The USDA "certified organic" label. Does this mean the food is any safer or healthier, or is it merely a marketing label?
(Photo credit: United States Department of Agriculture)
Today we're going to take a second look at a pop culture trend that first caught my attention because it so flagrantly waves many of the red flags that characterize pseudoscience: Organic agriculture. I once gave a 15-point checklist of things to look for to help you spot bad science. Organic agriculture is promoted mainly through the mass media, rarely through scientific channels. It's supported by political and cultural campaigns. It relies largely on the "all natural" fallacy. The people promoting it generally have questionable scientific credentials, and they support their claim primarily by pointing out flaws in the norm. These are all characteristic of pseudoscience.
Scientifically, the term "organic food" is meaningless. It's like saying a "human person". All food is organic. All plants and animals are organic. Traditionally, an organic compound is one produced by life processes; chemically, it's any carbon-containing molecule with a carbon-hydrogen bond. Plastic and coal are organic, a diamond is not. So when we refer to organic food in such a way to exclude similar foods that are just as organic chemically, we're outside of any meaningful scientific use of the word, and are using it as a marketing label.
When we try to find common ground, we all agree that healthy food and sustainable production are the goal. So, fundamentally, we're all on the same team, looking for the same thing. Where we split is in our analysis of the history of food production, specifically the role of science in increasing crop yields. Science has brought us crop strains that increase output by factors of 10 and even 20 times even in poor soil, and given us a plethora of tools to combat losses to pests and disease. Generally, science (and the hungry people who benefit) applaud these improvements. Organic proponents (mainly well-fed people) have opposed them, saying they're bad for the environment. To support this position, organic proponents have continued heaping on all sorts of claims about the dangers of modern agriculture: That the food is unhealthy, or that it requires toxic chemicals that poison consumers, ravage the soil, and pollute the oceans with runoff. They poison the well by referring to modern agriculture using weasel words like "chemical farming" and "industrial agriculture". The natural inference we are supposed to make is that organic crops are free from these dangers.
I want to stress that I am not opposed to organic food. It is generally a perfectly fine product. I do have objections to the way it's marketed: It's an identical product, sold at a premium, justified by baseless alarmism about standard food. Whether you agree or not that this alarmism is baseless, you should at least agree that that would be an unethical way to promote a product that offers no real benefit. I choose not to reward this with my food-buying dollar. People who willfully seek out the organic label when buying food are being taken advantage of by marketers employing unethical tactics.
It's a seductive message. Everyone loves to hear that corporations are bad, that all-natural is good, that chemicals and synthetic compounds are poisons. This is not a message that's difficult to sell. It's little wonder that organics have been the fastest growing agricultural market segment over the past decade. It's an ironic little secret that those very same corporate food producers taking our money to sell us organic foods are the same ones spending it on the ad agencies to stoke the anticorporate message that drives them. Nearly 100% of organic food in supermarkets comes from a producer owned by one of the major food companies that also sells regular food. Don't think for a minute that any well-managed food company has not already been on this bandwagon since it started rolling.
I've been pointing out the fallacies of the organic label for some time, so it's frequently assumed that I'm on the payroll of Big Agriculture. Since Big Agriculture are the ones selling nearly all of the organic food in this country, do you know how stupid that accusation sounds? My motivation is to help people think critically and scientifically, and not simply accept pop culture trends because they sound satisfying, or have been greenwashed with clever marketing.
OK, so I've made some statements about the safety of conventional agriculture, and about the equivalency of organic and conventional produce. It's time to back those up. First, understand that mine is not the extraordinary claim. I'm saying the claims made by organic proponents — that we're all being poisoned — are the extraordinary claims lacking evidence. But since many people seem to prefer the reverse, that the default assumption should be that the entire world population is poisoned with toxic chemicals from conventional agriculture, I'll go ahead and support my "outrageous alarmist claim" that this holocaust doesn't seem to exist.
The biggest misconception is that organic farming does not use fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides. Of course it does. Fertilizer is essentially chemical nutrient, and the organic version delivers exactly the same chemical load as the synthetic. It has to, otherwise it wouldn't function. All plant fertilizers, organic and synthetic, consist of the same three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Referring to one as a "chemical" and implying that the other is not, is the worst kind of duplicity, and no intelligent person should tolerate it.
The difference between the two is the source of the chemicals. To make the high-volume commercial versions of both organic and synthetic fertilizer, the source materials are processed in factories and reduced to just the desired chemicals, and the end product, these days, is virtually indistinguishable. Small organic farmers, and home organic farmers, might use fish meal, bone meal, bat guano, or earthworm castings. These are fine products and do indeed deliver the required nutrients. They're just not useful for high volume farming because they're (a) far too expensive, and (b) contain too much ballast, or inactive ingredient, that the crops don't use and merely increase the energy requirements of moving and delivering them.
To make synthetic fertilizer, we start with nitrogen, which we extract from the atmosphere. This process is infinitely sustainable and produces no waste. The potassium is mined from ancient ocean deposits. The phosphorus we get from surface mining of phosphate rock. Although we have centuries of reserves of phosphate rock and millenia of reserves of potassium salts, mining is not sustainable, as these reserves will eventually run out. So, increasingly, producers are turning to seawater extraction for both. This forms a completely sustainable cycle, as the oceans are the ultimate destination of all plant matter and farm runoff.
But clean, sustainable atmospheric and seawater extraction are both taboo for organic certification, which I find astonishing. The chemicals for organic fertilizer must be sourced from post-consumer and animal waste, which is fine but the restriction strikes me as completely arbitrary. Food waste, animal manure, and other organic recyclables collectively provide all the needed ingredients to make refined, high quality fertilizer. The refining process is necessarily a little bit different, but the end product is comparable.
