SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

The Organic False Dichotomy

by Steven Novella, Oct 08 2012

I don’t have any a-priori or ideological issue with any of the specific practices that fall under the “organic” rubric. I do have a problem with the fact that there is an organic rubric. In fact I think the USDA made a mistake in giving into pressure and creating their organic certification. At the time they tried to make it clear that “certified organic” said absolutely nothing about the product itself, only that certain rules and restrictions were followed. It was not an endorsement of organic farming, just a way to regulate the use of the term in labeling food. Unfortunately, it further solidified the organic false dichotomy.

I recently wrote about the Stanford study – a systematic review of studies of organic produce. They concluded:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Some of the reaction to the Stanford study, and my discussion of it, illustrates the problem with the false dichotomy – it encourages muddy thinking. There is a range of practices that are allowed and not allowed in organic farming to meet USDA certification. Excluded practices include genetically modified (GM) ingredients, ionizing radiation, and use of sewer sludge. There is also a long list of allowed and excluded substances (such as organic vs non-organic pesticides).

This is a very diverse list of substances and practices. What does the use of ionizing radiation have to do with the relative advantages or disadvantages of plant-derived vs artificial pesticides? There is only one common theme that runs through all of these practices and that is, in my opinion, the naturalistic fallacy.

To be clear – I am not saying that there are no reasonable justifications, both on the evidence and philosophy, for any particular practice that is considered organic. I am just saying that lumping a diverse group of practices together under one certified marketing label discourages a dispassionate assessment of the risks and benefits of each individual practice. They are now a package deal.

Let’s get back to the Stanford study and specifically a New York Times opinion piece about the study and the media reaction to it. Mark Bittman argues:

If I may play with metaphor for a moment, the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries. It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness. It did, in short, miss the point.

and

How can something that reduces your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria not be “more nutritious” than food that doesn’t?

Because the study narrowly defines “nutritious” as containing more vitamins.

I think it is Bittman who misses the point. He is essentially criticizing the study for using a “narrow” definition of “nutritious.” That is one of the most scientifically naive statements I have read in a while. Scientists should use as narrow a definition of any term as possible – and by “narrow” I mean specific and precise, preferably with an operational definition detailed in the study.

Bittman accuses the authors of unfairly attacking all of organic farming by focusing on one narrow aspect of it – the nutrient content of organic produce. He compares this to the whiteness of glue vs milk, which is a false analogy. A proper scientific study, however, should separate and clearly define specific variables, not lump them together with a vague colloquial use of terms, as Bittman recommends.

I believe this is the kind of muddy thinking encouraged by the use of the term “organic.” The authors were addressing a very specific question – what does the current evidence say about the nutrient content of organic vs conventional produce? They added two separate questions about pesticide residue and antibiotic resistant bacteria – two factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the nutrient content of food.  \

I think Bittman’s attitude, and obvious anger at the study, reflects a general trait of human psychology – the need for simplicity. The world is a complex place, and we partly cope with that complexity by simplifying it in our minds. We use categories, pigeon holes, bottom lines, and executive summaries to break down the complex work into bite-sized chunks that we can handle. There is nothing wrong with this – I do this all the time, often consciously. I am aware of the fact that I cannot remember all the nitty gritty details about every subject, and so I often with boil a topic down to its important essence and try to remember that. However, I also couple with the bottom-line summary, knowledge of the fact that the topic is much more complex, and perhaps even some idea of the nature of that complexity, so I will remember to look into it further if those details become important. This approach also encourages humility toward topics of which I can remember only a simplified overview, and deference to experts who live in the nitty gritty details.

Often, however, an oversimplified approach, without recognition of the true complexity, is very counterproductive. Scientists cannot take this approach, they must delve as deeply as possible into the complexity.

When thinking about farming practices we should look at each practice on its own merits, with respect to every important outcome, such as the cost of production, land requirements, productivity, multiple environmental effects, sustainability, health effects on workers, nutrient quality and content of the food, and other specific health characteristics of the food. These should be considered separately, for each practice, based on the best evidence available. It is scientifically absurd to lump a long list of diverse practices together with a long list of outcomes and try to come up with a overall assessment – is organic farming better than conventional farming? The question is meaningless and deceptive, but that appears to the question that Bittman wants to ask, and he criticizes the authors of this review for not addressing it.

