Organic farming, a “beautiful but impossible fairy tale.” Italian scientists oppose proposed organic regulation.

The vineyard in the photo above is farmed by one of Italy’s most prestigious wineries. It provides fruit for one of the estate’s marquee wines. Although many Italian wine trade observers assume it’s an organically farmed parcel, it’s actually farmed conventionally. The winemakers contend that conventional farming is actually better for consumers and for the planet.

As the Italian senate is about to consider newly introduced legislation that would promote and protect organic farming, calling it vital to the nation’s health and environment, nearly 400 Italian scientists have signed an open letter opposing the bill, which has already been approved by Italy’s lower chamber.

The researchers argue that organic farming, if adopted on a global scale, is unsustainable and would lead to weakened nutritional security. They also point to aggressive marketing — and not sustainability — as the driver behind the popularity of organic products among consumers. Only privileged Italians can afford organic food products, they note. And they point out that organically farmed products represent a negligible amount of foods that Italians consume.

The letter was delivered in January of this year, with more than 200 signatures. As of last week, that number had grown to almost 400.

On Friday, Il Sole 24 Ore (the Italian Financial Times) published an interview with Elena Cattaneo, one of Italy’s leading researchers and a senator for life in Italy’s parliament. She has joined her colleagues in opposing the bill. The following is an excerpted translation of her remarks (see this Wiki entry on Dr. Cattaneo).

“For the first time,” says Cattaneo, “this letter demolishes the ‘beautiful but impossible” narrative behind organic farming. With supporting data, it reveals the discrepancies in organic farming’s ‘one way’ marketing. I believe such marketing is misleading.”

“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products], we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.”

“The fairy tale that ‘natural = good’ has led to the labeling of more than a million [Italian] farmers as ‘polluters of the planet.’ It’s these same farmers that rely on the best technology available in order to guarantee that consumers have access to wholesome and safe food products.”

The following are my paraphrases of the letter’s 10 bullet points in which the scientists explain their motivation for opposing the legislation. The bill calls, among other things, for all public institutions and schools in Italy to serve only organically farmed food products. Unfortunately, the letter hasn’t been translated in its entirety. If you speak Italian, I highly encourage you to read it.

1) Low production rates in organic farming.

According to currently available data, organic farming yields 20 to 70 percent less than conventional farming.

2) Ecological sustainability for individual farming companies should be more closely examined.

Even organic farms depend on agricultural products that come from the world of conventional farming.

3) Global sustainability of organic farming should be more closely examined in terms of its environmental friendliness.

If organic farming were adopted on a global level, the surface area devoted to agriculture would have to be doubled. The subsequent scarcity of nitrogen in the land (owed to the fact that synthetic fertilizers would no longer be used) would lead to severe famine.

4) Global sustainability of organic farming should be more closely examined also in terms of its economic and social impact.

If organic farming were adopted on a global level, consumers wouldn’t have the same level of access to fruit and vegetables. The impact on health — especially in terms of the occurrence of cancer — could be enormous.

5) Marketing of organic farming aims to denigrate conventional farming even though the latter is productive, efficient, and indispensable to the nation.

Convention and integrated farming provides 97 percent of the food Italians eat and the difference in quality between organic and conventional and integrated foods is negligible. Only the privileged classes have access to organically farmed foods.

6) Is organic farming really growing?

The number of certified organic farms in Italy actually shrank from 58,000 in 2001 to 57,000 in 2017. The sector is essentially stagnant and isn’t showing signs of growth.

7) Organic farming accounts for only a small segment of the farming sector.

In 2018, only 3 percent of foods consumed in Italy were organically farmed. That’s a small increase over 2017 but the figure is reflection of organic foods’ “niche” in the market, heavily dependent on marketing that doesn’t represent Italian agriculture in general.

8) Organic farming is highly subsidized thanks to aggressive marketing.

Organic farmers actually receive more subsidies than conventional farmers because additional funds and incentives are earmarked especially for organic farming. Marketing drives this financial model.

9) Organic farming depends, however counterintuitive it mays seem, on synthetic products.

Even though an individual farm may avoid the use of synthetic products, its sustainability still depends on the overarching farming system where synthetic products are used.

10) Organic farming is opposed to genetic innovation and technical advances in farming technology.

Increasingly, farmers will need to look to genetic innovation and technical advances in farming to feed the nation. Italy’s nutritional security depends on innovation.

20 thoughts on “Organic farming, a “beautiful but impossible fairy tale.” Italian scientists oppose proposed organic regulation.

