Good news! The plot to get us to pay more for organic food has been foiled by our friends at the Heartland Institute, the Big Food-funded spin factory masquerading as some sort of grassroots libertarian nonprofit. (I especially love the Smokers' Lounge section.)
Today I read an edifying article from Heartland about a months-old study commissioned by the UK's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs and conducted by the Manchester Business School — that well-known agricultural think tank. This study, says the Heartland article, confirms "organic food is simply a 'lifestyle choice' that may not be any more beneficial than conventionally grown foods," or as Big Ag super-flack Alex Avery puts it in perhaps my favorite-ever quote of his: "Organic food is just marketing hype designed to separate consumers from more of their dollars…Just like so many other past organic-benefit claims — for example, that organic food is more nutritious, healthier, and safer than conventional food — when examined under the cold, harsh light of reality, the supposed eco-benefits of organic farming vanish like a phantom."
As for the "meat" of the report, which the Telegraph wrote about in February, Sam Fromartz promptly masticated most of it over at Chews Wise. Meanwhile, Andrew Leonard at Salon had some fun suggesting that the Church of Organic could use a little such heresy.
But neither Fromartz nor Leonard looked at the part that had really bothered me back in February for seeming implausibility, the same one that Heartland Institute gleefully trumpets as "proof" that organic is worse for the environment:
It takes 25 percent more energy to raise organic chickens than to raise them conventionally, according to the study. Organic chicken production emits nearly 50 percent more carbon dioxide and produces nearly double the soil and water pollutants as conventionally raised chickens. Moreover, organic chickens deplete 340 percent more natural resources than conventionally raised chickens, the study reported.
Calling up the actual Manchester Business School study (PDF), I found that it does indeed take more energy to raise organic chickens — because, as the study itself summarizes, organic birds take longer to reach their slaughter weight and have a higher "feed conversion ratio," that is, they need more feed to reach a given weight. The report says that conventional chickens are now big enough to slaughter at just 38-42 days, versus around 10 weeks for organic. Back in the 1940s, according to a UC Davis-Virginia Polytechnic Institute study, it took 12 weeks to grow a chicken to 4 pounds. Progress, right? Look at all the energy we're saving!
Well, such efficiency comes at a price. Rapid growth has many correlated health problems, says the UCD-VPI study:
Both turkeys and meat chickens exhibit skeletal disorders, particularly in the bones of the pelvic limb (femur, patella, tibia, metatarsus) and their associated tendons. These disorders are not necessarily associated with body weight or conformation, but instead with the differential growth of body parts, particularly accelerated growth of muscle that is not commensurate with skeletal development...The lack of synchronous growth among body components in broilers, including the heart and lungs, can contribute to pulmonary hypertension causing excess fluids in the body (ascites). An additional problem is "sudden death syndrome," the cause of which is unknown.
The UCD-VPI report lists other unsavory effects of rapid growth. Mmmm... sounds finger-lickin' good! I'm sure chicken with these problems is every bit as nutritious for us as those with strong bones and muscles. Energy use versus public health? Let's call that one a draw.
Back to the UK report. How can organic chicken production emit 50 percent more carbon dioxide and double the pollutants?
Hard to say, because the Manchester Business School report simply drops in a chart from a 2006 report by the Silsoe Research Institute that doesn't explain how any of the values were derived. Attempting to learn more did not prove easy — but I'm sure the Heartland Institute did its research before reprinting a report's report of another report. Alas, the Silsoe website reveals that the institute shut down last year, after 80 years in existence. Although several reports are still available through the website, the CO2 impact of chicken production does not appear to be one of them. After quite a lot of digging and guessing at broken links, I finally found the 97-page source report — "Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities" (MS Word doc), by Williams, A.G., Audsley, E. and Sandars, D.L., August 2006.
It confirmed the last point, that the difference in primary energy use between conventional and organic poultry production — which, I might add, is unique among livestock industries — has to do with the feed and health of the birds: "Most organic animal production reduces primary energy use by 15% to 40%, but organic poultry meat and egg production increase energy use by 30% and 15% respectively. The benefits of the lower energy needs of organic feeds is over-ridden by lower bird performance." (Emphasis added.)
The Silsoe report is impressive in its thoroughness, and frankly over my head in terms of how it calculates energy usage and life cycle assessment (LCA). It is peppered with sentences like this:
Nowhere could I find any statements that support the Heartland Institute's summary about organic chicken production emitting more than 50 percent more carbon dioxide that didn't have to do with the fact that the chickens took longer to produce. I could also find no source in either report for the statements about soil and water pollutants (unless they mean nitrogen, which can be both a fertilizer and a pollutant) or that organic birds use "340 percent more natural resources" than conventionally raised chickens. My guess is that the latter figure was pulled fast and loose from the land usage figure in the chart that was republished in the Manchester Business School report. Yes, organic chickens do require more land than crowded conventional chickens. You got us on that one.
On a side note, there are some interesting differences between the two versions of the Siliscoe chart. Here is the original:
And here is the same chart, but from the December 2006 report by the Manchester Business School:
Note that the units of measurement have changed in some instances, but not others. While the Silsoe report gives its figures in thousands of birds, the MBS report does so in "value per kilogram." Also note the vast differences in pesticide usage between conventional and organic chicken production, which have been rendered a little less obvious — would these not have some environmental impact?
In the end, I admit, I am not any more (or less) qualified than Alex Avery to decode the Silsoe report that served as the basis for the Manchester Business School report. So I will simply defer to its own summary of the conclusions (page 6):
Organic field crops and animal products generally consume less primary energy than non-organic counterparts owing to the use of legumes to fix [nitrogen] rather than fuel to make synthetic fertilisers. Poultry meat and eggs are exceptions, resulting from the very high efficiency of feed conversion in the non-organic sector.
Dunno about you folks, but I think we can find a better solution to fighting global warming than relying on stuffing chickens 10 to a tiny cage and feeding them in a way that their bones are deformed and their bodies fill with fluids. I think the Heartland Institute's crowing is premature. But I'm really glad it and Alex Avery are looking out for us consumers. I would hate to be fooled by the marketing hype of that multi-billion-dollar organic advertising machine!
Photos: Conventional broiler chicken operation in Delaware from USDA website. Photo of Clark Summit Farm's organic, free-range broiler chickens by me.