Saturday, September 22, 2007

Correspondence on Avery, CO2 and Organic Agriculture

Regarding this article posted out a few days back:

Challenge to Scientific Consensus on Global Warming: Analysis Finds Hundreds of Scientists Have Published Evidence Countering Man-Made Global Warming Fears,176495.shtml

The following correspondence developed over the following days:


Dear Dr. DeMeo,

While I appreciate the alternative views OBRL provides on global warming, I want to caution you on this particular item that is associated with Dennis Avery and the Hudson Institute.

Dennis Avery and Alex Avery (I think it is his son) have repeatedly attacked organic farming while promoting pesticides and industrial agriculture.  While, I do not follow the subject of global warming enough to judge the correctness of Avery's position on this, I am very familiar with the organic agriculture literature, and I strongly question Avery's scholarship.  Dennis Avery is author of a book entitled Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. The Averys have been very selective in their reviews of organic literature and seem to always find a negative slant.  As an example see the article linked below and the letter I wrote in response.  My letter and several additional ones critical of Avery and the Hudson Institute were published by the American Society of Agronomy.  Dennis and Alex Avery have a reported history of trying to personally intimidate anyone who disagrees with them.

Joseph Heckman, Ph.D.
Plant Biology & Pathology Department
Rutgers University


Saving the Planet With Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming

"Going Organic" by Alex Avery, p.8-12
(10mb pdf download)

Rebuttal Letter to Avery in Crops & Soils

Darby, H. J. Dawson, K. Delate, W. Goldstein, J. Heckman, and S. Seiter. 2007. Readers respond to 'Going Organic'' published in the Spring 200. Crops & Soils. Summer 2007. 40:14.
            While we are pleased to see the return of Crops & Soils magazine, we are disappointed that the inaugural issue featured an article ("Going Organic" by Alex Avery, Crops & Soils, Spring 2007), which overlooks important details about organic history  and provided a selected summary of recent research that creates a negative slant toward organic agriculture.  For example, it is misleading, as Alex Avery seems to suggest, that Rudolf Steiner was the key figure in the development of organic agricultural principles and concepts, while ignoring Sir Albert Howard, along with his influence on Jerome Rodale.  Although Steiner's biodynamic agriculture had an early influence on the origin of organic farming, scholars of organic agricultural history would give due credit to Sir Albert Howard as the foremost pioneer of organic methods.  It was the publications of Sir Albert Howard that inspired Jerome Rodale to launch Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942 (Howard served as associate editor).
            It was not Rodale who coined the term 'organic' as a method of farming.  The word 'organic' in application to farming was apparently first used by Walter Northbourne in an influential book, Look to the Land, published in 1940.  Howard's inspiration for developing organic farming concepts and principles was rooted in his years of agricultural research experiences in India as well as his observations of natural ecosystems.  As an example of Howard's perceptive ecological/organic thinking, he strongly advocated that farming systems include a mix of crops and livestock.  Interestingly, the symposium papers on integrated crop-livestock systems in Agronomy Journal (March-April 2007) highlight the negative environmental consequences from the neglect of this long standing principle of organic agriculture.
            Further in the article by Alex Avery a short quote from Lady Balfour is used to dismiss her work on organic farming research without giving much context for the reader to understand the real meaning of her statement that is at odds with the findings she presents in her book entitled The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment.  It would be more instructive for the interested to read Lady Balfour's book, which is regarded as classic work in organic agriculture, to fully comprehend the findings and contributions of her long term experiment in the study of organic agriculture.
            The statement by Avery that "there have been a sizable number of studies over the past 50 years that have found no evidence for organic food being more nutritious" is not congruent with the findings from a review of UK farming systems (Shades of Green, 2003) comparing organic and non-organic in animal feeding trials.  Thus, on "the nutrition question" it is prudent to conclude that this is an area in science where the question remains unsettled.
            What is impressive about organic agriculture is how remarkably well it performs in terms of food production given the very limited research funding and attention it has received from agricultural institutions and scientists.  While the article by Avery states that crop yields are sometimes similar, he fails to mention an important finding in the long term Rodale farming systems trial.  Grain yields were significantly better with organic methods in drought years.  He also fails to mention the recent study from Kathleen Delate's group in Iowa that organic methods sometimes achieve corn and soybean yields that are better than under conventional agricultural methods (Agronomy Journal 96:1288-1298, 2004).
            Nevertheless, organic agriculture has always been about more than a single minded focus on yield.  Not only has it been shown that organic foods are less likely to have pesticide residues, the organic farming methods employed also can achieve other benefits.  For example, the study by Michelle Wander's group, showing that organic management improved soil quality and increased soil organic carbon levels 14% above values found in conventional systems (Soil Sci. Soc. Am J. 70:950-959, 2006).
            With the rapid expansion of organic farming across the USA, Crops & Soils magazine can become an effective vehicle for communicating with today's professionals in agronomy that are increasingly called upon to provide objective and practical advice to their organic clientele.  We would hope that Crops & Soils will publish additional articles that will provide practical information of value to both organic and conventional agriculture.  There is ample opportunity to invite the increasing number of agricultural scientists working in organics to write articles useful to organic agriculture.
            We recommend that when Crops & Soils publishes articles on controversial topics that they be subjected to careful external peer review.  Our letter here was subjected to review by members of the ASA Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture.


