Tag Archive | Organic

If Alternative Farming worked, it would just be called “Farming”

First published on Skepteco Feb 8th 2014

by Graham Strouts

Another insightful critique of permaculture, this time from Chris Smaje, which I take the liberty of quoting from at length as Smaje summarizes the issues better than I can:

PDC {Permaculture Design Course} syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:

  • a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
  • a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism;
  • likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
  • a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
  • a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
  • a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
  • a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
  • a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
  • a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
  • most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations.

  • I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it. And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.

    From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:

  • a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
  • a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
  • a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
  • a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
  • an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems

In truth, I would personally hesitate to say some of those things so baldly without having specific evidence I could point to to back them up; as with Ann Owen’s post discussed last week, Smaje does not mince his words or shy away from direct attack on his prey; nevertheless, I understand everything he is saying and can concur that this is also my experience with that special tribe of permaculture people.

Note Smaje’s accusation towards the end of his list of “a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ “
This seems odd since elsewhere Smaje continues to accuse me also of “irrationalist faith-based scientism”- which seems to be exactly the kind of response he is complaining of receiving himself from the permaculture world.

Just as Owen completely rolled back on her concurrence with myself and Peter Harper that “Permies dont do numbers” by asserting that “No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience” -in other words, anecdotes trump data- so Smaje seems unable to see that those he criticizes will tar him with the self-same epithet he throws at me.

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A Little Perspective . . .

on the size of the respective markets:

The organic food market made up $29 billion in U.S. sales in 2012—a figure that’s certainly not insignificant but still looks like pocket change next to the $479 billion in sales Walmart did in the last fiscal year

Organic Farmers Face Their Own Version of Baumol’s Disease

Nathanael Johnson’s recent interview with veteran organic farmer Tom Willey made about a dozen great points and raised about a dozen vexing issues. I’d like to look at just one of them.

In the interview, Willey is outlines two problems with one solution. One of those problems is going to get more difficult for organic producers over time.

Willey says:

[On the value of farmer’s labor] Because we think that growing other people’s food is as important as, you know, being people’s pastor or doctor or lawyer, and those professions are certainly well compensated. So why have farmers always had to take it in the shorts economically? And grow food for so many people and work so many hours and so hard for so little remuneration?

I don’t have his permission to say who he is, but there’s a very successful and highly revered organic farmer on the East Coast, and two years ago he had a horrible bout with cancer and he didn’t have the money for health insurance. I mean that is just unconscionable. And he is feeding many people some of the best organic products that we know of. It’s just not right.

[On tracking costs] We don’t do that to that anal of a level in our farm, but we do it. We do it particularly with labor, because on a farm like ours it’s insanely labor intensive. I’m telling you the truth here: When I sell you a dollar’s worth of produce, 70 cents of that goes to labor compensation. We’ve had a wave of wage increases here in the Valley over the past year, because the scarcity of labor has become extreme with the border shut down for so many years. The border used to be a semi-permeable membrane, they’d open the valve a little bit close the valve a little bit, but since everyone has gone apoplectic about immigration, the border is basically shut down. So little by little the labor pool is eroding here.

[On working with immigrant workers]
Well we do, we do, and a lot of our employees appreciate the fact that they have year-round work and other benefits. But when that wage started going up, our employees came to us and said, “Hey we need to have a chat here.” So we had a big meeting out in the front yard of the farm and we discussed it. They said, the disparity is just getting too great and you have to do something, or some of us are going to start melting away. So we instantly raised the wage a dollar. And with that, some of our crops became money losers, so we actually had to lose some of our diversity.

[On the need for serious attention to bookkeeping and marketing]
There’s a saying that farmers are always price takers, not price makers. You have to become a farmer who is a price maker. You have to distinguish your product from the masses in the market.

We really need to be growing the highest quality, most nutrient-dense produce. Unfortunately we don’t have the tools to assess that cheaply on a daily basis. If you can do that, you are a price maker.

If you are just selling into an amorphous market, under someone else’s label, you are a price taker. But if you are selling locally, you can really identify your customers. We established our name and our label and found a few thousand people who would support it. You just carve out your constituency, figure out how to produce what they need, and get them to understand that they need to pay you fairly for it.

The first problem is the historical weakness that farmers have suffered from in the market’s price mechanism. For specialty growers (produce), this stems from the fact that they are selling a perishable good and they feel the clock ticking much more keenly than the buyer on the other end of the transaction. This is compounded by the tendency of agricultural markets towards gluts. Everyone’s asparagus crop hits the market at the same time, and they all need to sell in the same window of time.

