O ur desire for health and marketing, “organic” has become, in particular in terms of food, a real social phenomenon which now disqualifies what is not “organic”. However, a rational analysis shows that this craze rests on fragile foundations.
“All of a sudden, he mounted the step of the tractor and gave me a dozen punches. I was stuck in the cabin and couldn’t move. The testimony of this cereal producer from Ain, who was brutally struck by a local resident at the start of the month, moved the profession. The attacker wanted to prevent the farmer from spreading a herbicide on his field, convinced that he was poisoning. Many people no longer understand these crazy consumers, to the point that some come to blows.
Pesticides, a necessary evil for ages
In recent years, two ideas have spread widely among the population. The first is that the current use of pesticides constitutes a serious and uncontrolled health risk. The second is that there is an alternative that would solve all of these problems: “organic”. These two ideas are scientifically unfounded.
Pesticides have always been a necessary evil. The ancient writings testify that the populations of ancient Greece, the Middle and the Far East already used repellents or toxic substances to fight against pests. Insects, rodents, fungi, weeds … Crops suffer damage that can devastate them. To protect themselves, farmers use pesticides, also called phytosanitary products.
As with medicines, it should not be abused because they also have side effects. But today they are essential. And so-called “organic” farming is no exception.
Contrary to what is commonly conveyed, “organic” also uses pesticides. But then, what difference? The “organic” specifications only accept inputs qualified as “natural”, and the list is long. They are nonetheless toxic to humans and the environment. Like any chemical substance, natural or not, the dose makes the poison and its exposure conditions the risk.
“Natural” pesticides for “organic”?
The definition of “natural” is quite relative. For example, copper sulphate, an “organic” pesticide essential to fight against downy mildew, a fungal disease causing the great Irish famine, is produced industrially by the chemical pickling of copper with sulfuric acid and does not is not available in the “natural” state. Its toxicological profile for humans and the environment is moreover far more harmful than … glyphosate, a conventional herbicide which has suffered the wrath of a disproportionate media-political outburst for several months.
If pesticides are always more controlled, evaluated and controlled, as for drugs, there are missed. Certain molecules have been shown to be more damaging than expected for health and the environment. This is the case, for example, of rotenone, a molecule extracted from tropical plants, which has been shown to cause an increased risk of development of Parkinson’s disease for applicators. This “natural” and “organic” pesticide was banned in 2011.
The trade-off between protecting plants and the side effects of pesticides is a delicate one. But to believe that “organic” farming would allow to surpass it is illusory. In the current state of knowledge, the European Food Safety Authority considers that it is unlikely that long-term exposure to pesticide residues will adversely affect our health.
As for farmers, Inserm considers that there is great presumption that eight forms of cancer and three neurodegenerative diseases (notably Parkinson’s disease) are overrepresented in the profession because of pesticides, “organic” or not. The overall incidence of all cancers is nevertheless lower among farmers than in the rest of the population.
“Organic” agriculture or the refusal of solutions
There is, however, a very serious avenue for drastically limiting the use of phytosanitary products. Although unfairly criticized in France, GMOs are the subject of a very broad scientific consensus as to their intrinsic harmlessness and their capacity to respond to the food, health and ecological challenges of our time.
The answer from the “organic” is particularly incomprehensible on this point, because the specifications oppose its categorical refusal. A refusal which follows anti GMO campaigns on the part of militant organizations like Greenpeace, has turned into law for all French agriculture. This opposition becomes totally incoherent when we know that “organic” agriculture cultivates many plants from genetic engineering, such as the Renan wheat variety or Camargue rice. If the “bio” wanted to maintain its intellectual coherence by cultivating only plants whose genome has not been modified by humans, a large part of its current cultures would have to be abandoned.
“Organic” is a marketing strategy based on the principle of appeal to nature. This bias means that we have more confidence in a product presented as “natural” than in a synthetic product. But this opposition is not validated by the scientific approach. What is natural is not necessarily good for health and the environment. Conversely, certain synthetic pesticides, such as glyphosate, make it possible to develop new, more ecological practices such as soil conservation agriculture which limits the disastrous effects of plowing and the consumption of agricultural inputs.
Subsidized “organic” rents
“Organic” farming is less efficient than conventional farming. Due to the refusal of synthetic inputs, the average yields are halved for many crops compared to conventional. To compensate for this difference, producers charge more for this call to nature on market stalls and supermarkets.
Their margins are also based on state interventionism. In its latest report, the Institute for Economic and Fiscal Research (IREF) shows that the latter has implemented several instruments to support the development of “organic” agriculture, although its health, nutritional and environmental benefits are limited.
“Organic” benefits from additional subsidies compared to conventional agriculture, which creates a windfall effect in favor of conversion. For example, a liter of “organic” milk is subsidized 50% more than conventional milk. The AB State label serves as a moral guarantee for the false promises of “organic”. Finally, the 20% compulsory “organic” in canteens offers a legal income of at least 1.1 billion euros to the sector.
Everyone is free to consume or produce “organic”, so is freedom of conscience. But there is no need to politicize this issue. It is not acceptable for the State to promote and support at the expense of the taxpayer an anti-pesticide and anti-GMO doctrine out of step with the scientific approach and progress in (bio) technologies, and which, moreover, is not respected in practice.
The false promises of “organic” should not, however, prevent us from demanding maximum transparency on the health and environmental quality of our food and our agriculture. Farmers are proud of their work and are aware of it, but they can no longer bear the permanent agribashing they suffer, a fortiori when certain opponents become violent. Let them work, they have (very) good products for us to taste.