John Hood is a contributing editor of Reason magazine.
Organic farming is all the rage these days. After a spring of food scares and a summer boomlet of environmentalism, a report issued last September by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has quickly become revealed truth to legions of editorial writers, public officials, and farming mavericks. Synthetic drugs for livestock are out. Synthetic pesticides are out. Synthetic fertilizers are out. Synthesizing itself is out.
And what is in? Natural fertilizers, crop rotation, careful breeding—basic farming practices making a comeback after some 50 years of neglect. The report says that such practices can be as productive, and in some cases even more so, than the standard synthetic chemical approach.
This finding has been greeted with almost hysterical glee. Many view the popularity of organic farming as the start of America’s “Green Revolution.” There is no question that the public’s appetite for natural foods, for foods free of dangerous chemicals and cancer-causing preservatives, is large and as yet unsatiated. When reports surfaced earlier this year about Alar, a cancer-causing preservative used on apples, supermarkets with organic food sections found themselves making a bundle off concerned shoppers (such foods are typically much more expensive than chemical-tainted wares). Grocery chains across the country have jumped on the bandwagon by issuing “pesticide-free” pledges.
All this hype has occurred despite the efforts of many scientists to communicate a basic message to a fearful public: the food supply is safe. Agricultural chemicals, they say, pose little if any risk of cancer to consumers. Bruce Ames, the noted chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at Berkeley who developed the standard “Ames” test of cancer risk, estimates that the number of cases of cancer or birth defects caused by man-made pesticide residues in food or water is “close to zero.”
Even so, the NAS report does make a significant point. American farmers have used synthetic chemicals and machinery reflexively, despite evidence that organic methods can in some cases be more cost effective and maximize long-term profits. The real problem is not health but economic efficiency. And the report correctly identifies the culprit: Federal commodity programs which encourage overproduction and punish farmers who rotate their crops.
The Federal programs, which cover about 70 percent of farm acreage, are crop-specific, paying farmers subsidies to plant the same crop year after year. If a farmer reduces his acreage, say to leave fields fallow for a year, he gets less money. If a farmer plants alfalfa or another crop designed to replenish his soil’s nutrients, he gets less money. So farmers have an incentive to keep the same amount of land planted each year in the same crop, replacing crop rotation with heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As the NAS report points out, the Federal subsidies insulate farmers from the true costs of the synthetic approach: soil erosion, loss of nutrients, and increased use of expensive agricultural chemicals.
James Bovard of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has identified other Federal farm programs that distort the costs and benefits of farming practices. In dry areas, Bovard writes in his book The Farm Fiasco, Federal irrigation projects sustain crops that otherwise would be replaced with dry-weather crops more suited to soil conditions. Federal disaster payments and drought insurance reduce the financial risk to farmers who plant in low-yield or highly erosive soils, since catastrophe becomes a government problem rather than a private one. Insurance programs also relieve farmers of the need to diversify, thus placing the entire operation in greater risk when pests, weather, or disease wipe out a particular crop.
All these government programs are defended with the argument that the free market, which operates most of the American economy, simply does not work in agriculture. But the fact is market forces have not been allowed to impose the costs of farming methods on those who practice them. Farmers are making their decisions based on signals from Washington rather than signals from their own fields. In this way, government has established a bias toward synthetic approaches and away from organic farming, distorting agricultural markets and costing taxpayers $25 billion a year in Federal subsidies.
Unfortunately, the economics behind organic farming are being overshadowed by its supposed health benefits. Instead of recognizing agricultural chemicals as tools that have been overused, many policy-makers and environmental groups are treating them as poisons to be discarded. Instead of ending the current bias toward synthetic chemicals, they would replace it with a bias against them.
Groups such as the National Toxics Campaign and National Resource Defense Council (they started the Alar scare) have long pushed for a ban on many pesticides deemed carcinogenic, and they hope the new impetus toward organic farming will increase support for such measures in Congress. Many sympathizers look to farm programs as leverage for enacting the environmentalist agenda by making “nature-conscious” practices a condition for receiving subsidy checks. Even John Pesek, the Iowa State University agronomist who headed up the NAS research effort, says that “the growing demand for safer food and a cleaner environment suggests the time is ripe” for organic farming.
But the fact is that foods grown without agricultural chemicals are rarely more safe, and sometimes are less so, than foods grown with chemicals. “All plants produce their own natural pesticides to protect themselves against fungi, insects, and predators such as man,” says Ames of Berkeley. Tests of these natural pesticides have revealed that about the same percentage cause cancer in laboratory animals (30 percent) as do synthetic pesticides. Cancer-causing agents occur naturally in such foods as mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, pineapples, and carrots.
Ames and other scientists are not saying that Americans are at high risk of cancer. Both naturally occurring and synthetic pesticides pose a negligible risk of cancer in the doses found in foods. What they are Saying is that man-made chemicals are no more dangerous than those produced by the plants themselves.
In fact, breeding plants to be highly resistant to pests or disease—an approach favored by environmentalists and the NAS report to reduce the need for synthetic chemicals—doesn’t always make the plants more healthful. In one case, a new variety of celery that was highly insect-resistant was introduced in California. When people handling the vegetable began to complain of severe rashes, researchers found out that it had 10 times the level of a natural carcinogen found in regular celery. “Many more such cases are likely to crop up,” says Ames, “because there is a fundamental trade-off between nature’s pesticides and man-made pesticides.”
Nevertheless, organic farming proponents are basing their case chiefly on the specious food safety issue, when the focus should be on productivity and efficiency. Merely changing Federal farm programs to encourage crop rotation instead of synthetic chemicals, on environmental or food safety grounds, would be as big a mistake as the previous policy has been.
Each farmer’s case is different. Growing one crop in one region may require use Of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Farming another crop in another field might be done cheaply and productively with purely organic methods. Even then, when pests or diseases suddenly strike, chemicals still may be the only effective response.
Heavy-handed government involvement, no matter how well-intended, cannot reflect these case-by-case concerns as well as can individual farmers operating in a free market. The best solution to America’s farming woes is to stop treating farmers like wards of the state and start treating them like business people. Eliminate the subsidies. Let farmers decide how to plant their crops without interference from Washington bureaucrats or phobic environmentalists. Besides ending our silly bias against organic farming, we could save $25 billion from the Federal budget to invest in more worthwhile pursuits, of which there is, indeed, a bumper crop.