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Full of Manure

You say you want a totally organic world?

Just this past August 11, the mighty American Broadcasting Corporation, via its employee John Stossel, issued an apology to all viewers of ABC's investigative journalism program 20/20, for a story he had anchored in February that had been rerun in July. The organizations that he cited as having caused him to indulge in a public self-criticism session of his story were not the usual pressure group suspects who can bully huge media operations such as ABC. He was not apologizing for offending the sensibilities of the Israel lobby or even the National Rifle Association. The new 900-pound gorilla on the block was -- The Organic Trade Association. Backing it in a one-two combination was an obscure Washington, D.C.-based organization called the Environmental Working Group.

Stossel begins his mea culpa by stating, "I said, in essence, why buy it when it costs so much more? I interviewed a critic who questioned some of the widely assumed advantages of organic produce: that it's more nutritious or safer."

A reasonable question. Stossel then went on to submit some organic produce to testing. The pressure groups took issue with some fine points of the test procedure. Then he apologized for not revealing some data he had researched on chicken -- the report was on produce, not meats. (Incidentally, how did the Organisation Polizei find out what had been left out?) Finally, he had stated that no pesticides were found on either the organic or the conventionally grown produce. This was the final nail in his and ABC's coffin: It was discovered that the laboratory Stossel's group had hired had never done a test for pesticides.

Maybe Stossel should have stayed out of the supermarket and come down to Houston for a videotaped chat with the University of Houston's Dr. Thomas R. DeGregori. A professor of economics, DeGregori wrote an article for the publication of the American Council on Science and Health. It is titled "Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?" And it entirely sidesteps issues such as how many disease-causing microorganisms can dance the Macarena on the head of a radish or whether taking a bite out of a conventionally grown apple will cause you to keel over like an animated cockroach in a Raid commercial.

He correctly identifies the organic-produce industry as being, at its core, a sort of agricultural Luddite movement. The Luddites, to be fair, were working-class craftspeople who saw mechanized textile-making as a threat to their livelihoods, which it most certainly was. Modern Luddites tend to be professional people who don't want to live in a thatched hut, but think others should be encouraged to do so. DeGregori writes, " "Sustainability' has become a major buzzword for the nineties and may remain so into the next century. Few people would oppose sustainable techniques -- ways of using a particular resource (e.g., agricultural) so that the resource is not depleted or irrevocably damaged. Virtually no one would approve unsustainable techniques -- methods that endanger human survival, as by lowering food production."

Thus, the appropriate question is not whether sustaining resources is desirable, but which purported sustainable techniques work.

In agriculture, the intellectual position on sustainability is too often romantic and antitechnological. "Back to nature" enthusiasts who favor so-called organic agriculture -- farming supposedly without the use of manufactured fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides -- represent an extreme of this position. Organic food buffs have corrupted and greatly diluted the meaning of the word "organic," which for more than a century in organic chemistry has meant "containing or consisting of carbon compounds." All artificial pesticides are organic.

What would a, like, you know, totally organic world look like? DeGregori explains dryly, "Organic agriculture started off on the wrong foot. As applied to this mode of farming, the term "organic' originally meant "without the use of artificial (synthetic or inorganic) fertilizer.' However, bacteria must decompose organic (plant or animal) material before plants can absorb its inorganic components. Plants absorb and use inorganic substances from animal manure and other organic matter exactly as they do the same inorganic substances that constitute artificial fertilizers.Although animal manure is generally considered better for soil structure, it may have a high content of salts, and it may harbor toxic chemicals, viruses, harmful bacteria, insects, worms or other pests."

The professor then makes a second, perhaps more important point, which we could boil down to this: There's not enough cow flop to go around. DeGregori continues: "And farmers must use manure in relatively large amounts, since it always contains less nitrogen than artificial fertilizers.So even if manure were the better fertilizer, the quantities of manure necessary to provide plants with enough nitrogen severely limit its usefulness in feeding the world's population: Transportation costs would be prohibitive. And replacing artificial-fertilizer nitrogen -- which now provides more than twice as much nitrogen for agriculture worldwide than manure provides -- with the nitrogen in manure would require a three- to four-fold increase in world animal production and concomitant increases in feed production.

"The environmental costs of cultivating more land for feed, converting more land to pasture and hauling several billion tons of manure would far exceed the environmental costs of manufacturing and transporting artificial fertilizer."

And we won't even get into the greenhouse gases generated by all those extra cows…

 
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