Media and public-policy types often get caught up in the buzz over organics, and the produce industry is mostly willing to oblige. The reason: Organic is not only a great brand but the rule regarding organic — specifically the requirement for a three-year transition before land used conventionally can produce crops that can be labeled organic — is an answer to the trade’s prayers: Namely, how can we stop growers from killing the goose that lays the golden egg by overproducing, especially new varieties.
Because nobody can just turn on the spigot and churn out more organic product next month, there has often been a ”shortage” of organic product — which has kept prices — and profits — above those of conventional product.
It is, however, worthwhile to realize that organic food is really a comparably tiny industry. It is also important to distinguish between a successful “brand” and a solution to world hunger.
Steve Savage is a consultant who writes frequently on issues related to sustainability. He recently completed a deep dive into the data available on organic crops. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Dr. Steve Savage
San Diego, California
Q: Your detailed analysis of U.S. organic crops rattles the generally accepted notions about the size and potential growth of the organic market. Based on the latest USDA-NASS data, you make four key points:
•Organic is a very small part of US agriculture.
•Organic is significantly less productive on a per area basis.
•Organic acreage, and to a greater extent, organic production, is skewed to the dry, Western states.
•Farmers are paid higher prices for organic commodities, but when combined with lower productivity, gross income per acre is not always much higher and even sometimes lower.
What feedback have you received on these conclusions?
A: I get two different responses. In the academic community, people say the study is significant in debunking widely held industry and public perceptions about organics, and want to see it published in a peer-reviewed journal to lend validity to the findings.
USDA-NASS is expected to conduct a new organic production survey looking at 2011 information, so there should be another window to see if the trends have changed. A presentation from the Economic Research Service has some interesting stats and figures about organic production. Slides eight and nine are quite illuminating. Marc Gunther, a contributor to Fortune magazine, recently wrote an article on his blog entitled, Steve Savage: Organic is Not the Answer, which incorporates California farm size data that went from at least 2009.
Q: Would there be a reason to question the conclusions?
A: Some people have pointed out definite nuances that make interpretation of the data difficult. It is still the best data set that has ever been done, albeit it doesn’t tell you everything. If the yield of vegetable crop is lower, it could be organic or from a producer growing heirloom tomatoes or purple baby potatoes, and the data can’t distinguish. The sample size wouldn’t be sufficient to segment out those numbers. Another issue is that one can’t discern whether the crop was irrigated or not. Take Nebraska corn as an example where data doesn’t break out irrigation methods. On various crops, the data doesn’t segment out whether it’s fresh versus processed.
Q: How does this skew or cloud results? With the lack of specifics in certain instances, can you make conclusions with any certainty? Are there any notable numbers from looking at the data sets or overwhelming trends you observe when assessing data by categories or in the aggregate?
A: What surprises people — and I can say this with 100 percent certainty — is that organic production is very, very small. How do you get from less than half a percent crop land to numbers you hear of organic accounting for 5 percent of retail sales?
Q: Why do you think the numbers get exacerbated? How do you explain the elevated attention on organics at niche stores, and conventional supermarket chains promoting larger organic selections within traditional formats or through new banner stores? Is it just marketing and media hype?
A: There are a variety of reasons for that difference. It’s complicated. [Editor’s note: Savage elaborates on the complexities here]. The organic premium occurs at the farm level and continues through the supply chain, but organic spending doesn’t equate to large organic production. Also, it’s important to remember that retail represents only about half of the food people eat. Another point is that a whole bunch of organic product comes from outside the U.S. Many people question whether all of it is organic. Organic is a super brand, so marketing money spent on dairy enhances the image for produce as well. There are a lot of consumers that have some type of contact with small organic farms, so it seems like something big. However, 70 percent of organic farms produce just 6.6 percent of total organic sales.
The nice thing about the USDA data is that we’re dealing with real numbers, not anecdotes. I’m kind of a sucker for a nice data set. Most information on organic product is murky. This analysis is confined to U.S. organic crops. How much organic product comes from China? I’m not the only one who questions whether it’s organic.
Q: Could you elaborate on your mission to get clarity?
