Agvocates: It’s Your Turn to Stop the Mud Slinging

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GUEST AUTHOR: Terence Bradshaw | Director of the UVM Apple and Grape Program and Horticulture Research and Education Center | University of Vermont

This piece previously appeared on the author’s blog “Science, Communication and Agriculture“. It appears here by permission.


I wrote a blog post recently that criticized the use of graphic, inaccurate imagery in opposing GMOs and pesticides, and explained why doing so is offensive to farmers. Of anything I have written professionally on social media, this has been the most shared and well-accepted by the ag community. But watch what you’re saying, agvocates, because I have a few words for you, too.

Lets’ start this by saying I deplore the use of fear-based imagery in marketing and education. That’s represented in the aforementioned post. But I have also recently called out ‘agvocate’ voices for using hyperbole or bad reasoning in their arguments. When we take sides first and ask questions later, we risk falling on sloppy arguments ourselves. Painting any issue as black or white is a dangerous proposition. Agriculture, in particular, is an extremely complex field, with multiple biological, physical, and social parameters that interact and demand a higher level of analysis than some more cut-and-dry topics. In my job, I have feet firmly planted in the organic and non-organic buckets, and I tend to operate in that middle ground between the two where sustainability truly lies. There is a lot to learn from working within the organic system- that’s why we teach our summer undergraduate and Farmer Training Program students within the restrictive confines of a certified organic farm so that they may develop better skills when their farms really rely on it.

And that’s central to my point. All farmers, and often more so organic farmers, are very good at assessing these multiple, interacting forces that drive their management decisions. So when I see the argument made that, “so what, organic uses pesticides too,” I cringe a little:


For example, this meme that is often tossed around as evidence that organic is as evil as non-organic does no one any service except to make agvocates feel better about themselves. But think about it. You’re saying that organic pesticides are untested, and are just as bad or worse than non-organic pesticides. Sorry, that’s bullshit on many levels.

First, any pesticide approved for organic that is sold commercially must undergo the exact same safety testing as non-organic pesticides. That means that they all are subjected to the same toxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive, and ecological effects. Period. So stop saying that organic pesticides aren’t tested. More important is to highlight that our pesticide safety and registration system is robust, risk management-based, and works. It’s because of that system that we have removed or curtailed uses of some of the indeed more toxic materials like azinphos-methyl and rotenone.

Next, the notion that organics indiscriminately douse their crops in copper sulfate and rotenone is ludicrous. For one thing, organic growers do indeed have a USDA certification standard that they must meet, unlike non-organic growers, which requires a prevention plan that includes biological, physical, and cultural controls. In my IPM world we talk that talk and often practice it, but no one (unless we’re part of a third-party certification program, which is few of us) calls us on whether or not we designed the system to reduce pesticide needs or sought other methods first. In my experience, except for certain instances where aggressive organically-approved inputs are required to manage pests (e.g., apple scab, black rot on grapes in the Northeast), organic farms by and large eschew prophylactic use of pesticides.

Now on to those pesticides that are supposedly drenched on organic farms. In several cases, the meme is just plain wrong about what is used. Take methyl bromide, for example- there is absolutely no allowance for it in organic production. Yes, strawberry nurseries use it when starting plants that are sold to organic farms, but so do apple nurseries use pesticides to get trees established that are sold to organic growers, and dairy farms use non-organic (often GMO) feed to produce the shit used to make organic-certified compost. There is certainly an argument to be made that organic producers require non-organic farms and suppliers to survive, but to suggest that organic growers use methyl bromide is just disingenuous.

As for rotenone and nicotine, yup, they’re nasty. But nicotine is expressly disallowed in the organic regulations, so just stop with that. And rotenone? Isn’t available as anything but a piscicide (meaning no use on crops in the U.S., since 2005), and the NOSB petitioned for its removal from the list years ago. I’ve struggled with growing organic apples in the northeast as a researcher for twelve years and have had massive insect outbreaks and trust me, rotenone, nicotine, and homemade concoctions were never on the table.

