Organics just green psuedo science

December 8, 2008

Attempting, and failing ,to find the opposite of organic – in the green farming sense of the word – made me question the use of that word and I now have scientific backing for my doubts.

Bob Brockie, in his World of Science column in the Dominion points out that organic has a precise scientific meaning.

Science divides chemicals into two kinds – inorganic and organic. Inorganic chemists work with about 90 elements ranging from hydrogen to uranium, but organic chemists work almost exclusively with one element – carbon.

You and I, all plants, microbes and animals, living or dead, all meat, fish, dairy products and all fruit and vegetables are made of carbon, so to scientists, all these things are organic. To proclaim that only those things approved by Wellington certification authority Bio Gro are organic is preposterous and gets up scientists’ noses.

Language is a living thing  and whether or not scientists like it, organic has acquired a different meaning from that used by chemists. And while agree with Bob, my interest isn’t so much the misuse of the word but whether “organic” production is better than conventional methods, and he says it isn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with rotating crops, manuring soil or treating animals humanely, but the wider claims of some organophiles are open to scientific question.

Organic promoters reckon their products taste better, and are better for health and the environment. They claim that pesticides and fertilisers are harmful and that “natural” products are better than synthetics. But all these assertions are plain wishful thinking.

Tony Trewavas, professor of plant biochemistry at Edinburgh University, reports that “hundred of rigorous scientific tests have failed to reveal better- tasting properties or improved nutritional value for organic produce but have consistently shown that it has lower nitrate and protein content”.

Sir John Krebs, head of the British Food Standards Authority agrees, saying the only real value that well-heeled organic customers get for their money is the moral legitimation of organic farming.

Claims that pesticides and chemical fertilisers threaten our health are demonstrably untrue. Regular tests show that New Zealanders’ food is among the cleanest in the world. The poisons centre at Otago University reports almost nothing in the way of poisoning from pesticide residues in food.

The trifling quantity of synthetic poisons we ingest are a hundred times less threatening than all the natural poisons we swallow with our coffee, celery and barbecued steaks. Nor has cutting the use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals helped reduce cancer rates.

Ironically the organic movement is a product of affluence because if you’re poor getting enough food is far more important than how it’s produced. It’s the better off people who have the luxury of choice who are more likely to be concerned about the way their food is grown.

If people prefer “organic” produce and can afford to buy it they should be free to do so, what concerns me is that unscientific claims on the merits of “organic” produce can threaten markets for conventionally produced food.

Claims about “organic” food aren’t the only ones which aren’t scientifically based, other clean-green claims are equally dubious. Buying local, recycling and bio fuels for example aren’t necessarily better for the for the environment than buying imported goods, dumping rubbish and using petrol.

And sometimes the supposedly “green” solution causes more problems than it solves. Recylcing plastic causes pollution and if crops grown for bio fuels replace those grown for human and animal consumption they add to the world food shortage so saving the planet might starve the world.

This isn’t to say we should not take a responsible attitude to the environment, we all have a responsibility to protect and enhance it. But how we do that should be based on science not on psuedo-science feel good theories.


MAF BIM paints mixed picture

December 8, 2008

The Minsitry of Agriculture Briefing for Incoming Ministers  paints a mixed picture for agriculture.

The BIM is 48 pages long and I’m not going to analyse it all, just give some thoughts on some of the matters raised.

The good news, for those of who wonder if primary production still matters is MAF’s reminder of the importance of agriculture, food and forestry industries to the economy, employment and social wellbeing and that they generate 64% of our merchandise export earnings.

They are the only major industries in which we have sufficient scale, market share and supply chains to be truly competitive in international trade. New Zealand is the world’s largest dairy and sheep meat exporter, and has some of the world’s most competitive horticultural and forestry industries.

Over the next 20 years, New Zealand’s food and fibre producing capability will become increasingly important. Globally, rising population and economic growth is expected to increase demand for agricultural and forestry products. At the same time land and resources, such as freshwater, available for food and fibre production worldwide is likely to decline.

