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Here's why American farmers haven't gone organic

"The challenges of the 21st century demand a fundamental rethink of agriculture that takes environmental harm into account," says the Organic Consumers Association, the advocacy group for universal organic farming. "Promising methods and technologies like organic are in the vanguard of that effort. We cannot afford to move toward the future without such technologies."

So far, OCA's stated goal of converting 30 percent of American agriculture to organic by the start of this year has fallen short--by about 30-fold. Despite apparent strong interest in organic food, some evidence consumers are willing to pay more for it, and better crop prices for organic farmers compared to prices for conventional crops, organic's share of U.S. tillable acreage has slowed to only about 3.1 million acres, according to most recent USDA survey data, representing less than 1 percent of the country's total tillable acreas. Why aren't farmers playing along? A couple of recent studies give some meaningful indications about why they don't believe they can afford the technology.


Productivity still falls far short

Author and crop-technology consultant Steven Savage conducted an indepth analysis of USDA data sets on both conventional crop production and organic from 2008 and 2014, ultimately making 370 different comparisons of organic and total data for the same crop in the same state where the organic production represented at least 20 acres. His analysis covers 80 percent of US crop acreage, Savage says. He found that in 84 percent of the comparisons, organic crop yields were lower than conventional crops, most in the range of 20 percent to 50 percent lower. In addition, for the 9 percent of cropping cases where organic was more productive than conventional, most were hay or silage crop systems; that is, feed for animals and not people.

Higher prices still not worth the uncertainty?

One of the issues hampering widespread adoption of organic production, particularly for the "big three" farm crops that fill the lion's share of U.S. acres--corn, soybeans and wheat--is that data from cropping experiments suggesting farmers can make more money from organic don't play out consistently in the real world, as Savage's analysis demonstrates. USDA economists William McBride and Catherine Greene attempt to get to the bottom of this contradition in a new study from USDA.

They note several experimental studies have found that some conventional farms could in fact earn higher returns if they transitioned to organic production, yet adoption of the organic approach among U.S. field crop producers remains extremely low. The problem, they say, is that the economic analyses used with the experimental research has primarily examined only operating or variable costs while excluding the economic costs of such resources as land, labor and capital. Their study's findings, which adjusted for those hidden costs, showed the economic costs of organic compared with conventional production were roughly between $83 and $98 per acre higher for corn, $55 to $62 per acre higher for wheat, and $106 to $125 per acre higher for soybeans.

Still, the remaining mystery is why organic's relatively higher crop prices don't attract more farmers, who could expect to earn greater returns despite the higher costs if they transitioned to organic. The USDA researchers suggest even the higher returns aren't enough to encourage farmers to take the risk organic brings. Organic field-crop production is particularly challenging compared with conventional production in achieving effective weed control and crop yields. But costs are also incurred to obtain and then maintain organic certification. Before an operation is certified to sell organic crops, the cropland must be managed organically for a minimum of 36 months, meaning a farm must endure two years of selling crops--raised at organic's higher costs--into a market paying only the relatively lower conventional crop prices. But the bigger risk may follow that period, they suggest: The sunk organic production costs associated with transition are reliant upon continuing high prices for organic crops, which are not guaranteed long into the future. That uncertainty may be the risky cloud that keeps the typical farmer from adopting the movement on any acreage other than small plots.


No pesticide is safe any more?

USDA’s latest Pesticide Data Program report on samples collected in 2014 found, again, that America’s food supply is safe, showing pesticide residues well below even the more sensitive levels that could pose health risk for infants and children. However, the news that pesticide residue levels were at or below EPA-deemed safe levels in all but 38 out of 10,619 fresh fruit and vegetable, baby food, salmon, oat and rice samples tested was not reassuring to anti-technology advocates like the U.S. Right to Know coalition.

That group and others questioned why USDA doesn’t test fresh produce for all pesticides, in particular glyphosate, the broad-spectrum weed killer whose use has gone up since row crops were genetically modified to resist its action. USDA argues because glyphosate isn’t widely used in fresh produce, there’s no good reason to go to the expense of testing for it in those particular foodstuffs covered by the USDA report.

