B.S. And Organic Marketing – Figuratively and Literally

Some cows at an Organic dairy


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.

You are welcome to comment here or you can email me at [email protected].  Cow image from jrubinic

  1. Jolly Green Girl

    While I don’t believe in the practices Organic Valley is engaging in to up their profits; I find your angle on Organic is not better than conventional farming a bit misleading. There has been studies upon studies where Organic method has been a more sustainable and healthier way to be kinder to our planet and bodies. I mean why would all the environmentalists and scientists endorse this if it wasn’t so. We can cite sources of studies and findings that can dispute the facts but then who was the study funded by. Is it a credible source in first place? I find this piece a little bit too biased towards conventional farming methods and dismissing the benefits or Organic farming. I think it has been established that it is more environmentally friendly so I am not sure why this is on sustainablog.

    We all know that in farming, some sort of pesticides are necessary and no one is disputing that use of pesticide, conventional or organic. And as a natural parenting mother, I can assure you; I tried both dairy products and I am not playing russian roulette with my daughter’s health while the government decides to put profit over health. I think this article does a great disservice to the Organic farming industry as whole and I am surprised this is even on sustainablog.

  2. Steve Savage

    To Jimmy, I’m not sure what fire you are talking about, but Monsanto’s Bt corn and cotton have actually reduced pesticide use by orders of magnitude more than Organic Valley or even all of Organic will.

  3. Steve Savage

    Jolly Green Girl, you said
    “why would all the environmentalists and scientists endorse it.” That isn’t true at all. I’ve read hundreds of scientific journal articles that touch on sustainability in agriculture and they are full of findings that are not favorable for Organic. Organic is not fundamentally based on scientific principles. It was ahead of its time in terms of attention to soil health, but its limitations to “natural” fertilizers and mechanical tillage are highly problematic from an environmental point of view. Just because lots of people believe that Organic is better does not make it true. As for my bias, it is towards whatever system can feed the world with minimal environmental impact. If all our farms were being manured (which is impossible, there isn’t that much) it would be a disaster.

  4. russ

    The statement ‘why would all the environmentalists and scientists endorse it’ is a bit like the old tooth paste commercials – ‘9 out of 10 dentists recommend this product’. Both statements are gross fabrications!

    Some portion of environmentalists (most of whom have no idea what they are talking about) and some minor portion of scientists endorse organic.

    Like Steve pointed out, a very small percentage of the population buys organic.

    This ‘natural parenting’ is beyond me as many of that group are against doctors, mainline medicine etc and then talk about taking good care of a child and family.

  5. Gwen A.

    Compared to conventionally farmed land, there is relatively little acreage being farmed organically, so with that in mind, what caused the dead zone in the Gulf? And it’s not just organic farms that produce manure; where do all the conventional farms – again, numbering many more than organic – put theirs? Also, “sufficient food” is not an issue in this country. In fact, nearly 50% of US grain crops go to waste, and think about how much food is wasted in restaurants and homes nationwide. We could do with producing a little less.

    It’s not just about how ONE generation is “…the healthiest and longest-lived of human history…” despite pesticide use. It’s about the NEXT generation, and the next, and the next. I grew up in a state where aerial spraying was common and as children we were forced to spend days indoors because of the bad air, and we weren’t allowed to ride our bikes down certain roads because our parents were afraid we’d fall into the giant manure ponds, though we wouldn’t have ridden out there anyway because of the smell. Today, nearly 70% of that community’s children are overweight from not being allowed to play outdoors, or asthmatic and allergic because they did play outdoors. For the first time in history, a generation of children is expected to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents – those are your grandchildren, Mr. Savage. Obviously, there are many factors involved, but pesticides are very much a part of larger picture.

    We’ve let the human/animal/planet health issue get huge and out of control and pesticides may be only one piece, but sometimes it’s only one thing that may turn out to be the tipping point for significant change. Kudos to Organic Valley for taking on *something* in an effort to effect positive change.

  6. Steve Savage

    Of course conventional ag is what causes the dead zone in the gulf. As I said in the post, nitrate movement is a major issue for Ag. It is just that Organic does nothing to address that so Organic Valley’s claim to reduce the issue is specious.
    Your concerns about childhood obesity etc are legitimate, but have nothing to do with conventional agriculture. Organic Valley has not in any way contributed to a meaningful discussion of any issue, only fear-based hocking of their own products

  7. Leslie Tawnamaia

    I am absolutely incredulous that a site supposedly about sustainability would promote genetically engineered crops over organically grown.