But:

Despite this favourable long-term outlook for New Zealand’s primary production sectors, our industries, environment and broader society face a complex set of challenges to reap future opportunities. These challenges are exacerbated by the current global financial crisis that continues to unfold with uncertain impacts and duration.

Among the challenges are an expected decrease in demand for our exports and difficulty getting credit and servicing debt.

Then there’s the importance of free trade:

For a small country lacking significant economic power, legally-binding multilateral trade and environmental management rules are important to achieve economic and environmental benefits not available by other means.

The importance of environmentally responsible practices was outlined:

The challenge is to develop integrated policies that provide incentives for the sectors to work towards a more sustainable balance in economic, environmental, social and cultural outcomes for the benefit of all New Zealanders. As resources become fully allocated and ecosystems reach the limits of what they can deal with, there are increasingly difficult decisions needing to be made that will impact on the practices of primary producers.

Water availability and quality are also pressing issues and improved water management – of both quality and quantity are an urgent priority.

In 2002/03, irrigation was estimated to contribute around $920 million net GDP “at the farm gate”, over and above that which would have been produced from the same land without irrigation. Since then, the area of irrigated agriculture and horticulture has increased by about 25 percent, from 480 000 hectares to around 600 000 hectares.

Theoretically there is a further 1.9 million hectares of land capable of being irrigated. However, most of the recent increase in irrigation is sourced from groundwater, which has generally reached or is quickly approaching allocation limits in most parts of the country. Further irrigation development, particularly on the eastern side of New Zealand as climate change impacts, will require water storage and distribution systems to deal with fluctuating water availability.

Currently only about four percent of all the freshwater that flows toward the sea is extracted. In Canterbury, where most irrigation occurs, just one percent of allocated water comes from storage infrastructure.

Storage is the best way to make use of water for irrigation with the least impact on river ecosystems because it takes the water at high flows, which generally is during the spring snow melt, or during and after heavy rains, and stores it to use when it’s dry.

But not everyone accepts this or wants it in their backyard so getting resouce consent is a long and expensive process.


Dear Father Christmas #2

December 8, 2008

Dear Father Christmas,

Thank you for the power toy you gave me last Christmas.

I didn’t really mind that it took 11 months to deliver, nor that it’s second hand but I hope you won’t think I’m churlish if I point out that it doesn’t seem to be quite as powerful as it was when Helen had it and it’s not nearly as good as the one you gave John.

I don’t want to be greedy because I realise that it takes a long time to make toys like this so I’m just writing to let you know it doesn’t really matter if I don’t get anything this Christmas or the next, because if you could give me a new, shiny power toy the Christmas after that, it would be worth the wait.

Yours sincerely

Phil


Recession’s over ?

December 8, 2008

When announcing last week’s drop in interest rates Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard said the recession was technically over.

John Key doesn’t share his confidence.

Bernard Hickey is sure there’s worse to come.

Tui is too:

recession


$16.9m fraud against ODHB

December 8, 2008

Michael Swann and Kerry Harford have been found guilty of defrauding the Otago District Health Board of $16.9m.

The ODT backgrounds what is thought to be the largest fraud against a government instituion.

Its editorial asks about the duty of care the ODHB and its predecessor Healthcare Otago had to prevent the fraud or uncover it sooner.

And Health Minister Tony Ryall has called for urgent confirmation systems are in place  to prevent fraud in all DHBs.

Large organisations have to trust their employees, but they also need systems to ensure that their trust is not misplaced.


SFF cans beef contracts

December 8, 2008

Silver Fern Farms has left farmers fuming after pulling contracts it had been offering for beef after a 25% fall in the price on international markets.

Jamie McKay interviewed SFF CEO Keith Cooper on this issue on Friday’s Farming Show.

Cooper said they weren’t contracts they were applications to supply which is technically right but farmers who signed the offers and bought stock on the back of the price they were expecting to get aren’t impressed.


And what do they save?

December 8, 2008

The headline says: New Auckland toll will set back motorists $2.

Does that mean they don’t waste any petrol or time and so it doesn’t cost anything if they choose to stop-start drive on the slower, congested but untolled alternative route?


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