Don't get me wrong — I think fertilizer is a fine use for post-consumer waste. It's certainly better than putting it into a landfill. I'm completely in favor of using all of our restaurant waste, cow manure, or whatever we have in as recyclable and sustainable a way as is practical; and I can't think of a better use than fertilizer. Unfortunately we don't have nearly enough high-quality organic waste to satisfy a meaningful percentage of our food production needs, and developing countries have even less or even none at all; so we're going to need to continue to supplement with sustainably-derived synthetics. Why do so many people consider this immoral? I don't know.
Some in the organic lobby have said that organic farming reduces or eliminates the need for added nutrients by rotating crops and better managing the soil. This is true, but it's always been true of all farming, and is in no way unique to organics. Soil management is something all farmers have always done: Describing it as part of the organic process dishonestly implies that the strategy is not also employed by mainstream agriculture. Corn, wheat, and soybeans are the main crops that U.S. farmers rotate. This improves nitrogen content in the soil and reduces the proliferation of pests that thrive on a particular crop. When some farms do practice monoculture, in which only a single crop is grown season after season, it all comes down to a cost-benefit equation. Every farm prefers to avoid the expense of spraying anything they don't have to.
On to pesticides and herbicides. All crops are subject to disease and infestation, and all farmers have to do something about it. Because organic herbicides and pesticides depend on toxic plant-derived chemicals like rotenone and pyrethrin, they've had a tougher time meeting the same standards, making them safe for farm workers and for human consumption, that synthetic versions have already met for decades. Organic versions do meet the standards and are just as safe, but doing so makes them considerably less efficient. According to one winemaker interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, most vineyards do not get certified organic because some of the rules emphasize the ideology over the science. Vineyards need fungicide. Organic fungicide lasts 7 days, while superior synthetic fungicide lasts 21 days. This means two fewer tractors pass through the vineyard spewing diesel exhaust and compacting the soil.
Despite claims in the organic community, there's never yet been a confirmed case of anyone becoming ill from consuming produce contaminated with residue from pesticides or herbicides, either organic or synthetic. Both are certified safe for human exposure, and both are applied at trace levels well below safety standards. In no way does limiting yourself to organic produce decrease your risk of dangerous levels of exposure to pesticides. The risk is practically zero either way.
Everyone has traces of these compounds in their body, no matter what they eat, at ridiculously low parts per billion or even parts per trillion. People who eat conventional produce will usually have safe but detectable levels of conventional pesticides in their body. Organic proponents love to point this out, but somehow they always forget to mention that people who eat only organic produce also end up with safe but detectable levels of organic pesticides in their bodies. If you eat it, it's going to end up in your body, so I'm not sure why this should surprise anyone. Just existing on the planet means that we all naturally have safe but detectable levels of practically every toxic substance imaginable, somewhere in our system. It's too easy to frighten people with such sensationalism. We have to understand the difference between what's safe and normal, and what's harmful.
What harm exists is usually among farm workers who mishandle pesticides, and their plight is among the organic proponents' main arguments against conventional agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed around the world each year, tens of thousands are hospitalized, thousands die, and it is indeed a real problem that requires increased attention. But there are three very important qualifiers that the organic proponents never seem to mention:
Illnesses from occupational exposure to organic pesticides are proportional to those from conventional pesticides.
Almost all of these cases are from developing countries like Indonesia that lack or ignore safety guidelines. Less than 1% of all such illnesses occur in the United States.
The takeaway is that organic practices in no way mitigate such injuries. Buying organic produce does not protect a single farm worker. Following proper safety procedures does protect all farm workers, and this is where resources would be better applied, not in promoting fear about conventional agriculture.
We should choose farming methods that truly address our real concerns — safety and sustainability — not simply methods that satisfy an arbitrary marketing label. To whatever extent these practices include methods that are permitted under organic rules, that's just fine; but there's never a case when a safe, more efficient, and sustainable modern technology that feeds more people worldwide should be disallowed for no logical reason. Buy whatever produce you see in the market that you like and that's cheap, and don't reward the people who are profiteering by selling you fear.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Aug 2009. Web.
13 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166>
References & Further Reading
Avery, Alex. The Truth About Organic Foods. St. Louis: Henderson Communications, L.L.C.; 1ST edition (2006), 2006.
Dangour, A., Aikenhead, A., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. "Comparison of Putative Health Effects of Oragnically and Conventionally Produced Foodstuffs: A Systematic Review." Food Standards Agency. Food Standards Agency, 29 Jul. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/organicreviewreport.pdf>
Hughner, R.S., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Schultz II, C.J., Stanton, J. "Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food." Journal of Consumer Behavior. 21 May 2007, Volume 6 Issue 2-3: 94-110.
Kristensen, M., Østergaard, L.F., Halekoh, U., Jørgensen, H., Lauridsen, C., Brandt, K., Bu¨gel, S. "Effect of plant cultivation methods on content of major and trace elements in foodstuffs and retention in rats." Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 1 Sep. 2008, volume 88, Number 12: 2161-2172.
MacKerron D.K.L. et al. "Organic farming: science and belief." Individual articles from the 1998/99 Report. Scottish Crop Research Institute, 1 Dec. 1999. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://www.scri.ac.uk/scri/file/individualreports/1999/06ORGFAR.PDF>
Mondelaers K., Aertsens J., Van Huylenbroeck G. "A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming." British Food Journal. 1 Nov. 2009, 111, 10: 1098-1119.