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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Organic Misunderstanding

by Stephen Propatier

November 21, 2012

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Donate I came across this article last week about Organic food. Specifically this article was about the news coverage of the Stanford Study"Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?:a systematic review". It is a Huffington blog post written by a Nurse Practitioner like myself, Marcelle Pick OB-GYN NP. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marcelle-pick-rnc/organic-study_b_1960598.html. Unfortunately instead of a critical review of a scientific paper I found an article that could be a cookie cutter response for any pseudoscience.

I am not going to re-hash Brian's Skeptoid episode 166 about Organic Versus Conventional food. You can find it easily on this site. The huffington blogger is an excellent example of an organic food proponent that has developed the type of rigid belief system usually reserved for homeopathy or the Anti-Vax Crowd. Duplicating the very effective analysis of episode 166 is not the point. Analyzing and dissecting this article always serves as a way to hone your skeptical skills, and sharpen critical thinking.

The first issue with this post is the well worn assumption that conventional food must be a problem."It's true that we don't have all the facts on pesticide-sprayed conventional vegetables and non-organic meats because we haven't been using modern, industrial-style farming methods for very long. The reality is, organic farming methods used to be the norm." Organic food is a marketing term. It is not a description of an ancient form of agriculture. There is no convincing evidence that organic farming techniques offer any safety over"modern" techniques. The implied statement here is the natural fallacy. Natural=Good. This is the first statement despite contradictory evidence in the Stanford Study.

Next step in the playbook reference another nonscientific site.The author posts a reference to "The "Dirty Dozen". A list of conventionally produced foods that have "high pesticide levels", that should only be bought organic. I included the link to site. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/. The Enviromental Working Group has been roundly criticized for popularizing scare/fringe science. Examples include: advocating that mercury causes autism, sunscreen causes cancer, and your baby bottle is poison. Not what you would call a reliable reference. Still even bad pages can have good science. This list does not. The list does not differentiate between organic pesticide residue such as nicotine sulfate, and chemically produced pesticides. Nicotine Sulfate is a dangerous pesticide used in Organic crops. Again the implied assumption here is natural=good.

The Author does write correctly the review did note higher pesticide residue in conventional farming compared to organic. She fails to note that it indicated both are still well below the minimum safe exposure range.

There are of course valid critiques of the Stanford review. It is a review of research studies not a controlled comparison. Some studies were small and/or limited studies. There are no ways for a meta anylysis to control for bias. It is a systematic compilation of published research. This does not make it right or wrong only suggestive of further research. The author in the Huffington Post article chose to focus on the one upside about organic food in the study. In real science we call that cherry picking.

The author then leaves scientific arena completely and begins a decline into magical thinking. This is to avoid the major point of the study that organic food is nutritiously equivalent to conventionally farmed food? This review of studies was consistent with previous research. So like many ideological based ideas you ignore evidence and go with special pleading.

She describes scientific gobbledygook about hormesis,"There is a term in science called "hormesis," which describes a theory that living things that survive in the face of stress, become stronger. I'm sure you've heard of the phrase: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." When it comes to plants, the more they have to defend themselves against pests and adversities in nature, the stronger they are. So what does that have to do with us? Organic plants make noxious chemicals to prevent organisms and insects from eating them. These noxious chemicals cause a low-grade stress in human bodies, but it is not enough to affect us adversely, so they, in turn, make our cells and systems stronger. They do this by regulating the way certain disease-prone genes are turned on and off.[2] Plants that are sprayed and protected from pests in the environment do not have the same amount of beneficial phytochemicals because they haven't had to adapt to adversity in the same way as organic produce has. Conventional produce may hold the same amount of vitamins and minerals as their organic counterparts, but hormesis provides them with even more beneficial phytonutrients -- not to mention the fact that pesticides aren't exactly healthy, either.".

I am ashamed to say that someone with medical training, education, and expertise uses this collection of improbable, contradictory and scientifically incorrect statements. You could do a whole post about this statement but I will focus on a few highlights. I personally try not to eat anything that makes it own "Noxious Chemicals". This argument is exactly the reverse of the argument that makes pesticide residue a problem. Based on this argument if you expose me to pesticides it will only make me stronger Right? I would tend to say no.

The author oversimplifies the definition of hormesis. It is not whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger. Hormesis is a controversial exposure curve to toxic substances including radiation. Theoretically a low dose exposure produces a positive response. NIH definition. It is complicated topic, but basically it is forced evolution. I do not want my apple, grapes, or beef to evolve me.

The author is insinuating that organic foods have it tougher than conventional agriculture. she argues that this results in organic crop's having undetectable benefits. The" beneficial phytochemicals" as she calls them are more nutritious. In addition organic foods are the forced to make natural toxins that make you, the consumer, stronger.

That is so incorrect it does not even qualify as wrong. If you analyze 2 Apples and they both contains 1000 mg of vitamin C per Apple. You cannot say that the organic Apple has special undetectable benefits because their life was harder. You also cannot say that the organic apple has undetected noxious chemical that make you stronger. All you can say about the apples is that they both contained 1000 mg of vitamin C.

Next the author writes a plea that is the reverse of previous argument, Titled "nutrients aren't everything". Now the author is indicating that maybe nutrients are not important, and pesticide residue is. This ignores the fact that the review states that both organic and conventionally produced food are well below safe levels of pesticide residue.

She makes a laundry list of concerning diseases cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease. She insinuates that pesticide residue is the culprit. In fact the research she lists are associated with environmental exposure(Farmers). What it really says about these diseases and pesticide is suggestive but not definitive. It is not research about consuming food with pesticide residue. There is some concern about Association of the listed diseases with people who work with crops and animals. More research is needed. The current evidence says that organic farming avoids none of these pitfalls. See episode 166 for a thorough critique of the difference between Conventional and Organic farming.

The real question she avoids is toxicity. Toxicity is all about dose. Everything is toxic in high enough doses, even water, and harmless at low enough doses, even cyanide. The question is not, are pesticides and herbicides toxic? Rather are they toxic to humans in the dose that people are likely to be exposed to consuming conventionally farmed crops? My evaluation of the current scientific literature is no. Still I wash all my fruits and vegetables. This "nutrition isn't everything" argument is an oversimplification of a complex problem and scaremongering.

Then we hit the last paragraph of the mental exercise. At this point the author returns to her argument about pesticide exposure and ignore her previous claims about Hormesis. "We live in a polluted word, that is added to daily with more plastic, more radiation(from cell phone and wireless technology), and more pesticides". So maybe Hormesis/radiation is not good? I see the irony of the misspelled "world"

Lets finish this exercise with the a mish mash of logical fallacies and confirmation bias."In my line of work, it's hard not to notice how cancer rates in children and adults are continually going up, how more and more children have behavioral disorders.(Confirmation Bias) We don't have a choice about a lot of it, but when it comes to organic food, we do. (False Dichotomy) Choosing to eat organic, when you can, means that you are taking one more burden off of your body." (Naturalistic Fallacy)

At least she finished with a true opinion "And if you ask me, organic food tastes much better, anyway!"

She totally drops the ball on what could have been a good critique of the review and the implications for organic food. She could of argued that the review has interesting data but needs a controlled study. She could have critiqued the uncritical media presentation, and argued for more research about organic nutrition. That is a much more reasonable argument then hormesis makes organic food better. Predictably when an ideologue is contradicted with non-confirming data they fallback to the old standby, distraction. The only thing missing is an appeal to Monsanto logical fallacy. When you read an article that has more pseudoscience red flags than references be skeptical.

 

by Stephen Propatier

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