Society

The Lesson of the Organic Vine Tomato

Whoever likes to drink wine, eat sausages, or read newspapers, had better not watch the production process. – Anonymous

A well-functioning society has to be aware of new trends and developments that influence the context in which it has to live. Also, it must be able to analyze and evaluate complex situations. The better a society does on these aspects, the stronger its ability will be to deliver flexible, dynamic, appropriate responses to novel challenges. For this reason, anyone whose work is related to informing or educating people carries a special responsibility that demands diligence. This includes teachers, journalists, scientists, and a number of other professions. In our present western culture, that is strongly dominated by the concept of manipulation of other people to obtain a strategic advantage, we can pretty much expect to find many of the well-established news distribution systems to be badly broken in that respect. We see this evidenced when we apply the very same ancient standards which this culture claims to cherish, in this case: "Thou Shalt not Bear False Witness". It is interesting to note that throughout India (for example), the cultural function of journalists for a long time was provided by wandering monks – hinting at a deeper understanding of the importance of journalism to be linked with high ethical standards of integrity. (The claim here is not that this system was perfect. The claim is that Indian society might have had a better understanding of what matters most here.)

Twenty years ago, most people were fairly helpless if they wanted to independently verify the validity and accuracy of news reports – and newspapers (say) generally tend to not report gross inaccuracies or fabrications in other newspapers. There is a long history of using images, in particular, to manipulate public opinion. One has to appreciate the importance of public exhibitions such as this one.

An interesting change that occurred over the last decade is that, concerning information exchange, society seems to be much better networked now than it ever was throughout all of human history. This also changes the rules of the game for journalism. Already, it has become much more difficult to slip in news articles that can be readily proven to be blatant lies. Compare this and this for example. One might speculate that this trend will probably continue in the direction of readers demanding from their news sources that, particularly for articles related to science, they properly cite the original sources they used to write their report. The high degree of networking is, of course, a double-edged sword, for it also provides fertile breeding ground for all sorts of collective nonsense – however, considering that the general level of competence to spot and classify internet hoaxes seems to have increased dramatically, one might expect that society will learn to develop similar competence to deal with with more complex absurdities. So, while it brings a range of novel problems, a high degree of networking seems to be a benign thing.

Let us take a close look at the problems that arise these days if newspapers try to sell propaganda as news stories and someone actually does take the time to verify the claims made by tracking down the actual sources. Our specific example will be this article in the British newspaper "The Independent" from February 2007 – "Organic farming ‘no better for the environment’". The summary reads:

Organic food may be no better for the environment than conventional produce and in some cases is contributing more to global warming than intensive agriculture, according to a government report.

Let us narrow our focus further down and look in detail at what the article has to say about tomatoes. We in particular find this statement:

Vegetable production was also highlighted as a source of increased use of resources. Organic vine tomatoes require almost 10 times the amount of land needed for conventional tomatoes and nearly double the amount of energy.

One has to pay a little bit of attention to the actual claim here. When just scanning the article, one easily mis-reads this as "organic tomatoes need almost 10 times as much land as conventional" – and considering the tone of the article, creating such a perception seems to be its main intention. But what is actually claimed – and where does this claim come from? The same article gives a bit more detail on this here:

The pitfalls

Tomatoes

* 122sq m of land is needed to produce a tonne of organic vine tomatoes. The figure for conventionally-grown loose tomatoes is 19sq m.

Now, 122 : 19 is about 6.4 : 1. Calling this "almost ten times as much" is perhaps stretching things a bit, but the more interesting issue is that this is about organic vine tomatoes vs. conventionally grown loose tomatoes. But what is the source? The news article mentions:

"Ken Green, professor of environmental management at MBS, who co-wrote the report…"

This detail should help to find tht report online. Unfortunately, the document itself seems to have been removed from the web page on which it was published originally, but using a bit of detective work in conjunction with the web archive, we still can retrieve it. The important intermediate steps are given in reference 1 at bottom.

