Organic food consumers are as careless of the environment as the drivers piloting those massive Humvees around our city streets. Both are wasting money and natural resources to gain snob appeal—with no other benefits.
Almost everyone realizes that the $100,000 Humvees that get 9 miles per gallon are in the cities to impress the waitresses at the local sports bar. Few of those vehicles ever take to the rough off-road environment for which the Army designed them. If the Humvees did get driven over rocks and stumps in the wilderness, the resulting dents and scratches would offend the parking valets at the fancy restaurants.
Organic food is also a snob-appeal ploy. Organic food is a politically acceptable way to brag to your neighbors that you can afford to pay double for your food, and smile about it. You can claim to care more deeply about your children and the environment.
Unfortunately for the organic customers, no consistent, significant nutritional advantages have ever been documented in organic food, during the more than 75 years since a German racial purist named Rudoph Steiner first dreamed up the organic concept in the 1920s. Instead, plant researchers tell us the variety of carrot you plant makes more nutritional difference than whether or not it is grown organically. So long as the carrots and broccoli have nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, and 26 trace minerals in their soil, they will produce the nutrition dictated by their DNA.
The environmental impact of organic food is actually dreadful. It takes organic farmers roughly twice as much land to produce a ton of food, primarily because they refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer to replace the nitrogen taken from the soil by their growing crops. That means huge tracts of land must be used to “grow nitrogen,” either as cattle pasture or planted to non-food legumes such as clover and hairy vetch.
Humans are already using 37 percent of the Earth’s land area for farming, and we’ll need at least double today’s farm output to feed a peak human population of 8 or 9 billion in 2050. Thus, an all-organic farming mandate for the planet would mean clearing all 16 million square miles of remaining forest to plant more low-yield crops.
Most of that newly cleared forest is rough land that would erode swiftly once there were no tree roots to hold the steep soils. Farming steeper slopes to get half the yield per acre would at least triple the world’s soil erosion. The latest low-till farming, which uses herbicides to control weeds instead of plowing, has one-tenth the soil erosion of an organic farm. Thus, all-organic farming would be more environmentally destructive than replacing the planet’s whole current fleet of 500 million cars with Humvees.
What about the CO2 from producing nitrogen fertilizer with natural gas? Virtually all of our recent warming occurred before 1940, and thus before much human-emitted CO2 Meanwhile, ice and seabed cores have shown us a moderate, natural 1500-year climate cycle which has pervaded the last 1 million years of Earth’s history. The CO2 theorists must not only document that our planet is warming—but demonstrate that it’s something other than part of the natural cycle. The Medieval Warming ended in 1300, and the Little Ice Age ended in 1850.
Even Cornell University, which tends toward supporting the trendy and politically correct, says organic farming is somewhat worse for the environment than conventional farming because of the fertilizer problem, and because it relies more heavily on pest-killing compounds that permanently poison soils, such as copper and sulfur.
We doubt that many organic consumers will ever trade their high-mileage cars for bulky and expensive Humvees. So, why in the world are they buying the organic foods?
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.