Friday, April 25, 2008

Organic Farming

I'm brewing up a post on player connectivity, but here's something that really pisses me off. (Obviously, this is a rant.)

I've been reading up on sustainable farming, because I have a freakishly boundless curiosity. A lot of it is really interesting, and in America there's a huge crossover between organic and sustainable, to the point where there's really no clear dividing line.

It's pretty interesting. For example, to qualify as "organic", they can't really use normal methods for killing pests and treating diseases.

On the crop side, they got really clever: by switching up crops and planting at selective times, they interrupt the pest cycle and keep diseases from taking root. For example, a given kind of weed can be prevented from invading a fallow field by planting a fast-growing ground cover crop just before it might start (which also increases soil organics). Insect pests have similar solutions, plus the addition of nonharmful predators and competitors such as ladybugs. Once the populations and rhythms are established, the problem is apparently fairly manageable without any pesticides at all.

On the animal side, especially with cows, diseases are what you would expect to be trouble. It turns out that "organic" cows don't really get sick very often, because their conditions aren't so bad. So, that's good. Except, get this: they can't use any antibiotics on any of the cows, ever, or lose their "organic" certification.

While this is worrisome, they say that treating them homeopathically tends to work. They've said this multiple times in the papers I've been reading.

I can't... There is no emote... MUST I TYPE IN CAPS TO SHOW MY ANGER?

Stop getting your idiotic woo in my research.

What they mean is: "well, we give the cows plenty of water, and they usually get better on their own. Oh, and we pay through the nose for some useless sugar pills because otherwise those poor homeopaths would be diluting poison for no good reason!"

Similarly, you're not allowed to use any "genetically modified" crops if you want that all-important "organic" label and the 200% price increase it allows.

Now, admittedly, the majority of genetically modified crops (not counting the ones grandfathered in, such as every crop on the face of the planet) are modified in ways which really don't help a sustainable farm much. Most of them, for example, are simply herbicide/pesticide-resistant... immune to things these farmers won't use.

But there are a lot of modified crops that are good! Some metabolize specific soil contaminants, some provide specific vitamins, some are engineered to survive better in climates they aren't accustomed to. More are coming out every year, and this will only accelerate as we understand the genetics better and can do modifications cheaper.

Why a blind, flat ban? It's another case of woo!

Sustainable farming is a valuable field of research that can benefit everyone in every society across the world. I will not have everyone in every society across the world believing that homeopathy works, or that all genetically modified crops are magically bad.



Textual Harassment said...

"Organic" has fully evolved from an ideal into a marketing, and thus, legal term.

There are farmers who practice sustainable, organic farming but don't care to get certified organic. And there are massive industrial farms that serve the organic market. They are no more sustainable than the chemical-using growers next door they just replace one input with another: manure for chemical fertilizers, insecticidal soap instead of pesticides, migrant workers with hoes instead of herbicides.

The fear of genetically altered food is mainly fear of the unknown. We don't really know what we're doing when we introduce a gene into another organism--It's done in a very haphazard way--what proteins will result and the effect it has on our bodies. On the other hand, we don't fully understand what's in traditional varieties either, other than they are okay to eat.

Craig Perko said...

That last paragraph is kind of misleading. It's only kinda-sorta true, and it's getting less true each year...

Being "organic" certified is so profitable, which is probably why it's becoming more common even among people who aren't sustainable farmers. :P

Michael said...

What the FUCK.

I'd rather the animals have no antibiotics than be constantly pumped full of them just in case. (But must we always go to one extreme or the other?)
But.. treating them homeopathically? Huh? How common is this?

It's worrying how many people think homeopathic "remedies" are the same thing as natural/herbal remedies. Someone needs to run a homeopathy awareness campaign.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know how common it is in reality, but in the various reports and papers, it's mentioned every time they mention disease or health of livestock...

Some people do run campaigns. Skepchick recently ran a week-long set of essays about homeopathy, and a certain Star Trek fan "committed suicide" via an overdose of homeopathic sleeping pills.

