Organic Food Myths

Is it a revolution in health and the environment, or a counterproductive fad?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Environment, Health

Skeptoid #19
January 5, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Russian
 

Today we're going to walk into a specialty food market and purchase one of the most trendy, popular, and correspondingly overpriced products on the market today: Organic food.

Organic food is a conventional food crop (genetically exactly the same plant variety as the regular version) but grown according to a different set of standards. In this sense, organic food is really the same thing as kosher food. The food itself is identical, but it's prepared in such a way to conform to different philosophical standards. Just as kosher standards are defined by rabbinical authorities, the USDA's National Organic Program sets the requirements for foods to bear a "certified organic" label. Basically it forbids the use of modern synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in favor of organic equivalents, and for animals it requires that they have not been kept healthy through the use of antibiotics. There are other rules too, and the basic goal is to require the use of only natural products throughout the growth, preparation, and preservation stages.

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food, due not only to its lower crop yields and more expensive organic fertilizers and pesticides in larger quantities, but mainly because it's such a big fad right now and is in such high demand.

Why is that? Is organic food healthier? Does it make an important political statement? The usual arguments boil down to three: that it benefits small farmers rather than big evil companies; that it's somehow healthier to eat; and that the cultivation method is better for the environment. Rather than accepting these emotionally satisfying benefits at face value, let's instead take a skeptical look and see what the data actually show. Let's take these three claimed benefits one at a time.

All right, let's take for granted the position that major food producers deserve to be struck with a blow. I'm sure the starving millions in Africa appreciate the sentiment.

Make no mistake, organic food is big, big business. The days when the organic produce section of the supermarket represented the product of a small local farmer are long gone. California alone produces over $600 million in organic produce, most of it coming from just five farms, who are also the same producers of most non-organic food in the state. 70 percent of all organic milk is controlled by just one major milk producer.

Five or ten years ago, when the major food producers saw that organic food was coming into vogue, what do you think they did? They smelled higher prices charged for less product, and started producing organic crops. Nearly all organic crops in the United States are either grown, distributed, or sold by exactly the same companies who produce conventional crops. They don't care which one you buy. You're not striking a blow at anyone, except at your own pocketbook.

Trader Joe's is a supermarket chain specializing in organic, vegetarian, and alternative foods with hundreds of locations throughout the United States, centered in organic-happy Southern California. Shoppers appreciate its image of healthful food in a small-business family atmosphere. Really? In 2005 alone, Trader Joe's racked up sales estimated at $4.5 billion. The company is owned by a family trust set up by German billionaire Theo Albrecht, ranked the 22nd richest man in the world by Forbes in 2004. He's the co-founder and CEO of German multi-national ALDI, with global revenue in grocery sales at $37 billion. According to Business Week, the decade of the 1990's saw Trader Joe's increase its profits by 1000%. Trader Joe's also compensates its employees aggressively, with starting salaries for supervisors at $40,000. They hire only non-union workers. Now, to any capitalist or business-minded person, there's nothing wrong with any of that (unless you're pro-union or anti-big business). It's a great company, and very successful. Trader Joe's customers are willing to pay their premium prices to get that healthful image. But they should not kid themselves that they're striking a blow at big business and supporting the little guy.

I'm not exactly sure why anticorporatism wound up on the organic food agenda, since it's so counterintuitive. The irony is that the organic food companies supply a smaller amount of food per acre planted, and enjoy dramatically higher profits, which is why anticorporatists hate corporations in the first place.

Did you ever wonder why Chinese drink only hot tea? They boil it to kill the bacteria. Most local Chinese farming uses organic methods, in that the only fertilizers used are human and animal waste: Without being boiled, it's basically a nice cup of E. coli. In the case of China and other poor nations, the reason for organic farming has less to do with ideology and more to do with lack of access to modern farming technology.

The National Review reports that Americans believe organic food is healthier by a 2-1 margin, despite the lack of any evidence supporting this. When you take the exact same strain of a plant and grow it in two different ways, its chemical and genetic makeup remain the same. One may be larger than the other if one growing method was more efficient, but its fundamental makeup and biochemical content is defined by its genes, not by the way it was grown. Consumer Reports found no consistent difference in appearance, flavor, or texture. A blanket statement like "organic cultivation results in a crop with superior nutritional value" has no logical or factual basis.

Some supporters of organic growing claim that the danger of non-organic food lies in the residues of chemical pesticides. This claim is even more ridiculous: Since the organic pesticides and fungicides are less efficient than their modern synthetic counterparts, up to seven times as much of it must be used. Organic pesticides include rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don't want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not. Supporters of organics claim that the much larger amounts of chemicals they use is OK because those chemicals are all-natural. But just because something is natural doesn't mean that it's safe or healthy — consider the examples of hemlock, mercury, lead, toadstools, box jellyfish neurotoxin, asbestos — not to mention a nearly infinite number of toxic bacteria and viruses (E. coli, salmonella, bubonic plague, smallpox). When you hear any product claim to be healthy because its ingredients are all natural, be skeptical. By no definition can "all natural" mean that a product is healthful.

