Bullshit is Organic too…

This week saw the publishing of a meta-analysis of studies conducted over the past fifty years which looked at the “nutritional content, or any additional health benefits” of organic food. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) conducted this analysis in order to review the nutritional content of various foods.

The study was commissioned by the UK based Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the results have sparked yet more debate on the contentious issue of whether or not “organic food is better for you”. Like many of my readers, I would like to make sure that the foods I am eating are nutritionally complete, and that I am getting the best value for my hard earned money. Over the past ten years I have noticed more and more organic food populating the shelves of my grocery store and now I can buy everything from organic fruit to organic chocolate.

But why would I choose to do so? Organic foods are those which are grown “naturally”, or to be more specific (and according to Organic South Africa, a local pro-organic organisation) should follow the following guidelines;

  1. Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
  2. Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
  3. Organic Agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
  4. Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well being of current and future generations and the environment.

Essentially, organic farming uses crop rotation, green manure (a type of crop grown primarily to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil), compost, biological pest control  and mechanical cultivation. Proponents of organic agriculture claim that these farming methods not only provide us with more nutritious foods, but also cause less harm to animals and the environment.

This all sounds very nice, but the results of the meta-analysis show that organic foods do not contain significantly higher proportions of vitamins, minerals or other nutrients than conventionally grown or reared foods. This begs the question; if they are not actually any better for my body, and they cost more, why should I buy organic foods?

This is a question which His Royal Highness Prince Charles has found an easy answer to, according to Lord Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association and a close friend of HRH;

“He believes in organic food”

Of course he does, he has a vested interest in organic food. Seriously though, why should I buy far more expensive food which does not offer any real benefit over commercially grown alternatives?

Another major claim made by the proponents of organic farming is that the pesticides, hormones and anti-biotics used in conventional farming are harmful to the environment and to people and animals living within it. This is a very important part of the debate and one which was not addressed by the researchers at the LSHTM because it falls outside of their fields of knowledge. The US based Environmental Protection Agency has a very well balanced website designed to help you make careful choices when it comes to chemicals on or in your food. I will defer to the experts on this one and await more definitive results.

The final major claim of organic farming proponents which I shall look at is that their preferred methods are less harmful to the environment. Unfortunately there is little evidence to support these claims. A maior criticism (as found by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency) is that organic methods have a far lower crop yield and so farmlands would have to be dramatically increased in order to provide enough foods for the wordls rapidly expanding population. This would, of course, mean the destruction of habitats. Not exactly what I would consider good for the environment.

Supporters of organic farming also decry the use of genetic modification in crops and in so doing tie themselves to an era of farming which the modern world is rapidly leaving behind. GM foods offer us a range of benefits including higher pest resistance, longer shop life and higher nutritional value. In a world where starvation is an ever-present threat, being able to feed more people is of critical importance.

There is a man you may have heard of, his name is Norman Borlaug. I first found out about him on an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit in which the magician-duo were taking a close, and not particularly flattering look at Organic Farming. If ever there was a man who deserves the respect and admiration of every person on the planet, he would be Norman Borlaug. His pioneering work in genetic modification of wheat to produce a high-yeild, disease-resistant food crop has saved HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF LIVES! Please watch the embedded video below, it is relevant and worth watching.

Any farming method which distances itself from such innovations based on a flawed belief, that GM food are somehow bad for us, is crippled from the outset. As of today, 3 August 2009, the worlds population is estimated to be 6,775 Billion people. That’s 6 775 000 000 hungry people. We have to think BIG if we are going to cope.