Dear Dr. Heckman,

I did not know about Dennis Avery's pesticide promotions, and thanks for sending the info as well as the copy of your (et al) excellent rebuttal letter.  I also noted the inappropriate reference to Rudolf Steiner in that Avery article, along with the multiple advertisements for pesticides, in that Crop and Soil issue.

There is a trend among some of the critics of the CO2 theory to be dismissive of environmental concerns altogether, and you've identified a big one.  Years ago I warned my environmental friends that a premature embrace of the CO2 theory,lacking as it does a sound scientific foundation, would back-fire upon environmentalism as a whole, in spite of the push towards renewable energy and lowering of pollution which might come as a side-benefit.  Also some of the books which make a very clear and cogent criticism of the weaknesses of the CO2 theory of global warming, or which are critical of global warming altogether, or which provide alternatives to those ideas, sometimes include statements advocating nuclear energy as the only feasible alternative -- I disagree strongly with that latter conclusion.  But we nevertheless sell some of these books via the OBRL bookstore as the climate-related information is otherwise not available.  One of them has Avery as a co-author: "UNSTOPPABLE GLOBAL WARMING: Every 1500 Years," by Fred Singer & Dennis Avery.
In this case, Singer appears to be the climate-change expert, with Avery as co-author.  While I don't know either of these men, it could be that on the climate-change issues, Avery keeps his head screwed on straight, but because of political biases goes blind in other areas.

The article originally posted to OBRL-News referencing the Hudson Institute study shows Avery basically compiled a literature-review of other scientist's work.  Here's the original:
It merely gives an annotated list of various studies which demonstrate significant natural climate cycles world-wide, well before industrial pollution.  Nearly every study examining climate over long periods shows variance of a greater or lesser amount, so this citation list is not by itself any controversy, except perhaps to those who are maintaining the false premise of a constant climate since the end of the Ice Ages. We are emerging from a period of history when uniformitarian principles governed the earth sciences.  Long term stability of climate and geology, and planetary systems, has been the guiding ideology, and "climate change" by itself was a heresy only a few years ago, excepting for the Pleistocene Ice Age, after which everything supposedly became totally stabilized.

My impression is, the evaporation of open public and scientific debate on many environmental issues has led to an unfortunate polarization -- and science (or scientism: ideology disguised as scientific theory) is increasingly used as a weapon in the political battlefields.  Direct criticisms of CO2 and global warming theory have a lowered chance to get published these days due to politicization of academic review boards, for a variety of reasons, and this parallels the situation with studies validating organic farming and criticisms of pesticides.  Certainly, I regularly observe academic discussions on organic agriculture, solar energy and wind power being terribly disconnected from reality.  There are several hundred thousand commercial-sized organic farms across America providing foods to an increasingly growing market, even as academic claims of "inefficiency" are published without authentic critique.  Likewise, solar panels and wind-electric systems are being installed as fast as they can be produced -- it is a fast-growing sector of Western economies world-wide -- but this on-going revolution in energy production seems to have escaped notice by most academics and politicians, even at the height of the global energy crisis.  What the marketplace proves daily, the majority of academic nay-sayers ignore.

James DeMeo, Ph.D.


Dr. DeMeo,

Indeed, one of the most troubling outcomes of the CO2 theory is the promotion of nuclear power.  Lester Brown, however, in his book entitled Plan B 2.0 argues that nuclear power with no tax subsides is dead (see page 39) and that three wind-rich sates - North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas - have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy USA electricity needs (see page 188).  Moreover, that if we developed more advanced plug-in gas electric hybrid cars, (which can be mostly powered by electricity generated from wind) we could reduce demand for gasoline by 85%.  The Oct-Nov 2007 issue of Homepower magazine has an excellent article about the potential of plug-in gas electric hybrid cars to interface with wind generated electricity.  I agree with the analogies you draw between the market forces behind the advancement organic agriculture and the growth in demand for "organic" energy sources, namely wind and solar.  Growth in these organic choices came about despite much hostility and minimal support from government agencies.  Never mind what they say, organic agriculture and energy from wind and solar are proving critics wrong.  Note for example in the just published (14th edition) popular soil science textbook, The Nature and Properties of Soils it states on page 898 that: "A generation ago, skeptics said it would be "impossible" to grow food on a commercial scale using organic farming methods, but the organic food now common in modern supermarkets and the thousands of organic farms that produce reasonably high yield and make good profits have proved such skeptics wrong."

Finally, I want to add that I do not wish to imply that modern organic farming should be beyond criticism.  Rather I wish to remind people that traditional organic farming systems generally had a sound ecological basis as a foundation.  Some of the original organic principles have been compromised with the rapid growth of the modern organic movement under the USDA-National Organic Program (NOP).  Take for example the growth in so called organic milk production from cows held in concentrated animal feeding operations and the failure of the USDA-NOP to require that organic cows be on fresh green pasture as a main feed source.  Another example are state laws requiring pasteurization of organic milk.  In 1958, organic farming pioneer J.I. Rodale bluntly stated: "It is not organic to produce milk organically, and then to pasteurize it."  Readers interested in more information about the history and principles of organic farming may want to read: Heckman, J.R. 2006. "A History of Organic Farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard's War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program". Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 21:143-150.  The article was recently republished by Wise Traditions.  It can now be found on line:

Joseph Heckman, Ph.D.

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