That problem affects all specialty growers, not just organic growers and the problem of gluts is an even bigger problem for commodity crop growers which is the reason why we have had various price stabilization policies in place since the Great Depression. The second problem Willey talks about is the fact that cultivating, processing and transporting organic produce on a small scale is incredibly labor intensive. This is where small organic producers run into a parallel version of Baumol’s cost disease.

The New Yorker’s James Suroweiki explains the disease:

When Mozart composed his String Quintet in G Minor (K. 516), in 1787, you needed five people to perform it—two violinists, two violists, and a cellist. Today, you still need five people, and, unless they play really fast, they take about as long to perform it as musicians did two centuries ago. So much for progress.

An economist would say that the productivity of classical musicians has not improved over time, and in this regard the musicians aren’t alone. In a number of industries, workers produce about as much per hour as they did a decade or two ago. The average college professor can’t grade papers or give lectures any faster today than he did in the early nineties. It takes a waiter just as long to serve a meal, and a car-repair guy just as long to fix a radiator hose.

The rest of the American economy functions differently. In most businesses, workers are continually getting more productive and can produce a lot more per hour than they could ten or twenty years ago. In 1979, workers at G.M. needed forty-one hours to assemble a car. Today, they need just twenty-four.

. . . Generally, productivity growth is a boon, but it creates problems for non-productive enterprises like classical music, education, and car repair: to keep luring talent, they have to increase wages, or else people eventually migrate to businesses that pay better. Instead of becoming nurses or mechanics, they become telecom engineers or machinists. That’s why teachers are getting paid a lot more than they were twenty years ago. (The average salary for an associate college professor has risen almost seventy per cent since the early eighties, and that’s if you adjust for inflation.) To pay those wages, schools and hospitals have to raise prices. The result is that in industries where productivity is flat costs and prices keep going up. Economists call this phenomenon “Baumol’s cost disease,” after William Baumol, the N.Y.U. economist who first made the diagnosis, using the Mozart analogy, in the sixties.

The problem for farmers is that they are competing with more productive industries for workers, but that they the goods they are selling compete directly with substitutes from more productive competitors.

Even the most vocal supporters have found organic [pdf] to require 35% more labor. On top of that, organic yields are consistently lower which is another way of saying that land costs per unit are higher. Because of the way that organic standards in the US are structured, the productivity gaps in labor and yield will almost certainly continue to widen over time. This means organic farmers will be competing with products that are increasingly cheaper in relative terms over time. Compound this with the structural problems that make all farmers price takers and you are facing a very steep climb. This is too say nothing of the problems with economies of scale that small farmers are saddled with.

From the start, Willey’s solution to these problems has been marketing. For farmers who choose organic certification, there are currently only two paths to profitability. You can either sell your soul and go big; selling tomatoes for sauce and canned tomatoes, salad greens for supermarket clamshells; or you can go niche, reaching high end restaurants, farmers markets and use the CSA model. This doesn’t bode well for those of us who’d like to see more produce grown under organic best practices at scales that can feed more people, more afford-ably, more sustainably. It’s not at all clear how marketing can take organic past carving out a niche market to capture the necessary price premium. If that is sufficient for those that want to follow their farming muse and find meaningful, remunerative work as farmers, that’s all to the good, but it relegates independent organic produce farms to being significant cultural assets, but insignificant parts of the food system.

 photo SomeOrganicYields_zps3094032b.jpg

Sources:
Sustainable farming needs math as much as mulch, says one veteran
Nathanael Johnson | Thought for Food | Grist | 30 January 2014

What Ails Us
James Surowiecki | The New Yorker | 7 July 2003

Organic and Conventional Farming Systems: Environmental and Economic Issues [pdf]
David Pimentel1, Paul Hepperly, James Hanson, Rita Seidel and David Douds | Bioscience | July 2005

The crop yield gap between organic and conventional
Tomek de Ponti,Bert Rijk,Martin K. van Ittersum | Agricultural Systems | April 2012

Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture
Verena Seufert,Navin Ramankutty & Jonathan A. Foley | Nature | 09 March 2012

Contemporary Selective Breeding. Plant Edition.

vegetables

In an effort to address the naivete and sentimentality that people have about agriculture, we continue our look at contemporary selective breeding. After looking at the state of the art of dairy cow breeding, I thought we’d take a look at some recent articles about the state of the art in non-GMO plant breeding.

