Opinion: The ongoing push that "organic is better" is frustrating when the facts, evidence and data don't support the case, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
With all the research and information available it is extraordinary that the myth of organics – that the food is safer, healthier for them and kinder to the environment which means that people will pay more for it – persists.
It isn't and they don't. Not enough to cover the costs.
Of course this is "usually", and people will always be able to show that they make it work in terms of the economics, at least in some operations in some years.
The reality is shown by farmers changing from organic to conventional after a few years, or simply selling the business.
The figures from Zespri this year are a case in point. Per tray, organic green attracted a 40 per cent premium. Per hectare, however, the organic green fruit achieved only 87 per cent of the income that its conventional counterpart achieved.
Per kg is different from per ha.
The organics industry puts out press releases each year touting for expansion, citing customer demand, and suggesting that the government should support farmers to change.
Now there is a prepared food company pitching organics because consumers are "becoming aware of the detrimental impact toxic chemicals and pesticides can have on their health".
The implication is that organic growers and farmers don't use chemicals. This is not the case.
Some agricultural chemicals have been certified for use in modern organic agriculture, and some of those certified are far more toxic, and toxic to more species, than those used by conventional growers and farmers.
Modern chemicals target the problem and use low rates of active ingredient. They are subject to standards of use to safeguard people and the environment.
That is the role of the Environmental Protection Authority working in conjunction with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines (ACVM) Act 1997.
The over-arching reassurance is that in New Zealand the food, however it is produced, is subject to standards through the Food Business part of MPI.
Agricultural chemicals are used to protect crops from damage and loss, which allows yields to be maintained. Reducing the risk in yields enables greater assurances that foods and animal feeds will be available, increasing food security.
Chemical protection from diseases and pest damage can also reduce the presence of plant produced toxins, mycotoxins from fungal disease, or contamination with toxic weed species, all of which can be detrimental to human health.
In addition, some agricultural chemicals increase the time that foods can be stored safely, leading to availability through the year as well as decreased food wastage.
Although consumers have been warned by organic marketers that "the levels of pesticides and other poisons present in conventional vegetables and food products would surprise most Kiwis", the reality is that any residues present in food due to the use of agricultural compounds are at concentrations that present notional zero risk to consumers.
MPI has explained that notional zero risk considers the concentration of the chemical and the quantity likely to be ingested in the diet every day for a lifetime. The emphasis is on "zero risk".
Also reassuring to the consumer should be the research that indicates no conclusive evidence that organic food is more or less nutritious than conventionally produced foods.
Foods analysed at the same time, using the same methodology, from the same soil in the same season show that production system (organic or conventional) has no effect on nutritional profile.
The concept of "nutritional density" applies to processed food, not what is harvested by the farmer or grower.
Better for the environment is also disputed.
Although organic systems have lower energy requirements (though it is not clear that the transport and calories for staff hand weeding are included in the calculations), they have higher land use, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit than conventional systems.
The big problem is that more land is required by organic systems to achieve the same overall output.
A meta-analysis published last month revealed the reality. The yields under organic farming were on average 25 per cent lower than the conventional ones, reaching a yield gap of 30 per cent for cereals.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Combining the yield gap with the reduction in the number of crops harvested (as opposed to fallow or unharvested cover crop) in the rotation, a productivity gap of 29 per cent to 44 per cent was estimated depending on the type of crops included in the rotation.
Land for food production is limited, and the result of expansion is deforestation.
After several decades of improvements in yield outstripping population growth, things have changed.
The population is now increasing faster than food and food scarcity is reflected in the FAO's global food price index. In June this year it was 34 per cent higher than it was in June 2020.
Pushing organic production systems will create a greater problem and increase food prices further.
Farmers and consumers in New Zealand have choices, and work within regulations and budgets. The frustration for conventional growers (and consumers) is the ongoing push that "organic is better".
The facts, evidence and data don't support the case.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is an adjunct professor with Lincoln University and a farmer-elected director on the Boards of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. email@example.com