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26 responses to “Bullshit is Organic too…

  1. All this “organic” buzzwording is bullshit!!! Organic vegetables as opposed to “inorganic vegetables”? All living things are organic; rocks, dirt, sand, are inorganic. I really really don’t understand how this word got perverted into something else. Maybe i should say that i understand marketing and supply and demand. If we tout a certain product as better for your body, some loony will buy it!!! I smoke, shoot guns, reload ammo, fuck a lot and make High explosives!!! Maybe im a demonic person-(in my fruitcake christian mothers eyes im the spawn of satan!!) I work at A high explosives R/D plant, making up batches of some stuff that’ll turn your hair pink and your balls green!!! I can’t board an airplane because i always test positive for explosives and the TSA goons tend to shake violently when i tell them that i make High exposives for a living-I love the looks on faces!!! Back to organic vs inorganic-i would like someone to define “ORGANIC” as a word. I don’t have to define it because i already know it by heart. I went to school for almost 9 years to do what i do each day, i have two degrees in chemistry, working on a masters in energetic materials, and building a submarine, after i already built an small jet aircraft. I fly my self because i can’t get thru security. I love it- i fly with my own gun, and ten to 100 lbs of explosive in the cargohold. No one ever gives me much trouble at any airport i land at!!! Oh and i eat what tastes good, sushi, shashimi, pork brains, blowfish-japan-one hell of a time!!! I urge people to throw off the shackles of gov’t inspired fear and trepedation and go out and blow up some C4 bricks, shoot some guns and chow down on some hog jowls and fatback-mm good!!!! YEE HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!

  2. Maybe we should be looking at limiting human population growth so we don’t have to rely on new technologies, genetic engineering etc.
    Nobody seems to want to talk about the ever expanding elephant in the room.

    • I’m not sure it’s accurate that nobody is looking at population growth as a problem. I know of a great many organisations who are dedicated to spreading awareness of ideas like family planning and what have you. That message is in line with many of the anti-HIV measures underway.

      The problem there is that it involves changing the behaviour of a great many people… people who don’t necessarily want to change their behaviour. Those sorts of changes take time, and it’s probably a good idea to come up with ways of meeting the extra demand in the mean-time.

    • **Vichy’s comment has been removed, please refrain from being excessively insulting to other commenters. I will delete your comment if you don’t**

  3. props for an intelligent debate. “people killed by GMO’s each year = 0 ” is debatable. Round-up and numerous others pesticides are classified as hazardous for human consumption yet used daily on crops. Maybe someone dies of cancer but you can’t prove or disprove it isn’t from eating modified crops or what is sprayed on them. Terminator seeds crops are a huge concern no matter what you eat, live or die from.

  4. There is a lot of crap in organic claims (imho nutrition and taste) that should rightly be shot down, but there is also a lot of crap simplified by simplistic size-ist arguments like:

    "… organic methods have a far lower crop yield and so farmlands would have to be dramatically increased in order to provide enough foods for the wordls rapidly expanding population"

    Your statement ignores the potential wider effects of organic production principles – pesticides, wider ecological effects, resource consumption etc.

    For example, you shot down the claim about pesticide residues in the using the same sound-bite tactics that most reasonable skeptics will vocally abhor. There may well be valid studies that assess the levels of pesticide residues in organic vs conv. produce, but you did not bother to mention them, if they in fact exist. If you want to shoot fish in a barrel, at least bring your gun and a loaded magazine – verpal ripsostes simply don't cut it.

    Secondly: wider ecological impact. It's easy to calculate the value of a farm defined by its legal boundaries as long as you can ignore the less measurables effect of conventioanl farming practices on surrounding habitat. Modern economics values stuff which is easy to measure in the short term and washes its hands of the medium term costs to the environment or anything that has a very slow feedback effect, ie anything where the effect cannot be detected by me or my grandkids. There is no easy answer to this, only history will be the judge here I suspect.

    Thirdly: resource consumption. Again with the shooting fish in a barrel challenge – if you have all the facts at hand to represent the real cost of raw materials (cradle to grave) that are sunk into organic vs conventional production, (notwithstanding our inability to think really long term here) why not present them and get your detractors to try and refute them?

