With the global focus on Covid-19 one thing that has surprised international health experts is the link that media opinion makers continue to make between healthy eating and organic food as a means of warding off this and other diseases.
Some consumers, particularly high net wealth ones and those with a propensity to vote Green, (all too often the same people) seem to have a fixation on the magical health benefits of organic food.
In turn, they are also usually the same group of people that have an aversion if not an outright horror of anything linked to genetic modification, claiming all types of adverse health effects if one consumes anything with a trace of a GM product in it no matter how rigorous the government health testing has been.
In part this is because they believe that “industrial agriculture” endangers the environment and produces less nutritious and safe food, not to mention many who suffer from a guilt complex of being western, white and wealthy.
Their views are supported by the international agro-ecology movement that argues that a global move towards sustainable, organic agriculture is necessary to save the planet from the use of chemicals, industrial fertilisers and large scale modern farming practises.
The only problem is that only about one percent of the current western world’s total food supply is grown using the kind of organic principles embraced by the movement.
The reason it is so little is not from a lack of support from the progressive elite and their friends in parliament who are often quick to jump on board with the next wave of enthusiastic undercapitalised organic farmers and demand additional government support.
Nor is it from the fact that modern farmers are slaves to the likes of Dow chemicals as the movement likes to portray them, forever hooked on the need of ever greater chemical and artificial inputs.
No, the reason the west produces so little organic production its simply because the market won’t pay the premium it needs to be profitably grown.
If the global market for organic wheat or barley was paying $1000 a tonne I have no doubt CBH would have a segregation for organic grains in their supply chain. How much they would get delivered by growers would be an interesting question for agronomists and farm consultants to debate. I suspect not much when considering the impact on rotations of having to maintain the organic status over time particularly as soil phosphate levels ran down and the weed bank built up.
What most consumers don’t understand is that it is really expensive to grow a viable organic crop on a large commercial scale as we need to feed the soil and battle the competition from pest, weeds and diseases.
Then there is the fact that the ‘organic’ label itself is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.
Nonetheless, many customers are willing to spend more for something that ticks their inner self values be it organic, chemical free or carbon neutral, so long as it does not cost too much more.
Their belief is reinforced by the fact that they know that their food will be “safer,” “healthier” and more “environmentally friendly”—despite an absence of evidence to support that belief.
The guiding principal of organic—relying on ‘natural’ inputs—was forged early in the 20th century before toxicology, environmental studies and soil science emerged.
Although there is today much wisdom in organic farming, many methods are dated and contradict what we know about modern agronomy and ecological practices.
Ploughing paddocks to control weeds rather than spraying roundup is, as we well know in Western Australian one sure way to destroy soil structure.
If the Australian organic and environmental extremists had their way and could enforce the production of crops and pastures without the use of modern fertilisers and chemicals it would leave Australia as a net food importer within a decade as our yields collapsed.
The end result would be the price of food in our shops would rise in line with the fall of supply or to maintain production we would be out there clearing our way towards Kalgoorlie.
On a global scale the ramifications of going cold turkey organic would be horrendous.
Despite all the advances of the revolution in agricultural productivity there is still a billion people on this earth who do not have enough to eat.
Add to that the 220,000 people that we are adding to the earth’s population every day and add to that the numbers moving into middle class incomes demanding more meat and complex meals and we have literally a growing food problem.
Added together, with predictions that global food production will have to double for 2050, how we do this when we are running out of good agricultural land and water, should be concerning those who care about the environment.
The organic champions tell us the solution is in less inputs and a return to small scale farming, which is fine if we are prepared to double the worlds agricultural land by clearing another 17.6 million sq/km.
To put that in context that is an area which is about double the size of Australia, or all the Amazon and the Congo plus all the worlds remaining rain forests levelled by the chainsaw and the bulldozer.
The we have GM Technology, the greatest boogie man of all according to the Green/Organic movement, has not destroyed the planet instead it has been a revolution that continues to deliver greater yield and improved food security for the world’s poor.
In fact, GM is our only hope of feeding the 10 billion global population by 2050 without more slipping into food insecurity. A population which will be far wealthier today and demanding far more meat in their diet. A scenario that our western organic vegan friends find horrifying.
But the response from the idealistic political elite all too often from the green left side of politics is no more GM crops, in fact they want us to wind back and embrace their ideal of the perfect balanced world of food production which comes straight out of the uncommercial world of the ABCs Gardening Australia.
But the reality is we can’t live like we do and feed the world so the only thing sustainable about organic farming is that is sustains poverty and malnutrition. What hope then does organic farming have of warding off infectious diseases like Covid or indeed solving any of the world’s other problems?
Those worried about healthy eating should perhaps focus less on social commentators and more on putting their trust in science.