In Scientific American, Ferris Jabr takes a long and careful look at a new breed of plant um, breeders. Clocking in at nearly 5000 words, it’s thorough and lively primer on the subject of selective breeding. You’ll be doing yourself a favor to read the whole thing.

The story starts with the arrival of some seeds from habaneros that mutated in such away that they produced little to no capsaicin. Michael Mazourek started crossing them with other plants to try to create a pepper that had a habenero’s subtle, smoky flavor without the brutal and distracting heat. By running the genome of the plant and isolating the alleles responsible for the traits he was seeking he was able to skip step of waiting for plants to produce fruit to test if they were expressing those traits.

Mazourek belongs to a new generation of plant breeders who combine traditional farming with rapid genetic analysis to create more flavorful, colorful, shapely and nutritious fruits and vegetables. These modern plant breeders are not genetic engineers; in most cases they do not directly manipulate plant DNA in the lab. Rather, they sequence the genomes of many different kinds of plants to build databases that link various versions of genes—known as alleles—to distinct traits. Then, they peek inside juvenile plants to examine the alleles that are already there before choosing which ones to grow in the field and how best to mate one plant with another. In some cases breeders can even analyze the genetic profiles of individual seeds and subsequently select which to sow and which to disregard, saving them a great deal of time and labor.

Plant breeders have, of course, always used the best tools available to them. But in the last 10 years or so they have been able to approach their work in completely new ways in part because genetic sequencing technology is becoming so fast and cheap. “There’s been a radical change in the tools we use,” says Jim Myers of Oregon State University, who has been a plant breeder for more than 20 years and recently created an eggplant-purple tomato. “What is most exciting to me, and what I never thought I would be doing, is going in and looking at candidate genes for traits. As the price of sequencing continues to drop, it will become more and more routine to do sequences for every individual population of plants you’re working with.”

. . . In part to circumvent the controversy surrounding GMOs, fruit and vegetable breeders at both universities and private companies have been turning to an alternative way of modifying the food we eat: a sophisticated approach known as marker-assisted breeding that marries traditional plant breeding with rapidly improving tools for isolating and examining alleles and other sequences of DNA that serve as “markers” for specific traits. Although these tools are not brand-new, they are becoming faster, cheaper and more useful all the time. “The impact of genomics on plant breeding is almost beyond my comprehension,” says Shelley Jansky, a potato breeder who works for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “To give an example: I had a grad student here five years ago who spent three years trying to identify DNA sequences associated with disease resistance. After hundreds of hours in the lab he ended up with 18 genetic markers. Now I have grad students who can get 8,000 markers for each of 200 individual plants within a matter of weeks. Progress has been exponential in last five years.”

. . . Mills can look for these markers in cantaloupe seeds before deciding which ones to plant thanks to a group of cooperative and largely autonomous robots, some of which are housed in Monsanto’s molecular breeding lab at its vegetable research and development headquarters in Woodland, Calif. First, a machine known as a seed chipper shaves off a small piece of a seed for DNA analysis, leaving the rest of the kernel unharmed and suitable for sowing in a greenhouse or field. Another robot extracts the DNA from that tiny bit of seed and adds the necessary molecules and enzymes to chemically glue fluorescent tags to the relevant genetic sequences, if they are there. Yet another machine amplifies the number of these glowing tags in order to measure the light they emit and determine whether a gene is present. Monsanto’s seed chippers can run 24 hours a day and the whole system can deliver results to breeders within two weeks.

This example from the article is striking in that it shows Monsanto actively helping out local (east coast) vegetable farmers.

Fresh broccoli consumed the same day it was harvested is completely different from typical supermarket fare, Bjorkman says—it’s tender, with a mellow vegetative flavor, a hint of honeysuckle and no sharp aftertaste. Trucking broccoli from California to other parts of the country requires storing the vegetable on ice in the dark for days. With no light, photosynthesis halts, which means that cells stop making sugars. Rapidly dropping temperatures rupture cell walls, irrevocably weakening the plant’s structure and diminishing its firmness. When the broccoli is thawed, various enzymes and molecules that escaped their cells bump into one another and trigger a sequence of chemical reactions, some of which degrade both nutritional and flavorful compounds. Giving farmers in the east broccoli they can grow and sell locally solves all these problems. In a separate effort to boost the nutritional value of broccoli, Monsanto released Beneforte broccoli, which has been bred to contain extra high levels of glucoraphanin, a compound that some evidence indicates may fight bacteria and cancer. You can find the florets at some Whole Foods and States Bros.