To some extent, however, we are stuck (at least for now) with the false dichotomy, since it has been adopted into regulations with the USDA certification. At least there is an operational definition as to what is “organic” and we can ask specific questions about the net effect of that. There is still the problem that “not organic” can run the full spectrum from almost but not quite organic to breaking every single criterion of the organic label. This is what we have for real world studies, however – looking at what farmers and agricultural companies are currently doing. It would be better to isolate each variable from the rest, and some studies do that.

What the Stanford study showed was three things – that organic certified produce are not significantly different in terms of nutrient content from conventional produce, that there is greater pesticide residue, and there is a greater risk of antibiotic-resistant bacterial contamination on conventional food. Bittman also brings up the fact that other researchers contest the first finding, but I think Bittman is cherry picking here. The systematic reviews that I can find largely agree that:

“On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.”

Some studies do show a small difference, but it is possible that the small increase in nutrient density is caused mostly or entirely by the smaller size of organic produce.

With regard to the pesticide residue issue, while there is no question at this point that conventional produce has greater residue of conventional pesticides, this comparison may actually suffer from the kind of problem that Bittman falsely accused the Stanford study of – making a biased comparison. Most studies look for synthetic pesticides – so of course there are more synthetic pesticides on food grown with synthetic pesticides. Generally, however, they don’t look for the “biological” pesticides allowed for on organic food, because it is assumed they are safe (based solely on the naturalistic fallacy, as far as I can tell).

Further, there is no evidence that the levels of pesticides on conventional produce represent any health risk. They are well below safety limits. It should not be assumed, therefore, that the even lower level of synthetic pesticides on organic produce translate into a health benefit. The same is true of contamination with antibiotic resistant bacteria – there is no evidence this represents a health risk for the person who consumes the food. We have to distinguish this from the safety of farm workers and the overall impact this has on the existence of antibiotic resistance bacteria in the world. There is a good case to be made for farming practices that do not rely on dosing animals with antibiotics.

Conclusion

Good science requires precision of definition and obsessive isolation of specific variables and specific outcomes. In order to optimize our food production industry with respect to as many outcomes as possible, we need to be able to ask and answer many specific questions. I want to know the effect on specific nutrient content of a specific kind of ionizing radiation on romaine lettuce. We can add this narrow bit of information to evidence for cost, other effects on nutrient quality, shelf life, adverse effects from bacterial contamination, and the net impact of the process on workers and the environment. If there is a way to further look at the net health impact of the practice, that would be useful information. Then we can look at all these individual bits of data and make an informed judgment about the costs, risks, and benefit of this specific practice, to individual consumers and to society.

What we don’t want to do is combine many practices and many outcomes together in a muddy way and then defend one ideological position or the other at all costs. It is probably too late, but in an ideal world I think we should abolish the concept of “organic farming.” Rather we should strive for sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices that maximize production, minimize land use, minimize negative environmental impacts, and produce nutritious and safe products that people can afford.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 4.7/5 (24 votes cast)
The Organic False Dichotomy, 4.7 out of 5 based on 24 ratings

Recommended Reading

72 Responses to “The Organic False Dichotomy”

  1. Max says:

    “It should not be assumed, therefore, that the even lower level of synthetic pesticides on organic produce translate into a health benefit. The same is true of contamination with antibiotic resistant bacteria – there is no evidence this represents a health risk for the person who consumes the food.”

    It’s common sense. Less crap, less risk.

    • Mario says:

      So is the fact that around 80 to 90 percent of people around the world eat “non organic” food, yet it is not even a quarter of that percentage the amount of people that end up having cancer….even in my country where we thought pesticides were the ones behind an epidemic in renal failure, we find out that is not just that but a combination of many variables, cause only the farmers and their families (they were the ones exposed to toxic amounts of toxins) had the disease not the ones that ate the food.

  2. Max says:

    The abstract says, “The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce.” It doesn’t say they only looked for synthetic pesticides.
    http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685

    I’d be interested if organic produce is less contaminated with pesticides of all kinds, since the Skeptoid episode on organic food myths said, “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.”

    • Brian Dunning says:

      I can add a spot of clarification to that (very old) episode: The “up to seven times” figure was by volume, which in the case of many organic farm chemicals, includes a lot of ballast (inactive ingredients). i.e., take just the part of cow manure that the plant is actually going to consume and you have a small fraction of the original mass. Many modern organic pesticides/fungicides/herbicides/fertilizers have improved a lot, and now approach the per-unit-volume efficiency of their synthetic counterparts.