But they don't really get much news coverage, you know? The people who are likely to believe in homeopathy are easier reached on daytime TV. If Oprah would say 'homeopathy doesn't work!' then maybe we'd get somewhere.

Patrick said...

I think it's funny how you get emotional about other people failing to live up to your ideal of rationality. Please don't get mad at that statement, but rather bask in the irony.

If people want to spend money on nothing, that's their business. Obviously, anyone who simply lets their cows get exercise and decent food but doesn't use homeopathy is going to do about as well as the same with homeopathy, with the important difference that there expenses are that much lower, and therefore their profits bigger. Sometimes the free market rewards stupidity, but sometimes it penalzies it. This is a weak example of the latter.

GMOs... tricky subject. I think people have a right to proper labeling, and I think the IP rights of patent holders like Monsanto are misapplied to the detriment of the overall movement, economy, environment and health. While all GMOs aren't "magically bad", there are feedback loops that tend to reward patentable, profitable things that are bad in the long term. For a simpler example from food science, note the chemistry of monosodium glutamate, aspartame, maltodextrin and related ingredients; these things taste like sweet addiction but are nuerotoxic in the long term. Same story with some types of GMOs, except the feedback loops have to do with economic convenience rather than flavor.

I think Monsanto should focus its business on bio-fuels production, rather than food production.

You should look into Codex Alimentarius. Supposedly, they're going to mandate rgbh, antibiotics, GMOs and irradiation.

Craig Perko said...

Unfortunately, woo does not obey the laws of supply and demand. Even if there is no advantage, people keep calling psychics. The lottery keeps getting played.

It is a person's right to be a fucking imbecile. But while I would wholeheartedly support teaching and funding sustainable techniques in third world countries, I will wholeheartedly oppose them learning it from people who will actively teach them WRONG THINGS.

How will someone with no real experience in the matter tell what part of it is woo and what part isn't? Is talking about nitrates woo? How would they know? They don't have agriculture degrees.

I get emotional about this because people fucking die. When you believe that homeopathy will heal you of your cancer, you die. If you believe homeopathy will cure your child of cancer (which has happened more than I care to think about), your child dies.

Or my favorite, when you believe GM crops are evil and refuse the disease-resistant banana strains, all your banana trees die and ten thousand people starve.


GM foods are, at present, a big business system. That's pretty common. Back in the day, computers were all about big business, all about IBM and their technicians that got paid by the hour.

But these days, I can get a computer that powerful for less than a hundred bucks. I can even assemble it myself from nameless, faceless parts picked up from Radio Shack or ordered online.

I don't see why GM crops should follow a different tech curve...

Patrick said...

Good point about the tech curve, your analogy to IBM is appropriate. Just like IBM used early computation to round-up millions for wholesale extermination, Monsanto has used early GMOs to compromise the health of hundreds of millions and thwart localized farming wherever it can.

Stupidity works both ways.

Christopher Weeks said...

I don't have any numbers or opinion, but it's possible that cows treated homeopathically have better health than their non-homeopathic kin due to confounding variables. It isn't crazy to consider that organic farmers, ignorantly pursuing homeopathic remedies are also more generally attentive to their stock and thus quicker to identify and treat ailments. I'm not one of those kooks, I'm just saying, I can imagine how hard-to-decipher data might be collected that suggest veterinary efficacy.

Also, to Patrick: I thought the harmfulness of MSG had been thoroughly debunked. Is that not the current state of the art?

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I realize that homeopathic treatments may be correlated with effective recovery. There's no possible way it could be chemically causal, but it could be associated with more time spent with the sick animals, more care taken, better watering and feed, other supplements...

If they believed THAT, I would feel mollified. But it's pretty clear they believe homeopathy is effective due to its substance. Argh!

Patrick is right in that Monsanto is evil (if they pursued biofuels, they would manage to make that evil as well), but you cannot fault an entire technological branch for one corporation's practices. That would be like saying that all software is stupidly over-priced, hopelessly bloated, and full of useless bug-inducing "features" because Microsoft sells nothing else.