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Stuart Agnew

GM Crops and Organic Farmers

6th April 2017


Frequently the sole reason for objecting to GM crops is fear of offending organic farmers. The following two articles take some of the shine and romanticism out of organic farming. I practised this myself for five years and was embarrassed by the large number of weeds that I grew, the small amount of food that I produced and the amount of public subsidy that I received.
 
 
Analysis: E.coli outbreak poses questions for organic farming
By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent | LONDON
World News | Mon Jun 6, 2011 
http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-ecoli-beansprouts-idUSTRE7552N720110606 
 
The warm, watery, organic growing environment suspected as the source of a deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany may produce delicious, nutritious bean sprouts, but is also an ideal breeding ground for the dangerous bacteria.
 
Bean sprouts are often prime suspects in E.coli outbreaks around the world, and health experts say it is no surprise the hunt for source of the lethal strain that has killed 22 people and made more than 2,200 sick has led to an organic bean farmer.
 
Some say the case raises questions about the future of organic growing methods.
 
"Bean sprouts are very frequently the cause of outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. They're very difficult to grow hygienically and you have to be so careful not to contaminate them," said Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at Britain's University of East Anglia.
 
"And organic farms, with all that they entail in terms of not using ordinary chemicals and non-organic fertilizers, carry an extra risk."
 
Hunter said he personally bought organic fruits and vegetables, but steered clear of organic raw salad foods "for precisely that reason."
 
The original source of the contamination in Germany is highly likely to be manure, farm slurry or faces of some sort, since the Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli or STEC found in this outbreak are known to be able to lurk in cattle guts.
 
SEEDS
 
The farmer at the centre of Germany's outbreak has said he used no fertilizers, but scientists say the contamination may have been on or in the bean seeds themselves, in the water used to grow them, or have come from a worker handling the beans.
 
And once the bug was in, the conditions may have been perfect for it to reproduce.
 
"Bean sprouts are quite often grown at high temperatures, around 37 degrees (Celsius), and that is also the optimum growing temperature for E. coli, so it would allow any traces of it to multiply quickly," said Brendan Wren, a microbiology professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
 
"It's a 'perfect storm' scenario. It's rare and unlikely, but if all of these events happen then the produce could rapidly become contaminated."
 
Food poisoning cases linked to bean sprouts are not new.
 
In the United States in 1997, investigations into an outbreak of E. coli traced it back to alfalfa beans harvested in Idaho and then used for sprouting.
 
Stephen Smith, a lecturer in clinical microbiology at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin, said previous research in laboratories has shown that a type of E. coli that causes the life-threatening complication Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS, can bind to alfalfa sprouts.
 
HUS often leads to kidney failure and has been one of the main causes of death and serious illness in the German outbreak.
 
"E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds needed to make sprouts and ... lay dormant on the seeds for months," Smith said. Then, during germination, "the population of bugs can expand 100,000-fold."
 
WOMEN AGED 20-50 HIT
 
The suspicions about bean sprouts are strengthened by the pattern of infections, which are all in or linked to Germany, and by the distinctive age and gender profile of the victims.
 
In Germany and Europe, just as in the 1997 U.S. outbreak, most of those infected have been women aged between 20 and 50, a group not usually hard hit by E.coli outbreaks from other sources, which tend to harm children and old people.
Young women, more than other groups, tend to eat raw bean sprouts, believing them to be healthy, scientists say.
 
"The big issue will be for the bean sprout industry, particular the organic side," said Hunter.
 
"If you're growing these non-organically, you can separate them from feces in a way that is problematic if you are using organic production methods. Organic production of salad stuffs just may not be as safe as non-organic methods."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)
 
 
Think organic food is better for you, animals, and the planet? Think again 
Bjørn Lomborg 
12 June 2016
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/12/think-organic-food-is-better-for-you-animals-and-the-planet-thin/ 
 
What we eat is seen as more important than ever. And everywhere we are urged to go organic: we are told it is more nutritious, it improves animal welfare and helps the environment. In reality, that is mostly marketing hype.
 
In 2012 Stanford University’s Centre for Health Policy did the biggest comparison of organic and conventional foods and found no robust evidence for organics being more nutritious. A brand-new review has just repeated its finding: “Scientific studies do not show that organic products are more nutritious and safer than conventional foods.”
 
Likewise, animals on organic farms are not generally healthier. A five year US study showed that organic “health outcomes are similar to conventional dairies”. The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety found “no difference in objective disease occurrence.” Organic pigs and poultry may enjoy better access to open areas, but this increases their load of parasites, pathogens and predators. Meanwhile the organic regulation against feeding bee colonies with pollen supplements in low-pollen periods along with regulation against proper disinfection leads to sharply lower bee welfare.
 
Organic farming is sold as good for the environment. This is correct for a single farm field: organic farming uses less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. But each organic field yields much, much less. So, to grow the same amount of wheat, spinach or strawberries, you need much more land. That means that average organic produce results in the emission of about as many greenhouse gasses as conventional produce; and about 10 per cent more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification. Worse, to produce equivalent quantities, organic farms need to occupy 84 per cent more land – land which can’t be used for forests and genuine nature reserves. For example, to produce the amount of food America does today, but organically, would require increasing its farmland by the size of almost two United Kingdoms. That is the equivalent of eradicating all parklands and wild lands in the lower 48 states.
But surely organics avoid pesticides? No. Organic farming can use any pesticide that is “natural”. This includes copper sulphate, which has resulted in liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France. Pyrethrin is another organic pesticide; one study shows a 3.7-fold increase in leukaemia among farmers who handled pyrethrins compared to those who had not.
 
Conventional food, it’s true, has higher pesticide contamination. Although it is still very low, this is a definite benefit of organics. However, using a rough upper estimate by the head of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Toxicology, all conventional pesticide residues may cause an extra 20 cancer deaths per year in America. 
 
This pales in comparison to the impact of organics. If all of the United States were to go organic, the cost would likely be around $200 billion annually from lower productivity. This is money we can’t spend on hospitals, pensioner care, schools, or infrastructure. 
 
Such economic impacts also have life and death consequences. Research shows that when a nation becomes $15 million poorer, it costs one “statistical” life, because people are able to spend less on health care and good food. This means that going organic in the US will kill more than 13,000 people each year. Scaling these findings to the UK would indicate that while extra pesticides in conventional cause perhaps four deaths each year, the UK going completely organic would cost £22 billion per year, resulting in more than 2,000 extra deaths each year.
 
Organics is a rich world phenomenon, with 90 per cent of sales in North America and Europe. Despite a fivefold increase in sales over the past 15 years just 1 per cent of global cropland is organic. That’s because almost half of humanity depends on food grown with synthetic fertilisers, excluded by organic rules. Norman Borlaug, who got the Nobel Prize for starting the Green Revolution, liked to point out that organic farming on a global scale would leave billions without food. “I don’t see two billion volunteers to disappear,” he said.
 
Essentially, organic food is rich people spending their extra cash to feel good. While that is just as valid as spending it on holidays, we should resist any implied moral superiority. Organics are not healthier or better for animals. To expand to any great scale would cost tens of billions of pounds while killing thousands. Indeed, a widespread organics revolution will increase environmental damage, and cut global forests.
 
When the designer Vivienne Westwood famously exclaimed that people who can’t afford organic food should “eat less” she may have had the best intentions. But she was also incredibly out of touch. The rest of the world needs more and cheaper food. That isn’t going to be organic.
 

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