A: For two-and-a-half years now, I’ve been blogging about agriculture, and discovering sustainability-related sites, like Jeff McIntire’s Sustainablog. I wrote an article there — Would You Eat Cloned Fruit? — to demonstrate how people can use provocative language to incite reaction but also mislead. If you want to understand controversial issues about food and the environment, you need to be vigilant about being manipulated by emotive terms.
A perfect example is genetically modified organisms. GMO’s become myths and self-propagate, but if you dig into the facts, the fears are baseless. On the Biofortified website, graduate students do reasonable discussions of these issues. It’s not like Monsanto defending itself.
I always hear debates comparing conventional and organic production… are organic yields lower, and it goes on and on with anecdotal data. What does it really mean on a large scale?
Q: Did the USDA data hold the answer?
A: I talked to people at USDA and NASS in charge of this study to understand their data. In a 2007 census of ag companies, they asked the question, “Do you grow organic?” and they got a long list of growers that said yes. In 2008, they decided to send out a more detailed survey to these growers, and to another list generated through USDA’s involvement in certified organic programs, and they received a 95 percent return. I wanted to know if they had inquired whether crop was irrigated or not, but they hadn’t. The information also just focused on harvested acreage. If there are a fair number of organic crops that didn’t get harvested, that wasn’t captured.
They did generate the data for wheat growers through insurance company information, and results were mixed there. Lots of entries just say D, protecting confidential information. For instance, it’s frustrating that very few things in Iowa were fully disclosed, so I don’t have a comparison for organic corn versus conventional corn, yet there is almost no irrigated corn, so the number would have been clearer.
With crops like spinach and carrots that can be harvested with baby or full size versions, it makes the comparison difficult.
Q: Do these discrepancies take away from your overall conclusions? Could you provide other category statistics that are more definitive, and less prone to misinterpretation, and tell the broader story about the size of the organic market?
A: The true size of the organic market is not subject to any of these data collection issues. There are only a handful of crops where organic is more than 2 percent of production.
Within the fruit category, organic blackberries were a little more than 6 percent acreage, and about 3.2 percent production. The second biggest one is apples and that is still at 5.5 percent acreage and at production 4.8 percent. Third, avocados show almost 5 percent acreage, and 3 percent production. Next are raspberries with 4 percent acreage, and just under 4 percent production, but only a little over 2 percent in value; I wonder whether a lot of those are processed. After that, everything is under 3 percent, except plums, pears and prunes are slightly more than 3 percent.
Q: In terms of yields, how do these numbers compare to conventionally grown product?
A: In terms of relative yield, raspberries are one of the closer-to-conventional in productivity, with more than 90 percent average yields. In apples, it’s 85 percent of what conventional would be, while in oranges, it’s only 42 percent of what conventional would be. Organic is less productive, but will vary widely with the crop in question. The biggest proportion for organic is on the fruit side.
Q: How do vegetables fare?
A: Within vegetables spinach is big; 16.5 percent of harvest acreage is organic, but only 6 percent of production because of baby spinach. Lettuce is 12 percent acreage, but 4 percent production; this is really your spring mix. Next is carrots — 9 percent of acreage — and about 3.5 percent production because of baby carrots. Squash follows at 8 percent acreage and 6 percent of production.
Then it drops down to the 5 percent/6 percent range for artichokes, celery and cauliflower. It’s kind of dramatic on artichoke production, which is only 1 percent. For most of these things, the price is higher.
Q: Do higher price points make up for the difference in yields?
A: If you take a look at charts in my study Certified Veg and Organic Certified Fruit, a lot of crops are getting paid two to three times per unit, but when you factor in lower yields, the grower is not necessarily grossing more per acre. Then you need to consider the costs with fertilizers, hand weeding, and other comparisons with conventional production and the economics are not clear. What is clear, consumers are paying a lot more for organic.
Q: Retail executives say the prices of certain organic items are becoming more comparable to their conventional counterparts…
A: Maybe for big volume products. If you go to Costco, a bag of baby spinach is very cheap, but it’s only in the ground 28 days... Lots of people are making lots of money but I don’t think it’s the growers. It works as a niche for some people.
Q: Are you saying that organic will always remain a niche?