Consider the logical absurdity proposed by those who claim conventional growers produce less healthful food. To the organically minded, conventional growers are evil greedy corporations interested only in their profit margin. What's the best way to improve the profit margin? To buy less pesticides and fertilizer. This means they must use far more advanced and efficient products. The idea that pesticides leave dangerous residues is many decades out of date. Food production is among the most regulated and scrutinized of processes, and today's synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are completely biodegradable. They're supported by decades of studies that demonstrate their total safety.

In the United States, 2006 brought two major outbreaks of E. coli, both resulting in deaths and numerous illnesses, ultimately traced to organically grown spinach and lettuce. According to the Center for Global Food Issues, organic foods make up about 1% of all the food sold in the United States, but it accounts for 8% of E. coli cases.

Organic methods require about twice the acreage to produce the same crop, thus directly resulting in the destruction of undeveloped land. During a recent Girl Scout field trip to Tanaka Farms in Irvine, California, one of the owners told us his dirty little secret that contradicts what you'll find on his web site. Market conditions compelled them to switch to organic a few years ago, and he absolutely hates it. The per-acre yield has been slashed. Organic farming produces less food, and requires more acreage.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Many so-called environmentalists generally favor organic farming, at the same time that they protest deforestation to make room for more agriculture. How do they reconcile these directly conflicting views? If you want to feed a growing population, you cannot do both, and soon won't be able to do either. If you support rainforest preservation, logically you should oppose organic farming, particularly in the developing world. On the other hand, if you demand organic soybeans, then you should have the courage to stand up and say that you don't care whether black and brown people around the world have enough to eat or not.

I'm not making this stuff up. For every dreadlocked white kid beating a bongo drum in favor of organics, there is a Ph.D. agriculturist warning about its short sightedness and urging efficient modern agriculture to feed our growing population. Personally I like forests and natural areas, so I favor using the farmlands that we already have as efficiently as possible. This benefits everyone. I say we dump the useless paranormal objections to foods freighted with evil corporate hate energy, and instead use our brains to our advantage for once. When we find a better way to grow the same crop faster, stronger, healthier, and on less acreage, let's do it. We all benefit.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Armstrong, Larry. "Trader Joe's: The Trendy American Cousin." Business Week. McGraw-Hill Companies, 26 Apr. 2004. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_17/b3880016.htm>

Avery, Dennis T., Avery Alex. "Tainted Spinach Raises Big Questions of Manure on Food Crops." Center for Global Food Issues. Center for Global Food Issues, 27 Sep. 2006. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <http://www.cgfi.org/2006/09/27/tainted-spinach-raises-big-questions-of-manure-on-food-crops/>

FDA. "FDA Statement on Foodborne E. coli 0157:H7 Outbreak in Spinach -- 9/20/06 Update." US Food and Drug Administration. US Federal Government, 20 Sep. 2006. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2006/ucm108740.htm>

Guthman, Julie. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 1-237.

Halberg, N., Kristensen, I. Sillebak. "Expected Crop Yield Loss When Converting to Organic Dairy Farming in Denmark." Biological Agriculture and Horticulture. 1 Jan. 1997, Volume 14, Number 1: 25-41.

Kava, Ruth. "Is Organic Produce Better?" American Council on Science and Health. American Council on Science and Health, 12 Mar. 2002. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.228/news_detail.asp>

TJ. "Trader Joe's Jobs." Trader Joe's. Trader Joe's, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. <http://www.traderjoes.com/jobs>

USDA. "National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances." United States Department of Agricutlure: Agricultural Marketing Service. US Federal Government, 25 Sep. 2008. Web. 22 Oct. 2009. <http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateN&page=NOPNationalList>

Zorb, C., Langenkamper, G., Betsche, T., Neihaus, K., Barsch, A. "Metabolite Profiling of Wheat Grains." Journal of Agricutlural and Food Chemistry. 1 Jul. 2006, Volume 54, Number 21: 8301-8306.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Organic Food Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 5 Jan 2007. Web. 23 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4019>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 394 comments

Well questioned Haram.

Whilst even western governments and departments will acyively allow anyone to practice their major religion (be it organic, acupuncture or naturopathic) its required that the organisations regulating these have to state "what the science says". . This is usually left with a notion. Sometimes a small EB study showing little or no effect is also referred to.

Internationally, the WHO even does this with cultural medicines and practices. The science is questioned, the quality is questioned and the efficacy is debated in the WHO releases.

In the case of organic, there are loads of scientific and ag based studies required to show that organic food meets any claim.

The first fail usually comes to "chemicals" residual to the food stuffs.

Still, if its a money spinner for added value crop for Oz farmers, I would be all for it. Given that the constraints being loss of environment etc, I question the organic mind set.

Ive questioned the mind set of many "green" supporters in the past. This is just another probably environmentally damaging practice.

Come to think of it, its been one for 10,000 years. So IT MUST BE BAD (to throw the generic ancient fallacy back at the ignorati and gullibles).

