Are You Buying “Organic”? Here’s the Truth on This Modern Trend

I have interviewed the agronomist with specific knowledge in the mathematic modelling of the agro-ecosystem, Luigi Mariani, to understand why the “organic” trend is not what it appears. Mariani was a professor of Agrometeorology and Agronomy at the University of Milan, and now teaches the History of Agriculture. He is also co-director at the Lombard museum of the history of agriculture and vice-president of the Agrarian Lombard Society.

In December, you wrote a letter with hundreds of scientists, researchers, and experts in agriculture to the Italian Parliament, asking it to reconsider the proposal “Organic Agriculture”. Why do you oppose the concept of organic agriculture, which is becoming increasingly popular in our modern society?

A fair, “organic label” exists. But it produces inferior quantities of food compared to conventional agriculture, so its products are sold at a much higher price (about double the amount of conventional agriculture). If there is consumer demand for organic agriculture, then there is nothing wrong when this demand is satisfied. What I find extremely problematic about this new trend to buy “organic” food, is that organic labels often accuse other farmers of being pollutants and poisoners. This is simply false: the organization of organic products called Federbio produces annual reports called “Change our soil”, co-signed by WWF. The subtitle to this report is: “How conventional agriculture pollutes our economy (and our planet).” The text negates the enormous benefits that conventional agriculture has in guaranteeing food security at rates which were never achieved in the history of mankind (today, only 11% of the world population is below the food security line, compared to 35% in 1970, and 50% in 1945). I also find it problematic that organic agriculture proposes itself as a solution to a worldwide problem, because it simply does not have the capacity to produce enough quantities of food for our current world population, and even if it wanted to do so it would require enormous amounts of resources. First, if organic agriculture were adopted at a worldwide level, billions of people would die of hunger. We have five main food resources: wheat, rice, corn, and barley, which guarantee 70% of food for humanity. If these resources were produced with organic agriculture, there would be a steep decline in productivity, specifically from 20 to 70%. If we consider a decline of an average 50% of productivity, we would need to double the soil needed to grow these resources, which would destroy our natural habitats. It would be an ecological and environmental disaster. I am surprised, therefore, to see that WWF, which claims to be in favour of protecting the environment, appears to be supporting this cause. 

Unsustainability aside, is organic agriculture of better quality than conventional agriculture?

On the organoleptic level, the scientific literature shows that there are no significant differences. Even in terms of health, the two forms of agriculture are almost exactly the same, meaning that the percentage of products with pesticide residue inferior to the rates of harmfulness under the law is 99% for organic and 98% for conventional agriculture. For example, Italian organic agriculture occupies 14% of the surfaces for production and consumes 25% of pesticides, so we have to ask ourselves what the organic organization of Federbio means when it talks about “pollutants of the world”. I would also like to point out that organic agriculture uses higher amounts of products that derive from copper, which have even more damaging environmental effects. Copper is a heavy metal that remains in the soil for thousands of years. But because it’s a more “ancient” resource, organic labels think it’s safer.

If your argument against organic agriculture is that it requires more resources for a growing population – in Europe today the population is in steep decline, so why would converting to organic agriculture be a problem if consumers desire it?

In Italy, for example, we depend on foreign imports for 30% of our agricultural products, so converting to organic would require more foreign dependency on primary resources. Even today, organic production occupies 15% of our soil and produces 3% of the products we need. We also need to think about the fact that the Italian main exports in food – besides wine and olive oil – are pasta, the two grana types of cheese (Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano) and the two hams (Parma and San Daniele). The pasta is made of wheat, which is 50% imported from abroad, because it is of better quality than the Italian one. The food we use to feed our cows and pigs from which we produce our cheese and ham also comes at around 35% from abroad. So now do you see how converting to organic products would mean almost total dependency on foreign primary materials? If we import most of our products from abroad, how can we remain authentic?

Can you explain the difference between agriculture, whether organic or conventional, and that produced by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)? Are you in favor of GMOs, and if so, why? 

Today, genetically modified organisms are not admitted in Italy, whether in organic or conventional processes. I am, however, in favor of them, and so are many farmers across the world. They present enormous advantages and very few risks. The paranoia behind genetically modified organisms is completely irrational. The modifying of genes from one species to another occurs in nature already. For example, the mixing of wheat with infesting plants brought them from having only 14 chromosomes to 28 chromosomes (hard wheat) and 42 chromosomes (soft wheat). This occurred between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago, and our ancestors selected these genetically modified products because they were larger, and therefore provided higher quantities for them. Who would dare say that that genetic modification which occurred thousands of years ago was harmful? Yet, with today’s obsession with the words “organic” and “natural”, that exact process would be strictly prohibited, especially considering how the transferring of genes occurred between different genres (Triticum and Aegilops).

It seems that today, the tendency towards eating “organic” is because people have developed an aversion to everything that appears artificial, and instead prefer what appears to be natural. Why do you think this kind of reasoning is incorrect? Hasn’t man-made progress caused enough damage to our world?

As the political leader Jean Jaurès wrote in a 1990 article, natural wine and bread does not exist: they are inventions of the human genius. Agriculture is therefore artificial, but this brought us enormous benefits. As I said earlier, our ancestors selected the best wheat to feed themselves thousands of years ago. The artificial nature of our agriculture allows us to survive. Natural wheat does not exist, but because human beings are part of nature, what we produce is also, to a large extent, natural. Human beings observe nature and use it for their own benefits, in this case – to guarantee themselves food security. If you think of the Genesis in the Bible when God bans Adam and Even from heaven, he tells them they will have to earn their food with sweat, and that weeds will infest what they reap. From this biblical prophecy, human beings created agriculture to survive. Virgil, in the Georgic poems, also stressed how our ancestors were much more aware of the nature surrounding them then we are today, as we have moved increasingly further away from our wild life.