Organic farming – is it a cult or a real technology?

Organic farming is the technology of growing vegetables without using synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The success of organic farming in the United States has happened because many people started to buy expensive “organic” vegetables, reasoning that it is good for their health and the environment. Over the years, organic farming became more then just a technology – government started to give organic farmers certifications and new non-profit organizations like Ecology Action started to promote organic farming with armies of followers all around he globe. But the basic question remains – is the organic farming movement based on sound science? It appears that organic farming is mostly based on people’s misunderstanding of plant physiology, past failures of mainstream agriculture and the desire of organic farmers to maintain their high profit margins.

First, it is important to discuss the roots of people’s desire to eat organic vegetables – the belief that when plants are fed with organic fertilizers, they become “natural”, better for health, more tasty – and their biochemistry is different from plants grown on chemical fertilizers. The truth is that plants, unlike animals, are autotrophic organisms, i.e. organisms that synthesize their food from simple non-organic chemicals. Animals, including humans, eat proteins, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins. Plants cannot eat proteins. They “eat” nitrates, phosphates, potassium, calcium and a dozen of other kinds of non-organic ions. Before plants can get nutrients from organic fertilizers, soil bacteria must decompose organic fertilizers into simple non-organic chemicals, convert proteins first into ammonia, then into nitrites, and finally into nitrates that can be consumed by plants. The resulting nitrates are indistinguishable from nitrates from chemical fertilizers on any physical, chemical or biological level. Because of this, vegetables grown on properly used chemical fertilizers are no less “natural” than vegetables grown on organic fertilizers.

Proponents of organic farming sometimes state that plants need to get nutrients from organic matter. This is not true. During the middle of the 20th century many people grown vegetables with a technology called “hydroponics”, when plants grew in artificial media and fed from a mix of salts. Hydroponics is not popular today because of its high costs of maintaining necessary equipment, but it produces great tasty vegetables and disproves the idea that plants need organic substances to grow.

People buying organic food claim that organic food is tastier. According to Richard Gallagher, editor of The Scientist magazine, this is not true: “Blind tests show no difference in taste between organic and inorganic food” (The Organic Food Placebo – http://www.cgfi.org/materials/articles/2004/oct_11_04_gallagher.htm). It is true that food from different supermarkets may taste differently. But this difference can be explained by different storage conditions and especially by using plant hormone gas ethylene for artificial ripening of green vegetables after the transportation – a practice that has nothing to do with organic vs. chemic fertilizer controversy because ethylene is not a fertilizer.

Another misunderstanding of the general public is the belief that organic farming benefits the environment. According to Dennis Avery, a researcher from a non-profit organization Center for Global Food Issues, this is not true. Avery argues that organic farming is associated with lower yields per acre compared with the mainstream agriculture. According to CGFI main statement, “Growing More Per Acre Leaves More Land for Nature”, so from this prospective it is the mainstream agriculture that benefits the environment.

From another side, organic farming proponents claim that the mainstream agriculture does not benefit the environment because chemical fertilizers pollute the environment. This is also not true. Chemical fertilizers like ammonium sulfate are completely consumed by plants and can pollute the environment only if they are applied in large amounts too fast, in which case they can cause algae bloom in nearby rivers and suffocate fish living there. But exactly the same would happen with improper use of organic fertilizers – blood meal or manure. What is worse, in addition to algae bloom, manure can contain polluting pathogens (according to an article by Alex Avery “Organic Food Non Safety?”) and can increase soil salinity. Apparently, the scientifically correct use of chemical fertilizers (completely consumed ammonium sulfate) may pollute the environment less than the use of organic fertilizers (manure that increases soil salinity and has pathogens).

Organic farmers also make various claims that organic farming preserves soils. This statement is not true simply because a true natural soil has a complicated horizon structure, that can be destroyed by “double digging” and adding a lot of compost – a technique practiced by followers of Ecology Action. According to an article by Dennis Avery “Organic Farming Loses ‘Healthier Soils’ Claim to High-tech Farming”, organic farmers plow frequently to control weeds, while mainstream farmers control weeds using herbicides. Organic farming techniques, according to Avery, are damaging to a soil’s health because frequent plowing destroys beneficial mychorrizal fungi – recently discovered symbiotic organisms that help plants in getting mineral nutrients from the soil. At a minimum, organic farmers’ claims about improving soil health do not look solid and require additional research.

