Excerpted from the new book “Resetting the Table: Straight Talk about the Food We Grow and Eat” (Knopf) by Robert Paarlberg, associate in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School and at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. 

At a recent dinner party, the hostess served me a tasty salad with carrots, raisins, nuts, and baby greens. “It’s all organic,” she said, expecting my approval. To be polite, I smiled and said nothing, but a voice inside wanted to respond, “You paid too much.”

Nearly half of all Americans claim to prefer organic food, and the label has spread far beyond food. You can now buy organic lipstick, organic underwear, and even organic water. The 2019 Super Bowl featured ads for organic beer, and health-conscious smokers are able to purchase organic cigarettes. Most farmers, however, have little interest in switching to the more costly and less convenient production methods required for organic certification, so this constrains the supply, which makes organic food needlessly expensive. America’s farmers so far have certified less than 1 percent of their cropland for organic production, and fewer than 2 percent of commodities grown in 2017 were organic. Processed and packaged foods can now be organic as well, but fewer than 6 percent of total retail food purchases are organic products. Two decades after federal organic certification began in America, the brand remains a single-digit phenomenon.

Farmers tend to hold back because producing food organically requires more human labor to handle the composted animal manure used for fertilizer, as well as more labor to control weeds without chemicals (sometimes putting down nonbiodegradable plastic mulch instead). It also requires more land for every bushel of production, further driving up costs. Trying to grow all of our food organically today would require farming a much wider area, damaging wildlife habitat. Rachel Carson, the founder of our modern environmental movement, never endorsed organic farming. Her 1962 book “Silent Spring” condemned synthetic insecticides like DDT, but Carson saw no reason to ban manufactured fertilizers, a requirement under the organic standard.

The rules for organic farming do deliver some clear benefit in the livestock sector. Producers of organic meat, milk, and eggs are required to provide their animals with more space to move around, an important plus for animal welfare. Also, animal products cannot be labeled organic if the animals were fed or treated with antibiotics, which is good for slowing the emergence of resistant bacterial strains dangerous to human health. Yet even for livestock the organic rule malfunctions, since the animals can only be given feeds grown organically, and organic corn and soy have lower yields per acre, so more land must be planted and plowed.

Consumers tend to favor organic food because they believe the advocates who claim it is safer and more nutritious to eat, but there is little or no scientific evidence to support these claims. Others buy organic food because they assume it comes from farms that are smaller, more traditional, and more diverse, but this is not a safe assumption either. Most organic food on the market today comes from highly specialized, industrial-scale farms, not so different from those that produce conventional food.

It doesn’t usually pay to challenge popular beliefs, even with scientific evidence, but some have felt compelled to do so in the case of organic agriculture. Louise O. Fresco, trained as an agronomist, is the president of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the world’s leading agricultural university. In her 2016 book “Hamburgers in Paradise, she drew a harsh conclusion: “Organic farming as a whole is a mish-mash of valuable goals and ideals that have either been insufficiently tested or are completely misguided.”

Scientists like Fresco view the organic vision as fundamentally misguided because it depends on an ungrounded distinction between materials that come from nature versus those fabricated by human industry. Organic farmers are permitted to treat their crops with the former, but not the latter. The organic rule says we can use nitrogen from animal manure to replace soil nutrients, but not nitrogen synthesized from the atmosphere in a factory. This is not a science-based distinction. No matter what method we use to get a supply of nitrogen for use as fertilizer, it will be the same element within the periodic table, with all the same properties.

Visions that privilege what comes from nature over what is made by people have a mystical appeal, but they malfunction as practical guidance. Nature is often alluring and attractive, yet natural materials are anything but safe. Arsenic, nickel, and chromium are all dangerous carcinogens, and all come from nature. Many plants that are found in nature contain dangerous poisons, ranging from the deadly ricin found in castor beans (familiar to fans of “Breaking Bad”) to the itch-inducing urushiol in common poison ivy.

By focusing on natural versus synthetic, the organic rule loses sight of actual risks. Copper sulfate is permitted as a fungicide because it isn’t synthetic, but careless use of this chemical can leave dangerous residues on food and pollute our streams. Animal manure is natural, and an excellent fertilizer when composted, but dangerous bacteria will be introduced into fields and also into groundwater systems if a farmer fails to get the heat in the compost pile up to at least 140 degrees. A close friend with a field of organic blueberries on her hilltop farm in Maine developed serious stomach problems when she located her compost pile too close to the well.

The biggest weakness in the organic rule is absolutism. Cutting back on the use of manufactured fertilizer is frequently a good idea, but the idea of cutting back to zero is needlessly rigid and absolute. Quests for purity in food and farming are not as dangerous as they are in race or religion, but they are just as lacking in scientific justification, and the advocates can be just as exasperating. Calvin Trillin put it nicely: “The price of purity is purists.”

