The Truth About Organic Foods by Alex Avery (Chesterfield, MO: Henderson Communications L.L.C., 2006, 231 pp). Foreword and cover note by Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., and cover note by Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug.
The price of the book is $19.95 and all author-share profits directly support the Hudson Institute.
Those of us whom have been reading Alex Avery’s Internet postings on agricultural over the years will begin this book with exceedingly high expectations. As always, Alex does not disappoint us, and in fact often exceeds our expectations. The book provides a devastating portrayal of the problems with organic food and its production, yet Avery finds merit in some organic foods.
From beginning to end, Avery asserts the right of farmers to go organic and consumers to buy their product. As this review will indicate, Avery has many other criticisms of organic agriculture, but on this point, Alex’s libertarianism shows — he faults the organic agriculture proponents not for promoting their own agenda but for their attempts at using various means, from legislation and regulation to consumer-activist propaganda tactics, to prevent the rest of us from choosing the most beneficial and efficient food production systems. This cannot be stressed too strongly, since organic agriculture enthusiasts continue to claim victim status, omitting the fact that their product commands a premium price because they’ve been trashing modern food production for the past half-century.
In his “romantic history” of organic agriculture, Avery pursues a thesis I have also advocated (in Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, for example), that “vitalism” — belief in some immeasurable, undefinable “vital” something that endows food or herbs or homeopathic “remedies” with beneficial properties — is at the core of the organic agriculture belief system, and at the core of a variety of allied belief systems, such as various alternative medicine practices, and anti-science and anti-modern movements in general. If vitalism is one’s faith, no amount of evidence is likely to change it.
Vitalism and “essentialism” have allowed believers to ignore massive evidence falsifying their cherished beliefs. There are similarities in these regard between organic/biodynamic agriculture adherents and the believers in intelligent design. Essentialism in biology was the belief that every type of organism has its own unique, immutable essence — this belief was used as an argument against evolution and is today an argument against food transgenics, since (the believers would say) all rat, cockroach, fish, or whatever genes have a rattiness, cockroachiness, or fishiness that will be transferred into whatever organism they are inserted in. Incidentally, there are no rat or cockroach or fish genes in our produce, but this does not prevent the activists from reinforcing their essentialism with pure fabrication.
Science, by contrast, employs reductionism — not talking about a plant’s unique plant-spirit but breaking it down into components found elsewhere in nature. It is sinful in the essentialists’ eyes to point out, as Avery does, that for plants to use manure, it has to be broken down in the soil into cations and anions, which are identical to those of synthetic fertilizer. Reductionists would further note that all genes are DNA composed of nucleotide sequences (as is the case of for all life as we know it on this planet, except for viruses if we classify them as lifeforms) and that the genomes that define lifeforms have more commonalities than differences. Reductionism eliminates the need for so-called “holistic” explanations. Vitalism, essentialism, and holism leave no room for scientific inquiry or the empirical reality that science helps to clarify and define.
Still, vitalism in various forms has a long history, partly for the obvious reason that a living organism differs from a non-living organism. The difference can be observed but not measured. It was long thought that only living organisms can create organic compounds. As Avery shows, the death knell of vitalism began with Frederich Wohler’s laboratory synthesis of urea in 1828. By the end of the nineteenth century, vitalism had been driven out of science, though it lingered on for another couple of decades in philosophy.
Justus Baron von Liebig’s work following Wohler, showing that inorganic minerals could provide soil nutrient to plants, was a clear refutation of a central tenet of vitalism. According to Avery, though, it was the “successful synthesis of ammonia utilized for fertilizer on an industrial scale” that drove the “final nail in the coffin of vitalism.” At least, that was how scientists and agriculturalists saw it but not the biodynamic and organic spiritualists inspired by Ruldolf Steiner. To Steiner and those who have followed him, synthetic fertilizer was “dead” while manure is a product of living organisms which can transmit their vital properties to the crops that they nourish. Avery provides an excellent account of Steiner’s weird notions and provides us a generous sampling of Steiner’s own writing.