  1. I am not a scientist nor pretend to be, but the opposition seems to have neglected a point. While it seems like a logical argument has been laid out against the Organic farming bill, the question that has not been raised is whether human population plays a factor in the farming output requirements. I think it is fair to say it does. Why then wasn’t that raised? If we are overpopulated, then over course decreased output by organic farming makes no sense. However, if our population were to drop to naturally sustainable levels, then “genetic innovation and technical advances in farming to feed the nation” may not be as necessary.

    • Tony, great point and imo that’s the crux of the argument: can organic farming really feed the world? The obvious answer is no. I remain an organic loyalist. But Dr. Cattaneo’s remarks and the scientists’ letter did, I must admit, change my perspectives on organic farming in general. Climate change is another element that is going to reshape this debate.

    • Populations don’t decrease. Unless you kill people. In china they tried pop control by killing babies and limiting families to one baby. creates very unhappy adults and social problems you cannot imagine. human ingenuity and creativeness support growing populations. reverting backward to primitive technologies go hand in hand with pop decrease schemes.

    • you go ahead and start, by depopulating yourself.

      what a dreary pile of crap that there are too many humans the more people there are, the smarter and more productive we become.

      Parson Malthus proposed the over population idea hundreds of years ago, it is wrong.

      • I’m not going to debate the Malthus–Ricardo debate. I am not stating population should grow or decrease. What I said was if the conversation is about organic vs. genetically enhanced crops, then a conversation about the population must be in the discussion.

        • Good enough. I wonder, if peple realize that most fruits and veggies we eat today are modified Luther Burbank product or later, nursery bred, but not anwhere near the same as what grew 100 150 years ago. Tho our great Vitis vinifera are largely unchanged.

          • Almost every vegetable, fruit or nut you consume is hybrid, which is a natural combination of genetics through cross breeding. With conventional farming, which is not mentioned, chemicals and pesticides pollute our water, air and soils and is unhealthy for humans and the land itself. It may be true for grain crops that yields are diminished with organics, but organic row crops have comparable yields to conventional crops. It is true that population growth can outpace food production in areas of the world that don’t have sufficient land resources to farm. Sustainability is the concern.

  2. Hi Jar,
    actually the position of professor Cattaneo is not contradictions-free nor is consistent with the whole Panorama of research. In particular, the percentages presented by the author of this interview are largely partial. As you perfectly know thanks to your personal experience, organic viticulture and organic fruit production do not produce less than conventional ones.
    Even organic cereal cultivation is not as unefficient as professor Cattaneo affirms.
    In the end, production of tonnes is not what we expect exclusively from organic farming. Organic farming actually must produce environmental services not less than raw materials for Market.
    Debate is growing and confusion is at a high level but what I suggest not to trust too much is the reputation of the speakers…

    • I agree that Dr. Cattaneo is no agronomist and her views on the subject are formed secondhand. I remain an organic loyalist and as you point out, I’ve had a lot of experience “on the ground” talking to organic grape growers about productivity and sustainability (I was just in Portland with Matilde Poggi btw!). But I wanted to share the debate, perhaps more as a cultural phenomenon than as a scientific one, with English speakers who have no access to this since no one is covering it here in the U.S. Lots for us to discuss and debate when we connect next month in Bra, man! Also, btw, it would be great to post your views “in response” to Dr. Cattaneo here!

      • I’ve worked with organic grain farmers for over 20 years. Dr. Catteo is dead wrong. When best practices are used organic farming equals if not surpasses conventional yields, especially in years of extreme weather, plus more water is retained in the soil, less or no erosion, more carbon is sequestered and no toxic chemical residues.Dr. Catteo is dead wrong, many organic farmers embrace technology, technology like beneficial fungi that some conventional farmers adopt too. She’s not a scientist, she’s a partisan joke that doesn’t understand the subject matter she criticizes. She should be embarrassed and your critique as an organic ‘loyalist’ is weak. You don’t know the subject matter either.

        • Jason, thanks for sharing your insight. You’ll note that I’m just reporting what Dr. Cattaneo said in the interview. Her opinions are not a reflection of mine. I’m merely trying to share the current debate in Italy with American and English-speaker readers. Thanks for being here.