  5. There is a lot of crap in organic claims (imho nutrition and taste) that should rightly be shot down, but there is also a lot of crap simplified by simplistic size-ist arguments like:

    “… organic methods have a far lower crop yield and so farmlands would have to be dramatically increased in order to provide enough foods for the wordls rapidly expanding population”

    Your statement ignores the potential wider effects of organic production principles – pesticides, wider ecological effects, resource consumption etc.

    For example, you shot down the claim about pesticide residues in the using the same sound-bite tactics that most reasonable skeptics will vocally abhor. There may well be valid studies that assess the levels of pesticide residues in organic vs conv. produce, but you did not bother to mention them, if they in fact exist. If you want to shoot fish in a barrel, at least bring your gun and a loaded magazine – verpal ripsostes simply don’t cut it.

    Secondly: wider ecological impact. It’s easy to calculate the value of a farm defined by its legal boundaries as long as you can ignore the less measurables effect of conventioanl farming practices on surrounding habitat. Modern economics values stuff which is easy to measure in the short term and washes its hands of the medium term costs to the environment or anything that has a very slow feedback effect, ie anything where the effect cannot be detected by me or my grandkids. There is no easy answer to this, only history will be the judge here I suspect.

    Thirdly: resource consumption. Again with the shooting fish in a barrel challenge – if you have all the facts at hand to represent the real cost of raw materials (cradle to grave) that are sunk into organic vs conventional production, (notwithstanding our inability to think really long term here) why not present them and get your detractors to try and refute them?

    Your argument presented here are as hollow as those who disagree.

  6. I read an interesting comment which for me sums up much of the debate – “people killed by GMO’s each year = 0. People of die of

    starvation each year = hundred of millions”. The assumption that using technology to improve yields, not just in agriculture but

    pretty much all other spheres of manufacturing, as inherently ‘bad’ is in my opinion ignorant and frankly Luddite.

    I feel I can comment as I have practical experience – I am involved in running a number of community projects assisting

    traditional farmers to move to commercial farming methodologies, providing access to market, and creating viable enteprises that

    support job creation in these communities. In a nutshell, it’s moving from a methodology of planting and waiting for the rain to

    one of micro-drip irrigation – a highly water and fertilizer efficient method.

    Combined, these project now cover over 40Ha of land. We have seen yields of 10 to 20 times higher – as a general rule. Beside

    the skills transfer, these project have created a hundreds of jobs (only 3 projects at this stage) – both permanent and seasonal

    – and significantly improved food security in these communities. Crops tend to be duo-culture – 2 crops varieties at a time,

    sometimes more – really dependent on market demand. The practical experience is that whilst polyculture reduces some types of pests – it increases others, and the yields are higher with less varieties.

    Just to comment on some of the statments above, in particular Craig’s:
    – significantly more soil erosion is caused by poverty and small plot farming in rural SA than commercial farming – you only need to go to the Eastern Cape and other previous homeland areas to see how severe this is.
    – the idea of everyone growing their own vegetables, whilst effective in dealing with food security in highly impoverished
    communities (I know – I have been involved with food garden projects, and seen their effectiveness) – it is not a solution for the mass prodution of the nutritional requirements of the world. I think it is romantic to believe that if only everybody grew their own vegetables, it would all work out. There are simply too many people to feed. And personally – I don’t feel like growing my own vegetables, I’m quite happy to buy them and focus my skills elsewhere – in the spirit of Adam Smith’s specialisation!
    – Organic farming, albeit in a lesser fashion, does condone ‘natural’ perticides – such as Nicotine. These are also toxic.
    “A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2
    applications of imidan.”
    -As importantly, working with ‘organic fertilizer’ – i.e. manure – is made out to be harmless. Wrong – bullshit – in the spirit of the article – carries serious pathogens, and does indeed pose a health risk to those handling it. Organic food also has a higher risk of pathogens – given that it is less pest resistant and not treated (such as fungus). There are studies that demostrate that GM food has a far lower risk of these pathogens.
    -Organic farming requires vastly larger areas of land for commercial cultivation. The arguments have already been set out – limited land, more tractor tilling / carbon dioxide (unless it is being suggested that these be tilled by hand?), etc.