The conviction that organic food is a better choice did not become widespread in the United States until the 1980s, when national media reported a number of food safety scares linked to pesticide residues on fresh fruits and vegetables. When worried consumers learned that organic farming methods did not allow the use of any synthetic pesticides (although naturally occurring poisons could be used), they demanded more organic products, along with a credible national system for certifying and labeling those products in the marketplace. Once this system began to operate in 2002, the farmers who had switched to organic methods could capture sizable price premiums for their goods, and this motivated rapid growth in the sector, but only up to a point.

After two decades of popularity with consumers, the organic share still makes up only a small part of America’s national diet. The most popular organic produce choices today are carrots, lettuce, and apples, yet they take up only 14, 12, and 5 percent of total acreage for these crops. Only 3 percent of U.S. dairy cows and just 2 percent of layer hens are certified organic. As for field crops, here the organic share of production is even less significant: In 2016, only six-tenths of 1 percent of total harvested wheat acres in the United States were farmed organically.

Consumers pay considerably more for organic. In 2018, the Food Marketing Institute reported that the average retail price (by volume) for organic produce was 54 percent higher than for conventional produce. One USDA study showed that organic salad mix cost 60 percent more than conventional; organic milk 72 percent more; and organic eggs 82 percent more. Organic corn and soybeans sell for twice as much as conventional. These are high premiums, but not high enough to move most farmers toward organic, because the farming costs required by organic methods can be higher still.

There is nothing novel about producing foods without the use of synthetic chemicals. Before science first made these chemicals available to farmers early in the 20th century, all crops were de facto organic. When synthetic nitrogen first became available for fertilizer, farmers who began using it saved on labor and enjoyed higher crop yields. The timing was fortunate, since the earth’s population was just then in the process of increasing from two billion up to nearly eight billion today. Vaclav Smil, from the University of Manitoba, has estimated that without nitrogen fertilizer, 40 percent of the increase in food production needed to feed these much larger numbers would never have taken place. For at least a third of humanity in the world’s most populous countries, the use of nitrogen fertilizer in the 20th century made the difference between an adequate diet and malnutrition.

The organic farming idea started with one motivation but eventually adopted another. It first emerged a century ago as a pushback against the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, but it only gained significant popularity in America after a subsequent wave of public concern over synthetic pesticides, and the residues of those pesticides on foods. The original prohibition against synthetic fertilizers remained part of the rule, however, so most farmers were not willing to ride either the first or the second wave.

The rigid organic standard, which allowed no synthetic chemicals at all, became even less advantageous once plant breeders began developing new crop varieties capable of using nitrogen with greater efficiency, which brought a still larger payoff from fertilizer use. In 1940, the average corn yield in the United States had been 30 bushels an acre, but by 1960 it had increased to 55 bushels, and by 1980 to 91 bushels and now it’s nearly twice that. For farmers experiencing gains like these, a reversion to 19th-century soil management techniques held little appeal.

Organic farming even failed to catch on during the period of environmental activism launched in the United States following Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring.” This seems surprising, since the popular book argued strongly against the imprudent use of synthetic chemicals on farms. But “Silent Spring” was not focused on chemical fertilizers; it targeted the synthetic chemical compounds then being used to kill insects and weeds. “Silent Spring” had 17 chapters, all on pesticides and none on fertilizers. Insecticides like DDT and herbicides like 2,4-D (an ancestor of Agent Orange) had become widely available to farmers after World War II, and between 1945 and 1972 pesticide use in the United States increased tenfold. This dangerous growth was put to an end by Carson’s book, which triggered passage of the Environmental Protection Act in 1970, creating the new federal Environmental Protection Agency, which banned the agricultural use of DDT in 1972.

In the 1950s and 1960s, new regulations set maximum allowable residue levels on foods while denying official registration to products deemed unsafe. In the 1970s, the EPA removed not just DDT but a number of other persistent pesticides from the market. In 1996 the Food Quality Protection Act set stricter standards and required a new review of allowable residue levels. In response to federal requirements such as these, the chemical industry worked to develop synthetic products less toxic to farmworkers and less persistent in the environment.

Pesticide risks have also been diminished thanks to integrated pest management (IPM), a technique that advises spraying only when monitored pest pressures threaten a commercial loss, and only after nonchemical control options (for example, using good bugs to kill bad bugs) are no longer working. In this system, a judicious use of chemicals is permitted, something the organic rule does not allow. New varieties of crops with better genetic defenses of their own against insects and crop disease have also reduced insecticide use in America, and “smart” sprayers now apply chemicals at optimal rates and with far greater precision.

