When Organic food isn’t, why not, and does it really matter

The labels said ‘organic.’ But these massive imports of corn and soybeans
weren’t. By Peter Whoriskey
May 12 2017


A shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans sailed late last year from
Ukraine to Turkey to California. Along the way, it underwent a remarkable

The cargo began as ordinary soybeans, according to documents obtained by
The Washington Post. Like ordinary soybeans, they were fumigated with a
pesticide. They were priced like ordinary soybeans, too.

But by the time the 600-foot cargo ship carrying them to Stockton, Calif.,
arrived in December, the soybeans had been labeled “organic,” according to
receipts, invoices and other shipping records. That switch — the addition
of the “USDA Organic” designation — boosted their value by approximately $4
million, creating a windfall for at least one company in the supply chain.

After being contacted by The Post, the broker for the soybeans,
Annapolis-based Global Natural, emailed a statement saying it may have been
“provided with false certification documents” regarding some grain
shipments from Eastern Europe. About 21 million pounds of the soybeans have
already been distributed to customers.

The multimillion-dollar metamorphosis of the soybeans, as well as two other
similar grain shipments in the past year examined by The Post, demonstrate
weaknesses in the way that the United States ensures that what is
sold as “USDA Organic” is really organic.

The three shipments, each involving millions of pounds of “organic” corn or
soybeans, were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the
U.S. supply of those commodities. All three were presented as
organic, despite evidence to the contrary. And all three hailed from
Turkey, now one of the largest exporters of organic products to the United
States, according to Foreign Agricultural Service statistics.

Agriculture Department officials said that they are investigating
fraudulent organic grain shipments. But the agency declined to identify any
of the firms or shipments involved.

“We are continuing the investigation based on the evidence received,” it
said in a statement.

The imported corn and soybean shipments examined by The Post were largely
destined to become animal feed and enter the supply chain for some of the
largest organic food industries. Organic eggs, organic milk,
organic chicken and organic beef are supposed to come from animals that
consume organic feed, an added expense for farmers that contributes to the
higher consumer prices on those items.

While most food sold as “USDA Organic” is grown in the United States, at
least half of some organic commodities — corn, soybeans and coffee — come
from overseas, from as many as 100 countries.

USDA officials say that their system for guarding against fraud is robust.

Under USDA rules, a company importing an organic product must verify that
it has come from a supplier that has a “USDA Organic” certificate. It must
keep receipts and invoices. But it need not trace the product back to the
farm. Some importers, aware of the possibility of fraud, request extra
documentation. But others do not.

Regardless of where organics come from, critics say, the system suffers
from multiple weaknesses in enforcement: Farmers hire their own inspection
companies; most inspections are announced days or weeks in advance and
lack the element of surprise; and testing for pesticides is the exception
rather than the rule.

These vulnerabilities are magnified with imported products, which often
involve more middlemen, each of whom could profit by relabeling
conventional goods as “organic.” The temptation could be substantial, too:
Products with a “USDA Organic” label routinely sell for twice the price of
their conventional counterparts.

In recent years, even as the amount of organic corn and soybeans imported
to the United States has more than tripled, the USDA has not issued any
major sanctions for the import of fraudulent grain, U.S. farmers said.

“The U.S. market is the easiest for potentially fraudulent organic products
to penetrate because the chances of getting caught here are not very high,”
said John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency
for Relationship Marketing, or OFARM, a farmer cooperative. In Europe and
Canada, he said, import rules for organics are much stricter.

Moreover, even when the USDA has responded to complaints of questionable
imports, action has come too late to prevent the products from reaching


This is a good practice that should be encouraged. Organic food is
basically a scam because it’s not more nutritious that conventional GMO
food, and it’s much worse for the environment that food grown with modern
methods. Stanford did a monster analysis on the nutrition issues, and there
have be numerous studies on the environmental impact.

It comes down the fact that organic is less productive than conventional
farming, so it takes more acres of land for organic to produce the same
output. This means more water, more CO2 from tractors, and more runoff.
Organic food has to be fertilized with manure, which doesn’t have precise
doses of nutrients. So farmers have to over-apply, which leads to runoff.
Modern farming methods called “precision agriculture” apply water,
pesticides, and nutrients on-demand and in the doses needed. This stuff is
all enabled by IT, GPS, and networking in general.

Organic is also horrible at carbon sequestration because its only effective
weed control methods are manual pulling and plowing, while GMO farmers can
use zero-till methods with herbicide-tolerant plants.

Many people mistakenly believe that organic food is pesticide-free, while
it isn’t. Organic farmers are permitted to use a broad panoply of
pesticides from the OMRI registry and even to use synthetic pesticides in
low doses when all else fails. As one would expect, naturally-derived
pesticides are less effective than synthetics, hence higher doses
and greater environmental impact.

So the best solution for people who want to eat organic is to apply the
organic label to conventional foods. This allows consumers to overpay and
enjoy the placebo effect without harming the planet.

Farmers have been using chemical inputs since 2500 BCE when the Sumerians used copper
and sulphur compounds to control mites and funguses.

The Rig Veda describes preparations from 6 poisonous plants that can be
used to control pests, and the Krishi Parashara describes a preparation of
neem extract and cow urine for pest control (sometime between 500 – 1100
CE), http://www.indianscience.org/essays/24-%20E–F-Krishi%20Parashar.pdf.

