The organic industry is a case study in rent-seeking. | Henry Miller
Adam Smith, the 18th century economist and philosopher, offered good insights into human nature as well as economics. “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices,” he wrote in The Wealth of Nations.
We’re seeing evidence of that in current lobbying skirmishes — for example, over whether novel, effective, inexpensive hearing aids should be made available over-the-counter. The battle lines are predictable: Patient groups are encouraging Congress to pass legislation that would create new standards for hearing aids that could be used by people with moderate impairment and sold at modest cost over-the-counter. Meanwhile, the association that represents audiologists believes “the absence of audiological involvement” would be “detrimental to patient outcomes.”
The real issue is, of course, not “patient outcomes,” but what economists call “rent-seeking” — attempting to manipulate public policy in order to increase profits — on behalf of the association’s members. The excellent new hearing aids, which resemble wireless ear buds, cost about $300, while conventional alternatives can cost many thousands.
The self-interest of audiologists in that situation is quite obvious, of course; less so is the ongoing campaign by the organic agriculture and food and “natural products” industries to discredit and diminish modern genetic engineering of crops and the scientific community that is in any way involved with them.
Is organic farming sustainable and environmentally friendly?
Advocates of organic agriculture tout it as a “sustainable” and healthful way to feed the planet’s expanding population. That is wishful thinking, if not outright delusion, but it is being widely promulgated by the credulous media and the foodie elites. The truth is that organic practices are to agriculture what cigarette smoking is to human health.
In fact, organic practices result in a significant increase in leaching of nitrates into groundwater and impose a variety of stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. Moreover, although composting gets good (and highly organized) PR as a “green” activity, on a large scale it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases, and is also often a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops.
Another prevalent “green myth” about organic agriculture is that it does not employ pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. More than 20 chemicals (mostly containing copper and sulfur) are commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops and are currently acceptable under USDA’s arbitrary and ever-shifting organic rules, and many of those organic pesticides are more toxic than “synthetic” ones. In any case, as was pointed out by Bruce Ames and colleagues in a 1990 academic article, “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.”
The fatal flaw of organic agriculture is the low yields, which cause it to be wasteful of water and arable farmland. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop and state by state. His findings are extraordinary: Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap” — poorer performance of organic farms — in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61 percent less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; carrots, 49 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less.
These findings are important. As Dr. Savage observed: “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”
Is organic food healthy?
Are the products of organic agriculture healthier or otherwise superior in any way? An article published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.
And on the subject of contamination: Organic foods are highly susceptible to it. According to Bruce Chassy, professor of food science at the University of Illinois, “organic foods are recalled 4 to 8 times more frequently than their conventional counterparts.”
Organic agriculture is kept afloat by political rent-seeking.
If organic agriculture isn’t sustainable, doesn’t produce more nutritious food and is far more expensive, what is the purpose of USDA-mandated organic standards and certification? “Let me be clear about one thing,” Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said when organic certification was being considered: “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”
But that marketing tool has been grossly abused. Organic agriculture’s dirty little secret is that it is kept afloat only by massive subsidies and nurtured by a whole panoply of USDA programs, by misleading advertising, and by “black marketing” that disparages the competition with disinformation.
Academics Review, a reliable, science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive review of hundreds of published academic, industry, and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products. It also looked at more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014 about organic foods.
Their analysis found that “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes,” and that this is due to “a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”
It is hardly news that some industries systematically mislead the public to further their interests — who can forget the decades of mendacity from the tobacco industry — but the organic industry’s comparable actions are actively aided, abetted, and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Seal and the National Organic Standards Program (NOSP), in clear violation of the NOSP’s mission. Thus, American taxpayers are funding propaganda about organic products that misleads consumers with fraudulent health, safety and quality claims and fools them into supporting production methods that are an affront to the environment. This is rent-seeking.
What about genetic engineering?
Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will turn out to be the systematic and absolute exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants — but only those that were modified with the most precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another — often as a result of seeds having been irradiated or via “wide crosses,” which are created by moving thousands of genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. Irradiation has produced thousands of useful mutants that comprise a significant fraction of the world’s crops, including varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, bananas, cassava and sorghum. Wide crosses have given rise to important varieties of oat, sugar beet, pumpkin, cotton, tomato, rice, bread and durum wheat, black currant, and corn.
In recent decades, using molecular genetic engineering techniques, we have seen advances such as plants that are disease- and pest-resistant, boast higher yields, and are drought- or flood-resistant. These advances make farming more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But they have resulted from science-based research and technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders, and agribusiness companies, not from social elites disdainful of modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering, and large-scale “industrial agriculture.”
As genetic engineering’s successes continue to emerge, the gap between modern, high-tech agriculture and organic methods will become a chasm, which brings us back to the cabal postulated by Adam Smith. There exists in this country (and elsewhere) a well-established, highly professional and vast anti-genetic-engineering industry fueled by special interest groups spending billions of dollars, seeking to line their own pockets but oblivious to the public interest.
Some of the NGOs, their budgets and funders are listed in a table in an article, “The fat lies and fatter wallets of anti-GMO lobbyists,” by Iowa farmer Michelle Miller (no relation to this author), aka the “Farm Babe.” In the article, she describes the massive disinformation campaigns about genetic engineering in agriculture which attempt to make less efficient, inferior organic products more cost-competitive.
These activists have even funded phony “advocacy research” that alleges health problems from genetically engineered crops and foods, “documentary” films — such as “Food, Inc.” and “Genetic Roulette” — and other propaganda tactics. They have powerful allies in the media. Viewers of the Dr. Oz TV show, for example, have been repeatedly warned by “friend of the show” and anti-biotechnology activist/levitator (yes, you read that correctly) Jeffrey Smith and Stonyfield Organic CEO Gary Hirshberg that genetically engineered crops are inadequately tested and are actually responsible for adverse health effects.
In its news articles, op-eds and columns by reporters and columnists such as Keith Schneider, Danny Hakim, Nassim Taleb and Mark Bittman, the New York Times has waged a decades-long campaign of opposition to genetic engineering that has been widely criticized by the scientific community..
Because of discriminatory overregulation of genetically engineered crops worldwide, they “are the most studied crops in history,” in the words of plant biologists Miguel Sanchez and Wayne Parrott, in their landmark analysis of “scientific studies usually cited as evidence of adverse effects of GM food/feed.” Spoiler alert: They conclude, “Importantly, a close examination of these reports invariably shows methodological flaws that invalidate any conclusions of adverse effects.” In other words, the reports are consistently erroneous, representing flawed advocacy research from the same self-interested cast of characters. After the cultivation of more than 5.3 billion acres and the consumption of more than three trillion servings of food derived from genetically engineered crops, there has not been a single documented case of an ecosystem disrupted or a bellyache.
When businesses offer consumers a spectrum of product choices, whether they are made with different technologies or in ways that appeal in some way to personal preferences — like halal, kosher, free-range or organic — market forces can operate. But if businesses get government subsidies to make their products cheaper, or “capture” regulatory policies to limit or boost the prices of what the competitors can offer, that’s rent-seeking — which harms consumers, innovation, the economy, and in the case of organic agriculture, even the environment.
Henry Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. This article was originally published on LearnLiberty.org.