Organic Fools? The Myth of Dr Henry I Miller of Stanford University

clip_image002MANILA: Let's talk garbage.

I was talking to someone the other day over dinner with some brown rice, and the subject of organic farming came up, and she said, matter-of-factly, that the yield of rice grown with organic fertilizer was low, and I laughed a little and said she was talking like she was employed by a chemical fertilizer company – I knew she wasn't. Joke. I just said, "There are organic fertilizers and there are organic fertilizers." She got the point. "In any case," I said, "if you want to shift from inorganic fertilizers to organic completely, you can't do it in the 1st year. Maybe in the 3rd, or 5th year. Because natural is slow, artificial is fast; you know, organic is slow release, inorganic is instant gratification. Year by year, more organic, less inorganic. I say now, use The John the Baptist Method:

He must increase and I must decrease.

I did not explain to her, but now I will, about organic agriculture, or organic farming, or even that you can make your own organic fertilizer, or that you can practice what I remember my authentic American organic hero Edward H Faulkner referred to as trash farming, which I can briefly explain in 4 words: Garbage In, Cabbage Out. Like, if you incorporate your crop refuse with the very top of your field soil using a rotavator, that's trash farming. Your trash becomes part of a rich, organic mass.

I should know. I'm a BSA graduate and I've been reading tirelessly about any of what I shall refer to here as organic method of agriculture (OMA) since the mid-1960s when my probing hands and curious mind came across Faulkner on an open shelf at the book-filled library of the University of the Philippines' College of Agriculture (UPCA) on top of a hill. UPCA is UP Los Baños now; the library moved up a little, is now bigger, now with desktop computers and Internet connection. I wonder if anyone has come across Edward Faulkner in his Web searches? I remember the titles of his 2 books, in the order that I discovered them and read voraciously: Soil Development and Plowman's Folly. In fact, I was the first UPCA alumnus to talk and write about the OMA when I was teaching at UPCA. The UPCA professors were laughing behind my back. I didn't think it was funny.

No hard feelings. Today, almost half a century later, I'm on record as the first college instructor in the Philippines – probably in the world – to design his syllabus on Horticulture entirely in the paradigm of the OMA, at the Xavier University College of Agriculture (XUCA) in Cagayan De Oro City where I taught in 1968 – if you need testimony, ask the one and only Nicanor "Nicky" Perlas of the Right Livelihood fame; he was one of my A students. At UPCA, the OMA was alien and it disturbed the academic grounds; at XUCA, the OMA was alien but it disturbed only my sleep – when I had to prepare the lessons for the next day. Rev Fr William Masterson was the Dean. Yes, Xavier U is Church, Roman Catholic, run by the Jesuits; UP Los Baños is State University, run by the academics. Especially now with the emergence of Pope Francis, a Jesuit, I say, wisdom separates the Church from the State. Who can blame me when I declare that my personal experience with the OMA shows the Church is more intelligent than the State when it comes to agriculture?

Those who have ears, listen!

No, Dr Henry I Miller of Stanford U isn't listening. If you were talking of organic foods, I imagine he would mutter under his breath, organic fools.

OMA, OMG.

So, I'd like to talk about logical fallacies. Dr Miller is a Forbes Magazine contributor, and his tagline says, "I debunk hypocritical, dishonest junk science" (forbes.com). According to my favorite American Heritage Dictionary, to "debunk" is to "expose or ridicule the falseness, sham, or exaggerated claims of" someone or something. I beg his pardon, but I think Dr Miller's is an exaggerated claim. Starting with the thoughts that out there must be hypocritical, or dishonest, and/or junk science, is as unscientific a frame of mind as can be. Or, more to the point, "hypocritical, dishonest, junk science" is twice a logical fallacy if I ever saw one. You are Name-Calling even before you have started. You are assuming intellectual superiority over all the others whose statements are diametrically opposite yours: "Listen to me instead, I know better than they do!" The 2nd fallacy is also called Ivory Tower.

Dr Miller is a fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the US Food and Drug Administration. On 11 November 2013, he wrote "The Myth of Organic Agriculture" (project-syndicate.org). He began by saying, "A 2012 meta-analysis of data from 240 studies concluded that organic fruits and vegetables were, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts."

Now, meta-analysis is "the process or technique of synthesizing research results by using various statistical methods to retrieve, select, and combine results from previous separate but related studies" (American Heritage Dictionary). A very powerful – and therefore potentially dangerous – method of research. That meta was conducted by a medical team led by Dr Dena Bravata and Dr Crystal Smith-Spangler, both of Stanford U; a paper based on the findings was published in the 04 September 2013 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine (Michelle Brandt, 02 September 2012, Stanford School of Medicine, stanford.edu). Ms Brandt says, "After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods."

Now, in those 2 sentences that I quote from Dr Miller's essay and Ms Brandt's report, do you see the logical fallacy? Probably not.

Let me help you. You should know that what the team of Dr Bravata meant by "nutrition" and "health benefits" are not what you think. What they measured were the contents such as vitamin, mineral, protein and omega-3 fatty acid of the fruits and vegetables that they investigated, not their effects on people who consumed them. Logical fallacy: Begging the Question. Content is not nutrition; contents are not health benefits.

In fact, "There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food," Ms Brandt reported. "No significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods" indeed!

In the absence of those long-term studies, I ask what health benefits do those pesticide residues and fertilizer elements in those conventionally grown foods bring to humans? What benefits to the environment can come from those pesticide residues and chemical fertilizers contaminating the soil and groundwater?

No, no one can intelligently conclude, not even a doctor from Stanford School of Medicine, as Dr Miller does, that "The simple truth is that buying non-organic is far more cost-effective, more humane, and more environmentally responsible."

Dr Miller says, "Many who are seduced by the romance of organic farming ignore its human consequences." Following him, I say, "Many who are seduced by the romance of inorganic farming ignore its human consequences."

What's Dr Miller's Forbes Magazine tagline again? "I debunk hypocritical, dishonest junk science." That makes two of us, doesn't it?

Revised a little 15 December 2013 at 1412 hours Manila time

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