      My opinion is that it’s still a silly exercise, but manufacturers have to sell what the consumers want to buy.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    Max: very poor reasoning. You’re begging the question — you ASSUME that synthetic pesticides are “crap” and therefore it’s good not to have it. But there’s no indication that is the case.

    Synthetic pesticides are designed and tested to kill invertebrate pests (insects, slugs, etc.). The naturally-evolved toxins in plants aren’t nearly so selective. If you eat non-seed vegetables (i.e. root or leafy vegetables) you’re taking in all the poisons the plants create naturally to discourage not only invertebrates but vertebrates just like you.

    In other words, the natural crap in the plant itself may be more harmful to you than the synthetic crap sprayed on the plants so that you can have nice plump inexpensive vegetables all through the year.

    • Max says:

      Ok, I’ll eat the leafy vegetables, and you can have the pesticide residue.

    • MadScientist says:

      Some people aren’t even aware that some crops (such as cassava) have been selected for low toxicity. Many of the wild varieties still contain large amounts of the toxins and in the case of cassava it’s deadly to humans if not prepared properly. It wasn’t all that many years ago that some people were reported to have died from eating cassava because they had the toxic variety but prepared it the way the non-toxic variety is prepared.

      • matt says:

        See also : potatoes, lethally toxic to humans in their undomesticated variety.

      • LovleAnjel says:

        Domesticated tapioca is highly toxic before processing, and rhubarb parts other than the stems are also toxic.

        Let’s face it, plants don’t want to be eaten.

      • tmac57 says:

        Didn’t work for tobacco though.

      • WScott says:

        Not entirely true: many plants use “getting eaten” as an effective means of spreading their seeds. But I get your point.

      • spectator says:

        What’s cassava?
        Nevermind…Google, my browser’s dictionary app, and Wikipedia are my friend.
        “The starchy tuberous root of a tropical tree, used as food in tropical countries but requiring careful preparation to remove traces of cyanide from the flesh”

        I’ll try anything once. Scratch that…I put this in the category of blow fish sushi. My life takes priority of having a well-versed palate.

      • MadScientist says:

        Most domesticated varieties of cassava have such low toxicity that you simply strip the bark from the tuber and boil it – no need for any fancy preparation. The toxic variety cannot be prepared in such a simple fashion (but it is edible after suitable processing). I wouldn’t call it a tree though – just a shrub.

      • Chris says:

        It is made into tapioca. Used in pudding and bubble tea.

      • markx says:

        Cassava and cassava starch are used in many products: Food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, construction glues, explosives, textiles, paper production.

        You probably eat some, or at least come in contact with some every day.

        It is also a very efficient substrate for ethanol production – second only to cane sugar, and well ahead of corn.

  4. Richard Shewmaker says:

    I’ve often wondered why the word “organic” was co-opted for this use. It is a scientific word with a precise meaning–of animal or plant origin, or molecules containing carbon. Properly, DDT is organic; dolomitic limestone is not.

    • MikeB says:

      Richard, the co-option of “organic” for the agricultural cult under question is indeed hysterical.

      According to the National Organics Program, a natural, organic (that is, carbon-based) pesticide called pyrethrum is “organic,” but another natural, organic pesticide, tobacco, is not “organic.”

      On the other hand, a perfectly reasonable synthetic organic molecule called captan is verboten in “organic” agriculture for use as a fungicide, but a synthetic non-organic compound called copper sulfate is perfectly OK as a fungicide because “there are no natural alternatives.”

      Go figure.

      • WScott says:

        Lots of words have both technical and common usages. “Chemical” for example – yes natural compunds are technically chemicals too, but that’s not the way the word is commonly used. The creationists’ mis-use of “theory is another. Whining about semantics IMO is pointless and convinces no one.

      • MikeB says:

        But “organic” is not a “common usage” in this context. It is the technical term of the movement, and it generates direct contradictions with the scientific definition: Copper sulfate is an inorganic, synthetic compound that is deemed appropriate as an organic pesticide.

        This shows an utter lack of rigor to the point of absurdity.

