#SkepticalTuesday: Organic, Local, or Sustainable | Vol. 2 / No. 30.1

Sustainable agriculture isn't simple; Photo: Flickr user Don Graham, CC BY 2.0
Sustainable agriculture isn’t simple; Photo: Flickr user Don Graham, CC BY 2.0

In this week’s #SkepticalTuesday post, I opine on the challenges that make “going organic” and “buying local” problematic for the species.


This recent article over at the LA Times picks up on some of the aspects of the “organic” food debate: it’s not really more nutritious; it doesn’t always mean what you think it does (the USDA allows “organic” labels on crops that use up to 5% of the certified safe maximum amounts of pesticides used on non-“organic” produce, for instance) although it’s much better than the entirely meaningless label “natural”; and the pesticides on non-“organic” food aren’t great, but they’re generally considered safe in the amounts used. The only leg “organic” produce really has to stand on is, I had thought, the environmental one.

As put forward, the idea is that if we all farmed “organically,” the world, and therefore its inhabitants, would be more healthy.

But in listening to an old podcast from the BBC’s series on the elements — Nitrogen, from June 4, 2014 — I learned something that even makes me question that:

“So how reliant is the world on artificial fertilizer?”

“It’s extremely reliant. So the natural nitrogen cycle, using rotations, can support a population of about three billion. Since the green revolution we’ve seen an expansion in the population currently to seven billion we’re projected to stabilize at ten billion by 2050, so, you can imagine that actually, by 2050 there’ll be seven billion people on the planet dependent on inorganic fertilizers.”

“And even now you’re saying there’s four billion people who wouldn’t have enough food to eat if it weren’t for artificial nitrogen.” (22:10).

Which is a problem when you define “organic” as the US Department of Agriculture does, allowing you to market your produce as such only if “no pesticides,* synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms were involved in its growth.

If the world switched, right now, to stop using “synthetic” fertilizers — that is, if all food were suddenly grown “organically” — billions of people would likely starve to death. Maybe not all four — if we stopped eating meat all at once, killed all the cows that existed, and replaced all that pasture land with human food crops, some could be saved. But probably not the whole four billion that are currently in excess of what the land we farm can support.

Something similar happens when you look at “buying local.” As a recent Skeptics’s Guide podcast pointed out, there’s a good reason not to buy only local food. It’s called “economies of scale.” When an area specializes in a kind of produce, it’s because they can do it more efficiently. Sure, that means it’s less expensive, which is also good. But it also means it uses less in terms of resources, and puts less carbon in the air, less nitrogen in the water — efficiency is a very good thing.

See the thing is, farmers don’t do things the high-tech way for no reason. And that reason isn’t always “Big-Ag Greed.” Sometimes, yeah, it is — check out the insanity in the US chicken industry, for instance — but in many instances it’s either the only way (the only way to feed that many people, the only way to sustain a business model) or even the best way (the least polluting way to get that many potatoes, that much wheat).

I’m not saying there aren’t problems. There are huge problems. We have far too many people to sustain our current levels of consumption without drastically changing our production methods, for one. But unless you can think of a way to reduce the human population without causing massive human suffering, “going organic” isn’t so much the way out as the way back. What we need, and what’s taking place, is a way forward.

Crops that take less water to grow, better sensors to make the amount of nitrogen put down equal the amount picked up by the plants, corn that re-nitrogenates the soil without adding any artificial nitrogen, electric vehicles to transport our produce from efficient growing areas (large-scale rural) to efficient living areas (high-density urban) without putting any extra carbon in the air, kill-free meat that produces fewer emissions than a massive herd of cattle.

We can see the future of food, and it’s not in the past. Kicking and screaming if we have to, we’ll get out of this mess the way we got into it — through the judicious application of science and technology.


*in this case “no” pesticides actually means “very little” pesticides.

Edit: an earlier version of this post had a link to Professor Giles Oldroyd that failed to mention his work on trying to develop GM corn that re-nitrogenates the soil. This link has been replaced by one to a BBC news story that at least mentions it.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism here at This Week In Tomorrow.