It’s telling that there seem to be no safety concerns for the random mutation not previously existing in nature in those habaneros that Michael Mazourek was sent. It’s a novel gene that hasn’t been field tested for environmental concerns, it hasn’t undergone composition analysis, or testing for allergens. If breeders using genetic engineering to move one single gene to express a well understood protein into a crop all those things and a decade of testing would be necessary. Go figure.

A recent piece by Nova was about genetic engineering, but again, I thought the most interesting part was it’s portrayal of how specific and directed contemporary breeding is.

De Jong produced the plants in the same old, laborious way that his father did before him. He collected pollen from a plant that produces potatoes that fry as potato chips should and then sprinkled the pollen on the flower of a potato plant that resists viruses. If the resulting potatoes bear their parents’ finest features—and none of the bad ones—De Jong will bury them in the ground next year and test their mettle against a common potato virus. If they survive—and are good for frying and eating—he and his team will repeat this for 13 years to ensure that problematic genes did not creep in during the initial cross.

Each year, the chance of failure is high. Potatoes that resist viruses, for example, often have genes that make them taste bitter. Others turn an unappetizing shade of brown when fried. If anything like that happens, De Jong will have to start from scratch. Tedious as it is, he loves the work. Kicking up dirt in the furrows that cascade along the hillsides of upstate New York, he says, “I’m never stressed in the potato fields.”

De Jong has some serious cred in the agriculture world. Not only was his father a potato breeder, he’s also descended from a long line of farmers. The potato farmers he works with appreciate this deeply, along with his commitment to the age-old craft of producing new potato varieties through selective breeding. They even advocated on his behalf during his hiring and when he was up for tenure at Cornell, a school with a long history of agriculture research. “All of our farmers like Walter,” says Melanie Wickham, the executive secretary of the Empire State Growers organization in Stanley, New York. Often, he’s in the fields in a big hat, she says. Other times “you’ll see him in the grocery store, looking over the potatoes.”

De Jong has been working with farmers long enough to know that our food supply is never more than a step ahead of devastating insect infestations and disease. Selective breeders like De Jong work hard to develop resistant crops, but farmers still have to turn to chemical pesticides, some of which are toxic to human health and the environment. De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.
seedlings

So while De Jong still devotes most of his time to honing his craft, he has recently begun to experiment in an entirely different way, with genetic engineering. To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does. By inserting a specific fungus-defeating gene into a tasty potato, for example, De Jong knows he could offer farmers a product that requires fewer pesticides.

“We want to make food production truly sustainable,” De Jong says, “and right now I cannot pretend that it is.”

. . . I first encountered De Jong on April 4, when he sat on a panel about GMOs in New York City hosted by the advocacy groups GMO Free NY and the Wagner Food Policy Alliance. The modest awkwardness that endears him to farmers didn’t charm the audience. As De Jong explained how scientists create GMOs, they began to murmur, lost amidst De Jong’s scientific jargon and meandering delivery.

De Jong did, however, liven up during a discussion in which Jean Halloran, a member of the panel from the Consumer’s Union, suggested that farmers in the developing world could ditch pesticides, not use GMOs, and increase yields. “We favor a knowledge-based approach rather than a chemical-based approach to increasing production,” Halloran had said.

De Jong did not find this solution realistic and asked, “Do you want to be the African farmer who has to apply insecticide every week—really nasty stuff—without protective equipment?” The question hung in the air for a second, and the panelist beside him repeated the no-chemical mantra.

Weeks later, De Jong tells me the panel opened his eyes. He was shocked at how people who don’t live near farms feel entitled to advise farmers, especially on environmental matters. “There is a romantic notion of environmentalism, and then there is actual environmentalism,” De Jong says. “Farmers are very conscious of the environment. They want to hand off their operation to their kids and their kids’ kids, so they maintain the land the best they can while doing what they need to do in order to sell their harvest,” he says. “My guess is that the majority of people who are anti-GM live in cities and have no idea what stewardship of the land entails.”