Organic Assertions and Real Learning
Avery begins most chapters with a series of quotes from organic agriculture proponents and occasionally adds a dissenting view by someone skeptical of these assertions. Many of these quotes are so saccharine and sanctimonious — and so grossly at variance with reality — that most of us would simply not deem them worthy of further consideration. But Alex Avery will have none of that and in each chapter he meticulously examines these claims and brings massive scientific evidence to bear on them, generally refuting them but occasionally giving them a modicum of (carefully qualified) credence.
The organic enthusiasts will undoubtedly find his critiques to be unfair, but an objective reader could well find them balanced. Many of the quotes that Avery uses seem over the top, but anyone who has read the literature of the organic/biodynamic movement will know they are all too typical. Avery keeps in check his well-honed sarcasm, with only an occasional slip such as the title of the book’s appendix, “Spiritual Manure and Other Organic Voodoo.” Otherwise, he prefers to let the facts and science do the talking.
In the Introduction, Avery indicates that his book was “written primarily for average consumer and not Ph.D. students.” He has an extraordinary ability to translate the latest and best in peer-reviewed science into an exposition that is both understandable to the average consumer and to the practicing scientist. As someone who has written extensively on the various themes of the book, I can truly say that I learned from it and am convinced that most others in the field will benefit from The Truth About Organic Foods no matter how well-informed they may be on the overall subject matter.
Most readers of this review already know the organic litany: organic is ostensibly safer, healthier, tastier, and better for the environment while modern “industrial” agriculture is producing food covered with pesticides (which are ruining our soil and polluting our rivers) and meat loaded with dangerous synthetic hormones and antibiotics. Avery takes each of these on in turn, using data and peer-reviewed science. They are usually refuted quite thoroughly, but it is worth repeating that occasionally he will find a modicum (but only a modicum) of merit in the organic claims. How many critics of organic agriculture would have a chapter titled, “If It’s Better, Buy It,” in which Avery readily admits to having a preference for an organic item or two in his town?
Organics vs. Development
Lower yield has always been the Achilles heel of organic agriculture. Recently, there have been many claims that organic yields are the same as, if not higher than, those of “conventional” agriculture. One could legitimately ask why, if the organic farmer has fewer commercial inputs and a comparable yield, his product has to command such a high premium price? Avery wades into the alleged data supporting the claim and dissects it with clinical precision, showing how the proponents cherry-pick the data and leave out critical information such as the way organic agriculture necessitates dedicated land to producing the nitrogenous organic matter used to replace synthetic fertilizer. Compelling is Avery’s use of the Bichel Committee report from Denmark, possibly the most thorough investigation of the subject ever carried out, which estimated that Denmark would lose 47% of its total edible food production if it went organic.
As an economist involved in international development and global food production, I was particularly interested in Avery’s discussion of the implications of going organic for world food production — how few people we could feed and how much more land would have to be brought under cultivation. For those of us who are interested in both feeding the world and in conserving wildlife and habitat, synthetic fertilizer and continued plant improvement using every breeding technique available — including biotechnology — is an absolute necessity.
The book closes with a brief chapter on the benefits of biotechnology. With biotechnology producing pest-resistant plants and herbicide-tolerant plants, we can now engage in the most environmentally benign forms of agriculture ever known to humankind — even using less pesticide and herbicide thanks to biotech crops than are needed for organic agriculture. (Yes, Virginia, they use pesticides in organic agriculture — and they’re forbidden from using some of the most eco-friendly modern techniques.) For such insights, The Truth About Organic Foods is a must-read for all those interested in contemporary food production and nutrition.
Dr. Thomas R. DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston. He is a member of ACSH’s Founder’s Circle. DeGregori’s own most recent books include Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate; The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology; Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense; and Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment. His homepage is http:www.uh.edu/~trdegreg and his e-mail address is trdegreg[at]uh.edu.