      • WScott says:

        I meant “technical” to mean the scientific definition, and “common usage” to mean the non-scientific definition.

        This is no different from the way most people use the term radiation when they technically mean ionizing radiation; you know what they mean, and complaining about semantics is pointless.

        And complaining about an “utter lack of rigor” from the general, nonscientific public…kinda proves my point.

    • surgeorge says:

      Straw man and plain wrong. Words may have more than one meaning. The dictionary I’m looking at has five basic definitions of “organic” and three of those have seven sub-definitions. You are, of course, entitled to select merely one of those and assert that that definition is the “real” definition, and all the other dictionary listed uses are incorrect or inferior in some way, but you’d be wrong.

      • MikeB says:

        Well, no, I didn’t select the word and assert its “real” meaning. I was pointing out that “organic” in the agricultural sense is stupid because it DIRECTLY contradicts the scientific sense, and agriculture and science overlap, all the time.

        But if you’re OK with inorganic copper sulfate being an organic pesticide, more power to you.

      • Max says:

        And peanuts are not nuts, and ladybugs are not true bugs, and “vegetable” has no meaning in botany.

      • surgeorge says:

        @MikeB:

        1. Please note that my comment is in direct to response to Richard Shewmaker (the indentation of my response is the same as the identation of your response to the same Shewmaker post) who wrote: ” “organic”…is a scientific word with a precise meaning.” As I wrote, according to at least one dictionary “organic” has five basic definitions and seven sub-definitions. Therefore the claim by Shewmaker that ” “organic…is a scientific word with a precise meaning” is false. It may be a scientific word with a precise meaning, but that is not the only meaning, nor the “proper”, “correct” or “superior” one.

        2. It is a strawman argument because no advocates of organic farming claim that there is not a scientifically precise definition of “organic” as used to classify chemical compounds. That chemistry=based definition of “organic” is not the same definition or meaning as “organic” is used to describe farming practices.

        3. What if I wrote ““organic” in the scientific sense is stupid because it DIRECTLY contradicts the agricultural sense”? It would appear as if I’ve decided that one of the dictionary definitions of organic (the agricultural sense) was a priori the “correct” or “superior” definition, and at least one other definition was, in my view, inferior, if not contradictory. Of course, that would be incorrect, if not absurd, as words can have many meanings, some of which may appear to be contradictory to those who, based upon their own assumptions, are unable to fathom multiple valid definitions for a word.

  5. G says:

    I kind of wonder why anyone takes this NYT guy seriously. I read the article and see he complains that everyone ignored his previous week’s article…one plugging Suzanne de la Monte’s work. As far as I can tell, she’s waaaay off the loony scale.

  6. Chris Howard says:

    A truly excellent post. It’s funny that in the philosophy dialogue series, and in the intro. ethics classes at Texas State the topic of “food ethics” generates more heated, emotional responses, and agitated behavior than political, or religious subjects.

    I suspect it’s because food is a necessary primal consumable, that also encompasses strong emotional memories (thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanza etc.) which form very “sacrosanct” beliefs, but it’s just a guess.

  7. Chris Howard says:

    I’m pretty sure that the FDA (as well as other nations comparable agencies) have been studying pesticides since the public started to voice concerns back in the 70′s. The issue seems to be one of toxicity levels (which the general public doesn’t seem to understand) If you work at the plant that manufactures the pesticides (“organic” or not) then you run a much higher risk of contracting exposure related illnesses. If you’re a farmer the risk is significantly lower, because the exposure isn’t nearly that of the chemical plant worker. By the time the food reaches the consumers kitchen the pesticide toxcicity level is so low that it is no longer considered at toxic levels for humans.

    Everything has a toxicity level. Too much water will kill you, if the maximum toxicity level is reached. This is true of the “naturally” occurring cianide in apples, and other fruits and vegetables. The nature equals good argument is complete bunk. Rattle snake venom is “all natural” but I’m not ingesting any, anytime soon.

    What should be the crux of the argument is “what is benificial to ourselves, and our environment?”

    • Chris Howard says:

      Is ones risk of contracting melanoma from “naturally” occurring solar radiation greater than becoming ill from ionized radiation exposed lettuce?

      • MadScientist says:

        Produce exposed to ionizing radiation (let’s assume gamma radiation) doesn’t have any residual radioactivity or any such thing. It’s nice and safe, but oh – that scary “radiation” thing!