Mezze Dining, Gerringong The IL. USO
September 16, 2013 9:37pm

I agree your article is nonsense. As the owner of a small organic market I am appalled that you would post your article on my business facebook page. I suggested your new profession should be returning to school for manners 101.

this message is posted below on your page, you may want to apply this to yourself.

"Discuss the issues - personal attacks against other commenters, posts containing advertisements or links to commercial services, nonsense, and other useless posts will be deleted."

wendy grant, london ontario
October 29, 2013 2:35am

I think this article is garbage! You don't offer anythingon why GMO food does to you! You wouldn't need such large yielding v=crops if you'd eliminate all fast food restaurants(ie. McDonalds, Burger king etc). I have two children that have eaten nothing but organic food and clean purified water for the last 6 years and they are in better health then they were before we started organic! Before I started feeding my kids organic they had colds every year, their intelligence suffered, they had no energy and were young boys!! I took all processed food away and brought in only organic! I can tell you they haven't even had a runny nose in 6 years. My oldest is atteding college now and my youngest was diagnosed w ADHD. He takes natural supplements $16 a month not $400 and he is a different person normal again and not doped up on man made drugs! So there you have it the proof is in the pudding! GMO food is causing so many allergies in kids and adults that's it's staggering and it's killing people and animals! They are changing the evolution of animals by feeding them corn instead of grass!!

Michelle, Middletown, Ohio
March 4, 2014 10:08am

I'm glad to hear someone speaking up about the organic myth that is pervading our markets. "Natural" does NOT always equal "Better for You". If you believe that, please eat some 100% all natural arsenic or nightshade berries and let me know how that works out for you.

Dumping a gigantic load of feces on crops and covering them with e-coli residue is just as, if not more, dangerous than using a conventional fertilizer.

Flutterbyu, Portland, OR
March 6, 2014 10:33pm

Thank you for your article, Mr. Dunning. I also appreciate the references at the bottom of each of your posts. Is there more information about the Whole Foods chain? It's hugely popular in Los Angeles, but I always wondered about its ethics and prices; lots of New Agey books and products.

LA Skeptic, Los Angeles
April 6, 2014 7:14pm

"On the other hand, if you demand organic soybeans, then you should have the courage to stand up and say that you don't care whether black and brown people around the world have enough to eat or not."

Ohhhhhhh, SNAP! XD

Carly, WA
April 16, 2014 11:19pm

Brian,

Your article begins and ends with a bias, which usually does not fully support available facts.

Interestingly, you do not mention the fact that organic crops are also not GE crops.

You do not mention studies done in countries that do not permit the importing of GE foods.

You do not mention that GE crops require more pesticides.

Finally, we are left to believe that synthetic pesticides are just fine for human ecology? Do some research on the toxicity of Roundup.

John, New York
April 18, 2014 2:47pm

To the person who said to do some research on Roundup, The funny thing is that Roundup is far less toxic than most organic pesticides (Might wanna look up copper sulfate). I would tell YOU to do research on the toxicity of Roundup, and when doing the research, you might want to read the article on this website about knowing your sources.

Skeptic Liberal, Athens, Ga
April 28, 2014 3:52pm

This article is amazing. Not only does it reference potential dangers that the world could face, but it also doesn't try to oversell conventional farming. This article is laced with facts, from REPUTABLE sources, and foresight. I love the reference to natural not always meaning safe. Natural is also a term that this generation throws around like they do their virtue. By society's definition, the beaver's dam and the bee's honey are just as artificial as the house I live in; my house is pretty safe... would you like to know what isn't safe? Bears, bears are natural too, and very dangerous. When speaking physically, one must recognize that EVERYTHING in the universe is natural. Broken down, everything came from an exploding star; everything is protons, electrons, neutrons, and photons. This organic trend, is Darwinism in full throttle. With modern medicines and our amazing ability to escape evolution, your precious Nature is coming back full circle.

emcee:F, Kansas City
June 22, 2014 4:09pm

To the individual whose children switched to an organic diet, I applaud you. But please don't put all your eggs in one basket and offer your very biased opinion as the "proof" you spoke of. I'm guessing the individuals you spoke of may have not been getting sick because of the reduced other <insert choice word> that was being ingested and the increased... vitamin C...? 6 Years ago ADHD was widely over diagnosed. Having it myself, I view it's symptoms, in me, as my best qualities that make me who I am. My increased awareness helps me navigate the world as I need it to. Hell, for all anyone knows, those without "ADHD" are the ones who aren't normal. Seriously, having true ADHD, and trying everything possible to cope with the symptoms, I can positively say, that there are "natural" (there's that word again) vitamins that help, and there are other "natural" substances that hinder ADHD. There is no combination of any herbal supplement that will fix ADHD.

If I had to guess, I'd guess that the only thing that changed was the parenting style. Anyone who can persuade a child with ADHD to eat organically and not seek out stimulating substances, like caffeine, nicotine, taurine, and massive amounts of B-vitamins has got to be good at what they're doing.

Don't give organics and "natural" supplements credit for your achievement. Take the win and accept that you were obviously an amazing parent.

Go you, Michelle from OH, GO YOU!
...not the food...

emcee:F, Kansas City
June 22, 2014 4:24pm

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