Journalists like to lecture the public on the importance of science while promoting clearly unscientific ideas when it suits them. The pandemic has put this contradiction in the spotlight as news outlets like CNN, The Guardian and The Washington Post have championed COVID-19 vaccines while regularly posting sloppy stories about the dangers of pesticides and the benefits of eating food. organic.
Such an inconsistency is not exclusive to the popular press; it is also very common in the scientific media. Scientific American has fallen into this trap several times, as has The Conversation. While bragging about its “academic rigor” and blaming people for rejecting the scientific consensus, The Conversation also publishes deceptive stories like this one from Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of Arizona’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems: Unlike the United States, Europe is setting itself ambitious goals. to produce more organic food.
“Recent polls show that a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and ready to make lifestyle changes to deal with it. Other surveys show that many U.S. consumers are concerned about the potential health risks of consuming foods produced with pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. One way to address all of these concerns is to expand organic farming.
Americans say a lot to pollsters, but what ultimately matters is the evidence – and there is none to justify the expansion of organic farming. Let’s take a look at some of Merrigan’s claims to see why.
Organic production generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional agriculture, largely because it does not use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. And it prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and the giving of hormones or antibiotics to livestock.
Organic farmers generally use less pesticides, but so what? Traces of these chemicals present in conventional foods cannot cause any harm. Treating sick animals with antibiotics, as the CDC noted in 2019, is the human thing to do. The survey results cited by Merrigan suggest, and this recent review confirms, that “the desire for meat raised without antibiotics is part of a larger consumer movement towards more ‘natural’ and sustainable food sources,” not a critical threat to human health. Hormones are used in very small amounts to produce more beef from fewer cows, but this also poses no risk to human health. More importantly for our purposes here, fewer cows means less greenhouse gases (GHGs).
A solution to climate change?
Globally, Studies show that emissions are lower in organic farming per unit of land, but not per unit of production. Because conventional yields are higher for most crops (up to 40 percent in some cases), we would have to devote much more land to agriculture to produce the same amount of organic food. âIncreasing the land to organic cultivation means either converting conventional farms to organic farms – with a variable but certain reduction in yield; or convert new land to agriculture â, like our own Dr Chuck Dinerstien Explain earlier this year.
This fundamentally changes the climate change equation, which is why the studies used to justify increasing organic farming must do unrealistic assumptions on food waste, meat consumption and farm efficiency – there is no significant reduction in GHG emissions without them. âAll the data I know of suggests that organic farming is not the right strategy to reduce global GHG emissions,â agricultural economist Matin Qaim told the Genetic Literacy Project in March. âWhen the effects of land use change are taken into account, organic farming may even have higher global GHG emissions than conventional alternatives (which is even more true when considering development and farming). use of new breeding technologies, which are prohibited in organic farming). “
The European Union’s farm-to-fork strategyâ¦ sets ambitious goals for 2030: a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, a 50% reduction in use of pesticides and a 20% reduction in fertilizer use.
Europe’s goals are admirable; they are also decidedly impractical. A recent evaluation carried out by Wageningen University in the Netherlands found this the EU could experience yield reductions of between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the crop in question, thanks to its Farm-2-Fork program. Reducing the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers also means more damage to crops, which also contributes to lower yields.  Lower production in Europe means an extension of farmland elsewhere in the world, the study co-author noted. Johan bremmer:
If demand remains unchanged, Europe will have to fill the void by importing more. The plus: if Europe exports less, countries outside Europe will have to produce more themselvesâ¦ In all scenarios, this indirect change in land use is considerable.
With all this in the background, know that we are already cultivating about half available land on earth suitable for food crops, and almost all prime arable land. Back to the conversation:
The world’s farmers are already producing enough food to feed the world. The question is why so many people still go hungry as production increases year after year.
The answer, in short, is poverty. Poor countries do not have the resources to produce and distribute the food they need, although fortunately the number of people living in poverty keep going down. But here’s an equally pressing question: What happens when governments force organic farming on their people? Reply: food shortages. It turns out that denying farmers access to production stimulating tools such as biotech seeds and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers has serious consequences. Merrigan calls these observations âAmerican talking points,â which she is free to do. But that doesn’t make them any less correct.
None of this means that organic farming is inherently flawed. When farmers are ready to produce organic products for consumers who wants them, everything is as it should be. The obvious problems arise when policymakers and activists decide to force these unsustainable growth practices on millions of people who clearly don’t want them. As Merrigan noted, organic operations represent less than 2 percent of the world’s farmland. What more proof do we need that this whole business is wishful thinking?
 Synthetic vs natural is a questionable distinction for pesticides. As my colleague Dr Josh Bloom points out, it gives a false picture of what pesticides really are by making an artificial distinction between the chemical and its source.