteria than chickens raised in confinement.
Requires More Pesticides
The notion that organic foods are free of pesticides is a carefully cultivated illusion, Avery tells us. Fully 62 percent of all pesticides applied in U.S. agriculture are those approved for organic use, including oil, sulfur, and copper. They are applied in large volumes because they are so much less effective than "non-organic" pesticides developed through modern technology.
For example, to effectively repel fungus growth, copper has to be applied at 14 pounds per acre, while the average non-organic alternative requires but 1.5 pounds per acre.
Avery documents how the usual anti-capitalist, anti-technology groups support the organic movement, and he makes an irrefutable case that these groups are using the movement as a tool in a greater war on economic freedom. Thus we must be more proactive in defending our economic system, he notes.
Explains Avery, "We have the technologies, resources, and know-how to feed and clothe humanity well without fulfilling the dire predictions of the organic doom-sayers, but only if we get over our crisis in confidence in technology, science, and social/economic structure. Free-market democracies are the most adaptable and humane of any system yet tried by mankind. There is simply no reason why we cannot sustainably and abundantly feed all of humanity in the 21st century while protecting wild habitats and ecosystems."
Avery makes short shrift of the myth that organic farming is good for wildlife habitat. Organic agriculture is already causing expansion of farmlands into wildlife habitats in less-developed countries, as fertilizer-free farming requires much more land to produce the same amount of food.
Ironically, the degradation of wildlife habitat in Third World nations is happening to satisfy the organic food demands of wealthy consumers in Europe and the United States who see themselves as environmentalists. Many organic customers simply don't realize the inherent nitrogen limitation of organic farming and the toll their organic preferences are taking on global wildlife.
The reality that organic farming is less productive than non-organic farming is apparently difficult for many organic believers to accept. Direct, field-to-field comparisons show organic farms produce up to 50 percent less than conventional farms.
It is also important to remember that organic farming requires far more than just the land directly involved in growing a crop. Organic farming systems must devote extra land to produce organic nitrogen to apply to crops that can't fix their own nitrogen. Avery carefully documents the larger amount of land required to grow organic food.
Avery concludes with a brief chapter on biotechnology. He notes, "Biotechnology has the power to improve just about every aspect of farming and has already done so in major ways. Our food supply will be safer, more environmentally friendly, and healthier because of the power of biotechnology to make fundamental changes at the genetic level. With it farmers are using far less pesticide and are producing more abundant crops and healthier foods."
The great contribution of The Truth About Organic Foods is not just in exposing organic industry marketing myths, but that Avery explains in clear and non-technical prose why these myths are not true. This 231-page, clearly written text is amazingly comprehensive and a delightful and never boring read.
If you think there is something inherently wholesome, healthy, or environmentally friendly about organic foods, you must read this book.
Jay Lehr [...] is science director for The Heartland Institute.