Organic Food

January 26th, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

One of may favourite podcasts is Skepticality, produced by the Skeptics Society.  They apply science and logic to a multitude of topics – from so called business success conferences, to health quacks, to religious claims to unusual occurrence odds.

The last episode I listened to have a great section on . Their summary was:

  • The most dangerous bacteria in America’s food supply is E. coli, which is found in abundance in cattle manure, a favorite “natural” fertilizer of organic farming.)
  • The evidence for the superiority of organic food is mostly anecdotal and based more on irrational assumptions and wishful thinking than on hard scientific evidence.
  • Organic food does not offer special protection against cancer or any other disease.
  • Organic food is not “healthier” than food produced by conventional farming, using synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

A key useful line was that “natural” in no way equates to “safe” and “artificial” in  no way equates to “unsafe”. In fact often it can be the other way around. You can not generalise. Many poisons are natural, after all.

With that in mind, I saw this blog by Green MP Steffan Browning:

They do note, however, that the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land. I am reading that as a good opportunity for a lot more growth in organics – the other 99.1%.

There is definitely demand for change. This month also saw 25,000 people demonstrating in Berlinagainst industrial agriculture. I particularly like their chant “If you persecute farmers, animals and bees, you won’t become MPs!”

I absolutely agree with the Association of German Dairy Farmers that only if “farmers and citizens stand up together for reform of agricultural policy can we keep our farms operating and ensure that at long last we produce healthy food under conditions of fairness.”

So Steffan Browning repeats the myth that non-organic food is not healthy. He also seems to imply he wants all agriculture in the world to be organic.

As is well documented (with scores of references) at the Wikipedia article on organic food, the vast scientific consensus is that there is little or any difference in taste, no significant difference in nutrients or heavy metals. A review of 50 years of evidence concluded “there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content” and “There is no support in the scientific literature that the lower levels of nitrogen in certain organic vegetables translates to improved health risk”.

There is also no evidence that organic foods carry a lower risk of cancer according to the American Cancer Society.

Now when it comes to issues such as climate change, the insist that we must follow the scientific consensus and act to mitigate against global warming. And, they are right. We should accept the scientific consensus.

But when it comes to other issues such as organic food, they point blank refuse to endorse the scientific consensus, and preach fear and doubt and cherry pick the odd study to back their near-religious view that organic is better.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against organic food. If you want to pay 40% more for your food, and it gives you peace of mind – good on you. but I object to MPs and parties denigrating science by insisting that organic is safer and better.

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33 Responses to “Organic Food”

  1. Manolo (13,840 comments) says:

    The Luddites have always claimed that the cart and horse are superior to a car. Back to the Middle Ages!

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  2. All_on_Red (1,584 comments) says:

    “the Greens insist that we must follow the scientific consensus and act to mitigate against global warming. And, they are right. We should accept the scientific consensus.”
    Do tell. What consensus is that? We are only scratching the surface about how the climate system works. Still at least the IPCC are acknowledging we are in a cooling phase despite CO2 rising.(source-IPCC draft report Assessment Review 5)

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  3. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    What, like the grand predictions of genomic cures of mental health issues? How many years has it been since those claims were touted about? They weren’t put out by the non GE groups that were dead set to discredit them. they were intentionally put out to gather attention for funding that has to date not produced anything. I think it costs 1000 euro’s now to sequence your individual genome now in the states.

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  4. Michael (910 comments) says:

    The other “benefit” of organic food production – the environmental benefit – is also unproven, and in fact is possibly worse for the environment as they create more pollution per unit of food. However, because the farming is less intense, organic farming creates less pollution per acre (but much less food per acre).

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  5. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    All_on_Red (184) Says:
    January 26th, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Yep, C02, There’s a point where a bacterial archeologist thinks that plants will stop converting it to oxygen, I think it’s 900 parts per billion. He made this prediction a few years ago but if that happens then we would be dead well before then. No insects.

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  6. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    Sorry I should word these a lot better, they look alarmist and fearist.

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  7. duggledog (1,559 comments) says:

    My dear old uncle used to have a 1500 acre farm in the UK, mostly cereals. Naturally he used whatever sprays were standard for the operation including one that killed some sort of fungus which grows on wheat. This fungus is apparently so dangerous, if just a tiny amount was detected in one of his silos they’d reject the lot!