A: I have a sense a lot of people are imagining organic is the way we’ll do everything, I’ve been watching this for 30 years, and people have been saying for 30 years that it’s the fastest growing segment.
Q: At least in the early years, that percentage growth was coming off such a low starting point. Was it even realistic to anticipate growth could continue at such rates?
A: The organic segment still remains so small. That’s why I jumped on this data. There wasn’t anything as comprehensive before. I decided to calculate what it would take to produce all our crops at organic yield. I didn’t include all crops. I took about 30 crops that I felt offered valid comparisons, mostly big row crops and apples. It comes out to be comparable to a land mass the size of Spain, or 71 percent of the land mass of Texas. Clearly there isn’t that much land. It almost doesn’t matter what the explanation of yield is… you couldn’t get there.
Q: Isn’t this kind of information critical in informing public policy decisions?
A: The reason why it matters is we actually have a real looming food crisis. There’s this FAO Global Food Price Index tracking the problem, which is leading to food supply shortages in third-world countries. The world population is growing. Huge populations going into middle class in India and China are eating better, which is a good thing, but the high energy costs and effects of what I’m convinced is climate warming require a more productive food supply system.
The reason why it matters is starving people in Africa. If you look at a crop like wheat, it should have been GMO by now, but European countries blackballed GMO’s. We’re 15 years behind now, running into short supply.
What you do in terms of specialty vegetables is different; it’s a niche. Organic is such a successful brand, traditional branding is difficult in produce, but organic works.
The broader point: USDA has all this grant money to get farmers to convert to organic. It’s about feeding the world. Why would you be encouraging people to do something less productive because it’s a pretty story?
Q: Do you think if more growers converted to organic, it would generate technological advances and economies of scale for a more productive system?
A: I took organic row crop yields that are now 75 percent to 85 percent of conventional. I then plotted out historical data going back to 1980, and for almost every one of those conventional crops, there was a nice increase in yield. Then I did the same for that organic crop and the best cases were yields of 20 years ago, with wheat going back 57 years ago.
Thirty years ago that argument made sense to me. Economies of scale and advances in technology… all these numbers will change. We’re not really making a lot of progress here. There are a few organic pesticides that are quite effective, but some of these are also used in conventional.
Most consumers when asked what organic is, say no pesticides. That’s not true. It’s just a limited list. For fungicides 150 years old, from a toxicity and environmental view, they’re not nearly as nice as modern synthetic fungicides.
One of the take homes is the apple. Apples have disease problems. One reason Washington is such a great place to grow apples is basically because it doesn’t rain during the growing season. Organic yields are fairly similar. But if you go to other states, particularly East New York or Pennsylvania, where there are a significant number of apples, organic yields are significantly lower. What you see is that for the industry overall, you’ve got 71 percent production in the West and, for organic, 97.5 percent of production in the West, because it’s just too hard elsewhere. This is not for lack of trying. Local organic apples would be great sellers in the Boston market.
Q: Here’s an example of where local and organic are incompatible…
A: Essentially, you can’t be local and organic. Basically you should grow things where they grow really well. The organic segment is small because of production limitations. If we’re looking for solutions to real problems of hunger around the world, this is not going to do it. It’s a great niche for some growers, but it gets elevated to this sacred role in society.
Q: What accounts for retailers claiming so much increased interest in organic?
A: One explanation is that the retailers are including organic pasture for dairy and beef, which is bigger, so some of that accounts for their sales. Then there’s the whole issue for imports, where it might not be organic. I’m not a China-basher, but I’m a realist on what is feasible to do in China in terms of regulatory process. China is just one source.
Organic cotton is coming out of Turkey, which accounts for some of that. And organic is more costly, so most statements are percentages of sales or profits, not volume. What I’ve heard from retailers is that they have to charge more for organic because in-store shrink is higher.
So sorting out the comments, with less than half a percent of the land being used for organic crops, does that translate to a big chunk of sales?
The single biggest organic crop in terms of area is hay — at least a quarter of the whole acreage of organic. Organic hay sells for less. A lot of organic crops are for animal feeds.
Q: How does this impact the produce industry?
A: For the produce industry, organic is smaller than it seems considering the buzz. Going to booths at the PMA Show, you’d think organic accounted for 30 percent of the industry, yet organic is only significant in a handful of crops.