In other words, there has never been any farming without pesticides because
pests are ubiquitous. Early pesticides were prepared from poisonous plant
extracts, and modern synthetic pesticides are mainly tweaked versions of
these extracts: pyrethroids are versions of natural pyrethrum,
neonicotinoids are versions of natural nicotines, and organophosphates are
versions of snake venom. Nature is much more imaginative than we are when
it comes to poisons.

Removing chemicals from food is a non-starter because food is literally
chemical in nature: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals:
they’re literally all chemicals.

Even if farmers didn’t add chemicals to the plants they grow, the food we
eat still contains the natural pesticides that food creates to protect
itself from pests: the flavors in food come from phenols and flavonoids
that have pesticidal properties. This is OK because our bodies are adapted
to eliminating these poisons from our bodies, no hippie detox needed.

As to the union of organic and scientific farming, I’m afraid that’s on the
organic people to resolve. It’s my opinion that we need to use genetic
engineering to feed the world, but that appears to violate the tenets of
the organic religion.

So the people in Africa who are starving now because their governments
won’t permit the cultivation of drought-resistant, pest-resistant, and
nutrient-enhanced biotech foods will have to eat cake.

Here’s a paper on the natural pesticides in the foods we eat plus some
other goodies.

*Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)*


Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
Vol. 87, pp. 7777-7781, October 1990
Medical Sciences

Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Barker Hall, University of
California, Berkeley, CA 94720; and Cell and Molecular Biology
Division, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720

Contributed by Bruce N. Ames, July 19, 1990

ABSTRACT The toxicological significance of exposures to synthetic chemicals
is examined in the context of exposures to naturally occurring chemicals.
We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet
are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural
pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and
about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in
many common foods. We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are
equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that
at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of
synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.


*Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? – A meta-analysis of
European research*
H.L. Tuomistoa, I.D. Hodgeb, P. Riordana, D.W. Macdonalda

Organic farming practices have been promoted as, inter alia, reducing the
environmental impacts of agriculture. This meta-analysis systematically
analyses published studies that compare environmental impacts of organic
and conventional farming in Europe. The results show that organic farming
practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit
of area, but not necessarily per product unit. Organic farms tend to have
higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses (nitrogen
leaching, nitrous oxide emissions and ammonia emissions) per unit of field
area. However, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide
emissions per product unit were higher from organic
systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land
use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.
The variation within the results across different studies was wide due to
differences in the systems compared and research methods used.

The only impacts that were found to differ significantly between the
systems were soil organic matter content, nitrogen leaching, nitrous oxide
emissions per unit of field area, energy use and land use. Most of the
studies that compared biodiversity in organic and conventional farming
demonstrated lower environmental impacts from organic farming. The
key challenges in conventional farming are to improve soil quality (by
versatile crop rotations and additions of organic material), recycle
nutrients and enhance and protect biodiversity. In organic farming, the
main challenges are to improve the nutrient management and increase yields.
In order to reduce the environmental impacts of farming in Europe, research
efforts and policies should be targeted to developing farming systems that
produce high yields with low negative environmental impacts drawing on
techniques from both organic and conventional systems.


*Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A
Systematic Review*
Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS; Margaret L. Brandeau, PhD; Grace E. Hunter,
BA; J. Clay Bavinger, BA; Maren Pearson, BS; Paul J. Eschbach;
Vandana Sundaram, MPH; Hau Liu, MD, MS, MBA, MPH; Patricia Schirmer, MD;
Christopher Stave, MLS; Ingram Olkin, PhD; Dena M. Bravata, MD, MS


17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in
foods met inclusion criteria. Only 3 of the human studies examined clinical
outcomes, finding no significant differences between populations by food
type for allergic outcomes (eczema, wheeze, atopic sensitization) or
symptomatic Campylobacter infection. Two studies reported significantly
lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus
conventional diets, but studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum,
urine, breast milk, and semen in adults did not identify clinically
meaningful differences. All estimates of differences in nutrient and
contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous except for the
estimate for phosphorus; phosphorus levels were significantly higher than
in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically
significant. The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues
was lower among organic than conventional produce (risk difference, 30%
[CI, −37% to −23%]), but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed
limits were small. Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ
between organic and conventional produce. Bacterial contamination of retail
chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. However,
the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was
higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork (risk difference,
33% [CI, 21% to 45%]).

Limitation: Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and
publication bias may be present.

Conclusion: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic
foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.
Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and
antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Primary Funding Source: None.


Here’s a bonus on the environmental impact of almonds: (tl;dr: Just say no.)

Almonds: crunchy, delicious, and…the center of a nefarious plot to suck
California dry? They certainly have used up a lot of ink lately—partly
inspired by our reporting over the past year. California’s drought-stricken
Central Valley churns out 80 percent of the globe’s almonds, and since each
nut takes a gallon of water to produce, they account for close to 10
percent of the state’s annual agricultural water use—or more than what the
entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year.

As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson put it, almonds have become a scapegoat of
sorts—”the poster-nut for human wastefulness in California’s drought.” Or,
as Alissa Walker put it in Gizmodo, “You know, ALMONDS, THE DEVIL’S NUT.”
It’s not surprising that the almond backlash has inspired a backlash of its
own. California agriculture is vast and complex, and its water woes can’t
hang entirely on any one commodity, not even one as charismatic as the
devil’s nut almond.

And as many have pointed out, almonds have a lot going for them—they’re
nutritious, they taste good, and they’re hugely profitable for California.
In 2014, almonds brought in a whopping $11 billion to the state’s economy.
Plus, other foods—namely, animal products—use a whole lot more water per
ounce than almonds.

So almonds must be worth all the water they require, right? Not so fast.
Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the following five facts:






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