    Uncle reckoned in the old days, the local village idiot often owed his / her mental condition to this fungus.

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  8. CHFR (229 comments) says:

    The Penn and Teller episode on Organic food was a classic

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  9. thedavincimode (6,803 comments) says:

    The other “benefit” of organic food production – the environmental benefit – is also unproven

    Michael

    You better pass that gem of information onto the farmers who have adopted highly intensive organic/biological farming systems that don’t rely on high conventional fertiliser inputs and who are experiencing measureable improvements in soil structure and humus, increasing topsoil depth, deeper rooting plants and greater dry weather tolerance in pasture because of the soil’s water holding capacity and better utilisation of moisture that is available, better feed conversion and substantially reduced vet bills.

    It would be a shame for them to go on wasting their time.

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  10. Kea (12,841 comments) says:

    The organics industry is yet another green scam, promoted by people with other agendas. Although the organics industry is massive, they rant against BIG agriculture and the food industry for making a profit.

    It is fair to say that some of our farming practises are not ideal and we should look at ways to improve them. However to address those issues it is not necessary to buy into unscientific and unsupported nonsense.

    There is no way the world can be fed with sorts of farming methods promoted by the organics industry. Billions of folk would need to starve.

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  11. unitedtribes (30 comments) says:

    I produced 2 tonne of frozen organic asparagus once. Would be a good bet as “the world cant get enough organic food” After two years and no sale I sold it as conventional.
    Another friend from Germany told me his family were vegetable merchants in Switzerland. When they got caught with a truck load of veggies going off they put the price up and sold them as organic

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  12. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    Terra preta or is it Terra peta?

    A bunch of darky indians in South America developed it or stumbled across it. This human created soil is incredible, it doesn’t deplete.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

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  13. Scott Chris (6,155 comments) says:

    Okay, so organic food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but one aspect of the philosophy under-pinnning organic farming makes complete sense to me, in that taking a more varied and diverse approach to crop selection (as opposed to the standard monocultural practice) is more compatible with sustaining environmental biodiversity.

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  14. ben (2,380 comments) says:

    Important and insightful mea culpa by a former pro-organic, anti-GM activist. Worth reading in full:

    http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/

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  15. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    Kea (1,868) Says:
    January 26th, 2013 at 8:32 am

    People are going to die anyway Kea, They’re dying now and pressure from more mouths to feed fast is only going to speed up the process. There’s not enough arable land unless we create it but with changing weather systems predicting general out comes have just become that much harder.

    Those South American indians also employed floating miniature vege gardens.

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  16. Mobile Michael (452 comments) says:

    @Davinci – so with better soil they still produce less food per acre? If that is the case then organics is the complete opposite to what farmers should do.

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  17. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    You know farmers can use chickens to break up cow pats that would usually produce more gas out put if left alone but the lowly chicken comes along and rakes it looking for lovely tidbits, a few days later the paddock is pat clear.

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  18. GPids (19 comments) says:

    I work in the farming sector and deal with organic farmers from time to time and the bulk of them are really good people and are outstanding farmers. The Greens are being very selective with their facts regarding organics, but thats no surprise. Organics has its place as a niche producer in NZ agriculture – and that’s what most of them market their products as and the bulk of them are very good at it.
    At a global level, organics will never, ever feed the world, particularly with world population projections over the next 20-30 years simply because organic crop farming requires roughly twice the land mass to produce the same amount of yields as conventional farming.
    Organic red meat prouducers produce animals that are often smaller so their yields aren’t as high either and it’s a similar sitation with organic dairy farmers. Most organic dairy farmers use their product to produce cheeses or yogurts. This lower yields argument is often countered by claims that organic food is more nutrient dense, but that is still hugely debated and I have never seen any concrete evidence.
    Also, I hear that in the UK, I have heard reports of there being some resistence to buying organics as a result of the recession as it’s too pricey.
    The chemicals used in organics can also be just harmful as those in conventional, for example I’m sure you’ll never hear the Greens complain about the high copper levels found in organic apples caused by the organic sprays those farmers use.
    Finally, everyone loves to hate the dairy industry, but most don’t realise that conventional NZ dairy farming is about 80-95 per cent organic. That’s not my opinion but the opinion of a successful Southland organic dairy farmer that I talked to last year. He said the only major difference between his farm and his conventional neighbours was the fertiliser used and the antibiotics used on the cows.

    Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

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  19. CharlieBrown (1,015 comments) says:

    There is nothing about being organic that equates to being environmentally friendly. In fact, study after study has shown that generally, yields from organically grown food are less (and usually a lot less) than from normally grown food. What does this mean? It takes more energy to produce the same amount of product. Although a 200 acre organic farm may do 20 per cent less environmental damage than a 200 acre non-organic farm, it may take two organic farms to produce the same amount of product as the inorganic one –this would make those two organic farms together 60% worse to the environment.

    Organic farming is also more labour intensive, this means that more people need to be employed, which means more equipment needs to be manufactured, which means more emissions. Any emissions reduction caused by not using fertilizers is lost once you take into account the extra work required to manage an organic farm.

    Genetic engineering may provide us the best chance to produce high yeild crops with smaller environmental impacts, but the organic movement is dead against GE. And no wonder why Britons want to leave the EU, they subsidise organic produce, this is just a new way of protecting farmers against cheaper, cleaner imports from poorer countries.

    I refuse to buy organic foods on ethical grounds, even if it is cheaper

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  20. Rufus (667 comments) says:

    Michael – 7:37 “more pollution per unit of food”? I call bullshit on that one. Evidence?

    Further to what DVM said earlier – you should tell those NZ dairy farmers who are gradually switching their production systems towards more “organic” systems. There’s been a number of them on Country Calendar in the last few years – there’s more if you read farming publications. They find that their soil structure improves, sward biodiversity improves, the nutritional quality of the feed improves, animal health improves with less production lost (less culling) and less cost to animal health (medicines/vet bills), input costs are lower (esp. increasingly expensive fertilisers), and the farmers feel happier.

    NZ dairy farmers are some of the most highly skilled dairy farmers around – they have to be as they are operating with relatively low margins compared to dairying overseas. If some of them are successfully switching to “organics”, I’d be inclined to think that there’s a benefit in doing so.

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  21. CharlieBrown (1,015 comments) says:

    I did a bit of research on organic farming recently, I noticed that on wiki every argument against organic farming, there was some outlandish counter by green fools. So I read the history of the page, was interesting as it became clear that green dickheads troll the page constantly and try and remove anything they can’t counter.

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  22. mikenmild (11,247 comments) says:

    It can be difficult to separate balderdash from reality sometimes. As Rufus noted above, it is more about sustainable production than labelling one’s output as ‘organic’, which is really just a marketing element. Then you get into the completely insane biodynamic followers and so forth…

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  23. Kiwi Dave (92 comments) says:

    How short are some people’s memories. In 2011, 31 Germans died from an ecoli outbreak traced to bean sprouts from a German organic farm. Or do our greenies see this as as a natural solution to overpopulation?

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  24. greenjacket (467 comments) says:

    Rufus wrote: “NZ dairy farmers are some of the most highly skilled dairy farmers around – they have to be as they are operating with relatively low margins compared to dairying overseas. If some of them are successfully switching to “organics”, I’d be inclined to think that there’s a benefit in doing so.”

    I work in the primary sector. Naturally, I agree with you that NZ farmers are some of the most highly skilled in the world!! But I don’t believe that dairy farmers are switching to organic – quite the reverse. Fonterra experimented with paying for organic milk, but there was simply no premium in the market so they dropped it. Same with meat – there is simply no premium in the market to justify the loss of production from being organic. Much much more important to most consumers is that their food is safe, and the track record of organics isn’t good in that respect (for example, organic vegetable farmers use faeces as fertiliser – faecal contamination is the main source of E.Coli. I recommend to anyone eating organics fruit and vegetables to make sure they have taken extra care to wash them).