“I find it so tragic that, by and large, crop biotechnologists and farmers want to reduce their pesticide use, and yet the method we think is most sustainable and environmentally friendly has been dismissed out of hand.” He pauses as he recalls the event and says, “There is no scientific justification for it—it is just as if there is a high priest who decided, ‘Thou shalt not be GMO.’ ”

DeJong is very clear about the traits his potatoes are going to end up with. He’s going to get to where wants to go. What he doesn’t understand is why he shouldn’t just skip to the good part.

P.S. Wired has an interesting piece on the vegetables that Monsanto has developed using these techniques. I’ve been using those BellaFina peppers for some time with out realizing they were a Monsanto product. They are great. Cheap and convenient. I used one pepper at a time, mostly in my morning eggs.

Sources:
Creating Tastier and Healthier Fruits and Veggies with a Modern Alternative to GMOs
Ferris Jabr | Scientific American | 24 January 2014

GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides
Amy Maxmen | PBS | 24 July 2013

Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie
Ben Paynter | Wired | 21 January 2014

Annals of Bad Health Reporting: Organic Makes You a Jerk Edition

TIME: Does Organic Food Turn You into a Jerk? (Short answer: yes)
The Atlantic: Does Organic Food Make You a Judgmental Jerk? Maybe
Jezebel: Study Suggests that Eating Organic Foods Contributes to Moral Depravity
Pacific Standard: Get Stressed, Stop Organics, Become A Better Person

I somehow missed it in May when it made the rounds, but the TIME piece came up in a Facebook conversation the other day, just after I had written about bad health reporting and chicken nuggets. So I was primed. Just seeing the headline I knew. I knew. I knew it was going to be another article with a linkbait headline and an over interpreted the study. That turned out to be the best case scenario.

My two questions when reading an article like this are:

“Did the study even demonstrate what the journalist says it says?”
and
“Did the study even test it’s own hypothesis in any meaningful way?” (hint: the answer is almost always in the controls)

You can take a guess what happened.

And a new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish. The report, published last week in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science, notes that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.” Which, to us, sounds like a nice way of saying that organic-food seekers are arrogant.

. . . Eskine and his team showed research subjects photographs of food, ranging from überorganic fruits and vegetables to fattening brownies and baked goods. He then gauged the primed eaters’ moral fiber with stories that warranted judgment, like one about a lawyer who lurks in an ER to try to persuade patients to sue for their injuries.

Reacting to the events on a numbered scale, the organic-food participants were more judgmental than those in the comfort-food category. They were also more reluctant when asked to volunteer time to help strangers, the study found, offering only 13 minutes vs. the brownie eaters’ 24 minutes. It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.”

The writer, Nick Carbone has told us that people who seek organic food are arrogant and snobbish. Is that what the study he has described shows? No. It shows that anybody, not just organic shoppers can become more judgmental and stingy when exposed to pictures of organic food. It shows that it is the exposure to images of food that triggers this, not “organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals.”

This would be an interesting observation, if it had been demonstrated in the literature that organic shoppers were in fact more judgmental and stingier. It would provide a clue as to causality. But the entire underlying premise is never addressed. It’s not like there is no literature on the subject. Or that you can’t find any research to support the premise. No one even tried. Not even the authors of the paper.

The paper references the literature on how different foods can effect people’s moral bearings. But it does not look at the literature on the moral or ethical attitudes of organic consumers in order to establish the premise that organic consumers are be more judgmental and stingy. The hypothesis they are testing is that exposure to images of organic food could influence people’s levels of empathy. Do they even succeed at that? I would say, No.

First let’s look at what the study did.

Sixty-two Loyola University undergraduates (37 females, 25 males) participated in the present experiment for course credit and were randomly assigned to one of three food conditions (organic, comfort, control) in a between-subjects design. Told that they were
participating in two unrelated studies (a consumer research survey about food desirability and a separate moral judgment task), participants were first given a packet containing four counterbalanced pictures of food items from one of the following categories: organic foods with organic food labels (apple, spinach, tomato, carrot), comfort foods (ice cream, cookie, chocolate, brownie), or control foods (oatmeal, rice, mustard, beans). Participants also rated each food item on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all desirable to 7 = very desirable) to help
corroborate the cover story as well as provide information about their personal food preferences.

. . . Participants next received a packet containing six counterbalanced moral transgressions describing second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books. Each moral judgment was indicated on a 7-point scale (1= not at all morally wrong to 7 = very morally wrong). As with previous research (Eskine et al., 2011), all judgments were averaged into a single score.
After next answering demographic questions, participants were told “that another professor from another department is also conducting research and really needs volunteers.” They were informed that they would not receive course credit or compensation for their help and were asked to indicate how many minutes (out of 30) they would be willing to volunteer.”