Another area of the general public’s confusion about organic fertilizers is the definition of the word “organic” itself. For example, fish emulsion is a popular organic fertilizer. However, according to the article “How A Fish Becomes Fertilizer”, by Bill Glinn, a representative of Alaska Fish Fertilizer Company, manufacturing of fish emulsion requires a complicated technological process, involving artificial chemicals like phosphoric acid, synthetic urea, enzymes and smell masking agents. So “organic” fish emulsion is not so organic after all.

How did the distrust of chemical fertilizers originate? Probably the main factor was incorrect use of chemical fertilizers in the past, including applying excessive amounts of fast-acting nitrogen fertilizers, resulting in plant burn and excessive nitrates in plant tissues. It is more difficult to misuse organic nitrogen fertilizers because they contain less nitrogen and release it more slowly. However, proper application (smaller amounts many times instead of one time a lot) eliminates this chemical fertilizer problem. Even better are modern slow-releasing fertilizers like urea formaldehyde or like Osmocote that release nutrients slower and are superior to organic fertilizers in cost.

Another, although minor, factor in the formation of the distrust of chemical fertilizers is he highly questionable practice of manufacturing micronutrient fertilizers from the toxic wastes of the steel industry, described in the article “Waste Lands. The threat of Toxic Fertilizer”, written by Matthew Shaffer, a researcher from the non-profit organization California Public Interest Research Group Charitable Trust. Matthew Shaffer is against recycling toxic wastes into chemical fertilizers because it causes environment pollution with heavy metals like lead or cadmium, which can cause cancers and birth defects. However Shaffer is not against manufacturing chemical fertilizers in a normal way, without recycling toxic wastes. Interestingly, Shaffer is also not impressed with some “natural” fertilizers like rock phosphate that may have “causing concern” levels of cadmium and even uranium. This problem is relatively minor for the discussion because recycling toxic wastes is used only in manufacturing of micronutrients fertilizers (zinc, molybdenum and similar) that are used infrequently and have the production volume orders of magnitude less than macronutrient fertilizers (with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium).

It is important to say that organic fertilizers do have some merit. First of all, organic fertilizers like cottonseed meal add organic matter to a soil, improving the soil structure and nutrient-holding capacity. This means that particles of organic matter can keep chemical nutrients like potassium ions or nitrate ions, in the vicinity of plant roots, without leaching them down the soil. But the same results can be achieved by applying a mix of compost and chemical fertilizers.

Another benefit is that organic fertilizers are slow-releasing, providing optimal slow nurturing of plants without potential for underground water pollution. However, there are also slow-released sulfur-coated chemical fertilizers, like Osmocote. At the same time, Osmocote has a disadvantage in the higher cost compared with most of other chemical fertilizers, so the question whether to use Osmocote or organic fertilizers does not have an obvious answer.

Important benefit is that some organic fertilizers add micronutrients to a soil, like zinc, molybdenum, iron and others. But most soils already contain all the necessary micronutrients. Also in a case of an acute micronutrient deficiency synthetic micronutrient fertilizers solve the problem better because of precise concentration, while concentrations of micronutrients in organic fertilizers are small and highly variable, so it is not possible to tell precisely whether a given organic fertilizer will solve a given deficiency or not. For example Scotts-Sierra Horticultural Product Company gives precise amounts of micronutrients on its fertilizer labels (see http://www.scottsprohort.com/_documents/tech_sheets/H5101_Osmocote_Pro.pdf), while organic fertilizer manufacturers, like Whitney Farms, give only amounts of macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium – see http://www.whitneyfarms.com/products/specialtyfertilizers.shtml).

Probably the most important benefit of organic fertilizers is that they feed soil microorganisms and worms that improve soil quality. Because of this effect mainstream agriculture uses some organic techniques like putting compost in the soil, as recommended by the US Composting Council’s booklet “Benefits of Using Compost”. Technically speaking, compost is not an organic fertilizer, but more like a soil amendment, but in this respect it acts similarly. One example of the organic fertilizer efficiency is the use of alfalfa meal by rose growers – a technique that greatly increases the population of beneficial worms in a soil and improves soil health. However, alfalfa meal is a very costly fertilizer for its benefits and cannot be used for the majority of situations.

Organic farming proponents usually ignore the disadvantages of organic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers may introduce unwanted chemicals, like rock phosphate may introduce heavy metals. Many organic fertilizers increase soil salinity, notably manures, kelp and other fertilizers. An organic fertilization program cannot help a soil with seriously bad alkalinity – sulfur or iron sulfate application may be needed, as shown in an article by university researchers Alice Jones, Bob Sorensen and Betsy Dierberger “Soil and Water Resources”. Organic fertilizers may not be able to solve acute plant nutrient problems, like chlorosis. Organic fertilizers cost 10 and more times more than chemical fertilizers with similar nutrient contents. Organic fertilizers have higher risk of pathogen contamination. It is clear that for most agricultural situations organic fertilizers do not have significant advantages compared to chemical fertilizers, but have many disadvantages, especially cost and imprecise formulations.

