The organically grown food industry is wasting taxpayer dollars in a hypocritical effort to add legitimacy to the illegitimate. The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 requiring USDA to develop national standards for organic products is an example of an overreaching federal bureaucracy.
While attempting to differentiate organic foods as healthier than conventionally grown food, producers deal with an unfortunate truth. There is no chemical difference between the two. During photosynthesis and plant nutrient absorption, regardless of the type of fertilizer used and the crop grown, plant nutrients are converted into an inorganic form. There is no such thing as “organic food”; there is “organically grown food”.
No chemical test can differentiate foods fertilized with organic or inorganic products. Studies find infinitesimally small amounts of pesticides infrequently in both organically and conventionally grown samples; so pesticide tests can’t determine the purity of organically grown foods either.
Rescuing the organically grown food industry from this inconvenient truth is the federal government’s National Organic Program. This program certifies organically grown food producers. Certification is easier said than done because pre-plant herbicides never come in contact with crops and break down rapidly in the soil and inputs like supplemental hormones are indistinguishable from naturally produced ones.
Mischa Popoff, a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute sums up the issue quite succinctly from the organic industry’s standpoint. “With the exception of genetically modified organisms, almost everything that’s prohibited in organic production dissipates and in many cases becomes undetectable over time,” Popoff notes. “So there’s little point wasting time or money testing organic crops post-harvest. In order to prevent cheating, all testing in the organic industry must occur prior to harvest.”
Ms. Popoff suggests the federal government send inspectors to farms and catch organic growers in the act of using safe, labeled and approved conventional farming practices. This begs the question, if there is no difference in the end products of organically or conventionally grown food, why should the federal government be involved in this certification and verification charade in the first place? Worse, since organically grown foods only account for 4.2% of U.S. retail food sales, why should consumers of the other 96% of food pay for National Organic Program Certification?
More inaccurate than claims that organically grown food is healthier are claims that organic farming methods are better for the environment. Any type of agriculture, even the most primitive, affects the environment. Successful food production requires some level of weed suppression and supplemental nutrient delivery to replace the food that is harvested. The choice is not if but how the environment is altered. Organic producers use lots of tillage to suppress weeds. This means extra fuel and labor. Conventional growers substitute herbicides for tillage and manage with little or no tillage. More tillage breaks down soil structure and reduces the soil’s ability to hold water. Minimum and no till producers were amazed at their crops’ ability to withstand 2012’s drought.
Most important environmentally, 0.35 tons of soil is lost annually to erosion with no-till. The type of tillage done on organic row crops typically causes over 10 tons per acre of soil erosion annually. Most conventional farmers have been there and done that with excessive tillage and there is no turning back to the obsolete technology of pulverizing soil structure.
Phosphorus + erosion = algae
Phosphorous is the limiting nutrient for lake algae growth and conservationists attempt to limit the amount reaching surface water. The most common fertilizer source for organic producers is livestock manure. A typical analysis is three pounds of nitrogen, three pounds of phosphate and eight pounds of potassium per ton. An acre of carrots requires 100 pounds of nitrogen, 45 pounds of phosphate and 240 pounds of potassium. Thirty tons of manure is needed to meet the potassium needs. This application adds ninety pounds of phosphate, 45 more pounds than needed. An acre of corn requires 120 pounds of nitrogen, 45 pounds of phosphate and 35 pounds of potassium. Without a legume crop preceding it, 40 tons of manure is required to meet the nitrogen needs. In this case, the manure would add an extra 85 pounds of unneeded phosphate to the soil.
The over application of phosphorous is presumably why the Stanford University meta study that found little evidence of health benefits from organic food also found, “No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce.” (Because few people have phosphorous deficiency, the researchers noted this has little clinical significance.)
Conventional producers with over 500 livestock units are required to manage their fertilizer regimes and keep their phosphorous soil test levels in the optimum range. Increasing soil phosphorous results in large fines. These producers use supplemental nitrogen and potassium to balance crop demands. Many producers use very precise GPS soil sampling combined with GPS enabled fertilizer application trucks that accurately change nutrient rates going across a field based on the soil analysis. All this extra effort results in cleaner water.
Pasture based systems commonly used by organic livestock producers do reduce the erosion issues. Yet, overstocked pastures on sloping land provide high rates of phosphorous runoff to surface water. Excessive soil phosphorous, pasture manure runoff and higher rates of soil erosion make claims that organic producer practices are better for the environment hard to digest.
Organically grown foods and hypocrisy
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires crop protection products to undergo 120 health, safety and environmental tests before being granted an EPA pesticide registration. Typically, this process takes about nine years and costs manufacturers $150-250 million for each product that makes it to market. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires similar safeguards for other agricultural inputs.
The organically grown food industry discounts the pesticide registration process and continually attempts to discredit and distorts these products’ health and environmental data. Yet in a masterstroke of hypocrisy, they expect the same federal government that they marginalize for approving the pesticides and additives to certify their organic producers.
Organic certification creates confusion in the marketplace and does not serve the public interest. Simply put, the organically grown food industry survives by claiming conventional growers using EPA and FDA labeled products are producing unhealthy food. This is not true and our government has no business propagating this falsehood with a program that verifies producers are not using products deemed safe by two other federal agencies.
The federal government is finally making efforts to cut spending. Defining the real purpose of government should be part of this process . Enforcing the Rule of Law, maintaining a stable currency, protecting our borders, maintaining an infrastructure that promotes commerce and providing an above world-class public school education are appropriate roles for government. Somehow, the National Organic Food Program doesn’t fit with the above.
Besides working to cut government involvement in our lives, this website supports laissez-faire and freedom of choice. Consumers have every right to choose organically grown food products. Yet, those consumers should not expect taxpayers to subsidize their choice with a $6.37 million government program. Cutting this program and letting the organically grown food industry monitor its own certification are easy decisions.