Organic food labeling is marketing, not science. Organic marketers utilize any bit of data that can be spun to promote a significant difference, producing a constant drone of nonsense. This week an article in Science World Report tops my nonsense list for organic agriculture promotion. The article “New Test May Detect Organic Food Fraud: Is Your Produce Really Organic?” is a subtle but effective promotion of organic foods’ purported benefits. This article is based on a press release offering the idea that there may be a test to separate falsely labeled organic produce from true organic produce.
Testing foods for organic label fraud sounds plausible on the surface, but is it? The proposed methodology for testing, as described by Science World Report, lacks a major scientific underpinning. Organic agriculture proponents have long suggested that there organic foods have measurable nutritional benefits over conventional agriculture, asserting that organic foods are safer and/or more nutritious than conventionally grown products. Most of this conjecture is based upon small, poorly structured studies. Any measurable benefit, when compared to conventional agriculture, disappears in large well controlled studies. That pattern—poor research yielding positive outcomes, well-structured research producing negative outcomes—is consistent with statistical noise or poorly done research. So what is this proposed test looking for? Is there any testable difference between organic and conventional?
Testing organic food is the agricultural world’s version of the ghost meter, in my opinion. A ghost meter is a electromagnetic field meter used by “Ghost Hunters” to detect the presence of ghosts. Sometimes it’s a charlatan’s prop, but more often the device is used to assure people (typically the user) that ghosts can be detected. A science-y sounding method and device is demonstrated, just without any science actually involved. The meter finds changes in EM fields around a supposedly haunted site, and ghost hunters assume that ghosts produce or affect EM fields. This also assumes that the fields they detect are different from any regular EM field, which are everywhere, produced by the sun, cellphones, cameras, light bulbs, and other electrical devices.
A test for organic food “authenticity” similarly lacks any scientific basis. Like a ghost meter there are fundamental assumptions being made that thus far have been answered tested out as false. Currently the best information is that there are no objective, reproducible, differences between organic food and conventional. Pesticide residue may be different across organic and conventional, but there is no one organic or conventional pesticide. Without any consistent demonstrable difference between conventional and organic foods there is no point in developing a test. One cannot look for something that has no evidence of existence. Organic agriculture uses different methods from conventional farming, but if the end product has no discernible difference then what are you testing for?
The study promoting a test has not yet been published, there is just so far a press release. That document reads, in part:
[Researchers employed] nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which has been used to authenticate foods, including honey and olive oil. They analyzed tomatoes grown in greenhouses and outdoors, with conventional or organic fertilizers. Their data showed a trend toward differentiation of organic and conventional produce. The researchers conclude that the test is a good starting point for the authentication of organically produced tomatoes, and its further refinement could help root out fraudulently labelled foods.
So this a “potential” way to detect a difference. The actual data is unavailable; I am assuming that there is a spectrometric analysis that turns up in conventional agriculture that wouldn’t be present in organic, probably related to manufactured fertilizer and/or pesticides. Presuming this is possible, there are too many independent variables for this to be reliable for general use. Producers have been known to put additives into olive oil, and have been caught adding sugars in honey. Spectrometry is useful in such cases because additives can easily be detected and differentiated from what you would expect to find in oils and honey. Organic foods don’t provide the same basis for testing. Farmers aren’t shooting sugar into conventional apples to make them organic. They aren’t mixing in turnips with your carrots in order to gain an organic label. In this case you’re looking for a factor that is present in conventional produce that is a reliable marker of conventional agriculture, not an additive. Pesticides and fertilizer are significantly different in both production methods, but is there one factor that is common to all conventional produce or conversely to all organic produce?
Conventional agricultural supplies are not uniform in contents—different products have different chemical structure. Different farms use different products. Organics use untested variable concentrations of “natural” products. Plus the produce being tested are not cloned or manufactured organisms, they will have variations. You can also add in the vagaries of growth in different parts of the world: soil differences, air pollution, exposure to other crops, and even local environmental variations. All can lead to an isotope contamination resulting in erroneous results. In this study with controlled conditions the authors agreed that, so far, it was unreliable. What if it rained the day of harvest and the pesticide levels are extraordinarily low? Many variables are involved. Although it is possible to detect external pesticide residue for proof of authenticity is probably not feasible. It seems highly unlikely that you will be able to burn all these variables down to a simple reliable answer from spectrographic analysis.
You may falsely accuse organic growers of using conventional pesticides or falsely verify a conventional grower. The best test to determine would be an inherent characteristic of the produce. One that always is present in the product. Like a gene marker, or a consistent internal chemical difference, not a residue test. Some have pointed out the the broad nature of this testing is economically unfeasible in addition to unreliable. So why even test at all?
Simply put, this test is an indirect way to confirm the false impression that organically produced food is superior in nutrition and safety. This test encourages people to believe there is a scientific difference between organic and conventional food, and that one product is superior to the other. Organics do have a production standard to earn the organic label, but those differences end at the farm. What you are dealing with is a marketing label not an ingredient label. It can be legally fraudulently put it on products conventionally grown, but unless you are checking the farm you will probably be unable to test it at market. And once the product is to market it is no reliable substantive difference over conventional. Believing that you are getting a superior product is just that: a belief, unsupported by science. Does it really matter if the label is true or not? You are paying for an idea, not an end product.
You might as well wave a ghost monitor over your produce.