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  25. PeterNZ (1 comment) says:

    “The most dangerous bacteria in America’s food supply is E. coli, which is found in abundance in cattle manure, a favourite “natural” fertilizer of organic farming.)”
    Please allow me to throw a tiny spanner into your works. A spanner which raises in me the question about the quality f your information source.
    I am not a scientist but I regard myself as a well informed person in this area. E. Coli is a naturally occurring bacteria. We have Billions of E. Coli bacteria in our guts. Without E. Coli we couldn’t survive. So why does E. coli have such a bad reputation?
    Because of mass produced beef mainly held in so called CAFOs which stands for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (think hectares of concrete pens, with hundreds of thousands of cattle wading in their own shit,fed with corn mixed with antibiotics by the truckload. Think acres of oxidation ponds with a chemical waste which can not be used anywhere). You need a bit of background here to understand this. In the USA Maize/Corn is heavily subsidised. Without these subsidies a US farmer growing corn would actually loose money. The US can’t break out of this circle without pushing thousands of farmers and their families into ruin and bancrupcy. So what do they do? They protect the markets where this corn is used. Hence the overuse of HFCS (High fructose corn syrup) in soft drinks and the obesity problem. It hangs all together, doesn’t it? Another market is feeding corn to cattle. And this is what happens in the CAFOs. And this is why grass fed beef in the US is a high priced delicacy. Because the rest is corn fed.
    Now feeding an animal corn which would normally eat a diet of grass is stuffing up their digestion. It changes the pH in their guts and this leads to E. coli bacteria not being killed as they would normally be. And what else happened was that the harmless E. coli strains developed into a killer bacteria. An E. Coli strain called O157:H7. This is the E. coli which kills people. And this is the E.coli which due to the corn fed beef in their hundreds of thousands confined in CAFOs is in the manure (in addition to millions of tons of antibiotics and other stuff) . What did we learn? Not all E. coli is bad!
    So back to the statement that organic is bad. Yes, if the organic industry (in the USA) would use this manure from the CAFOs to fertilise their crops then it would be dangerous (in the USA). So do organic producers use chemically loaded dangerous manure for their crops? No, they don’t. I’d say in good old Mythbusters style: ” BUSTED!”
    Sorry but this statement is actually so dumb and misinformed that it hurts. Sadly, a lot of things aren’t as easy as some want them to be. To me that statement about E. coli is bullshit (I just had to include this pun, sorry!)

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  26. Griff (7,822 comments) says:

    All_on_Red (184) Says:
    I have read a beat up on a unreleased report and dont really know a thing about climate science it just makes me feel better to spurt shit.
    “A cooling phase”
    That would be the SOI
    el nino/ el nina

    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/

    When compared to previous La Niña years, the 2012 global surface temperature was the warmest observed during such a year; 2011 was the previous warmest La Niña year on record.

    Do you eat mung beans to go with your alt science?

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  27. beautox (422 comments) says:

    Remember folks, asbestos is 100% natural.

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  28. kiwi in america (2,456 comments) says:

    I have a business colleague here in the US who hosted my NZ based business partner due to having more space than I had at the time. This guy in his early 50’s is a health nut, has his own in-house gym, takes boatloads of supplements and only eats organic food. I never knew so much existed. Over the weeks I was in and out of the house spending time unwinding after meetings and my NZ partner and I often ate at his house as he preferred that to US restaurant food. After eating the organic version of virtually all major foods I began to notice what the scientific studies referred to by others on this thread and that was that the organic stuff tasted the same as regularly grown food. There were 3 exceptions – eggs, tomatoes from the farmer’s market (ie home grown) and grass fed meat (of the type that is universal in NZ) vs the grain fed meat so common in the US. The price differential was substantial in some cases and for many lower income people, organic food is too costly an option with negligible benefits.

    On a trip to NZ I met a hard core greenie and when the discussion moved to organic food (she had an organic farm) I told her what I had found. I got a lecture on the evils of agribusiness and the chemical industry and then whah whah I’m not listening when I asked her what the preponderence of the literature said on this. Being a right leaning filthy capitalist was an additional red rag to her bull. I executed the coup de gras knowing she was an activist in the Green party and years ago when a young student had raided GE test beds at Crop and Field near Lincoln. I said “why is it that you Greens will march in the streets over a genetically modified tomato but you want to legalise NZ’s most genetically modified plant – namely cannabis?” (cross breeding and genetic modification of cannabis plants is widespread and done to improve potency). She spluttered with rage, uttered a range of judgemental left wing talking points and stormed off! Touche – and it became a perfect illustration of green hypocracy, distortion and wishful thinking. There is no rational discussion with green true believers.

