Sunday rant – the evils of chemicals

It’s days like this that I am so grateful to have this blog at my disposal!

It’s 7 am on Sunday and I’m just finishing the paper, drinking Earl Grey tea, and listening to NPR.  Liane Hansen just finished an interview with Martha Stewart, who among other things was discussing healthy eating for the new year.  She’s a proponent of organic food (as are many of us), and mentioned two reasons she doesn’t like conventionally grown produce.  The first – residual pesticides - is a legitimate concern.  But then she stated her second concern that “chemical fertilizers in the soil are taken up and stored in the plant.”

No kidding.

Plants really don’t care (excuse my anthropomorphizing) where their mineral nutrients come from.  Nitrogen in ammonium sulfate is the same element as the nitrogen in cottonseed meal.  The plant uses it for amino acids, chlorophyll, alkaloids, and many, many other compounds.

Martha’s faulty thinking falls into the “organic is safer than chemical” mindset that way too many people hold (you can read a column I wrote about this in 2001 here).  “Chemical” is not intrinsically bad and “organic” is not automatically safe.  This is an emotion-based argument and inspires fear rather than thoughtful discussion.  When someone parrots this mantra, I can’t take them seriously.

I believe that organic methods in production agriculture, ornamental landscapes, and home gardens are superior to conventional practices and support a healthy soil-microbe-plant-animal system.  I also believe that many fertilizers are misused and/or overused – but this includes both conventional and organic varieties.

Gerald Horton, a science historian at Harvard, once stated that “persons living in this modern world who do not know the basic facts that determine their very existence, functioning, and surroundings, are living in a dream world.  Such persons are, in a very real sense, not sane.”

This is the quotation that came to mind this morning.

7 thoughts on “Sunday rant – the evils of chemicals

  1. Well said, Kandi and Matt! It really irks me when someone like Martha Stewart is given a national forum to perpetuate misinforma
    tion on a topic outside her expertise. Matt, I totally agree that the whole definition of “organic” (and the certification system) needs a drastic overhaul. As another contributor mentioned in my biodynamics post last week, the organic certification standards are so impractical that many people simply don’t bother anymore. For instance, I grew up on a small farm where we grew our own “free range” beef. They were pasture fed and we baled our own hay for winter feed. No fertilizers or pesticides were ever applied to the fields, nor were the cattle ever given hormones. It was, hands down, the best beef I’ve ever eaten. But I suspect that our system would have never passed current organic standards for some reason.

  2. I really hate how we define “organic” ag. It combines the philosophical commitment to best agricultural practices (which is good!) with a blanket banning of all technologically-modified chemicals or organisms (which has no factual basis).

    We need a certification system that is built on evidence-based, verifiable best practices that doesn’t rely on superstitious litmus tests (like the absence of “synthetic” chemicals or GMOs).

    I wouldn’t bet a dollar that the massive, industrial farms that produce most of this nation’s organic food are any more sustainable just because they drop out lab synthesized poisons in favor of strip-mined poisons.

  3. Thank you for this post! I’ve run into this same thinking – that plants use organic fertilizers differently (i.e. better) than “chemical ones – several times, and it just leaves me dumbfounded. Same with the concept that organic pesticides are safer than synthetic chemical ones. I’ve been gardening long enough to remember when a nicotine solution was used as a pesticide. It was pretty organic and nasty stuff to work with.

  4. Interesting post. I basically agree with you, but the devil’s in the details.
    she stated her second concern that “chemical fertilizers in the soil are taken up and stored in the plant.”

    Her statement, literally interpreted, is obviously not true.
    Plants really don’t care (excuse my anthropomorphizing) where their mineral nutrients come from. Nitrogen in ammonium sulfate is the same element as the nitrogen in cottonseed meal.

    Yes, but: chemical vs. organic agricultural methods tend to have very different impacts on the soil-microbe-plant system, as you say. This in turn affects the plant’s metabolism, and thus ultimately its nutritional makeup. (Mod for the understanding that some types of plants will be more affected by these differences than others.) If so, then Martha’s main point, which is that industrial food may be less healthy due to the use of fertilizers, is not invalid even though the mechanism she describes is wrong. Do you disagree?

    Martha’s faulty thinking falls into the “organic is safer than chemical” mindset that way too many people hold (you can read a column I wrote about this in 2001 here). “Chemical” is not intrinsically bad and “organic” is not automatically safe. This is an emotion-based argument and inspires fear rather than thoughtful discussion. When someone parrots this mantra, I can’t take them seriously.

    Treated as a fixed rule, this is of course false. But as a heuristic, it seems like a reasonable oversimplification (though frustrating, as such things always are, to people that know better). Consider, for example, the number of toxic synthetic chemicals vs the number of toxic natural chemicals that one is likely to encounter in daily life. Consider the likelyhood of a synthetic chemical being bioaccumulative vs. a natural one. Etc.
    I believe that organic methods in production agriculture, ornamental landscapes, and home gardens are superior to conventional practices and support a healthy soil-microbe-plant-animal system. I also believe that many fertilizers are misused and/or overused – but this includes both conventional and organic varieties.

    Do you believe that conventional fertilizers are in practice easier to overuse/abuse than organic ones? I’m thinking here of the issue of concentration (organics tend to be less potent per mass) and water solubility in the case of N2 (blood meal is soluable, but most other organic N sources seem not to be.)
    Gerald Horton, a science historian at Harvard, once stated that “persons living in this modern world who do not know the basic facts that determine their very existence, functioning, and surroundings, are living in a dream world. Such persons are, in a very real sense, not sane.”

    I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, life in technological civilization means that even the best educated, smartest citizens are going to be “insane” to some degree, some amount of the time. How much do you know, for example, about internet architecture or the production, distribution and use of energy? In the modern context, these things are as central to our lives as food. Yet these are subjects of which most people are totally ignorant.

    On one level, this ignorance is dangerous and must be addressed. (Technological illiteracy around energy, in particular, leads people to make all kinds of mistaken assumptions and conclusions about major issues of the day like climate change, the price of oil, and what’s going to be required to shift from fossil to renewable energy sources.) At the same time, We can’t all be experts at everything, and it’s fair to say that even in at the best of times, everyone is going to be grossly ignorant of some relevant fields of study. In that context, an understanding based on heuristics is the only option to total agnosticism and lack of participation.

    Since everyone is going to have an opinion (and a democracy is based on the idea that the collective sum of those opinions is worth something) it seems to be more useful to consider the oversimplified rules of thumb that people use with an eye towards improving them, rather than rejecting them wholesale because they are technically incorrect.

    (reposting with HTML breaks for legibility. Feel free to delete my last couple of comments.)

  5. I just read the transcript of her interview. The Clean 15?! WTH?! Any gardener who has attempted to grow cabbage knows how voracious those Cabbage worms and loopers are. Misinformation indeed.

  6. Well said: “I also believe that many fertilizers are misused and/or overused – but this includes both conventional and organic varieties.”

    Man didn’t exist on this planet for a long time from the perspective of the formation of our solar system but the way we overuse chemical is frightening. Good post!

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