Organic or Non-organic?

An article published in March in the Italian weekly magazine Diario questions some aspects of organic agriculture, creating doubts in the reader’s mind – though the author observes a strict professional objectivity – whether organic produce really is always healthier, more wholesome and better for the environment than conventionally produced food. The organic food boom is no longer a new trend. Italy is Europe’s biggest producer and the money it earns is enough to make its critics run it down, claiming its higher prices are not justified.

I would suggest that the costs of conventional agriculture should have its environmental costs added: we would quickly realize we are in fact paying a much higher price. That is another issue however. The article cites sources who presumptuously express skeptical opinions about organic food itself, some referring to it as more an ideology than an agricultural practice.

The strongest critic is Antony Trewavas, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at Edinburgh University, who is one of those suggesting that GMOs are needed for sustainable agriculture. He states that while we have seen massive use of pesticides, the incidence of cancer has fallen by 15% in the last fifty years and he reiterates the well-known thesis that 99.99% of the toxins we consume are naturally contained in the food itself and this is potentially far more dangerous than the paltry 0.01% of toxicity due to chemical products. So food isn’t actually healthy in itself, whether organic or non-organic. That’s a good one.

And we then have the argument that the manure used as fertilizer is a concentrate of bacteria, it contains high concentrations of nitrogen which cause nitrates to be leached and it is harmful for the soil. I, too, believe that liquid manure from intensive farming is harmful for the soil. Let’s not confuse the issue here, there are different sorts of manure.

My farming friends in the Langa had to set aside a special shed and feed the cattle normally, without frantically fattening them up, so they could get good natural fertilizer which worked properly. The manure currently available, from animals fed with accelerated regimes, almost caused more harm than good.

The article also reports a claim made by Enrico Sala, Professor at the State University of Milan: “If we look at maize, we find that it is attacked by fungi which frequently produce aflatoxins, substances which cause liver cancer. Organic maize can contain as much as twenty times more aflatoxin than maize produced by conventional agriculture” — because it does not use pesticides and fungicides. But the professor does not explain that these dangerous aflatoxins mainly develop when maize is stored to produce silage for the use and benefit of intensive agriculture.

What is the point of producing organic silage? The real issue in my opinion is not whether organic food is healthier or better: I have no idea how good five helpings of a rich dish made with organic ingredients might be for you; and it is also true that some organic produce tastes pretty awful.

But food habits and high-quality taste do not depend on the sorts of labels we put on agriculture: they depend on personal choices, what value we put on our health and well-being and how aware the producer is of gastronomic quality. Environmental equilibria depend on organic agriculture (and on productivity-driven choices: an organic monoculture covering hundreds of hectares is harmful for the environment just like any monoculture).

And that 0.01% of chemicals we consume, does it have no effect then? Let’s ask how much chemical contamination has ended up in our aquifers, how much fertile humus it has destroyed for ever, how much it has helped to support the finances of those mega-corporations who promote an unsustainable form of agriculture and primarily think of profit.

It is not a question of hoping (to quote the title of the Diario article) that “Organic agriculture should give us wholesome food”: it is a question of finally realizing that prices should include environmental costs and that science should also be used to support alternative approaches (Prof. Trewavas: who is paying you?).

We should recognize that if we decide for organic food we don’t need to be diffident because it has been given a meaningless label. The real question, yet again, is to ask with informed common sense: is it sustainable?

First printed in La Stampa on March 14 2004

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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