TCS Daily

Manure vs. Machine

By Tomas Brandberg - September 29, 2005 12:00 AM

The marketing of "organic" food is where environmentalists and hucksters converge.

By most definitions an "organic" product must not contain genetically modified organisms and its production must not involve synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. We are supposed to think that organic products are healthier and also better for the environment. However, there is little evidence to support either of those claims. It is true that farmers usually depend on toxic chemical substances in order to keep insects and weeds at bay and it is likewise true that traces of some of these compounds can be found in food and also in humans. However, there is no indication that the measured levels are harmful.

In Australia, where modern farming techniques and technologies are used, for example, the levels of toxic compounds in human tissue are regularly monitored. Most are not found at all, while a few are found at levels corresponding to 1-3 percent of acceptable daily intake (ADI). Only one (methamidophos) was measured at 16 percent of the ADI. Interestingly, it is not possible to eliminate all toxic compounds in food, since food naturally contains different toxins. And the fact that these toxins occur naturally does not make them healthier.

Then what about the fertilizing? In principle, traditional manure and synthetic fertilizers have in common that they are harmless to the consumer and also harmless to the environment if they are used correctly. If applied in too large quantities, synthetic fertilizer may affect the ecology in surrounding soils and waters with undesirable results

But using manure from animals instead of synthetic fertilisers does not solve the problem. Manure should be exploited when the circumstances allow for it, but fertilizing with manure means fertilizing with a cocktail of nutrients, bacteria and a multitude of toxic compounds. This is usually handled in a satisfactory way and the consumer should not be alarmed about it. However, if, for instance, vegetables are not washed properly, they can act as vehicles for dangerous bacteria, such as ehec, which thrive in the gut of domestic animals.

One issue that is frequently overlooked is productivity per area unit. All agriculture has a dramatic impact on the environment, since fields and plantations are created at the expense of wild biotopes. But the more productive a farmer is, the less land he must use for similar yields. The productivity per area unit for organic agriculture is significantly lower than the productivity for conventional agriculture. The difference depends on the crop, but professors Holger Kirchmann and Lars Bergström at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences suggest that organic production corresponds to about 70 percent of conventional production, or less.

The lack of scientific proof that organic food is beneficial for either the environment or public health may explain why the hucksters must resort to such vocabulary as "morals" and "ethics" in order to convince consumers.

The author recently earned a Ph.D. in bioscience and is studying economy and Slavic languages. He is Assistant Editor of the Swedish think tank Captus.


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