Permaculture blog

New Scientist says organic is 'mumbo-jumbo'...

Published by Sam Page on 15 December 2016

Image New Scientist article: ‘Care About Earth? Ditch Organic Food’ by Michael Le Pen – December 3rd 2016 issue

Here is Milly's response:

Dear Editor,

A reporter using the words “hoodwinked by feelgood mumbo-jumbo” requires, in my opinion, a lesson in effective communication. That level of patronizing judgement without a single citation or any expansion on sweeping statements like “organic food also results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming” might sit more comfortably in a tabloid ‘news’ paper than a respected popular science publication. In a moment of optimism and charity, I wondered if this opinion piece was deliberately written so poorly and with such a click-bait title in an effort to stimulate some useful dialogue on the subject.

Conventional farming has only been ‘conventional’ since the 1920s (before that all farming was, essentially, organic) when the nerve gas agents created to kill people in WW1 were found to also, unsurprisingly, be effective at killing various crop pests. Equally, nitrogen-based fertilizers came about in the early 1900s when Fritz Haber developed a process to synthesize nitrate from the abundant nitrogen in the air. Creating this plant-available form of a crucial nutrient is a very high-temperature, energy-intensive process that has used vast quantities of fossil fuels over the past 100+ years and continues to do so. Nitrate is also explosive and fuelled the munitions industry and all its associated human death and misery before a grain of it enhanced a single wheat yield. Let’s not forget where our industrialized agricultural system really started.

Michael Le Pen seems to be saying that we should simply abandon organic completely because the movement doesn’t embrace GM crops as the ‘technology showing the greatest promise for reducing farming emissions’ (again without citation or explanation). Please take a look at the growing body of research in the field of permaculture, Elaine Ingham’s work in soil science, send a reporter to the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January, have someone interview Geoff Lawton about ‘greening the desert’ in Jordan, have a serious think about a paradigm shift from the 400 years of reductionist scientific thought that has created a bizarre notion that we are better than the billions of years of R&D that life on earth has already gone through; look at Janine Benyus’ work on biomimicry.

It is interesting to note that elsewhere in the same issue of New Scientist (p8 – Parkinsons’ we’re looking in the wrong place) I read “ Other studies have shown that farmers exposed to certain pesticides - and people who get their drinking water from wells that might be contaminated with pesticides – are more likely to get Parkinson’s. Perhaps these chemicals can also damage nerves in the gut”. Also interesting that the suggested possible solutions to this problem did not include any reference to reducing exposure to said pesticides. Perhaps Clare Wilson and Michael Le Pen had conferred before writing their respective articles.

On p7 in the ‘60 seconds’ column there is mention of the severe bleaching effect on the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. The Australian Institute of Marine Science’s website offers an explanation: Well documented by 25 years of AIMS research on the Reef, the increased sediment and nutrient loads to coastal waters:

  • smother coral reef organisms due to the settling of suspended sediment
  • reduce light availability for coral and seagrass photosynthesis due to increased turbidity
  • favour the growth of macroalgae at the expense of corals due to high nutrient availability.
  • Sediment and nutrient loads come largely from agricultural run-off – so conventional farming is contributing to the demise of the Great Barrier Reef.

On p20, Matthew Watson puts the urgent case for atmospheric geoengineering to address the need to alter the global climate system. Nowhere is the potentially massive role of soil sequestration of carbon and trees mentioned, even as an adjunct. Trees and soil are extremely effective, cheap, simple, accessible technologies that provide huge potential sinks for atmospheric carbon; we are losing both at phenomenal rates. More trees and richer soils also have a myriad of positive knock-on effects in our intricately connected biosphere that are predictable and advantageous to all life on earth. Can the same be said of atmospheric geoengineering?

In case any readers think I am ‘anti-science’, that is not the case. I am pro the science that is rooted in our interdependence not our separateness – that seeks to learn, with some humility, from nature and not just about it, that seeks collaborative and cooperative solutions; that doesn’t speak to people who have a wider viewpoint as if they are fools or charlatans.

There are so many more possible critical responses to Michael Le Pen’s piece, I hardly know where to start. I trust I will not be the only reader to respond in similar vein and look forward to seeing some coverage of the wider world of soil science and carbon sequestration in your publication in the near future.

With kindest regards

Milly Carmichael