    By all means – grow your own organic vegetables if you feel that they are better. But don’t prevent other from accessing the benefits of high yield, commercial farming.

  7. I love other reports by Penn & Teller but this one lacks credibility. Sadly they used the Hudson Institute (see http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Hudson_Institute ) for their source of information. The Hudson Institute is backed by Monstersanto, er, I mean Monsanto, perhaps one of the most evil corporations in the world. Other backers of the Hudson Institute, in character, include Cargill, ConAgra Foods, Exxon Mobil, McDonald’s, National Agricultural Chemical Association. Friends like that seriously reduce Penn & Teller’s credibility.

    • Do you have any instances of misinformation that the source provided, or is your opinion just being ruled by the emotionalist assertion that they’re “evil”?

  8. It is ludicrous to say that GM crops are better than organic methods because firstly, monoculture crops which are the usual methods to grow GM crops, drastically affect the natural habitat and ecosystems as well as the endemic species of animals, insects and plants. One need only look at the rain forests being removed for tree plantations as an example.
    Secondly by using monoculture one is faced with the almost certain need to use pesticides which are undisputedly having a negative effect on our planet. Studies show that excessive use of pesticides inevitably kills off the natural predators thereby allowing an explosion of the pest species.
    Thirdly, by looking at the general health of a person raised on a predominantly starch diet one would notice deficiencies as a result of poor nutrition. Doctors report that good health is a result of good nutrition or ‘what you put in your body is what you get out’.
    Furthermore monoculture requires more mechanical equipment which is more carbon emissions, poisonous oils and lubricants as well as resulting soil compaction which decreases soil microbial activity, kills mycorrhiza and earthworms. Erosion is another problem caused by mechanical farming and if I am not mistaken I think South Africa loses in the region of 20 million tons of topsoil annually through monoculture farming practices.
    Till farming ultimately leads to global warming, increased carbon dioxide loss from soil into the atmosphere and severe loss of organic matter in the soil.
    Organic methods are far better because they use polyculture practices such permaculture, crop rotation, companion planting, use of hardier endemic species, sacrificial crops, barrier planting, inter cropping and alley cropping. These all contribute to a habitat that allows for greater biodiversity. The use of mulch and the practice of composting reduces landfill waste, reduces transport needs and plastic bag requirements to the landfill. Adding compost increases organic content in soil.
    “A study in China reported that planting several varieties of rice in the same field increased yields by 89%, largely because of a dramatic (94%) decrease in the incidence of disease, which virtually made pesticides redundant.” From the Wikipedia.
    A good example of ‘organic’ farming is in the keyhole garden concept from Lesotho. On average 3 keyhole gardens are able to feed more than 10 people with surplus produce yet they each require no more than 3m2 of area. This roughly equates to 1m2 of land per person to grow vegetables to live off. The exciting part comes when neighbours begin to grow different crops to trade in their community and set up sustainable means by which to live
    Choice is the ultimate luxury a person can have. If one is allowed to choose between cheaper, mass-produced food or more expensive, organic food; then they should be grateful. What is stopping the people who don’t want to spend the extra money from actually growing their own organic vegetables? Can one really believe any statistics based on studies where they have not actually been there to oversee the whole procedure? Call me cynical but I struggle to believe anything that comes from studies where huge financial implications are at stake.
    I can however say from experience and as a result of being in South Africa that I am blessed with favourable conditions in which to nurture my organic vegetable and herb garden. I have seen the benefits and have tasted the difference between my vegetables and store/green grocer bought produce. If one were to ask any person who grows their own vegetables whether they prefer their home grown vegetables or any store bought variety their answer would certainly be that same. Nutritional density in mass produced vegetables is undeniably less than in fully ripened organic vegetables.
    The following are from the Wikipedia:
    “As of January 2009 there has only been one human feeding study conducted on genetically modified foods. The study involved seven human volunteers who had their large intestines removed. These volunteers were to eat GM soy to see if the DNA of the GM soy transferred to the human gut bacteria. Researchers identified that three of the seven volunteers had transgenes from GM soy transferred into their gut bacteria, though none of the gene transfers occurred during the course of the study. In volunteers with complete digestive tracts, no recombinant DNA was found. Anti-GM campaigner Jeffrey M. Smith commented on the results by stating:
    “This transgene was stable inside the bacteria and appeared to produce herbicide-tolerant protein… In the only human feeding study ever conducted on GM crops, long standing assumptions that genes would not transfer to human gut bacteria were overturned. The findings should prompt immediate comprehensive follow-up tests to determine the implications for health among both the general population and at-risk groups.”
    “Some scientists argue that there is more than enough food in the world and that the hunger crisis is caused by problems in food distribution and politics, not production, so people should not be offered food that may carry any degree of risk. This argument assumes that genetically modified foods present risks not present in traditional foodstuffs, which are demonstrably not free of risk. Recently some critics have changed their minds on the issue with respect to the need for additional food supplies.”