The results:

“On a scale of 1 to 7, the organic people were like 5.5 while the controls were about a 5 and the comfort food people were like a 4.89.” The organic people also only offered to volunteer for a mere 13 minutes, as compared with the control group’s 19-minute offer and the happy comfort-food group’s 24-minute commitment.

Before we move on to why they fail to test their hypothesis, I want to highlight a missed opportunity in their use of the data. If they really wanted to show something about organic consumers specifically and not just Loyola undergrads in general, they would have calculated the correlation between the strength of subjects’ preference for organic foods and and their response to the moral challenges. That might have told us something about organic consumers’ moral orientations. But they didn’t and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since there were no controls in this experiment to begin with.

Wait, what about the control group of oatmeal, rice, mustard and beans? Those were meant as a control in a comparison to organic fruits and vegetable vs. non-organic desserts. That would be fine if there was one variable of moral superiority, organic versus non-organic, but there are two, the other being fruits and vegetables versus desserts. As the test was designed, we have no way of knowing whether it is was the moral halo of fruits and vegetable or the moral halo of organic that produced the result. And as anyone who has ever shopped at Trader Joe’s can tell you, produce isn’t the only type of organic food. There are plenty of organic desserts and snacks. In fact, organic junk food is a bigger segment of the organic market than produce.

If it had those proper controls, we could compare the difference in response between an organic carrot and a conventional carrot. We could compare the difference between organic oatmeal and conventional apple. But as designed, we can’t compare anything meaningful.

The correct comparison would have been organic produce vs. conventional produce, organic neutral foods vs. conventional neutral foods and organic desserts vs. conventional desserts. If those had been the categories, if they had calculated the correlation of preference for organic with moral response and the study group had been larger than 62 students it might have told us something interesting but it didn’t.

The study took about five minutes to read and about 8 seconds to see the flaws. The fact that these poorly designed, under powered studies are reported on at all drives me crazy. It’s even more infuriating that they are misrepresented instead of debunked. The fact that they absolutely litter the health sections of reputable publications is all the more maddening because interesting and significant papers are routinely ignored.

But before we let organic consumers off the hook too fast, note that the first commenter on the TIME version of the story went out of her way to make Eskine’s point.

To label people that eat organic food as “Jerks” is completely ridiculous. I am a proud supporter of organic food and will be till the day that i die. Calling someone a jerk because they eat organic food is childish. There is one thing that this article did get right about the organic community. We do congratulate ourselves for our moral and environmental decisions, because we are doing the right thing. Choosing all organic foods shows that you care about your health and the environment.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Lit References:
Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments | Kendall J. Eskine | 2013
Final draft [pdf]
Organic purchasing motivations and attitudes: are they ethical? | M.G. McEachern, P. McClean | 2002
The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease | M Kratz, T Baars, S Guyenet
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research | A Nicolia, A Manzo, F Veronesi, D Rosellini | 2103

Daily Essentials | Monday | 14 October 2013

1. SHUTDOWN LEAVES SOME SENIORS WONDERING ABOUT THEIR NEXT MEAL
Patrick Center | TheSalt | NPR

You’ve no doubt heard of Senior Meals on Wheels preparing hot meals delivered to the elderly. But there’s a different meal program that’s been put on hold because of the partial government shutdown. It’s the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

In Michigan’s western Kent County alone, more than 1,300 low-income seniors depend on . For them, it’s a nutrition lifeline: They can’t just go to a food pantry for similar assistance.

Bill Anderson, 81, and his wife, June, 83, are among those affected. Medical emergencies have depleted their savings. Social Security provides enough money to pay the utilities and insurance, but they turn to the government food program for meals.

2. SHIPPING CONTAINERS CAN ADD EXPORT MARKETS FOR FARMERS
Bill Wheelhouse | Harvest Public Media

“If you want to deliver to a foreign customer a product that has been well taken care of, not crushed in the bottom of the hold of a ship, you need to have it in smaller quantities,” he said. “Some people want it genetically modified, some people do not want it genetically modified. Some want this kind of soybean, another one (wants) another strain of soybean. So you can segregate the types of cargo that you are shipping out by moving it into container.”

