Dr Hinner Köster, feed specialist and MD of Scinetic, the scientific technology centre within Afgri, argues that the preference for organics over more efficient production methods is based on emotion rather than logic and predicts that constraining researchers and decision-makers could be fatal for the developing world’s food security.
Scientific knowledge, technological innovations and social mobility have changed the face of global agriculture and made larger-scale farming more efficient. But not everyone has accepted the societal changes and there have been calls for a return to less efficient, pre-industrial farming methods.
But do people debating the merits of organic products really understand the issues? Using “all natural” methods of raising and feeding animals to produce “organic” products has the support of mainly upper-class consumers and is readily endorsed by supermarkets. But are these supermarkets concerned about consumers, or their own pockets?
There are two sides to the organic food issue – genetics and chemicals. Looking at the history of agriculture, almost everything is “genetically modified” (GM). Genetic modification either takes place naturally, or is done in a laboratory to speed up the process. The same elements comprise the “natural” world and the world of science, and all emerge from large molecules built mostly with carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms.
Many educated people in developed countries, however, think that only some crops and animals are organic, while all others are not. The general public, as well as organic food advocates, have been made so fearful of the “unnaturalness” of GM organisms that research toward commercially viable products is often seriously hindered.
How can one simple concept – “organic” – have such different meanings? The standards are based on the process rather than the product, as organic food is defined not by any material substance in the food itself, but by the “holistic” methods used in its production. The implicit, unproven assumption is that organic agriculture is better for the environment than so-called conventional farming.
Because consumers equate “organic” with “natural”, and “natural” with “healthy and safe”, the organic food industry has grown in leaps and bounds. However, organic food is just as likely to be tainted by pathogens, and organic vegetable protein products are just as likely to cause allergic reactions that can be fatal.
The main selling point of organic animal products is that they’re grown in all-natural conditions without synthetic additives. But why should synthesised products have adverse effects if they’re molecularly identical to natural products? By all estimates, the total number of negative health consequences from synthetic pesticides and feed additives is zero.
“Undesired” substances from “unnatural” sources may be found in many products, but at levels far below those known to cause health hazards. And they’ve only been found because of advances in analytical chemistry.
Animal products and other food items are often promoted as all-natural, antibiotic-free and so on, but this world view is remarkably disconnected from reality. Why pay premiums for “natural” when you can achieve greater, often safer perfection more cheaply with synthetic?
The emotions of non-scientific groups should not dictate sound scientific decision-making processes and developments. In promoting organic versus inorganic products, it’s often hard to ignore self-interest. Companies specialising in animal feed additives use biotechnology to develop so-called natural products that can replace the “undesired” performance boosters that have been scrutinised over the last 20 years. They’ve capitalised on the economic opportunity presented by the outcry of activists and other less informed people.
Again, there is nothing wrong with such innovative products and research shows that they efficiently replace conventional ones, but at a much higher cost.
In developing countries in particular, using “natural” additives and production exclusively won’t produce cost-effective food. Consumers and supermarkets should be able to choose whether to pay premiums for less effectively produced food. However, without sufficient premiums, conventional farmers will have no incentive to switch to “all-natural” practices.
The feed and livestock industries have been proactive and therefore can’t be condemned for not meeting the objectives of those who resist “unnatural” farming practices and specific feed additives. The choice remains – if natural production becomes predominant or enforced, especially in communities with great disparities in disposable income, we could be directly responsible for avoidable suffering, especially in the lower income communities. – Roelof Bezuidenhout |fw