In my line of work, I consider myself a professional skeptic- I demand that evidence be used to support new and contrary claims. That said, I am also willing to take in new evidence on a matter. That’s why I was a bit surprised when a fellow horticultural professor exclaimed in her Facebook group that a new paper that reported that phylloshpere bacteria contributed to nitrogen assimilation in the host plant was bunk until “some time and radiolabelled nutrient studies…move this from correlation to causation” when that’s exactly what the paper was about (Doty et al. 2016). I’ll cut her some slack, she admitted to posting before reading first thing in the morning without coffee. But the knee-jerk reaction that an alternative system may be responsible for at least a portion of the nitrogen cycle in plant environments is indicative of a bias against alternative systems that goes beyond skepticism. Look, I am the first person to question permaculture, moon planting, and similar alternative production practices, but if I am presented with solid, peer-reviewed evidence that runs contrary to the traditional mode of thinking, I listen.

At the same time, it is difficult to stomach the hyperbole in a headline like, “Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment,” posted from a leading science skepticism site. I understand fully the organic yield gap (Kravchenko et al. 2017), and the contradictions of the need for nitrogen from non-organic farms and soil carbon loss from tillage (McLauchlan 2006). But this article takes quite a lot of liberty in its assumptions, ignores life cycle analysis of nitrogen synthesis, and does not address potential advances in organic, and more so, sustainable production systems moving forward with the tools we now have available. Are there issues with crop yield, food affordability, and (possibly) soil quality decline under organic systems? Maybe, but there are also issues with agricultural runoff, soil quality decline, pest resistance development, and food distribution (among other things) in the present non-organic system. There’s no high horse to ride when we take sides.

I prefer to think back to the 1990s vision of a Low Input Sustainable Agriculture model which includes the best tools from the organic and non-organic worlds to develop a farming and food production system that minimizes unintended impacts while feeding a growing population and rewarding farmers. This vision was highlighted in a recent review publication of European literature on organic farming (Tuomisto et al. 2012):

“This meta-analysis has showed that organic farming in Europe has generally lower environmental impacts per unit of area than conventional farming, but due to lower yields and the requirement to build the fertility of land, not always per product unit. The results also showed a wide variation between the impacts within both farming systems. There is not a single organic or conventional farming system, but a range of different systems, and thus, the level of many environmental impacts depend more on farmers’ management choices than on the general farming systems. In our view, there will be no single best farming system for all circumstances. Rather it will be necessary to compose ‘optimal’ systems from a series of particular practices that relate to specific circumstances, constraints and objectives.”

This ideal system will only come when we stop demonizing one another and act together. I can’t speak for the Organic companies and activist groups behind much of the demonizing of non-organic food production (Schroeder 2014), they really are bastards. But as farmers, academics, and informed citizens we owe it to everyone to step up our game and rise above it.

  [Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. All contributors receive a subscription to our email newsletter the FAFDL Dispatch. ]

Doty, S. L., A. W. Sher, N. D. Fleck, M. Khorasani, R. E. Bumgarner, Z. Khan, A. W. Ko, S.-H. Kim, and T. H. DeLuca. 2016. Variable nitrogen fixation in wild Populus. PloS one 11: e0155979.

Kravchenko, A. N., S. S. Snapp, and G. P. Robertson. 2017. Field-scale experiments reveal persistent yield gaps in low-input and organic cropping systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

McLauchlan, K. 2006. The nature and longevity of agricultural impacts on soil carbon and nutrients: a review. Ecosystems 9: 1364-1382.

Schroeder, J. 2014. Organic marketing report, pp. 16. In B. Chassy, D. Tribe, G. Brookes and D. Kershen [eds.], Academics Review. Academics Review.

Tuomisto, H. L., I. Hodge, P. Riordan, and D. W. Macdonald. 2012. Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?–A meta-analysis of European research. Journal of environmental management 112: 309-320.

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