Does Nature Really “Do Its Thing” on Organic Farms?

Fridge picI am lucky. My fridge is full of food: mostly produced in the UK or Europe; all nutritious, safe and affordable; and almost all produced on conventional farms, with a small amount of organic food (in my case, chocolate). Given that you’re reading this, I’ll hazard a guess that you are lucky too. 795 million other people can’t say the same thing – and feeding all the people on a planet where 1 in 9 don’t currently have enough food is, in my view, our biggest challenge.

The fact that we face this challenge makes me really irritated when celebrity chefs who could make a huge difference, bow instead to popular rhetoric. In his latest blog post, mockney chef and food pundit Jamie Oliver proclaims that “…organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.”

If we ignore the nonsensical claim that natural ingredients produce positive results (Really? Let’s examine puffer fish, solanaceae poisoning, dangerous fungi, absinthe, the many consequences of obesity…), let’s simply look at his claim that organic food is natural.  Except, well, it’s not. Agriculture first developed ~12,000 years ago, and ever since then farmers have been doing their best to breed crops and animals that are best suited to their farming system, whether it’s organic or conventional. Want dairy cows that produce high-quality milk from grazing pasture; leaner pork chops; or strawberries that can survive supermarket handling? You’ve got it. All achieved through traditional breeding techniques (otherwise known as “nature doing its thing”): noting that plant or animal A has desirable characteristics and breeding it with plant or animal B to (hopefully) produce better offspring. No scary chemicals, scientists with syringes or genes in test-tubes. Every farm in the world is founded on “nature doing its thing” – not just the organic farms. We can argue whether GMO crops are natural (breeding techniques are simply more refined and specific) or not (scientists playing god…) but that argument becomes redundant in the EU and many other regions, where GMO crops are not approved.

Can organic producers use pesticides? Yes, if they’re compounds approved for organic production (e.g. highly-toxic copper-based fungicides). Can they use antibiotics and wormers? Again yes, if a proven disease problem exists (note that rules differ slightly between the UK and USA). Are organic farmers just merrily sitting back and letting their crops cross-pollinate and reseed, and their bulls run around happily “doing their thing” to whichever cow they come across? No. It’s a beautiful bucolic image to suggest that organic farmers are happily working with Mother Nature whereas conventional farmers have an evil scientist sitting on one shoulder and a big agribusiness corporation on the other, but its simply not true.

According to Mr Oliver, “…the simple fact is that often we don’t actually have to interfere with nature.” The idea of a world where we could feed over 7 billion people without having to actually invest any research dollars into improving food production is lovely, but it’s smoke and mirrors. At the most basic level, what happens if we don’t “interfere” by controlling weeds (whether by chemicals, mechanical tillage or human labour)? Crop yields are reduced, food production goes down and we feed and clothe fewer people. What happens if a cow has problems giving birth? In nature, she dies. On a farm (whether organic or conventional) both she and the calf are saved, providing milk and meat for us to eat. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20% of global animal protein losses are due to diseases for which treatments already exist – we simply need to make them available to every farmer worldwide. Just think how many more people we could feed if we interfered with nature in that way?

Huge amounts of research monies are invested each year to find ways to improve food production on both organic and conventional farms worldwide. Some are highly technical, others are simple, but all are contributing to the goal of feeding the world. Unfortunately, when food pundits jump on the “let’s promote system X” bandwagon as Mr Oliver has done with organic production, using persuasive but false arguments, we lose traction in fulfilling the real goal. Rather than arguing about which foods we can/should be buying, we need to accept that there’s a place for all systems; examine the ways in which all systems can improve soil fertility, animal health and environmental impacts; and make faster progress towards feeding the world while still enjoying our food choices.

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Who Needs Scientists? Just Let Mother Nature Design Your Greek Yogurt.

Chobani.jpgHow you get to 100 calories matters. Most companies use artificial sweeteners. We think Mother Nature is sweet enough”. Clever marketing from the greek yogurt company Chobani, simultaneously disparaging alternative brands, and playing the ultimate caring, sharing, natural card with the mention of “Mother Nature”. However, earlier this week, Chobani’s #howmatters hashtag set the twitter feeds alight after their new “witty” tagline on the underside of yogurt lids was posted (below).

howmattersThe wording plays beautifully into what is fast becoming a universal fear of science intruding on our food supply – we want real food; food like our grandparents ate; food from traditional breeds and heirloom varieties – providing it doesn’t take us over 2,000 cal per day or increase our cholesterol levels. Rightly or wrongly, many people blame processed foods with hidden sugars and added chemical preservatives for many health issues in developed countries – the epitome of a #firstworldproblem, given that the corresponding #thirdworldproblem is hunger and malnutrition.

However, this time the twitter anger wasn’t from rampaging mommy bloggers, or infuriated activists, but scientists. After all, without science, would Chobani have a product? Yogurt was first developed in ancient times, but the modern pasteurized, long-shelf-life, greek yogurt is rather different to the cultured milk our ancestors would have enjoyed.

FAGEI have a 100-calorie greek yogurt from a rival brand in my fridge, so let’s examine the ingredients (left). Simply pasteurized skimmed milk and live active yogurt cultures (note, no added sweeteners). Louis Pasteur, a 19th century French scientist developed pasteurization (in addition to his discoveries relating to vaccines and microbial fermentation); biologists developed methods to identify and classify the bacteria that ferment milk into yogurt; and food scientists experimented with the exact mixture of bacteria to produce the desired flavor, texture and color of yogurt,  as well as developing the range of other processes needed to make the yogurt safe, appealing and shelf-stable.

Yes, we could make greek yogurt without scientists – after all, the original recipe didn’t originate in a corporate experimental kitchen. But without hundreds of years of scientific input, could we make Greek yogurt that, at 100 calories per serving, is desirable to the consumer and is a safe, affordable source of vitamins, minerals and protein? No. To imply that we could does a huge disservice to food scientists.

It appears that being a modern-day scientist appears to be somewhat equivalent to clubbing baby seals to death. Caring little for human suffering and illness, the cold and clinical scientist rubs his hands together with glee as he removes all nutrients from real food, replacing them with chemicals, additives and genetically-modified ingredients. As a side-line, he develops cocktails of toxic elements, pesticides and embalming fluid and markets them as vaccines. Yes, science is the enemy. Just remember that next time you take an aspirin for a hangover from pasteurized, fermented beverages.