Even ‘Organic’ Food Isn’t Truly Natural

Published November 28, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment in a series of articles by Mischa Popoff and Jay Lehr on modern agriculture and organic farming.

With only rare exceptions, all food production is completely unnatural. The means by which science has allowed us to increase production on a smaller piece of land, and to protect that production from a myriad of weeds, pests, and pathogens, is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s something to be giving thanks for instead of attacking. Even organic farmers have benefited from decades, centuries in fact, of objective, peer-reviewed, scientific enquiry into nature’s secrets of efficient food production.

Testing the Claims

It is important to stand up to bullies at the top of the organic food chain, not to get even but to return the judgment of food production to the same level of objectivity that is taken for granted in every other industry in the United States. Technology, in other words, should be embraced, not vilified, when it comes to putting food on your table.

Don’t take our word for it; ask any full-time farmer, organic or otherwise, if he likes his diesel tractor or if he’d really prefer to return to a horse-drawn plow. No one would expect the guy who built your house to quit using power tools in his line of work. So why do we expect farmers to go backwards in time when all of them (yes, even organic farmers) want to take advantage of the progress we’ve made?

Enjoying Benefits of Technology

In fact, it could be argued that nowhere in the U.S. economy has it been more vital to promote the most advanced forms of technologies than in agriculture. These include hybrid seed technology, invented in the early 20th century without any objections from the organic community; rapid selective breeding technology, developed in the latter part of the 20th century, again without any objections from the organic community; and most recently, biotechnology, developed near the end of the 20th century, with at first no objections, followed by a wave of manufactured objections from the organic community and beyond.

Biotechnology (also referred to as genetic engineering) is only the latest contribution scientists have made to the efficient delivery of food to your table. Shouldn’t we at least give it the benefit of the doubt given its promis of reducing our reliance on pesticides and herbicides while producing more abundant harvests of nutritious, wholesome food?

Some people are bound to become emotional about change and will oppose technological advances, but opposing the production of safe, nutritious, and plentiful food is completely irrational. In fact, a safe, reliable, and affordable world food supply will do more for global political stability than perhaps any government program, while lessening our impact on the planet—as long as the organic activists aren’t successful at throwing roadblocks in front of modern agriculture.

Disputing ‘Precautionary Principle’

As to the charges that biotech crops will someday produce adverse effects in humans, one of the preeminent forefathers of the modern-day organic movement, Lord Walter Northbourne, famously said the following in defense of organic agriculture:

“If we waited for scientific proof of every impression before deciding to take any consequential action, we might avoid a few mistakes, but we should also hardly ever decide to act at all. In practice, decisions about most things that really matter have to be taken on impressions, or on intuition, otherwise they would be far too late.… We have to live our lives in practice, and can very rarely wait for scientific verification of our hypotheses. If we did we should all soon be dead, for complete scientific verification is hardly ever possible. It is a regrettable fact that a demand for scientific proof is a weapon often used to delay the development of an idea.” (Lord Walter Northbourne, Look to the Land, 1940, p. 31)

If such reasoning is good enough for the organic movement, it should be good enough for the science of genetic engineering, which has yet to produce a single side effect.

Applying the Science

As long as consumers are misled into thinking organic food is better than conventional food, no one making money in the organic sector will ever be persuaded to bother proving it is truly worth more. Given the facts about how organic food becomes certified and how that system allows activists to denigrate the conventional food industry that provides literally hundreds of millions of perfectly safe, nutritious, and affordable meals to Americans every day, it’s clear that the United States must clarify what it means for foods to be organic and hold farmers to that standard before certifying them as such.

Applying fact-based science to all forms of food production will allow us to remain the world leader when it comes to feeding humankind, producing more food on less land.

And that benefits not only the United States but the entire world and helps preserve the environment.

Mischa Popoff ([email protected]) is a former organic farmer, a USDA-accredited organic crop inspector, and author of the book Is It Organic? Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.