  8. Steve Savage

    From the perspective of people who actually work in agriculture, there is nothing incredible about this. Perhaps the biggest advance in agricultural sustainability is getting away from plowing and the erosion and water pollution it causes. This has been particularly true in South America and Australia. GMO herbicide tolerance is key to that. GMO insect resistance has helped large and small-scale farmers around the world to protect their crops with no off-target effects. Organic is a tiny component of our global food system and it only claims to be sustainable. The science would say otherwise for more than the reasons I’ve listed in this post. What matters is what we do in the other 99%

  9. Erin

    When you mention synthetic fertilizers, why do you not discuss the issue of the natural gas used to create them?
    I agree that the plant can’t tell where its nitrate ions come from. However, synthetic fertilizers (and most of the green revolution technology) depend on fossil fuel resources like natural gas.
    These fossil fuels are getting scarcer, and using them contributes greatly to climate change. If we can’t figure out how to feed the world without “green revolution” methods, we’re going to be in trouble, because “green revolution” methods are not sustainable. We can’t do this forever.
    I’ve never heard an anti-organic pro-synthetic argument that addresses this sustainability question. I’m listening….

  10. Steve Savage

    Erin, You are absolutely right that synthetic nitrogen is made using natural gas and the Haber-Bosch process. Unfortunately, it turns out that the storage or composting of manures leads to significantly greater greenhouse gas emissions because of relatively small emissions of the more potent greenhouse gas, methane. Making 1 pound of synthetic urea nitrogen leads to emissions of 1.2 lbs CO2 carbon. For stored manure the value is 3-8 lbs CO2 carbon per pound of N. For composted manure the value is 14 times higher than the urea. This is not something that is widely known, but I’ve had a number of experts in the field review a paper that I posted on the topic. Almost 500 people have visited the page and none of the emails they have sent me have pointed to any problem with my calculations.


    Biological fixation of nitrogen by legumes is the most sustainable method and it is extremely widely practiced by all sorts of farmers today, but even this has issues. When the legume crop is plowed under there is a burst of nitrous oxide which has 310 times the global warming potential of CO2.

    The best thing to do with manure is to extract the carbon-neutral energy out of it in a methane digester or pyrolysis system. That energy could be used to make some synthetic nitrogen with no fossil fuel involvement. It probably wouldn’t be cost competitive because of scale, but perhaps in a carbon cap-and-trade environment…

  11. mgros483


    First of all, I’d like to respectfully correct you on your comment that organic farmers do nothing to control their nitrates. When you’re not using high powered, petroleum based fertilizers (not very sustainable, by the way, consdering electric cars are the headline article on your website today) you are very careful with how you handle your nitrates and keep them on your farm. In my experience (production scale organic dairy farming) 90% of organic farmers use cover crops to retain all of the nitrogen they can, preventing it from running off into the local waterways.

    Also, I agree with a previous poster that this article does a disservice to the organic industry, but more importantly to all progressive, environmental groups, including yourself. People opposed to making earth-wise change in this country lump organics, sustainability, green energy, etc. all into one subject in their minds. A misleading, anti-organic ad does nothing to promote your cause.

    No need to reply to my post, I won’t be back to support the plethora of ads on your site. I bet these buzzword BS articles full of falsities really up your page views.

  12. Steve Savage

    The fact that organic growers use cover crops is great and it will reduce their nitrate leaching. There is still some leaching near the end of the main crop cycle when there is low demand and the manure is still generating nitrate. The point is that Organic Valley is slamming conventional growers unfairly and acting as if they don’t have the same issue to manage when in fact they do.

