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Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture is often praised as a "clean" or "pure" alternative to the chemically intensive practices of industrialized agriculture.

Indeed, acre for acre, organic agriculture employs far fewer chemicals than conventional operations. One obvious point of distinction centers on the fact than organic agriculture forbids the use of synthetic fertilizers. Nitrogen fertilizer, which adds nitrogen to the soil (and, unfortunately, to the air and water), requires substantial inputs of natural gas to produce. In fact, 5 percent of all natural gas goes toward manufacturing fertilizer.

Excessive applications of synthetic fertilizers not only consume large quantities of fossil fuels and contribute to global warming (through the production of nitrous oxide), but they also compromise the soil's ability to hold nutrients, cause extensive riverine and oceanic "dead zones," and might even lessen the ability of naturally occurring bacteria to hold nitrogen (a plant's most critical nutrient) in the soil Writing in The End of Food, the journalist Paul Roberts, hardly an alarmist on environmental matters, describes the impact of nitrogen used in agriculture as "pervasive and devastating."

Organic agriculture also disallows the use of synthetic pesticides. These chemicals today are much safer than their pre-1970 counterparts. Nevertheless, chemicals such as malathion, atrazine, and Sevin--not to mention a range of other organophosphates--leach into drinking water, can cause reproductive problems in lab animals, may cause endocrine and respiratory problems in humans, and persist in the food supply as residues on fruits and vegetables. many of these pesticides and insecticides kill more than their intended host, ridding the environment of a range of beneficial insects and soil microbes that foster a more dynamic ecological system. Although advocates of organic agriculture rarely note that these chemicals also directly result in more productive agricultural operations, they routinely tout organic's superiority because of its "chemical-free" approach to growing food, thereby reinforcing the misleading impression that a solid line separates organic and conventional systems. As we will see, however, organic practices rely heavily on a range of natural chemicals, many of them quite dangerous.

Research conducted by scientists without industry connections are beginning to challenge the line of demarcation between organic and conventional growing methods. Foremost among these scientists is Bruce
ames, a biochemist, molecular biologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, winner of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California at Berkeley. Ames places the issue of pesticides in an interesting perspective, one that ultimately asks us to rethink the supposed benefits of the "organic" designation. By no means does the believe that synthetic chemicals used in conventional agriculture and eschewed by organic growers are innocuous. But he does argue that our obsession with their dangers overlooks the fact that, as he writes, "99.9 percent of the toxic chemicals we're exposed to are completely natural."

The implications are significant for organic agriculture. When we eat an average plant, organic or not, we "consume about 50 toxic chemicals," most of them natural pesticides occurring both in the food and as residue on it. Tests done on rats--which, granted, may have little predictive value for humans--show that there are virtually no differences with respect to health consequences between natural and synthetic chemicals. They were equally carcinogenic when delivered at high doses. Reinforcing this point, Ames notes that "the natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year's worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens." He has even gone so far as to say that because synthetic pesticides better increase the supply of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables, "pesticides lower the cancer rate." As he sees it, the benefits that accrue from eating a steady diet of fruits and vegetables far outweigh the detriments of consuming trace amounts of mildly toxic pesticides sprayed upon them.

This line of argument, of course, must be approached delicately. But as counterintuitive as it may seem, it has a strong following. Writing in the prestigious journal Science, other researchers joined Ames in showing that a sleeping ill, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, and a glass of orange juice each have, according to toxicity studies done on rodents, a higher "potency index" than the synthetic pesticides lindane and captan. so does a glass of chlorinated tap water. When the Oxford University scientist Dr. Robert Peto determined that the primary cancer-causing risks in the United States were smoking, genetics, and a low-fiber diet, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) followed up with a report that noted, "The occurrence of pesticides as dietary pollutants seems unimportant.

Writing in a 2006 issue of the journal Critical Review in Food Science and Nutrition, scientists concluded, according to one summary of the piece, that "there was no evidence that eating organic food was healthier" than eating conventional food. "The bottom line," according to Dr. Elizabeth Finkel, a microbiologist, "is that there is tremendous variation in the nutritional make-up of fruit and vegetables regardless of whether they were grown by organic or conventional means."

For more information on the pros and cons of organic and conventionally grown foods, read more detailed accounts by James E. McWilliams in his fascinating and provocative book Just Food.

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