It’s hard to do the productivity analysis for vegetable crops. For fruits, it’s more straight-forward.
People in the apple industry have told me they can’t imagine going beyond 10 percent organic. They have really good control on conventional apples. Pheromone confusion only works if you maintain a small population of coddling moths, a really problematic pest.
Q: So in this case, boosting the organic crop could actually compromise the conventional crop? Organic is usually portrayed as the hero and conventional the villain!
A: The one thing that does bother me about the organic industry is the marketing people. The tendency is to bash the rest of the growers to promote product 40 years out of date. It’s unbecoming. The inference is that if you don’t buy organic, you’re exposing your family to danger. The vast majority of pesticides on conventional is as safe as what is used on organic, and fungicide more safe. Our produce in the U.S. is great. Maybe we should stop beating each other up because we’ve got a niche with organic and that’s fine.
I’m not interested in going after organic. I have no animosity towards diehard organic groups. I’m just looking for facts to put things in perspective. It doesn’t make sense to promote more organic based on myth. California only has so much water; at a few percent, no one cares, but if you try to do large percentages of fruit organically, it becomes a problem. And because of disease issues, organic is even more dependent on water.
There are geographical limitations and in certain cases, it’s just not compatible to do organic.
For those interested in this subject, it pays to really go through all the links in this interview, as Steve Savage has done an enormous amount of valuable work in analyzing the available data.
None of this really impacts on whether retailers, shippers or growers should sell or produce organic. The answer is that as long as there is a market, they should take advantage of it — although in planning to convert to organic, growers need to consider whether on their particular crop, in their particular location, any organic premium earned would be sufficient to outweigh any reduction in yield.
Of course, the fact that there is a market doesn’t mean there is a lot of evidence supporting the benefits of organics. Steve’s work doesn’t speak to any health claims for the consumption of organic, but it is very hard to justify environmental claims if lower yields mean that more land must be placed into agricultural use to produce the same quantity of food.
Another implication of Steve’s work and this data is that those who expect organic to become more competitive over time may be disappointed. Of course, with more research and experience, as well as greater scale, organic may become more productive. However, that is likely to be outweighed by the fact that as organic acreage increases, it will often have to move into land less optimal for organic growing. If we were to try to convert acreage on a crop 100% to organic, say apples, eastern and Midwestern crops sizes would collapse because conditions there are not suited to organic growing.
One challenge to the organic community is the whole issue of overseas certifications. We ran a piece on Organic Certification In China, and it was pretty obvious that this US certification agency was not really capable of providing assurance that organic certification in China meant what it means in the United States. This really should be a top priority being addressed by the organic community. One suspects it won’t take many scandals to tarnish the organic “brand.”
There is also the question of rethinking the organic standards. Banning GMOs from organic production may please a particular market but, long term, it may relegate organic production to an antiquated seed base. Right now, if one cross-breeds a high yielding corn with a good tasting corn to come up with a new variety, that is fine for organic production. The production, however, of the EXACT SAME new variety — this time with the genes moved through genetic engineering rather than cross breeding — is now banned from organic production. This doesn’t really make much sense.
For some, the shock will be that although there are crops in which organic is substantial, overall organic production is so small. For others, though, Steve’s piece will raise the larger issue of how to feed the world. We dealt with that in a piece titled Feeding The World In 2050. Whatever the argument that affluent people in affluent countries should buy organic, it seems irresponsible to block impoverished nations from using GMOs and other technologies to feed the population.
Phyllis Entis, a food safety microbiologist, aka the “bug lady,” runs the eFoodAlert blog and recently ran a piece titled, 114 Tons of Spinach Recalled by Stealth:
Thanks to FDA’s weekly Enforcement Report summary, another stealth recall has just seen the light of day.
