what if “organic” agriculture had not yet been invented?

A new food scandal is brewing… A few days ago we learned of the discovery of Fipronil and about fifteen unapproved products in eggs from the organic sector. The case, which was mentioned by the NGO Foodwatch, comes from the Netherlands. As a reminder, this substance is an antiparasitic used to fight against red lice in chicken farms. What interests us here is not the risk of Fipronil in particular[1], but the fact that it is the “organic” sector that is directly affected. This makes it possible to ask questions that generally no one dares to raise.

What would happen if cases like this increased? Is there a risk that consumers will begin to doubt the benefits of organic? Organic certification today enjoys a notoriety that places it above all suspicion. However, questions abound on this subject. In “Panic on the Plate”, which we have already discussed here, the journalist Gill Rivière Weckstein asks “Is organic the answer?” He cites a survey carried out by the Agence Bio [French Organic Agency]: 63% of consumers choose a certified organic product (in France the certification is “AB” from “Agriculture Biologique”) because “their purchase is motivated by their desire to take care of their health” But when he questions the specialist Denis Corpet, Professor of Hygiene and Human Nutrition at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse, the Professor is categorical: “Nothing proves that organic products are better for your health. There is also no evidence that conventional non-organic foods are unhealthy” And yet this specialist who directed INRA [French National Institute for Agricultural Research] The “Food & Cancer” team is a former activist, once a fervent supporter of the organic cause“When I started to study these products scientifically as a toxicologist, I found that from this point of view, there was no objective reason to prefer organic food. There are other reasons, but they are not in the relationship between diet and health. However, this opinion, far from being isolated, is shared by the scientific community, as Weckstein shows:The last four studies published on this subject confirm that there are some differences in the composition of organic and non-organic foods (a little more polyphenols or vitamins in certain organic vegetables), but that they are minimal and in any case without measurable effect on people’s health (Dangour, 2009; Dangour 2010; Smith-Spangler, 2012; Baransky 2014).So how can this phenomenon be explained? If people are persuaded to eat healthier by buying products labeled organic, it is because they firmly believe that they come from “pesticide free” Agriculture. According to a Harris Interactive survey, one in two French people is unaware that organic farming uses pesticides (survey carried out in 2016 by Harris Interactive for Environmental Alert). The journalist continues his presentation »However, in the list of pesticides used in organic farming, we find spinosad, azadirachtin (neem oil), pyrethrins, deltamethrin, Bacillus thuringiensis, codling moth granulosis virus, sulfur and of course the essential copperThe journalist drives the point home by recalling that eating organic can be a risky activity and cites as an example certain health crises linked to organic food (an epidemic of infections resulting from the contamination of organic soybean sprouts by the bacterium E. coli which caused no less than 53 deaths). According to Weckstein, this is not due to bad luck, but to the mandatory regulations of organic certification “It is well known that the bacterial risk is directly linked to the germination of seeds” and certain techniques that prevent it (use of chlorinated water) are prohibited.[2].

Reading this indictment, one may wonder why so-called “organic” agriculture continues to enjoy such prestige among consumers. Especially since the journalist is by no means the only one to express this kind of doubt. As Jean De Kervasdoué reminds us, the British Food Standards Agency and The Annals of Internal Medicineafter demonstrating in an article published in The Economist that “the superiority of ‘organic’ products was debatable and that there was no difference between the nutritional qualities of organic foods and others”added”that organic food would be bad for the environment because it uses the soil much less efficiently than traditional agriculture due to its low yields (…) Alan McHugen, botanist at the University of California at Riverside, argues that the whole industry is ‘99% marketing and public perception,’ It is based on an implicit reference to a mythical time when food and life in general were simple and healthy.[3]

It is obvious that the cause of organic certification is far from won. And if for the moment it benefits from a privilege in public opinion, it could well end up losing its luster following a succession of health scandals. The critical spirit that consumers have finally developed vis-à-vis the agro-industry could well extend to organic. It’s hard to see what could stop consumers from wanting ever healthier foods without pretending to talk about health, especially since they now have a wide range of sources to research and compare. However, if marketing plays a fundamental role in the food sector, where the choice of purchase is often governed by irrationality, we bet that the principles of realism will eventually be reaffirmed. How long can the illusion be maintained in the mind of the consumer that an “organic” label on a product is enough to make him believe that it is irreproachable? As the agronomist Henri Voron reminds us, “Organic farming itself can be the source of many general and subjective appreciations (…) a return to old farming methods, a rejection of “progress” or “chemistry”, tastier products, authenticity, a preference for fewer food miles, direct sales rather than supermarkets, respect for the soil, respect for “nature”, etc. All these subjective assessments are perfectly legitimate in their place, but they completely circumvent scientific reasoning . The domain of experience, of feeling, of society, is not the same as that of scientific knowledge, which is totally impartial and rigorous.” This author believes that this makes it “difficult, if not impossible” [4] to assess the benefits of organic farming.

We therefore come to the heart of the problem: it is essential in the field of nutrition, even more than for any other subject, to know how to adopt a measured and reasoned approach. We understand the requirement for all viewpoints to be critical and, rather than being intimidated by labels – whatever they are – to trust science. Consumer intuition is going in the right direction. And agriculture must constantly reinvent itself to give substance to this intuition. Fortunately, we now know that new solutions exist that will allow us to better manage soils in the future while obtaining the yields needed to feed the growing number of humanity with good quality food. For example, our mind turns to the new fields of innovation of precision agriculture which, through the use of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, allow better management of soils and crops. What if true “organic” agriculture had not yet been invented?

[1] As Claude Huriet notes, “The report recently published by ANSES [French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety] did not make the front page of any newspaper. Which is a shame!” He specifies: “The risk of health effects appears to be very low”, as confirmed by the WHO. Further, “the level of consumption of contaminated eggs which can be consumed every days without exposing themselves to a serious risk is less than two for a child under three years old, and more than ten, equivalent to 500g, in adults” in the Tribune

[2] Gil Rivière-Weckstein, “Panic on the Plate”, [“Panic on the Plate”]The Publisher, p. 117-125

[3] Jean De Kervasdoué, “They believe that nature is good” [“They believe nature is kind”] Robert Laffont, p.129-130

[4] Henri Voron, “The environmental impact of organic farming” [The environmental impact of organic agriculture] in “Response to environmentalism” [“In Response to Ecology”] the Harmattan, pp 175-183

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