Thoughts on economics and liberty

Tag: Organic farming

Organic farming: a rip-off #2

A few weeks ago I wrote this piece, entitled, “Organic Farming: a rip-off“. Here’s further confirmation that the money we pay for organic foods is not worthwhile.

Intensive farming is found to be better than organic methods for protecting the environment

Farming systems such as organic that seek to share land between crops and wildlife inflict greater damage on biodiversity than conventional approaches that maximise crop yields, a major study has revealed.

ORGANIC VEGGIES NOT MORE NUTRITIOUS 

Growing organic vegetables may be better for the environment, but eating them may not necessarily be more healthful. (Discovery News,22 November 2010)

EXTRACTS:

“[A] new study … found no difference in antioxidant levels between organically and conventionally grown onions, carrots, and potatoes.

“[T]he experiment was part of a bigger project that was so systematic and rigorously controlled that the findings likely apply to other crops, too, said lead author Pia Knuthsen, a senior research scientist at the Danish National Food Institute’s department of food chemistry, based at the University of Copenhagen.

Giving preference to organic products because they contain more bioactive components is doubtful and not supported by scientific evidence,” Knuthsen said.

CONCLUSION:

The following scientific conclusions would generally (not always!) hold:

1. Organic farming is generally not cheaper than modern farming, being less productive. It cannot therefore (in general) be a solution to mankind’s food production problems.

2. Organic foods are generally not healthier than food grown by modern farming.

3. If fresh produce is washed thoroughly, one is not likely to imbibe more than microscopic level of pesticide. At such microscopic levels, virtually no harm is caused. The best way to minimise pesticide use is to shift to pest-resistant GM crops that have been tested and proven to be safe.

By all means pay more for organic food – if you can afford it. That money goes to farmers and I don’t envy farmers getting rich at the expense of the rich who have money to throw on unnecessary things . But it is self-evident that organic can’t help prevent widespread hunger among the poor. I’d rather teach the poor to wash their food before eating, and have them live, than have them starve to death because of thoughtless imposition of expensive organic food on everyone by eco-imperialists.

We should focus on ensuring that no one goes to bed hungry in India. That can’t be done by organic farming. It is a luxury good that has no policy implications for India – except that no subsidy should ever be applied towards organic food.

ADDENDUM

Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, study finds

 

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Organic farming: a rip-off

Vijay Mohan has been debating organic farming vigorously with me and has sent me a document by NABARD which just confirms my dim views about this fad:

a) Organic farming is clearly a new-found Western fashion for those who have nothing better do to in life. To supply to the small number of faddists in the West who demand organic food, a small area ranging from 2-4% approximately of the Western agricultural land is now under organic farming, with a share of production lower than that.

b) It is true that under certain test conditions, some crops may yield equivalent quantities through organic farming. Of course this will be true. Not all crops require the same intensity of chemicals, not all areas suffer from the same pest infestations. And so, not all non-organic food is loaded to the brim with chemicals. Farmers use as little as they can. After all, chemicals costs money.

The paper cites one study in this regard: “As a result of the low yields during the conversion period, the net income from the organic farm was lesser than the conventional farm. But the yield under organic method increased progressively equalling it to that of the conventional system by the sixth year.”

c) The paper admits that most farmers in India won’t be able to switch due to loss of income in the initial years (assuming the study in (b) is replicable which I seriously doubt). The paper notes “In many cases the farmers experience some loss in yields on discarding synthetic inputs on conversion of their farming method from conventional to organic. Restoration of full biological activity in terms of growth of beneficial insect populations, nitrogen fixation from legumes, pest suppression and fertility problems will take some time and the reduction in the yield rates is the result in the interregnum. It may also be possible that it will take years to make organic production possible on the farm. Small and marginal farmers cannot take the risk of low yields for the initial 2-3 years on the conversion to organic farming. There are no schemes to compensate them during the gestation period. [Hint, Hint! Government, please pay these farmers subsides.] The price premiums on the organic products will not be much of help, as they will disappear once significant quantities of organic farm products are made available.”

d) The paper make false assumptions about Western consumers, stating that “ The demand for organic products is high in the advanced countries of the west like USA, European Union and Japan. It is reported that the US consumers are ready to pay a premium price of 60 to 100 per cent for the organic products. The upper classes in India are also following this trend as elsewhere.”

Let this be clear: Only a very tiny proportion of Westerners (generally the rich but scientifically ignorant faddists – of whom there a growing number as the study of science is falling rapidly in the West) in the West will pay a premium. They actually pay up to 300 per cent more! It is not true to say, though that ALL consumers in the West "are ready to pay a premium price of 60 to 100 per cent for the organic products", which is what the paper seems to imply. To base a business case on such a tiny market for organic foods is good for niche-market farmers, but not for everyone.

Concerns with fraud in organic farming

A number of articles in the Australian press have demonstrated that a significant amount of fraud exists in the organic farming business (yields drop so much that farmers resort to cheating).

Scientifically there is no difference in quality

Further, consumer associations have scientifically investigated and found NO DIFFERENCE in nutritional content between genuinely organic and non-organic food. Hence any sensible consumer in the West will avoid organic food for he will be paying up to three times more for something that might not even be organically grown!

Organic farming is a dead end, even a rip-off

The case is now closed. Organic farming is a fad for a few ill-informed people in the West and in India. It will remain a luxury market (just as people pay 20 times more for luxury pens or watches) and some of its practices will ultimately become mainstream, which is good. I have no objection to luxury markets so long as governments don't subsidise them.

But the hype about the damage caused by so-called non-organic farming is grossly overstated (this is my view, not in the paper). The damage can be easily remedied with good governance (again, my view, since the paper writer has not looked at regulatory and governance solutions).

I vote for CHEAPER food for everyone in the world, till the population declines and people have spare time on their hands to grow organic foods.

Regardless of the merits or lack thereof, of organic farming, one thing is clear: the government has no business in this space.

Let farmers choose whatever they wish to produce. My concern is that people like Vandana Shiva will force governments to subsidise organic farmers. Beware such crazy fanatics who don’t understand science, economics, or governance, but keep insisting that their views be imposed on the world AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE. Whatever you do, Vijay, please don't ever ask for government subsidies! 

ADDENDUM

Organic products still account for only about 1 per cent of total grocery sales (in Australia).

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