Leading the list of Class 1 Food recalls in the Enforcement Report for February 8, 2012 is the following item:
Robert’s S 1 cut leaf spinach; “Curly” spinach. There is no specific type of labeling on the 30 lb totes, except a small sticker label identifying the “pup” container which identifies the harvest date and the field. Field: Robert’s S 1. Harvest Date City: Uvalde, Texas. Farmer: Jimmy Crawford. Pup container #s: “11-21 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-22 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-23 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-25 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-28 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″, “11-29 2011 TIRO TRES FARMS Roberts S1″. Recall # F-0643-2012
a) 11/28/2011;.11-21 2011; 11-22 2011; 11-23 2011; 11-25 2011; 11-28 2011; 11-29 2011
Tiro Tres Farms, Eagle Pass, TX, by letters on December 31, 2011. Firm initiated recall is ongoing.
Product tested positive for E-coli O157:H7.
VOLUME OF PRODUCT IN COMMERCE
CO, KY, MA, PA, and Ontario and Quebec, Canada
If this recall had been publicized – WHICH IT WAS NOT — the news release might have read, “Tiro Tres Farms (Eagle Pass, TX) voluntarily recalls 228,360 pounds of Robert’s S 1 Cut Leaf ‘Curly’ Spinach, due to possible contamination with E. coli O157:H7. The spinach was packed in 30-lb totes, bearing harvest dates of 11/28/2011, 11-21 2011; 11-22 2011, 11-23 2011, 11-25 2011, 11-28 2011 or 11-29 2011 and was distributed in Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. In addition, some of the spinach was shipped to Ontario and Quebec, Canada. The recall was initiated after a sample of the product tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.”
Neither FDA nor Canada’s CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) carried a notice of this recall.
This recall was initiated by Tiro Tres Farms and announced — ONLY by letters to the company’s customers — on December 31, 2011. The recall is ongoing, and there is no indication in the Enforcement Report whether the spinach was sold by retailers, or how much of the product was actually recovered. By now, of course, the recalled spinach has expired.
As far as I can tell, there were no illnesses associated with the recalled spinach.
I realize that not all recalls are created equal, and that not all recalls require public notification. But I cannot understand the rationale behind NOT publicizing a Class I Hazard recall of a ready-to-eat item of produce that may be contaminated with a potentially lethal pathogen.
Would anyone care to explain this to me?
The piece caught the attention of Bill Marler, the prominent plaintiff’s food safety attorney, who gave it wider notice in his own brief piece:
Thanks to the Bug Lady for outing another time where the FDA seems to think that we do not need to know.
Many other publications and web sites have picked up on this, most seeming to think that the failure to issue a consumer notification is some sort of outrage or scandal.
Although we have no secret information in this case, it does seem to us that since Ms. Entis asks for an explanation, we should try to be helpful. It also seems to us that editors who just run things such as this without thinking about the subject are doing a disservice to their readers.
The key item here is that this spinach was packed in 30-lb. totes. Retailers don’t sell spinach out of such totes and restaurants don’t buy such totes. The market for these totes would generally be processing plants that were either going to bag the spinach whole, use it in blends or use it in other processing. The fact that the processors intend to use it this way is why they don’t want to pay to have the spinach bagged and are buying it in totes.
In all likelihood, this means that there were limited numbers of customers, and the customers instantly accounted for all the spinach covered by the recall — thus no need to notify consumers.
Although knowing the “volume of product in commerce” may be useful for statistical purposes and academic use, in terms of relevance to consumers knowing the “volume of product that reached consumers” is a more important metric.
So the most likely explanation is that the FDA and Canada’s CFIA saw no need to alarm consumers when none of the product had reached consumers.
If any of the curly leaf Texas spinach had reached consumers, publicizing a Tiro Tres Farms recall wouldn’t have helped much since the spinach would have been packed or processed and resold in bags and clamshells or other forms of food without any reference to Tiro Tres Farms on the packaging. If this spinach had been sold to consumers, one would have likely seen several secondary recalls announced with the brands that were actually on the consumer packages highlighted. The fact that we didn’t see that indicates the product likely did not reach consumers.
In the old days, we used to see the FDA elect not to publicize recalls if the expire date on a product was too far in the past, making it highly unlikely that the product was still around. That is not common anymore, so we would say the totes are probably the key.
It is also worth noting that this was curly spinach from Texas and not the flat leaf baby spinach from California and Arizona that accounts for the vast majority of spinach. Since consumers would simply hear spinach and avoid it, publicizing a recall on product that never reached consumers would crush countless farmers and processors and lead consumers to avoid healthy food. So, if the product didn’t reach consumers, avoiding a public announcement is the responsible path.
