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Organic farming is 3 times better than GM? Not so fast.

The Guardian today has a Comment is Free piece, Genetically modifying and patenting seeds isn’t the answer. Comment is Free seems to have lower standards for truth than regular articles – I’ve written about previous CiF articles playing fast and loose with the facts on topics as broad as animal testing, GM soy and mitochondria donation. This time it’s the turn of organic farming to get the “sorta true but not really” treatment.

Holding all other variables constant, certainly a large wheat field will produce more if it is treated with chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. But organic agriculture, and especially permaculture and traditional peasant agriculture, don’t hold variables constant at all. Each farming culture adapts over time to the unique characteristics of the local soil, biome and climate. Numerous studies show that when organic agriculture is practised well, it can bring double or triple the yields of conventional techniques. With intensive intercropping on mixed permaculture farms, yields can be higher still. It is a myth that mechanised, chemical, GMO agriculture maximises yield per hectare.

What would you expect to see when you clicked on “numerous studies”? A collection of studies? A review? How about the brochure of an organic food company.

Search through that, and you’ll eventually trace the claim back to a paper called “Organic agriculture and the global food supply”, which helpfully is online for free (PDF).

Read that, and you get a slightly clearer view. In the developed world, Organic farming yields slightly less than conventional farming – typically it looks like organic farming gives you about 90-95% as much as you would get from regular farming.

In the developing world, the picture is different, and these miraculous twofold yields start appearing. Good news, right? Except…

At present, agriculture in developing countries is generally less intensive than in the developed world. Organic production is often compared with local, resource-poor methods of subsistence farming, which may exhibit low yields because of limited access by farmers to natural resources, purchased inputs, or extension services.

In other words, this paper isn’t comparing organic food against state of the art pesticides and genetic engineering, it’s organic vs. the most basic sort of subsistence farming. Bringing any sort of organised, scientific methods into farming will give you more crops, regardless of whether the science is based on organic farming or conventional farming (incidentally, this actually disproves the author’s own claim that “permaculture” and “traditional peasant agriculture” are the best!). This doesn’t prove that organic farming is better than conventional farming at all – in terms of crop yields, in the developed world where pesticides and fertilizers are commonplace, it gives lower yields. There may be other reasons to replace conventional farming with organic, but crop yields are not one.

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The Mail takes “God Particle” too literally

Last month, scientists at the LHC and Tevatron particle accelerators both announced that they’d seen spikes in the data which could be evidence for the long sought Higgs boson. However, these were, they stressed, fairly small spikes – the LHC data was at the “three sigma” level of uncertainty, meaning there was roughly a 1 in 1,000 chance that what appeared to be a spike was actually just random noise in the data that was clustered to look like a spike. 1 in 1,000 sounds like good odds, but the LHC has hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of research going on, each analysing the data in a different way. It’s almost certain that you’ll get a few of these 1 in 1,000 events popping up.

A bit more data’s been presented, and the spikes have got slightly smaller. They’ve not melted away altogether, and the change in their size might not be especially significant, but it’s a bit of a setback for finding the Higgs. What is good however is that we’ve narrowed down the range of possible energies that the Higgs might have (although it’s a bit out of date now, there’s a nice diagram on Wikipedia showing how data from different experiments is combined to do this). In other words, it’s just another step along the road of science.

How does The Mail cover this?

God particle that would explain the creation of the universe 'Might not exist' by Graham Smith

(Although it’s under Graham Smith’s by-line, the article is almost word-for-word identical to a Reuters piece from yesterday, which seems to be where these mistakes came from)

Oh dear. The so-called God particle isn’t that godly; the Higgs boson will not “explain the creation of the universe”. The Higgs boson is related to the Higgs field which, according to the theory, explains where the universe gets some of its mass from. This has nothing to do with the creation of the universe – indeed, the Higgs boson did not exist before the universe began.

It looks like the idea that the Higgs created the universe comes from the faulty idea that the Higgs gave the universe all its mass (and therefore allowed stars and planets to form) – in fact, most of the mass of everyday particles from nuclear forces inside atoms, not the Higgs field. Where the Higgs is important is in explaining where rarer particles – W and Z bosons – get their mass from, and why the force they represent – the weak nuclear force – is not simply the same as the electromagnetic force.

Also, that quote in the headline? They’re not quoting a scientist – it’s taken from the article itself! No scientist would say “The Higgs boson might not exist after all” (and as far as I can tell, no-one has), especially not based on this data. For one thing, there’s always been a chance that the Higgs doesn’t exist – there’s no “after all” about it – and furthermore this data doesn’t prove the Higgs doesn’t exist, it just narrows the range of possible masses that the boson might have.

These results are interesting, but they’re not the death-knell for the Higgs that The Mail and Reuters are making them out to be. For more balanced coverage, there’s good pieces from Pallab Ghosh at the BBC and Ian Sample and the always-excellent Jon Butterworth at The Guardian.

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