  13. Will Allen

    Dear Folks,
    I am a little puzzled about why you needed to post this uninformed blog!
    Mr. Savage is parroting the chemical corporation propaganda.
    Organic farmers, like me, use about 5 tons of compost per acre, whereas my neighboring dairy farmers spread twenty tons or more of raw manure on their fields. Organic farmers grow most of their nitrogen fertilizer by using grasses and legumes. This form of nitrogen, which, is vegetable matter is much less soluble than synthetic nitrogen. Chemical corporations recommend high amounts of nitrogen to ensure bumper crops (and high corporate profits), but much of that fertilization is excessive and washes off into the rivers and ultimately ends up in the ocean. The result of this 100 year “experiment” on our farms is that 2/3rds of our drinking water supply is contaminated with high levels of nitrates and nitrites.
    To produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer the process emits 6.7 pounds of CO2 equivalents. Since U.S. chemical farmers used an average of more than 24 billion pounds of synthetic nitrogen from 1998 to 2007, that means that 165 billion 228 million pounds were emitted just in the manufacturing process.
    Unfortunately our government agencies do not add up the greenhouse gasses emitted in shipping, cooling, freezing, fertilization, or fertilizer manufacture when estimating how much chemical farming emits. So, their analysis results in a very low estimate of actual emissions. When all the emissions are counted, chemical farming emits more than 30% of our GHGs.
    Unless we stop using so much nitrogen fertilizer, we will not be able to deal with climate change, or the dead zones, or nitrate pollution of our drinking water.
    Unless we move to more sustainable forms of nitrogen fertilization (fertilizer crops and composts) and stop using such large volumes of pesticides (220 million pounds in 2007 in California alone), and encouraging consumers to eat dangerously fat and over sugared foods, we will not be able to fix the health care system. It costs $300,000 extra to treat an obese patient and more than $400,000 to treat a diabetic. Both of these conditions are food related illnesses.
    We have a terribly bad food system in the U.S. which annually sickens more than 76 million people, 325,000 of those sickened end up in the hospital and more than 5,000 die.
    Adding to the nitrate pollution are the confinement animal operations which have caused antibiotic resistance in chickens, pigs and beef cows as well as farmers, consumers and the drinking water supply.
    Many consumers, like Mr. Savage think that the government is protecting us against any dangers from pesticides, fertilizer, or contaminated food. Nothing could be further from the truth. The FDA, EPA, and the USDA are busy protecting the large scale farmers and the chemical corporations. They could give a sh.. about the consumer!
    We need to ban synthetic nitrogen and phase out pesticides now!
    We just don’t need them.
    We are and have been getting bumper organic yields in all vegetables, fruits, cotton, grain, and oils for 40 years, without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
    Instead we use fertilizer crops for fertility, composts to add microorganisms, and we use beneficial insets to take care of the the bugs, worms, and flies.

  14. Steve Savage

    If you will notice, I was not attacking Organic, just the misleading way one particular organic marketer was promoting its products. As for being “uninformed” I have worked in agriculture including organic for more than 30 years and read hundreds of scientific articles on these sustainability topics. Your 5 tons of compost has a staggering “carbon footprint” because composting on that scale cannot be done without the production of some methane. Your higher value for CO2 emissions is because your expressed in lbs CO2 while I was talking lbs C. The conversion is 12/44. I’m as concerned as you about nitrate leaching, but organic has just as much of an issue and fewer options to manage the situation. When you talk about millions of pounds of pesticides you gloss over a much more complex issue. An Organic vineyard may well apply 80 or more pounds of sulfur a year while a conventional one might only apply a few ounces of a far less irritating material. As for the people who get sick every year, that is because of food borne illness (Salmonella, E. coli, Lysteria…) not chemicals. When you talk about “large scale farmers” do you realize that well over 90% of US farms are still family farms? Yes, many are large, but with modern equipment a single farmer can tend a few thousand acres and still work some of the time off-farm. I’ve met with many of these folks at their kitchen table “office.” You do a lot of decent, hard working and conservation-minded people a great disservice by implying that there is something sinister about them. If your Organic farm is doing well I think that is great. Promote it for what it is, not by trashing your fellow family farmers. As for the EPA and FDA and USDA, I’ve worked with all of these groups and met with their very well qualified scientists. You do them a disservice to imply corruption. Should we assume that you think the same of the USDA people that oversee the Organic certification program?

  15. Steve Savage

    CI, I guess my response would be that I would be incredulous about a sustainability site that didn’t see GMO crops as an integral part of agricultural sustainability. If one looks at the science rather than the popular myth (spread innocently by people who actually know nothing about farming), GMO is one of many technologies that can enhance sustainability. If you want a detailed explanation of what I mean, email me with your specific concerns at [email protected]. I’d be more than happy to explain my position. That invitation is open to anyone else as well.

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