We enjoy the work of Ms. Entis and many others who care passionately about food safety. Still we find ourselves frustrated at what we would call a lack of clarity as to their agenda. For example, Ms. Entis expresses her beliefs in plain language:
I believe that everyone — government regulators, farmers and ranchers, food processors, food service workers, transport companies, educators and consumers — has a responsibility to ensure that the food we eat is as safe as we can make it.
It is a lovely sentiment, but we would also say it is not very helpful as instruction to anyone involved.
The whole dilemma of food safety is that there is no limit to things we can do to make food safer. In other words, there is no point at which food is as “safe as we can make it.”
Food safety is on a continuum. If trapping will help avoid contamination, we can trap every 1,000 yards, 100 yards, 10 yards, etc. If buffer zones are helpful, we can make them of any size. If we need to test water, soil amendments, etc., we can test annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, etc. There is no point at which we can say we have made food “as safe as we can make it.”
Even if there was such a marker, on what basis can we say that society wants us to prioritize marginal improvements in food safety over all other values?
If we could prove that by growing spinach in an Intel-like “clean room” it was “as safe as we can make it,” do we have any evidence that society would like us to do that and also charge a hundred times the current price for spinach?
The reality is that there are many conflicting values. Food safety is an important value, but so is making affordable food available in quantities sufficient to feed the population. One suspects that the decision to not announce recalls when the announcement would not enhance public health is motivated by the desire to protect another value: Maintaining viable farms, industries, jobs, etc.
A hat tip to Robert Stovicek, PhD, President of Primus Labs, for sending along the following wry cartoon from xkcd, A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.
We have to confess that though we understand and appreciate the desire of growers and packers to see one standard and one audit, we suspect that differences of opinion as to the science and marketing considerations all are unlikely to lead to one harmonized standard.
This cartoon obviously points to the fact that the experience of creating standards isn’t easy in many industries. Note the reference to A/C chargers, etc.
We’ve often dealt with the subject of leadership, and our expectations in that area define whether our companies and our industry will advance.
The same issues vex our country. We recently wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard that looked to a column written by Joe Nocera for The New York Times as illuminating a surprising unwillingness in our society to demand that those who captain government be prepared to exert true leadership.
The piece is titled Keystone, Obama, and Leadership.
Our piece, Are You Depressed From Working Too Hard Or Working Too Hard Because You Are Depressed? brought some interesting comment regarding its application to the produce industry, including this note:
Read with interest your recent post regarding long hours and depression. In both my industry (marketing, agency) and our clients' (produce), we are noted for burning the midnight oil... make that the dawn oil also. Does it lead to exhaustion? Without a doubt.
Depression, however, is not a feeling typically associated with our colleagues, at least not the type caused by specific hard work/long hours. Successful marketing and produce folks are typically infused with high energy and eternal optimism: the new campaign will be award-winning; the upcoming harvest will be tops; the next deal: a killer! It's like having the proverbial carrot always dangling in front of them. It's what keeps them going.
Also, I have never heard of actual work making anyone depressed. The lack thereof... now, that can really do it to 'ya.
I can't speak for government workers or salaried drones, but suspect these may be the most prone to the type of depression mentioned. Or perhaps writers and philosophers with their deep-seated angst (required for good copy) also suffer from it.
For our group, however, having a creative outlet and feeling as though we control our destiny certainly help keep the black dog at bay.
— Veronica Kraushaar
VIVA Global Marketing, LLC
Depression is a complicated subject. For one thing, our best understanding is that it is incorrect to say that any environmental factor “causes” depression as there is no set of conditions that will cause depression in every person all the time. It seems most likely to say that there are several genetic, chemical and environmental factors that increase one’s propensity to anxiety and depression.
In addition, depression and anxiety are so common, with frequent estimates that more than a third of the population will experience clinical depression during their lives, that it is not even clear it is always a negative. Some scientists suggest that depression “is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages” as this piece, Depression’s Evolutionary Roots,from Scientific American suggests:
Depression seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Research in the US and other countries estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder sometime in their lives. But the brain plays crucial roles in promoting survival and reproduction, so the pressures of evolution should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction. Mental disorders should generally be rare — why isn’t depression?