Really puzzling is the role of the US government in the organic farming controversy. For instance, a manual describing organic farmer certification requirements (“Manual Two: USDA Requirements for Organic Producers” by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)) contains a list of allowed and disallowed chemicals for organic farmers. This list strikes as arbitrary and sometimes illogical. For example, it does not allow using synthetic herbicides, but allows use of flame to kill weeds. Weed burners represent a significant fire hazard, not speaking about the use of chemicals for their fuel. Even worse, organic guidelines allow use of plastic mulches, provided they are “removed from the field at the end of the growing or harvest season”. It is illogical because prohibited by the document synthetic herbicides like “2,4-D” decomposes without leaving residue shortly after it hits the ground, but pieces of allowed plastic mulch will persist in the soil for millennia.

Another example is that these guidelines disallow use of ammonium sulfate – a chemical fertilizer that is completely consumed by a plant to build its body and cannot kill anybody with normal use. However, these guidelines do allow use of copper sulfate – a substance that accumulates in a soil, kills fish and animals.

Yet another example is that these organic guidelines allow use of sulfur dioxide to kill underground rodents. But sulfur dioxide is generally considered a toxic industrial air pollutant. It causes “acid rains”. Does it mean that “green” “organic” people think that the use of sulfur dioxide by an organic farmer magically makes it not toxic? And finally, these organic guidelines do not allow use of antibiotics for animals but do allow use of streptomycin antibiotic for fire blight control in apples and pears.

In order to understand what the organic farming movement is, it is important to look to non-profit and commercial organizations, promoting the technology. One of the best-known organic promoters is Ecology Action, a California environmental research and education organization. Their vision is described in a book “How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons. This book is distributed during Ecology Action’s classes in Palo Alto’s Common Grounds store as a way to convert the followers.

The book starts with the claims that the proposed agricultural technology can save the environment, save soils from erosion and solve the problem of the world’s hunger, while being less labor intensive and less expensive than the mainstream technology. Ideas presented in the book include extensive use of composting, companion planting, hexagonal planting etc. In addition to the purely agricultural topics the book includes certain environmental philosophy associated with Ecology Action organization. 53 out 240 pages of this book are bibliography. It contains references not just to agricultural sources, but also to the books about philosophy, dieting, crafts, economics, housing, recycling and Native Americans. Unfortunately, the book contains not very many agricultural technologies, and much of the technology it contains is based on questionable or nonexistent research. At the same time the book contains a lot of claims, like claim that their technology will grow a complete amount of food necessary for a small family on 4000 square feet. In addition to such claims it contains some apocalyptic ideas what will happen to humanity if humanity will not adopt Ecology Action’s technology. Such dreadful events include loss of soils, water resources and starvation.

Some of Ecology Action’s “biointensive” technologies are supported by the agricultural science. For example heavy use of composting allows to increase soil’s “Cation Exchange Capacity” (CEC) – an ability of soil particles to keep mineral nutrition available to the roots of the plants. However many of “biointensive” techniques are presented without support.

For example the book has an extensive list of “companion” plants – plants, “helping” each other to grow (like carrots and peas, or pumpkin and corn). However the book does not refer to scientifically correct experiments that can prove the increase of agricultural output with such planting. At some moment the book promotes planting plants by the phases of the moon, an idea that was never proven and does not have even anecdotal evidence.

The book does not show the hidden costs of Ecology Action’s technology. For example it is very labor-intensive comparing with the mainstream technologies. The book promotes use of organic fertilizers like alfalfa meal, but does not mention that fertilizing in this way is at least 10 times more expensive than with chemically synthesized fertilizers. The book promotes home composting, but does not mention that centralized municipal composting of yard waste usually produces weed-free, nitrogen-balanced and much cheaper compost.

This book and related articles produced by Ecology Action refer to worldwide adoption of their technology in places like India and Russia, using techniques similar to network marketing organizations like Mary Kay and Amway. The problem is that people in India and Russia think that everything from America is inherently superior to their practices and don’t question them much.