    • You have said it all. I get very worried when I hear unsubstanciated claims like – “GM foods offer us a range of benefits including higher pest resistance, longer shop life and higher nutritional value” sometimes this ‘skeptic detective’ should scrutinze her own claims.

  9. You know what Owen I am just going on personal experience as we grow organic vegetables and plants here on our farm, so I have personally seen the results. Yes the soil is made up of chemicals but they actually sustain the whole eco-system rather than cause toxicity. But you know, you are right – lets go about it your way, lets just keep on doing it the commercial way and to hell with the consequences. Yes I agree that “organic” has become a very fashionable word and there are people out there who are milking it big time, but if you look at the simple basics, it should be something that we turn out attention to and maybe if you try practicing a bit of it in your own back garden you might feel differently. What would I know, I cannot compete with someone who perhaps works in a laboratory and puts vegetables through a whole lot of scientific experiments and then comes up with a whole lot of scientific data and tells me there is no difference. I must be imagining the better taste and the fact that my soil produces healthier and larger specimens than any in the local stores – idiot that I am. Maybe the secret ingredient is that I live in the idyllic world where we have decent organic bull/horseshit and it really works well as a non toxic fertiliser. That’s my story and belief and I am sticking to it.

    • “bull/horseshit… really works well as a non toxic fertiliser”

      Really? Do you know what manure is made of? You call that “non toxic”? Seriously?

      “That’s my story and belief and I am sticking to it.”

      Well that’s the end of it then.

  10. How about we turn the focus away from things like Carte Blanche and my personal opinion and look at the common sense of it all. How could farming with pesticides that kill all they come into contact with, insects – good and bad, the birds that feed on the insects and the fact that we are continually pumping chemicals into the soil – be about the rantings of people who are dishonest, biased or just plain wrong. Can you honestly believe that this is a good thing??

    • “How about we turn the focus away from things like Carte Blanche and my personal opinion and look at the common sense of it all.”

      Sure. To start with, listening to Carte Blanche isn’t very good sense. If we want some reliable information on subjects scientific, let’s look at the science, rather than an anecdote of an anecdote derived from a discredited source.

      “How could farming with pesticides that kill all they come into contact with…”

      Which pesticides are those?

      “…the fact that we are continually pumping chemicals into the soil…”

      What chemicals? You do realise that the soil itself is made of chemicals, right?

      More to the point: what makes you think that organic fertilisers and pesticides are any more or less harmful than their conventional counterparts?

    • “How could farming with pesticides that kill all they come into contact with, insects ”

      You guys using this argument ARE aware that organic farming utilizes pesticides as well, right? Good luck trying to grow crops if you’re not going to protect them from insects.