True to form, the Environmental Working Group joined the criticism of glyphosate in early February, claiming increased use of the pesticide and increases in allowable levels of residues by regulators—in response to scientific studies showing those levels are safe—are posing an unacceptable risk to consumers. EWG breathlessly reports the herbicide has showed up in “samples of honey, soy sauce, infant formula and even breast milk.”

But once again, the activist group repeats the same critical error it makes annually in its highly publicized, but logically suspect, “Dirty Dozen” list of the most pesticide-contaminated produce. Its annual report, based on the same USDA data, links pesticide food residue data with toxicological profiles for each chemical. The end result is a litany of common pesticides, most showing up as residues on any of 93 different foods listed, ranging in incidence from none at all to as high as nearly 90 percent.

But in all the alarming facts and figures, EWG fails to enter the most important discussion of all: Are the residues relevant?

Farmer Goes to Market re-analyzed some of EWG’s data on incidence to paint a more accurate picture of the real issue: exposure. We found that in all cases, the amount of produce necessary for adults and children to eat daily, according to the minimum safety standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are far beyond the physical capability, let alone the desire to do so.


Pounds of strawberries eaten per day


Pounds of potatoes eaten per day


EWG’s repeated habit of equating presence with danger is not only inaccurate, it borders on harmful exploitation if it drives consumers away from the healthy foods they most need.

As water contamination expert Dr. Shane Snyder, research and development project manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. told Congress in 2008, "Are we going to make decisions based upon our ability to find contaminants, or based upon protection of public health? I am not a policy-maker; I am a scientist. However, I can tell you with absolute certainty that, if we regulate contaminants based upon detection rather than health effects, we are embarking on a futile journey without end. The reason is simple: Decades ago, we could only detect contaminants at parts per million levels. Years ago, we advanced to parts per billion. We are now able to detect compounds at the parts-per-trillion level, and are breaching the parts-per-quadrillion boundary in some cases."

Although Snyder's testimony was in regard to pharmaceutical residues found in drinking water, the point applies equally to fear-mongering based on pesticide residues in food. If we insist on scaring people from food based simply on our ability to find a trace compound, we risk not only reducing grocery profitability by scaring shoppers from one of the highest-margin areas of the grocery, we are on our way to making meaningful regulation based on realistic risk impossible.

Why do farmers use antibiotics?

Last week, Consumer Reports doubled down on its questionable research about dangerous bacteria in ground beef, which Farmer Goes to Market cautioned you to take with a grain of salt, by releasing a review of the past 3 years of "in-depth studies" it has run on bacterial contamination and antibiotic resistant bacteria in meats. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's "Get Smart about Antibiotics Week," coincident with the World Health Organization's "Antibiotic Awareness Week," set the activist PR machinery in motion, ratcheting upward the media coverage on the subject of antibiotics in agriculture.

With all the negative attention and potential loss in consumer confidence, why do farmers continue to use antibiotics?

They protect from disease, now and in the future. Treating a single, sick animal with an antibiotic, much as you do a sick child, is an important use for antibiotics. But it's not the most important. Trying to treat sick animals in herds or flocks that can number in the thousands is not just folly; it's impossible. So farmers use antibiotics in two ways to remedy illness in that situation: They either medicate all animals in a group or barn using medicine in the common feed or water, and they may use antibiotics similarly when they know disease is present or likely, or they suspect an outbreak may occur. That kind of mass preventive medication has always been--and still is--supported as a legitimate use by the U.S. Food & Drug Adniminstration, which regulates all animal drugs. Furthermore, the accusation that farmers waste antibiotics simply to grow animals faster is a straw man. Antibiotics do improve animal productivity; however, they usually do so because they are preventing debilitating — sometimes deadly — underlying diseases.

It makes food more affordable. A National Research Council study estimated ending the low-level use of antibiotics in all meat production, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars, could cost food consumers up to $2.9 billion per year. More importantly, the study added, future costs of a ban would be higher, for two reasons. First, it would create a climate of regulatory uncertainty that would scare companies away from investing in new technologies, a prediction that has come to pass as drug companies have abandoned support for cost-effective older drugs in favor of newer, more lucrative products. Second, any ban likely wouldn’t stop at “low-level” antibiotics. Continuing restrictions on all animal antibiotics would increase their cost, reduce their use by farmers and increase animal disease. All will likely increase the cost of food from those animals.