Overall, organic farming organizations, supplies and followers resemble some religious cult groups. Generally speaking, religions started when people were confused about things they did not understand (like what is lightening) and were trying to make sense of some events (sinful person was hit by a lightening) and intuitive assumptions (some powerful paternalistic figure in the sky should be in charge). Then religious leaders appear and promote their theories and agendas (if you will tell everyone sin leads to lightening, you will be praised by the leaders of the lightening cult).

In a similar fashion, organic movement started when people were confused about plant physiology (plants counter-intuitively feed on inorganic chemicals) and saw some past failures of the mainstream technology (incorrect application of chemical fertilizers). This gave raise to many groups who started promoting a new organic farming religion and inspired a new generation of garden suppliers oriented exclusively to organic gardening market and commanding higher prices on everything “organic”. This movement is to a high degree based on people’s irrationality, but it will probably go to the past only after the mainstream technology will resolve many other, non-fertilizer-related agricultural issues, including pesticide toxicity, prevention of soil erosion, the problem of storing fresh ripened vegetables without using ethylene and many others.

References:

1. Jeavons, John. How to Grow More Vegetables. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002.

2. Avery, Dennis. “Organic Farming Loses ‘Healthier Soils’ Claim to High-tech Farming.” Center for Global Food Issues. 6 February 2003. 1 February 2005. http://www.cgfi.org/materials/articles/2003/feb_6_03.htm.

3. Center for Media & Democracy. “Trashing organic foods.” Source Watch. 16 June 2004. 1 February 2005. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Trashing_organic_foods

4. Ginn, Bill. Alaska Fish Fertilizer Company. “How A Fish Becomes Fertilizer”. Rainy Side Gardeners. 8 February 2005. http://www.rainyside.com/resources/fishfert.html

5. Incitec Fertilizers Ltd. “Superphosphate Fact Sheet”. 2000.

6. Shaffer, Matthew, Toxic Policy Advocate. “Waste Lands. The Threat of Toxic Fertilizer”. California Public Interest Research Group Charitable Trust. 2001. http://www.calpirg.org.

7. The US Composting Council. “Benefits of Using Compost”. 2001. http://www.compostingcouncil.org.

8. Jones, Alice J., Bob Sorensen and Betsy Dierberger. “Soil and Water Resources”. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 22 February 2005. http://www.hort.unl.edu/ffa/sol&wat.htm.

9. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). “Manual Two: USDA Requirements for Organic Producers”. January 2003.

10. Avery, Alex. “Organic Food Non Safety.” Center for Global Food Issues. 26 May 2004. 1 February 2005. http://www.cgfi.org/materials/articles/2004/may_26_04.htm.

4 thoughts on “Organic farming – is it a cult or a real technology?

  1. In all do respect, this is description of organic agriculture is such a farce. It appears that you have a personal hatred toward Ecology Action and you are using organic agriculture as your medium. It is obvious that you have just read some papers from pro-chemical supporters and regurgitated it. Your arguments do not even make any sense. For example, you say that chemical fertilizer cost less than organic fertilizer. Do you have any first hand experience? Can you document any evidence that supports that? Well, I can. As a follower of the “cult”, I don’t have any N-P-K fertilizer cost each year. I use cover crops and compost. You could consider the cost of the cover crop seed as fertilizer. I build my soil, which in turns feeds the plants. Some of the farmers in my area who grow hay, spend (as of the spring 2008) $700 for triple 19 (19-19-19) per acre. And they have to put that on every year if they want to get a hay crop in, (in their own words). So how is that for cost?

    Chemical fertilizers were not manufactured with the intent of the farmer in mind. The farmer was an after thought. They were manufactured because after WW2, there was massive amounts of chemicals left over and so they turned them into fertilizers (one of the things they did with them). American agriculture has never been the same.

    Reply

    Yuri Panchul reply on February 21st, 2009 7:37 pm:

    Kevin:

    Let’s address your points one by one.

    *** I don’t have any N-P-K fertilizer cost each year. I use cover crops and compost. ***

    It is possible that your soil has all the necessary P and K because of the chemical properties of underlying rock in your area. For example, many soils in California have excessive amount of P and K and need only N. Soils in other areas do need P and K fertilizers. Did you test your soil in a lab like http://soilandplantlab.com ?

    *** Chemical fertilizers were not manufactured with the intent of the farmer in mind. ***

    1. Do you agree that NO3 ion is exactly the same whether it comes from chemical fertilizer or from decomposition of your cover crop? This is a “yes/no” question.

    2. Do you agree that any plant need to consume NO3 ions in order to build its proteins? This is also a “yes/no” question.

    Thank you,
    Yuri Panchul

    Reply

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