…One reason to suspect that depression is an adaptation, not a malfunction, comes from research into a molecule in the brain known as the 5HT1A receptor. The 5HT1A receptor binds to serotonin, another brain molecule that is highly implicated in depression and is the target of most current antidepressant medications. Rodents lacking this receptor show fewer depressive symptoms in response to stress, which suggests that it is somehow involved in promoting depression. (Pharmaceutical companies, in fact, are designing the next generation of antidepressant medications to target this receptor.) When scientists have compared the composition of the functional part rat 5HT1A receptor to that of humans, it is 99 percent similar, which suggests that it is so important that natural selection has preserved it. The ability to “turn on” depression would seem to be important, then, not an accident.
…So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent, and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.
This analytical style of thought, of course, can be very productive. Each component is not as difficult, so the problem becomes more tractable. Indeed, when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.
Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted. In a region of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), neurons must fire continuously for people to avoid being distracted. But this is very energetically demanding for VLPFC neurons, just as a car’s engine eats up fuel when going up a mountain road.
Moreover, continuous firing can cause neurons to break down, just as the car’s engine is more likely to break down when stressed. Studies of depression in rats show that the 5HT1A receptor is involved in supplying neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down. These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage, which may explain why the 5HT1A receptor is so evolutionarily important.
Many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.
Because there are medicines to treat depression and one goes to doctors to deal with it and because it can interfere with normal functioning, there is a tendency to think of depression as abnormal. It may make more sense to think of it as completely appropriate in certain circumstances and thus a life condition most of us will experience at some point in our lives.
If one loses a spouse, for example, becoming depressed is to some extent the perfectly rational alternative. One would almost say that a person is odd if they don’t get depressed under such circumstances.
The notion that working a lot of hours causes depression is odd, considering that until quite recently, in historical terms, it was the norm. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act established that workers in the US who put in more than 40 hours a week should receive overtime — and that law only applied to about 20% of the US working population.
Veronica’s point is ours as well… that working lots of hours is not a variable that makes sense to study independently. A farmer on his own land, planting extra acres for the benefit of his family, free to improvise and alter his path in accordance with his judgment, in a rural area filled with farmers who do the same thing, is simply not going to experience those long hours in the way an assembly-line worker, ordered to work long hours, without prospect of improving his condition by doing so, is going to experience the exact same number of hours.
One point we would make is that the notion that writers, philosophers and artists somehow benefit from depression or angst is unlikely to be true. Read this about Pablo Picasso:
…Picasso didn’t really sit on Paris river banks, drinking wine, while he waited for inspiration to strike. It’s estimated that he created approximately 50,000 works over the course of his life, ranging from painting to sculpture to tapestry.
He lived to the ripe old age of 92, but even in that number of years, his output breaks down to a creative work and a half every day from the day he was born to the day he died. When you get realistic about when he started drawing and realize that he had to take a vacation sometime, his output becomes even more phenomenal.
And while no one set Picasso a schedule as he got older and famous, Picasso’s father was also a painter and a professor of art. He certainly set his young son a schedule, even renting him a small room near their home to work in at the age of 13. Picasso got a good grounding of self-discipline when it came to his art from his youngest years.
Picasso was dedicated to his work even as he grew older: he certainly had earned enough money from his work to afford a lifestyle that didn’t require him to work (or, more importantly, sell his paintings). But he reportedly would spend hours working every day, often working late into the night.
Picasso may not be the best role model when it comes to the way he lead his life, but his work ethic is admirable: if you want to be productive and creative at the same time, you have to work at it. You have to push and grow….
Like the old intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, life promises to offer us at different times the opportunity to know the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Experiencing the full range of human emotions — including depression — is if not exactly a gift, an opportunity to know oneself better and to appreciate the bright spots more sincerely. Of course, this assumes one is able to transcend the depression and go on to see brighter days. Sadly, for some this is not possible. Then depression becomes a serious illness that cuts off human potential.