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  29. thedavincimode (6,803 comments) says:

    As Rufus noted above, it is more about sustainable production than labelling one’s output as ‘organic’, which is really just a marketing element.

    Yes and no milky. Yes to sustainability in the sense of not perpetuating the phosphate/urea metality that has since about the 30s or 40s become to be known as conventional farming and that is causing the environmental issues in terms of phosphate run-off and nitrate leaching into waterways. No in the sense that organics isn’t just about marketing, but is instead part of a broader church of non “conventional” approaches that also includes biological and biodynamic approaches.

    It’s all very well to pooh pooh what has become to be regarded as a non conventional approach by the people selling phosphate and urea, but the reality is that it takes more than phosphate and urea to maintain healthy soil that will produce healthy plants, resist weed establishment and produce healthy livestock that require less health and veterinary intervention by way of pharmaceuticals. In fact some fertiliser forms are in fact quite destructive of soil structure and microbial activity and they are avoided under the so-called non-conventional approaches. This is just basic biology and chemistry. The melons don’t want to know about anything that isn’t organic because they have a cultural mindset and organics has, in terms of public perception, become associated with whiskers, goat sacrifices, poor personal hygiene and mad hatter types such as Tanzos and Delahunty.

    Biological appears to be gaining strong ground, including in dairy, and the fact that the milk payout isn’t greater isn’t a deterrent. They do it because they don’t pay for fertilisers that they not only don’t need, but that are damaging their capital asset (soil), they have less (or indeed no) bloat or nitrate poisoning problems, and they enjoy the other advantages that Rufus and I mentioned previously.

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  30. pq (728 comments) says:

    Writer Matthew Ridley in his book ‘ The Rational Opitimist’ goes a long way to show that organic farming requires so much work , so much cost, and so much more land for nothing in return.
    In fact, organic farming has such low productivity it is similar to subsistence farming. You can feel good about it, but you are an idiot, you can not feed people and you are going bankrupt.
    Do we remember the corn genetic modification hysteria in New Zealand , Oh my god we were all going to develop three breasts and two heads. Thank God we have moved on from those clerics Tanzos and Donald.
    Green is nuts, and it keeps shifting its social and environmental ground. Just now they are economic freaks, print money to transfer wealth from the old to the young Green voters
    Keep Green away from Government

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  31. seanmaitland (501 comments) says:

    The whole “flavour/taste of organics is better” has been rubbished by blind tests. The big difference is when you actually grow your own crops at home. You don’t need pesticides (if you know what you’re doing) and the flavour is hundreds of times better than what you get at farmers markets, green grocers and supermarkets.

    Having worked a lot in Italy, in the villages there most families use every inch of dirt on their property to grow their own produce. Going for dinners at peoples homes is an amazing experience – everyone dabbles in their own wine making too. It would be amazing if that attitude could be manifested in New Zealand – the majority of houses have far more arable land than the equivalent in Italy, plus our climate allows for all year growing of crops, and anywhere north of waikato (including the coromandel) has two summer growing seasons and no frosts, so you get double the crop yield (again if you know what you’re doing).

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  32. Azeraph (606 comments) says:

    You cut down your fertlizer reliance by half or 1/4, i can’t remember by towing in after you shifted your cows a mobile chicken coop. I think a couple of hundred chickens or less, I don’t know how many, anyway you pop the coop doors and leave them there a few days, they would have scraped and spread the cowpats out across the paddock drying them out refertilizing the soil. Then off to the next paddock. It’s not organic, it’s using what’s available and the chickens always return to the mobile coop.

    I’m sure there are other simple things that can cut down time and labour and expenditure.

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  33. Left Right and Centre (2,986 comments) says:

    seanmaitland-

    The flavour is **hundreds** of times better. Hundreds of times. You sure is isn’t millions of times better?

    That’s hard to quantify eh? Was it closer to 500 or 800 times better would you say?

    Oh well… good for the Italians. I’m sure in big cities like Rome and Milan every citizen is growing ten different varieties of vegetable. I suppose even without land they manage with flowerpots on balconies.

    Thread: I’m glad to be here to see what is said about organics. I think I’m more informed now… brilliant.

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