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OTA response to Newsweek Opinion piece by Henry I. Miller

Once again, an opinion piece by Henry Miller paints an inaccurate picture of organic practices and regulation, and makes assertions not founded on fact. A case in point: Mr. Miller makes the statement that organic agriculture is kept afloat only by massive subsidies and nurtured by a plethora of USDA programs. This statement is an upside down look at reality.

Here are the facts:  Conventional farmers receive almost $5 billion in direct payments from the government every year. Federal crop insurance payments total in the billions, reaching $16 billion in 2013 alone because of the Midwestern drought. The only “subsidy”—if you want to call it that—for organic is a cost-share program that helps organic producers offset the financial burden of getting certified to ensure that the USDA Organic label means something consumers can trust—something conventional farmers do not have to do. In addition, USDA does not make quality claims about organic beyond that "organic is an option for farmers."

organic versus all otherUnlike his assertions, organic farmers use scientifically based practices respecting the laws of nature to build healthy soils. This means using biological and cultural practices as their first line of defense against pests and resorting to pesticides only in cases of extreme emergencies. Organic farmers are required to use such non-chemical techniques as crop rotation, selecting resistant varieties, using nutrient and water management, providing habitat for the natural enemies of pests, and releasing beneficial organisms such as ladybugs to protect crops from damage. It is only after this pest prevention strategy has failed and pests are present that an organic farmer may use limited amounts of pesticides.

The truth is organic standards allow the use of only a small fraction of the hundreds of pesticides and thousands of formulations allowed in conventional agriculture. Synthetic substances must be evaluated by a Technical Advisory Panel for any effects on human health and the environment and be approved by the National Organic Standards Board to be allowed. All synthetic pesticides that are used by organic farmers are exempt from an EPA tolerance because of their safety. The National List bans such toxic natural pesticides as nicotine, strychnine, and arsenates. Synthetic insecticides such as organophosphates and carbamates are the most acutely toxic pesticides used in agriculture. Organic farmers don’t use them at all.


Other points:

  • Once again, this piece continues to perpetuate a myth that “organic foods are recalled 4 to 8 times more frequently than their conventional counterparts. The reality is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated that the agency has never done an analysis that has shown this to be true, and that in fact the agency does not have any red flags on organic, not does it see any special risks associated with organic and food safety.
  • Mr. Miller attacks the findings of the Rodale Institute’s universally well-regarded 30 year side-by-side study of organic and conventional farming systems, the longest running such study ever done in America, with inaccuracies and unfounded statements. The Rodale’s scientific findings have shown that organic crops in drought years tend to have higher yields than their conventional counterparts. Other findings from The Rodale Institute show organically managed soils can store more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre, while non-organic systems can cause carbon loss. Surveys show that organic farms support many more species of birds, wild plants, insects and other wildlife than non-organic farms.  Rodale is not the only institute conducting long-term systems trials on organic, however – a point which is overlooked by Mr. Miller.  For example, a study  published in the journal Sustainable Agriculture Research examined results from six of the oldest grain crop-based experiments comparing organic and conventional farming methods, and found several benefits of organic. In addition, researchers at the University of Michigan have shown that on a global scale, organic farming in developing countries can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land.
  • Mr. Miller once again questions the nutritional value of organic. Numerous studies have shown the advantages of organic food. One recent study found that organic milk has up to 62 percent more healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. Another study found that organic crops have up to 69 percent higher cancer-fighting antioxidant levels than conventional crops and 48 percent lower levels of the toxic metal cadmium than conventional crops.  Additionally, numerous studies have found that pesticides are found four times more frequently in conventional crops than organic crops and that an organic diet reduces your exposure to these pesticides.
  • Organic farming is not easier than conventional farming. It requires many different skill sets, a deeper knowledge of soil and biology and chemistry, more continuous record-keeping in order to maintain organic certification status. But organic farming has been found to be more profitable than conventional. A recent study out of Washington State University of global organic agriculture found that organic returns are as much as 30 percent higher than conventional. Organic corn and soybeans in the U.S. now command three times the price as conventional. The reason that farmers are not flocking to it is because of the three-year transition and the inability for modern farmers to cash flow the transition because they are so cash strapped from the conventional systems they’re currently engaged in.  

The Organic Trade Association responded to an article by Mr. Miller in July that painted an inaccurate picture of organic regulations. We ended that response, as we will now, with the question to Mr. Miller: Why is Mr. Miller spreading such misinformation to consumers?