In his book, Listening to Prozac, Peter D. Kramer put forth a new concern, that the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as Prozac, posed a bigger issue than whether they fought depression effectively. He argued that such medications posed the danger of “cosmetic psychiatry” as they could transform personalities in a few weeks more than most people can change their personalities in a lifetime. He raised the ethical questions about whether people could use such pills just to improve their personalities and on what ethical grounds society might withhold such improvements.
One thing is certain… even if excess work is depressing to some, Veronica’s reference to the absence of work as a cause for depression is surely true. An inability to support one’s family, the lack of prospects, etc., weighs on one surely. For those of us whose livelihood depends on food, the old saw that people have to eat should be a comfort when so many around us suffer from disappearing markets.
Many thanks to Veronica Kraushaar of VIVA International Partners for weighing in on this intriguing issue.
Our piece, Mars Space Mission Has Many Opportunities For Produce And Packaging Innovations, brought a jesting objection from a produce industry luminary:
— Bryan Silbermann, CAE
President and CEO
Produce Marketing Association
OK, we accept three slaps with a wet noodle for being coy, and we suspect that there are more than a few people who would be pleased to see Newt personally headed off to Mars. The truth is that Newt Gingrich, whatever his flaws, possesses one of the most interesting minds active in politics today. Unlike the traditional approach, in which NASA would be given the assignment and develop a Soviet-like five-year plan to develop it, Newt Gingrich has latched onto the idea of using prizes and other incentives to move the technology forward. As such, he doesn’t actually have a time frame as much as a methodology:
Robert Zubrin, who is the President of the Mars Society and author of a book titled The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, wrote a piece for National Review called, The Mars Prize: Newt Gngrich was right to propose it:
In August 1994, I was invited to have dinner with House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. At that time, I was a senior engineer working for Martin Marietta Astronautics in Denver, where I had been responsible for inventing a new plan called “Mars Direct.” By radically simplifying the mission architecture and making bold use of Martian resources starting on the very first mission, this concept offered the potential to reduce the cost and schedule of a human Mars-exploration program. NASA analysis had confirmed these advantages, and word had leaked to Newsweek, which featured it as the cover story of its July 25, 1994, issue celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. “A manned mission to Mars?” the editors asked. “The technology is already in place. And at $50 billion — one tenth of previous estimates — it’s a bargain.” Gingrich had read the article and wanted to know more.
Thus it was that I found myself in a closed room in a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol, providing a detailed briefing on Mars-mission design to the future Speaker of the House.
Gingrich listened to me closely and became enthusiastic about the possibilities. “I want to support this with legislation,” he said. “But I want to do it in a more free-enterprise kind of way than just gearing up the NASA budget to go to Mars.” I countered by saying that while Mars Direct might cost $30 to $50 billion if implemented by NASA, if done by a private outfit spending its own money, the out-of-pocket cost would probably be in the $5 billion range. Thus if a prize several times this amount were put on offer for the first crew to reach the Red Planet, it might be possible to ignite a privately backed space race. Newt liked the idea and assigned an aide to join me in developing the details. We did so. But a few weeks later, Newt took the House, and amidst the hectic revolution and competing priorities of the Contract with America, our draft bill never saw the light of day. Last week, however, in a speech at Kennedy Space Center, Newt finally put the idea squarely in the center of the political stage by calling for the establishment of a $10 billion prize for the first private organization to successfully land a crew on Mars and return it safely to Earth.
The article flushes out the details. Beyond Mars, though, it does seem useful to think about the whole idea of identifying new ways to solve problems or pursue goals.
Because NASA is the way we have always gone to space, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that is the only way we can go to space.
That is, however, just as true in business. How many things are done in a certain way just because that is the way they have always been done?
How much more successful can our businesses become if we find ways to think anew?
It is fitting that Bryan Silbermann, President and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association, should be the impetus for thinking about this issue.
Some 20 years ago, Bryan and PMA’s then-President, Bob Carey, invited this incipient Pundit to attend the PMA Board of Director’s meeting. The book that was given out to everyone: If It Ain't Broke, Break It. A kind of anthem to the idea that we shouldn’t keep doing things as we always have just because we have always done things that way.
Many thanks to Bryan for pushing us to be more revealing on this issue.