Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate
Thomas R. DeGregori
Blackwell Publishing, September 2003
211 pages, hardcover, $62.99, ISBN 0813805139
Available from Amazon.com
Thomas R. DeGregori’s Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate is a science book written by a genius for non-genius scientists as well as laymen interested in understanding how the world works. It will enable readers to effectively debate their misinformed friends and colleagues about the flawed thinking about organic agriculture and how it often stands in the way of creating a nutritious diet in the developing world.
Wishful Thinking vs. Science
Contemporary proponents of organic agriculture and opponents of genetically modified food believe “pure” food confers some special kind of virtue on those who produce it and those who consume it. They fail to acknowledge that organic chemistry, genetics, and molecular biology have been essential to twentieth century advances in agriculture, such as plant breeding, and are instrumental in ensuring there is enough food for everyone.
DeGregori tells us, “In recent decades, as the doubts about the benefits of science and technology have grown in some segments of society and become essential dogma in some areas of academia, radicalized youth have taken to the streets in opposition to science and to the institutions that they identify with.”
He then makes a convincing case that these people are mistaken in believing they are defending the poor and powerless, when in fact it is precisely these people who need our technical advances the most.
In building his powerful case against organic agriculture and the political influences that brought it forth, DeGregori offers the reader a virtual history of science with special emphasis on developments in chemistry. He explains the beginnings of the battle between real science, which reduces problems to their smallest components, and the holistic (sometimes called vitalist) viewpoint that insists the whole can never be separated from its parts.
From the holistic viewpoint comes the incorrect idea that an ecosystem is a single, integrated organism and the notion that the human body cannot be dealt with in discreet, incremental ways.
But as medicine becomes ever more specific in its targets, toxicity and other adverse side effects are less likely. DeGregori notes, “Pharmaceuticals are being designed to use the body’s peptide ‘zipcodes’ to seek out the cancerous cells–in a process called ‘molecular targeting’–and then interfere with their reproduction but not that of normal cells.”
DeGregori shows that scientific inquiry can undermine the pseudoscientific mythology that supports false practices.
A brilliant example of this is how he exposes all the guiding principles of homeopathic medicine, which claims that illness is merely the body being out of balance, and that one should administer a diluted portion of the offending cause of the illness to make a person healthy again. DeGregori dashes cold water on this hypothesis with a basic mathematical fact: “Chemical analysis of a vial of homeopathic medicine and a placebo of plain water and alcohol, would not allow one to ascertain which vial contains the active product and which one the placebo.”
In addition, no book has ever before dared to conclusively illustrate how totally enmeshed in crackpot environmentalism, green dogma, and quack medicine was the Nazi Party movement. DeGregori devotes two complete chapters to these issues that have been largely ignored in modern literature for fear of offending today’s environmental zealots.
As DeGregori launches into his convincing arguments against the current proliferation of organic agriculture and the pseudoscience that supports it, he corrals the fallacy of the “precautionary principle” as well as this reviewer has seen it done. He chooses as a definition for the precautionary principle, “absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm.” He then points out that the absence of evidence of harm is sometimes the only evidence possible that there is no harm.
Green opponents of genetically modified food, DeGregori tells us, “will not accept as evidence that the number of people who have eaten genetically modified food now number into the hundreds of millions without there being a single verified instance of even the slightest hint of harm to anybody.”
The greens claim to have an unchallengeable claim on all the gaps in our knowledge about unprovable dangers and expertise about which we are allegedly ignorant. DeGregori draws upon the wisdom of the great debunker H. L. Mencken to undermine their claims. Mencken said in 1930:
“To argue that the gap in knowledge which still confronts the seeker must be filled, not by patient inquiry but by intuition or revelation, is simply to give ignorance a gratuitous and preposterous dignity.”
Similarly, DeGregori spares “vegans” no mercy when they pretend to worship the “life” of animals. Being a vegan, he says, “may also be harmful to biodiversity and be fatal to more animals than eating meat. The grain that the vegan eats is harvested by a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer’s tractor crushes woodchucks in their burrows.”
DeGregori also succinctly crafts the best supporting statement for today’s advancing agricultural technology this writer has read:
“With the advent of crop protection built into transgenic crops which the organic folk are resolutely against, there will be little question as to which crop, conventional or organic, has the fewest toxins, either applied by the farmer or produced by the plant. With transgenics, conventional farmers will be able to produce a crop as close to being truly pesticide-free (the only pesticide possibly being a gene that expresses a protein toxic only to specific pests) as has ever been done by humans.”
In refuting the many lies about organic farming, DeGregori offers a marvelous tutorial on genetics, including an excellent explanation of the double helix, chemical bases, genes and proteins, and the amazing contribution made by those who figured out how to make abundant nitrogen fertilizer out of thin air. Without this latter advance we could not have fed even half the world’s current population.
Anti-biotech groups say much about supposedly dangerous allergens in genetically improved crops. DeGregori debunks this thoroughly, explaining biotech will allow scientists ultimately to remove allergens from all existing crops.
Debunking Organic Myths
DeGregori quotes numerous studies that tried in vain to show the superiority of organic food when obviously no such superiority exists.
His greatest original contribution may be in pulling away the curtain that hides the deceitful, underhanded role played by Caucasian-dominated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) behind the organic food movement. These groups have cleverly undermined any hope of progress in African nations navigating under despotic rule since the end of white colonization.
As with most anti-technology mythology, massive refutation of organic agriculture may dampen the furor it creates, but substantial evidence to the contrary rarely extinguishes the myth entirely as it lives on in the netherworld of the believers.
The critics keep asking for more proof for the safety of genetically improved crops and food, but the more you give them, the more proof they demand.
There is simply no amount of proof that they will ever find satisfactory or compelling. Evidence becomes irrelevant when evil is deemed to be inherent and eternal. DeGregori writes, “The call for more evidence is simply a ruse to make the critics appear open to evidence when they are not.”
While I rank this book as a “must read,” no author is perfect. Dr. DeGregori often waxes eloquently about matters of science unrelated to his topic, but this is a minor flaw in a very important book.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.