It is humane. The inescapable fact of nature is farm animals sometimes get sick — no matter how they’re raised. Decades of research prove modern antibiotics are almost universally more effective on a case-vs.-case basis than natural remedies relied upon by advocates of organic and all-natural production systems that forbid use of man-made antibiotics. That reality led even organic advocate Hubert Karreman, a Pennsylvania veterinarian, to write in a 2007 edition of the national organic magazine The New Farm, “I believe there was a fundamental mistake made by the U.S. organic community when it rejected all antibiotics, both sub-therapeutic and therapeutic. What I see in organic livestock systems encourages me in many ways, but I’m troubled by the absolute prohibition against antibiotics in the system.”

It may actually make food safer. More than three decades of scientific research suggests an irony in consumers buying "antibiotic-free" products in pursuit of better health: Those antibiotics consumers are paying to avoid can actually help prevent the risk of food-borne contamination. Studies in all farm animal species have demonstrated their prudent use can lower the burden of bacteria in animals entering the processing chain, reducing the chance food can become contaminated and infect humans. Even Consumer Reports own research from the last decade demonstrates higher levels of contamination in meats from farms that don't allow antibiotics.

It protects the environment. Reducing the use of technology like antibiotics does not preserve resources--it increases their consumption because efficiency suffers. A Journal of Animal Science study, for instance, predicts ending the use of antibiotics and hormones in U.S. beef alone would require an additional 1.6 million more cows and 34.8 million acres of land just to satisfy current beef demand. By improving the efficiency of how well animals digest and use feed, antibiotics help spare tons of waste nitrogen, phosphorus and even greenhouse gases from going into the environment as pollutants.

There's no proven reason to give up their benefits. Much as we don’t like to believe legislators, regulators and thoughtful consumers would base decisions on sensationalism or fad, the fact is the allaged connection between using antibiotics in animals and the increasing failure of human drugs is purely theory. One team of independent scholars, for instance, spent more than two years reviewing over 250 scientific papers on the subject, publishing their results in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. They concluded that if you review only the facts — absent the passion of politics — the real risk in many cases just doesn’t exist at all.

The food-safety headlines seem to never go away these days. With the potentially disastrous constant news stories about fast-food burrito giant Chipotle Mexican Grill being hit by first E. coli then Salmonella and then norovirus, consumers are on high radar alert for food poisoning news. No surprise listeria came in on one of Google's top food search terms for the year 2015.

But is it all bad? Despite some recent food-borne illness outbreaks dominating the evening news, the untold story is that the food you carry is most likely safer now than it has been in history. Here is some perspective your customers may not have heard yet:

■ According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's May 2015 annual report of foodborne disease outbreaks that occurred in 2013 — the latest year available — the number of food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the CDC was down slightly from the previous year. Year 2013's 818 total outbreaks were about 2 percent below 2012's. (CDC defines an outbreak as a disease occurrence that's traceable to a common food and agent that sickens at least two people.) Although the number of hospitalizations caused by a food outbreak increased between 2012 and 2013, the number of illnesses reported fell by nearly 11 percent and the number of people who died, at 16, was down by almost one-third.

■ The results reported for 2013 continued the pattern for previous years, showing 14 percent of those outbreaks occurred either in the home or in the grocery store. By far and away the most common location for outbreaks was a restaurant, which accounted for 60 percent of all outbreaks and 51 percent of illnesses.

■ Annual data from CDC released in May showed incidence rates of the seven most common food-borne disease remained stable or on the decline in 2014, with the exception of one infection. The incidence of Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157 and Salmonella enterica Typhimurium
infections declined in 2014 compared with the baselines set by CDC in 2006–2008. All Salmonella infection rates, although slightly higher than the 2006-2008 baseline, remain stable. The incidence of infection with Listeria is also stable and under the baseline. The dark spot in the report, Vibrio, is up 52 percent since 2006-2008. It hospitalized 40 people in 2014, killing two.