In this report, the section on "Tomatoes" starts on page 52. Table 7 on page 53 is especially interesting:

A-ha! If we do not compare conventional classic loose tomatoes against specialist vine organic tomatoes, but, as certainly would be much more appropriate here, instead compared specialist vine organic tomatoes with specialist vine non-organic tomatoes, we would get quite a different ratio: about 1.3 : 1 – so the actual report that was the source for this newsarticle gave data that would amount to needing roughly 1/3 more area – isn’t that statement very different from "almost 10 times"…?

But, just out of curiosity, let us dig even a bit deeper. This table gives as a source "Williams et al., 2006". The references at the end of the report tell us that this is:

Williams, A.G., Audsley, E. and Sandars, D.L. (2006) Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities. Main Report. Defra Research Project IS0205. Bedford: Cranfield University and Defra. Available on www.silsoe.cranfield.ac.uk, and www.defra.gov.uk

We can also track down this document [2]. "Tomato production" is discussed in section 2.8, starting on page 41. Table 30 is rather enlightening:

So, the original data from this report got processed in the first step into a table that dropped all productivity data for organic growing methods except the lowest. And in the next step, the "Independent" further dropped all the productivity data for industrial growing methods except the highest. Had someone started from the original data and done this whole manipulation the other way round, they would have arrived at a productivity ratio of 25 square meters per ton (organic classic loose) to 92 square meters per ton (industrial specialist vine) – a ratio of about 1: 3.7 – so, instead of the Independent’s claim that organic methods "used almost ten times as much land" as non-organic methods, we can justifiably, instead, claim that actually organic growing methods are "almost four times as efficient in terms of land usage" as non-organic methods.

What lessons can we learn from this? Most likely, if the public exerted more pressure on major newspapers by tracking down the original sources of their articles wherever possible, the quality of journalism would be forced to improve. As it is right now, it is amazing that we as a society seem to be accepting standards of quality when it comes to reporting information that are even lower than what they have been for computer software twenty years ago.

References/Notes:

  1. (a) https://www.mbs.ac.uk/research/casestudies/defra.aspx
    (b) https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:sQD2t6-qz14J:news.mongabay.com/2007/0220-organic.html+"The+Environmental+Impact+of+Food+Production+and+Consumption"+pdf
    (c) https://www.defra.gov.uk/science/project_data/DocumentLibrary/EV02007/EV02007_4601_FRP.pdf
    (d) https://web.archive.org/web/*/https://www.defra.gov.uk/science/project_data/DocumentLibrary/EV02007/EV02007_4601_FRP.pdf
    (e) The document obtained from the archive, dated Jul 09, 2007 is a 1972821 bytes long PDF file with MD5 fingerprint 2dbe8a77c491d54cf51c0768968490dd. (As such things sometimes have a certain tendency to "disappear" from the web, the reader is encouraged to download and file an own copy, for future reference.)
  2. (a) https://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=11442&FromSearch=Y&Publisher=1&SearchText=is0205&SortString=ProjectCode&SortOrder=Asc&Paging=10#Description
    (b) https://randd.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Menu=Menu&Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=11442&FromSearch=Y&Publisher=1&SearchText=is0205&SortString=ProjectCode&SortOrder=Asc&Paging=10#Description – this is the "Final Report", not the "Executive Summary". This document is a 1714688 bytes long word document with MD5 fingerprint c0d7118aab6fa7fbddd992cb4d603f12.

Further Reading:

 

4 Comments

  1. do you have time to look at the other claims in the article too? it would be appreciated by me at least.

  2. There are plenty of fact-checker sites out there, mostly those pointed to Fox News, and you know what? People don’t consult them. They either knee-jerk believe it, or they knee-jerk disbelieve it (and manufacture their own truth, probably a conspiracy theory). People are intellectually lazy.

  3. Due to a funny law the private media successfully managed to lobby the German parliament to pass, our public broadcasting stations have to remove articles from the web after a certain amount of time (hard to believe but true).

    This is especially annoying when documenting the misdeeds of private media, of course, as with the link referenced above in the article. The Web Archive still has a copy, so this is a still working alternative – until someone takes this down (which I would probably expect to happen sooner or later, given the nature of this material…)

    https://web.archive.org/web/20080925053231/https://www.tagesschau.de/luegenbilder100.html

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