  11. Right… cos Carte Blanche is a paragon of journalistic integrity. They’d never dream of showcasing the rantings of people who dishonest, biased or just plain wrong.

    If you believe what they tell you, I have a bridge you may be interested in purchasing…

  12. I am so sick of these so called “studies” that are conducted with results then released which puts ordinary common sense aside because of irrefutable scientific results. Surely it just makes sense that anything we eat that is more naturally grown, without the addition of chemicals, hormones and other “boosters” could only be better for us? On Carte Blanche a little while back there was a very good section on organic farming where the farmer proved beyond a doubt, that he was obtaining a far higher yield than the commercial farmers in the area and as a result a large majority of his neighbours had switched over – so where the statement “organic methods have a far lower crop yield and so farmlands would have to be dramatically increased” comes from is kind of confusing!! Anything that discourages the use of chemicals and pesticides which beyond a doubt, have a negative impact on the soil, shoud be encouraged – even if it does cost a bit more. Sorry, I have a sneaky suspicion that the survey referred to was backed by a large commercial venture that had a lot to gain by these “results” There is where the bullshit is being farmed out.

    • Sandy, it is good to question results of a scientific study and to investigate how it was done. But if you can’t find fault with any of the methods employed in the study and yet you still feel that you disagree with the outcome then you are relying on faith rather than evidence. Organic food should not be a matter of faith but rather evidence because it is a matter of paying money for more expensive food. Is it more nutritious than conventionally grown produce or not? That is what the study boils down to and that is all that the study addresses.

      Again, the nutrition argument should not be confused with sustainability and profatitability.

      But the Organic movement has blurred the boundaries with a lot of other aspects of farming. If we are going to talk about these, they are not in the context of the study cited above.

      Anything that discourages the use of chemicals and pesticides which beyond a doubt, have a negative impact on the soil, shoud be encouraged

      If we consider sustainability, there isn’t a farmer in the world who disagrees with sustainable farming, disagreeing with it means that you can get one or two crops from your land and then you have no financial income at all. Farmers, when it comes down to it, are just businessmen. All that they are interested in is how they can reduce costs, increase production (so that they can sell more) and raise quality (so that they can charge more). If the farmer on Carte Blanche really had a higher yield than the other farmers in the area, then all of the farmers in the area would have switched too, it’s simple economics. I don’t know how well Carte Blanche investigated this farmer’s claims … actually confirming that his yield-to-market was better than the other farmers, that it meant more money for him and that his product was superior takes a lot of investigation and paperwork, repeated again and again at neighbouring farmers. The lazy journalism that we have come to expect from Carte Blanche means that they probably take the farmer’s word for it without question and with a cursory glance at a piece of paper (heck, I can print out a piece of paper that shows that my toenail collecting business earns more than Microsoft).

      I have a sneaky suspicion that the survey referred to was backed by a large commercial venture that had a lot to gain by these “results”

      Do you have any evidence, or is this suspicion just repeating a conspiracy theory that you heard? The article does say …

      The study was commissioned by the UK based Food Standards Agency (FSA) …

      which is neither commercial nor commercially vested in any particular farming techniques. Even so, if you were an owner of a “large commercial venture that had a lot to gain by these results” wouldn’t you fund the study too? Just as a matter of expense justification I know I would fund a study like this (but again, no commercial venture was involved in funding the study – this is just hypothetical). I would be curious if I’d been wasting time and money researching new farming techniques and it turned-out that my product was making food less nutritious, I would dramatically rethink the work I was doing as it would be obviously less profitable. I (like the farmer) want to be able to charge more for my product if it is of superior quality – if it is of inferior quality I would scrap it and switch to supplying organic fertilisers because I would be able to make a better product, earn a bonus and so on. Simple business management.

  13. finally, an article that shows the real problem with organic/conventional. it’s not all about the nutrients in the food, it’s about the environment and the immediate surroundings of the crop. i.e.-people/animals/nature

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