Relative food infection rates



Can organic feed the world? Here's one former organic advocate's grim assessment

"Embracing [organic farming]," writes slow-food activist and author Anna Lappe from last fall's Organic World Congress in Instanbul, " is increasingly being seen as key to food security.... The notion that [genetically modified organisms] are the only way to feed a growing population is way out of step with both the leading thinkers on food and farming and the world’s smallholder farmers—who produce much of what the planet eats and 80 percent of the food in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa."

"These farmers may not have money on their side," writes Lappe, "but I saw the power of strength in numbers at the Organic World Congress.... What I heard should have biotech execs shaking in their boots, or their penny loafers, as the case may be: Organic agriculture is taking off around the world, especially where it’s needed most."

Perhaps organic agriculture is taking off in the developing world, but that's far from a good thing, according to an article in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, “Facing food insecurity in Africa: Why, after 30 years of work in organic agriculture, I am promoting the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in small-scale crop production." Written by Tanzanian professor of conservation agriculture at that country's St. John's University, the article carefully lays out the case for why author John Lotter has had a change of heart about organic purism in pursuit of feeding Africa. Even as he recognizes his call for increased planting of GMO corn and use of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate "may seem an egregious violation of the sustainable agriculture community’s values," he argues small farmholders in Africa simply cannot improve their food security by adopting the fashionable Western practice of organic farming. His surprising analysis echoes many of the same reasons organic adoption continues to contribute only a tiny fraction of food production in the United States:

Organic is not cost-effective. Despite years of advocacy in its cause, Lotter notes, "[A]n organic version of CA [conservation ag] (no herbicide or synthetic fertilizers) has failed to be adopted by the majority of African farmers subject to years of promotion and trials …" The most recent report from Tanzania found 13 percent had adopted the practice despite years of promotion. And the reason for that low adoption of this "continent-saving" low-tech approach? It’s more time-efficient and cost-effective to use herbicide. Farmers using zero-tillage techniques made possible only by use of chemical herbicide in Malawi quickly tripled their profits, Lotter writes.

Organic overstates the problems. Lotter says that although soils fertilized with synthetic fertilizers may not be as healthy and biodiverse as those fertilized with compost and manure, they are by no means toxic. The same goes for the herbicide glyphosate. Some perspective regarding degree of harm is needed in a country where food demand continues to outstrip supply by three to one.

Organic means miss the ends. Any possible health effects of herbicide like glyphosate pales in comparison to the real and undisputed dangers of soil loss and hunger. "Life expectancy here in the central region is about 45 years — these people hardly get the opportunity to get cancer, largely because of food insecurity." Even the environment-sparing attributes of organic don't always hold true, he says. Using a herbicide allows farmers to vastly reduce the amount they plow, which spares water loss and prevents soil loss. Scarce rainfall in his part of Africa commonly comes in intense events, often with just a few rainstorms providing most of the water for the entire season. Intensive agriculture that allows less plowing is crucial to capturing and holding this water.

In the bigger scheme, Lotter sees a potential human toll in organic inflexibility: "The only route I see out of African food insecurity in the next decade is via sustainable intensification — the use of both agrichemicals and organic methods together. My change from working exclusively with organic methods to the inclusion of conventional agrichemicals in Africa is, I believe, not a change in my values. The well-being of people and the environment are still at the center of my ethos, with the proviso that the long-term care of the environment enhances human well-being."

Organic is being pushed for hyprocritical reasons. Lotter's article criticizes the promotion of organic when it's backed by weak science in the service of ideology. One example: While managing an organic farm in northern Tanzania which attracted foreign volunteers, farmers were often told by those foreigners that "fertilizers 'poison' the soil—despite the fact that it is very likely that 99 percent of the calories that these amply-fed volunteers had consumed in their lives were from crops amply fed with synthetic fertilizers, grown in fields that are to this day still highly productive," he writes. As a result of that untrained and prejudiced advice, farmers refused synthetic fertilizer and corn in the area suffered nitrogen deficiency.

For 50 years now, Lotter concludes, aid agencies have failed to enrich subsistence farmers in Africa. "I’m not sure what will work. Social unrest and religious-political extremism are ominous possibilities. There are hurdles no matter which way you turn, but the option to use synthetic fertilizer and herbicide could allow some farmers to shift from a destructive cycle, and into a virtuous cycle, enriching themselves and the land."

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