With global sales of nearly 85 billion euros in 2017, “organic” products have won the hearts and the plates of many consumers and bear witness to legitimate food concerns. However, the health and environmental benefits it claims have a shaky scientific basis. The very philosophy of “organic” is debatable from a methodological point of view.
The analysis of the scientific literature does not demonstrate the superiority of organic agriculture (AB) over conventional agriculture (CA) when considering it from the angle of health, nutrition or sensory attractiveness.
Pesticides are a necessary evil and OA cannot avoid them, despite normal assumptions to the contrary. The health consequences of “natural” pesticides can be just as dramatic. For example, rotenone, a molecule extracted from tropical plants, poses an increased risk for those working with it of developing Parkinson’s disease. This “organic” pesticide was banned in 2011. Contrary to what one might think, pesticides are increasingly monitored, evaluated and controlled. Just like medicines, pesticides are still essential but should not be misused. Cases of pesticide traces in food do not present a major health risk according to the European Food Safety Authority.
From an environmental point of view, OA and CA are neck and neck in relation to the unit produced. Indeed, if it is recognized that under equivalent pedoclimatic conditions, organic farming tends to be more respectful of the environment per hectare, it is different if we take into account the additional surface necessary for the “organic” agriculture, much less productive.
The “organic” does not respect in practice its anti-pesticide and anti-GMO doctrine. OA cannot do without phytosanitary products, such as copper sulphate, which are only “natural” in name and could even be more toxic than other synthetic products. If “organic” producers really refused to cultivate plants whose genetic material has been artificially modified by man, they would have to abandon many crops, such as Renan wheat or Camargue rice.
The OA is a philosophy rooted in a reactionary and anti-modernist ideology, which was taken up in the 1970s by anti-capitalist and environmentalist movements. “Organic” people revere all that is natural as opposed to all that is synthetic, which they consider inherently bad. This systemic approach is not based on a scientific approach and becomes incomprehensible, even totally incoherent, when one considers that GMOs are an excellent means of reducing the quantities of phytosanitary products required.
Despite its agronomic underperformance and doubts based on its benefits, organic farming benefits from state subsidies in many countries, particularly in Europe.
In fact, open-access operations receive additional subsidies compared to CA. Aid for conversion and maintenance of the common agricultural policy (CAP) and a panoply of local subsidies are a godsend for conversion. While CA is often subsidized, OA is even more so. For example, in its recent report on OA, the Institute for Economic and Fiscal Research calculated that in France, a liter of “organic” milk is subsidized 50% more than conventional milk.
Other countries are less interventionist. The US government offers far fewer grants. Across the Atlantic, only 0.6% of agricultural land has been converted, compared to 5.7% in the EU, although the United States is the leading consumer market for organic products, ahead of the EU. This significant difference shows that European “organic” production is kept alive thanks to the trickle of taxpayers’ money.
With such resources, it would probably have been more appropriate to invest in agricultural progress such as biotechnology or precision agriculture, which consists of using artificial intelligence to prevent plant or animal diseases and optimize input requirements. These are techniques that offer real ecological and economic solutions, helping to ensure a decent income for producers.
Another form of interventionism are official OA labels. Thanks to these, producers can rely on the moral support of the State to claim the so-called virtues of “organic”. This marketing of the appeal to nature and health is based on an intellectual monopoly: the appropriation of the word “organic”. Etymologically, “organic” comes from biology, i.e. relating to or derived from living matter – originating from the Greek organikos “of or relating to an organ”, and taking the meaning of “organized living beings” in Eighteenth century. But agriculture is a process based on living matter. It can therefore only be considered biological. This would make CA no less “organic” than OA. Proponents of “biological” insidiously suggest that CA is inorganic, non-biological, non-living, “chemical” and dead. Having a state monopoly on the use of the word “organic”, the OA covers itself with the glory of a monopoly of the living and the good, and has a powerful anti-competitive instrument which is not based on any coherent scientific consideration. .
Since everyone is free to produce or consume what they want, interventionism in favor of “organic” products offers a legal and subsidized income. In order to restore the freedom of consumers, it is essential to remove specific subsidies for “organic”, to privatize the OA labels and to remove the intellectual monopoly on the word “organic”.
The agricultural question must be depoliticized so that competition, responsibility and innovation make it possible to offer consumers the best possible food, whether they choose to eat “organic” or not.
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