The items going overseas range from the corn remnants at ethanol plants for animal feed, to a small shipment of soybeans that will arrive directly at a bakery in Korea, to soybeans that will be used to make tofu.

3.
SHORTAGE OF WORKERS HAMPERS CHILE NEW MEXICO CHILE HARVEST

Ted Robbins | NPR

Southern New Mexico is America’s iconic home of chili harvesting and production. But production is a fraction of what’s produced in India and China — countries with large pools of labor. Still, in the fall, New Mexico farmers need hundreds of workers to handpick their crops. Even paying $14 an hour, they can’t find enough help.

4.FOOD PRODUCTION VS. BIODIVERSITY: COMPARING ORGANIC AND ORGANIC AGRICULTURE
Doreen Gabriel, Steven M. Sait, William E. Kunin, Tim G. Benton | Journal of Applied Ecology | via Alexander Stein

Grain production per unit area was 54% lower in organic compared with conventional fields. When controlling for yield, diversity of bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies and epigeal arthropods did not differ between farming systems, indicating that observed differences in biodiversity between organic and conventional fields are explained by lower yields in organic fields and not by different management practices per se…

Synthesis and applications. Our results indicate that considerable gains in biodiversity require roughly proportionate reductions in yield in highly productive agricultural systems. They suggest that conservation efforts may be more cost effective in low-productivity agricultural systems or on non-agricultural land…

In summary, farmland biodiversity is typically negatively related to crop yield; generally, organic farming per se does not have an effect other than via reducing yields and therefore increasing biodiversity. Only plants benefited substantially from organic farming at comparable yields.

It is not clear that the relatively modest biodiversity gains can be justified by the substantial reductions in food production. Indeed, the relatively low yields of organic farms may result in larger areas of land being brought into agricultural production (locally or elsewhere), at a biodiversity cost much greater than the onfarm benefit of organic practice… Thus, organic farming should be mainly encouraged in mosaic (low productivity) landscapes, where yield differences between organic and conventional agriculture are lower…

5.
FARMER’S PLOWING UP MORE AND MORE OF THE PRAIRIE
Grant Gerlock | Harvest Public Media

In recent years, high grain prices spurred by the ethanol boom set off a nationwide plow-up. A study by the Environmental Working Group shows from 2008 to 2011 farmers reclaimed 23.7 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and woodlands for farming – an area roughly the size of Indiana.

“When you have corn and (soy)bean prices as high as they’ve been for the past year-plus, you expect some pasture land is probably going to go to crop land,” said Mary Kay Thatcher of the National Farm Bureau Federation.

Some of that land had been farmed in the past but was enrolled in a conservation program that pays farmers to temporarily keep land out of production. But land that has never been farmed is also being turned into new farm ground.

The U.S Department of Agriculture reports that in 2012, 54,877 acres of land in Nebraska with no history of growing crops was broken out for farming. That was the most in the country, but the same thing is happening across other Midwest states like South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas.

6.
THE PEOPLE SIDE OF GMO’S

Steve Savage | Applied Mythology

As with any new technology, the development and commercialization of biotech crops is a story about people. Its a story about people with ideas and vision; people who did hard and creative work; people who took career or business risks, and people who integrated this new technology into the complex business of farming. By various artifacts of my educational and career path, I’ve been in a position to know many of these people as friends and colleagues over the last 36 years. Their story is important, but it tends to get lost in much of the conversation about biotech crops.

Many narratives about “GMOs” leave out the people side, presenting it instead as some faceless, monolithic phenomenon devoid of human inspiration, intention and influence. Thats not how it happened. Other narratives about “GMOs” demonize those who made biotech crops a reality. Such portrayals are neither fair or accurate. The real stories of these people matter, because trust in a technology is greatly influenced by what people believe about those behind it.

That is why I’d like to write about what I have observed about these real and trust-worthypeople over the years. I’ll start with the period 1976-1982.

7.
IOWA VIEW: THE STATE HAS TURNED INTO A ‘TOILET’ FOR INDUSTRIAL AG

Bill Leonard | The Des Moines Register

“Family farm” once meant a fruitful homestead built on an ethic of hard work, a love of the land, a spirit of neighborliness and a reverence for nature. Today, “family farm” is a hallowed but hollow buzzword of the political spin doctors and is used to give legitimacy to a lie. It’s the benign image masking land-use practices that, as Iowa environmental writer Bob Watson put it, “have made Iowa a toilet for industrial agriculture.”