Thanks to all these things in combination, farmers in the United States have reduced pesticide use significantly since the 1970s. The total pounds of herbicide and insecticide ingredients applied to crops declined by 18 percent between 1980 and 2008, even as total crop production increased 46 percent. For insecticides specifically, total use peaked in 1972 and has now fallen more than 80 percent below that peak. All these gains were achieved without any significant switch to organic farming methods.

Despite those advances organic food only became commercially significant in America after a series of media-led cancer scares linked to pesticide residues on foods. The climax came in 1989 with a report on “60 Minutes” (viewed by 18 million households) describing the chemical Alar, used on apples, as “the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today.”

“60 Minutes” had mostly ignored the views of toxicologists. Four years earlier an EPA report had shown that consuming the Alar residues found on food over a lifetime would bring an added risk of only 1 more cancer death per 10,000 people. The director of the National Cancer Institute’s cancer etiology division went further, characterizing the cancer risks from eating Alar-treated apples as nonexistent. EPA never did ban the chemical, but when growers voluntarily stopped using it due to consumer fears, this was taken as evidence that the threat must be real. Concerns over pesticide residues on food persist to the present day despite that in the United States since the 1970s increased regulation plus reduced spraying have brought risks under control.

Although dubious on its merits, the Alar scare created what Newsweek magazine called a “panic for organic.” In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to create a uniform understanding of the practices that would disqualify a farm from organic certification. The strongest push for this new law came from large-scale commercial organic growers, especially in California, as well as consumer groups, some environmental organizations, and animal welfare advocates.

The new uniform standard that emerged blocked all synthetic chemical use, including manufactured fertilizers as well as pesticides, but it did nothing to restrict size or specialization on organic farms, and it even created an expandable list of synthetic materials that would be permitted in the processing of certified organic foods. These features left a wide-open pathway for industrial-scale organic farming and food manufacturing.

When the new National Organic Program came into full effect in 2002, commercial production and sales began to increase rapidly. Food stores specializing in organic products, such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, expanded operations by building new outlets and buying up or consolidating existing organic and natural food stores. Like all supermarkets, these retailers sought out suppliers who could deliver a steady volume of high-quality products on time, at a consistent grade, and uniformly packaged. Small, diverse organic farms could not meet these requirements, so it was the highly specialized, industrial-scale operations that expanded to take over. Earthbound Farm in California, for instance, started out with 2.5 acres of organic raspberries in 1984, but now it manages 50,000 acres and has taken over more than half of the national market for organic packaged salad greens.

In 2007, a Time magazine cover story noted this trend, explaining that Big Organic had taken over by adopting “the same industrial-size farming and long-distance-shipping methods as conventional agribusiness.” Organic today usually does not mean local, since 38 percent of all organic sales originate from California. America’s leading source of organic tea and ginger is actually China. Retail chains do sometimes source small batches of organic food from independent local growers, but often just as window dressing.

Organic foods today have also become processed foods. By 2003, more than four-fifths of all organic sales in the United States were being made under brands owned by conglomerates like ConAgra, H.J. Heinz, and Kellogg. The biggest retailers of organic foods now are Walmart, Costco, and Kroger. By 2014, only 8 percent of U.S. organic sales were made directly from small farmers to consumers at farmers markets or through CSAs.

Most organic egg production today looks like nonorganic egg production. I sometimes take students to a Pete and Gerry’s organic egg farm in New Hampshire, so they can see what the mainstream organic sector looks like. This is a well-managed operation, but it consists of a single long structure housing 20,000 tightly packed birds. The building has open bays that provide access to a fenced area outside, so it can be certified organic. And there are other, even bigger, egg operations.

By going industrial, organic farming has been able to enjoy two decades of rapid growth, but not rapid enough to take over much of the market. Even with the price premiums and the permissive rules, in 2017 only 1.8 percent of farm commodities produced in the United States were organic, and in 2018 certified organic products made up just 5.7 percent of all food sold through retail channels.

Assuming the rules do not change, a continued expansion of the organic sector will most likely come from investments by big corporate players who stay just barely within the rules by devising technical workarounds. They control against pests by growing indoors hydroponically; they control weeds with gas-powered flamethrowers instead of chemicals, or with “mulch” carpets made of black plastic. Some organic farms in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida are spreading plastic over thousands of acres, even though each acre farmed this way generates more than 100 pounds of nonbiodegradable plastic waste that must be loaded into dumpsters, then taken to a landfill. Conventional farmers also use plastic mulch, but not as much, and the plastic they use is biodegradable, so it does not go to a landfill. The National Organic Program does not allow organic farmers to use most biodegradable plastic mulches because they contain petroleum-based materials. Purity comes with a price, once again.

Copyright © 2021 by Robert Paarlberg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. ANd

Robert Paarlberg joins Weatherhead Center scholars Alicia Harley and Troy Vettese in a two-part podcast discussing COVID-19 and climate change.