The large-scale Organic dairy cooperative, “Organic Valley” has just sunk to a new low in the practice of “I will market against my farmer neighbors by stoking consumer’s fears.” They announced that they have launched an on-line calculator that is supposed to show you how much pesticide and fertilizer use is avoided when you buy their products. The news release essentially boils down to the message, “buy our products or you will probably die!” It also essentially accuses the 97.5% of us who don’t buy Organic of destroying the planet.
When talking about pesticides the press report says: “For adults, exposure through diet has been linked to infertility, Parkinson’s, testicular cancer, birth defects and much more. More than one million children in America age five and under ingest at least 15 pesticides daily. Early exposures are suspected in the sharp rise in health problems including autism, obesity, asthma, brain cancer and other childhood cancers.” This broad-brush assertion is misleading on so many levels that it is hard to know where to start. I’m not saying that there have never been any health issues with any pesticide anywhere, but we also have sufficient food in part because of pesticides. Though many people don’t know it, there are pesticides used on organic crops as well. Actually, the EPA has done a very good job of regulating pesticide use over the years so that people don’t need to be frightened about their food.
Perhaps it would be best to first point out that the generations of humans who have lived during the decades when synthetic pesticides have been used (from ~the 1940s on) are the healthiest and longest-lived of human history, so mass poisoning does not seem to have occurred. Even people like my generation who grew up in the 50s and 60s (when typical pesticides were far more dangerous than they are today) are doing better than those before us. Also, the fact that individual pesticides differ in toxicity by factors of several hundred is completely glossed-over. Actually the copper-based fungicides used in organic fruit and vegetable production are 10 times more toxic than typical modern pesticides that are themselves several times less toxic than table salt. A “calculator” that treats all pesticides the same fails to bring in any of this perspective. That fits the commercial interests of Organic Valley, but it does not contribute to a rational discussion about the risks and benefits of pesticide use.
The statements in the press release about fertilizers suggest that the writers actually don’t know how plant nutrition works. “Synthetic fertilizers contain forms of nitrogen that can break down into nitrates that threaten human health.” In fact all forms of fertilizer, including those used in Organic, turn into nitrate. It is a good thing they do because a plant can only take up the nitrogen critical for growth in the form of nitrate or ammonia. The fertilizers that the Organic Valley growers use (manure, compost, green manure crops) deliver nitrogen to plants in exactly the same chemical form as synthetic fertilizers. The main difference is that because some of the nitrogen is in biological forms, it turns into nitrate slowly over time. That isn’t necessarily a good thing at all. Since this process continues past the time when the crop is actively absorbing nitrate from the soil, that nitrate is more available for leaching into the water supply or washing into streams. It is also available longer to the soil bacteria that turn some of it into the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (310 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide). Studies show that more nitrous oxide is emitted from manured fields than from those conventionally fertilized. Manuring of fields also leads to substantial methane emissions (21x the GWP of carbon dioxide). The authors of this press release are probably not aware of this issue since they reference the Rodale institute – a group which recently published a white paper claiming that organic was a solution to climate change. This 9 page document failed to even mention either of these greenhouse gasses.
Nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching are actually very challenging issues for all of agriculture, but they are issues that are actually more difficult to manage in Organic than in well-run conventional farming.
Unfortunately, this new form of “green washing” by Organic Valley will probably get some more people to buy their products, something they certainly want since sales of Organic dairy products have dropped quite a bit because of the recession. This is, of course, achieved by spreading misleading or even false information that degrades the reputation of other hard working and responsible farmers who actually feed the vast majority of us. It seems that manure isn’t only being spread on Organic Valley’s fields.