        • Your statement “When best practices are used organic farming equals if not surpasses conventional yields “ is wrong because it is contradicted by yield data referred to wide field surfaces.
          For example data for 2014 gathered by the USDA show that organic farming compared to conventional one give lower yields of 34% for wheat, 35% for corn, 32% for soybean, 62% for potato, 50% for tomato and 40% for apple tree (Kniss A.R., Savage S.D., Jabbour R., 2016. Commercial Crop Yields Reveal Strengths and Weaknesses for Organic Agriculture in the United States. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0165851. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165851).
          Similar results are obtained for France by the authoritative National Institute for Agronomic Research INRA which shows a yield decrease for French organic farming compared to conventional one of 54% for soft wheat, 36% for maize, 55% for barley, 43% per pea, 51% for canola, 19% per sunflower and 15% for soybean (INRA, 2013. Analyse des performances de l’agriculture biologique – Étude réalisée pour le Commissariat général à la stratégie et à la prospective, https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/sites/strategie.gouv.fr/files/atoms/files/rapport-inra-pour-cgsp-volume-1-web071020131_0.pdf).
          Data for wheat, corn and soybeans are particularly impressive as these crops together with rice give 64% of caloric intake to world people. This means that if the organic farming would expand globally there would be significant risks for food security.
          So in my opinion the Professor Cattaneo’s intervention is of a paramount importance because it opens a debate about a technology that if adopted in a generalized way could cause relevant problems of global food security.

          PS: I’m one of the 400 signers of the original document cited by dr. Jeremy Parzen whom I thank for sharing the news.

    • Well in my experience the average organic production is significantly below that of conventionally farmed wine grapes. I see plenty of both.
      I’ve struggled to find any environmental motivation to use organics. Conventional agriculture can use all of the techniques used by organic farmers, plus some that are more sustainable (like using non Cu containing fungicides), but they just can’t market them as being organic. What was the motivation for converting to organics again? Hmmm.

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  5. I’m not a rich person but I highly depend on organic foods because of chemical sensitivities . Many crops and food products are highly spread with strong pesticides and other chemicals especially here in North America. On other side of the story many organic products are not really organic but sold under ” organic” umbrella just for profit.
    I strongly oppose geneticly modified food products because it is already proven to be a bg bad interference with human genome. There are already a lot of GMO products on the market without labelling and it’s very dangerous.

    • really? sources of your provens about gmo??? 80,000 a year die from flu. 0 die so far from gmo food.

      and are u chem sensitive to natuarally occurring chems in food like histamines??? or only sensitive to man made chems??? how are u determining your sensitivities?

      r u sensitive to lower thresholds than known residual levels?

      alcohol and histamines are the only harmful elements in wine. both are natural.

      sulfites don’t cause headaches stomach upset rash or red swelling. only cause asthmatic type breathing congestion. nothing else.

  6. As an Australian producer I forgo the use of herbicides under the vines. I don’t mind the competition from the grass. In fact it sets seed and dies off. It doesn’t persist in our dry summers. I grow as much grass as I can in winter, cut it once in late spring and it makes a first class mulch to keep the soil cool and moist over the growing season. My organic matter levels have increased over the years, showing up as increased depth of the dark surface layer. That’s the way our forests survive, the trees sending feeder roots to the surface to feed off organic residues, the leaf litter and twigs. If you feed the soil with organic matter all soil life flourishes and the fungi work to exchange soil nutrients with carbohydrates from the host plant. Without food the fungi die off.

    When I can obtain sources of organic matter like sawdust or wood chips I run these out down the middle of the row. The vines send out roots to explore this area. My moisture resource is increased naturally so that I don’t have to irrigate from a dam. Yields increase dramatically as the vines thrive.

    There are benefits in the winery with fermentations going to completion in half the time with no off odours. The winemakers life becomes easier. The wine tastes better and lives longer. I believe that herbicides are antagonistic to yeasts. And herbicides are taken up by vine roots, particularly in soils low in clay content.

    With this regime it pays me to add a small amount of chemical fertilizer to feed the grass in winter. If I were to seek organic certification I couldn’t use this fertilizer. Nor would I be able to spot spray to control invasive summer growing weeds that cut yields. Organic certification would involve a gradual loss of productivity. I see organic vineyards gradually being taken over by problem weeds. For that reason alone I wont seek organic certification.

    The best alternative is to learn from practitioners in both fields and not to get ‘religious’ in ones approach. Observation and common sense is what is needed. The best fertilizer is the footsteps of a concerned, interested, observing farmer.

    So, I agree, organic farming in most locations around the globe is a beautiful fairy tale. Other than a naturally advantageous site its a recipe for going broke………..unless the price goes up as the yields fall away.

    As for the people who would see the global population decrease so that the land can become less productive….well, I invite you to lead by example.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, as I do not speak Italian.
    Given the small percentage that organic contributes in food source, I am surprised there would be a bill proposing such widespread and enforced required use. I presume there would be clauses to allow time to allow farms to go organic? It would be interesting to see how this debate progresses. Will you be posting more on the subject?

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