        Some plant-derived pesticides are incredibly poisonous and persistent in the environment. There is at least one I know of which clueless people toss into rivers and bays to kill off and catch fish.

      • WScott says:

        Correct that ionizing radiation doesn’t make food radioactive. However, it *does* have the potential to make changes at the cellular level. Granted, that risk is negligibly small at the doses we’re talking about. (Personally I’m all for irradiating food!) But again, let’s at least acknowledge the concerns people actually have.

      • kraut says:

        “it *does* have the potential to make changes at the cellular level”

        so does cooking.

      • WScott says:

        @ kraut: Would you be happier if I had said “at the genetic level”? What’s with all the semantics trolling today? (I don’t mean just by you.)

      • MadScientist says:

        Ionizing radiation is very bad for living things (which is why it’s used in various sterilization processes), but even if it damaged the DNA of the food you’re going to eat, that won’t affect you one bit. You either digest the DNA in your food and absorb the resulting nutrients or it simply goes out the other end (as is the case for DNA in many plant fibers). The animal and plant DNA in your food is in no way absorbed into your body as DNA or even fragments of DNA.

      • WScott says:

        @ madscientist: Exactly. As you illustrate, their actual concerns are generally not that hard to address, and doing so is far more likely to be persuasive than addressing the concerns we *think* they have.
        (Tho with radiation, there’s so much fear and misinformation to overcome it’s definitely an uphill battle.)

    • Max says:

      Eating pesticide residue, antibiotics, and growth hormones isn’t beneficial to ourselves.

      • MikeB says:

        This is a meaningless statement without considering quantities.

        Because, in fact, small quantities can be good for you:

        Hormesis.

      • Max says:

        I doubt that small quantities of pesticides, or for that matter, BPA, asbestos, and cigarette smoke, are good for you, though I’m sure chemical companies and homeopaths like that argument.

      • MikeB says:

        Hormesis is not an “argument,” it is a phenomenon.

        And it also has nothing to do with homeopathy (which has nothing in it), though homeopaths would like you to think it does.

      • WScott says:

        MikeB: “Hormesis is not an “argument,” it is a phenomenon.”

        But you’re proposing that hormesis applies to specific substances, which is in in fact an argument. And a largely unsupported argument, unless you have cites showing that small amounts of asbestos do in fact have a beneficial effect. The fact that hormesis exists doesn’t mean you get to invoke it for all substances.

      • MikeB says:

        No, Scott, I didn’t propose hormesis for specific substances. I was answering the previous writer’s automatic assertion that small quantities of toxic substances can’t be good for you with the observation that sometimes small quantities are in fact beneficial.

      • WScott says:

        @ MikeB: If that’s all you meant to say, then fine. But the post you replied to was doubting that small quantities of *specific* toxic substances were actually beneficial. It could very well turn out to be true that there are beneficial effects of low quantities of pesticides in food; but until we have studies to that effect the fact that this is true of *some* substances is neither relevant, persuasive, nor terribly honest.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Technically speaking, there are no “good” or “bad” foods. It’s all about the particular substances toxicity level in relation to the individual (age, weight, immune system, etc.), how much they’ve ingested, frequency of exposure, etc.

        A simple example: you can have a cheeseburger, fries, and a milkshake in moderation because chemically speaking it won’t cause permenant damage (as long as ones diet is consistent with the food pyramid), and you don’t eat those things every day, you should be fine. This is also true of other chemical compounds, “organic” or not.

        Subjective, imprecise language and concepts like “organic” “natural” “good” “bad” don’t help because they don’t, and can’t accurately convey potential risks, benifits etc. This means that the consumer can’t ever be sure of what to buy, or be leery of because they don’t have precise information as their guide.

      • Student says:

        But if it is not harmful and it is beneficial to the crop yield, then it’s in the interest of the farmer to continue the practice, and really doesn’t concern us.

        Moreover, if we’re to feed larger populations, we need larger yields.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Repeating yourself isn’t the same as proving a point.

    • WScott says:

      I think this misses the point. Of course many “natural” substances can be harmful depending on the dosage. And many harmful substances are safe at low thresholds. The concern is over how MUCH is safe. Most people who buy organic simply don’t trust that the levels the FDA says are safe actually are; or at least, are willing to pay extra to avoid taking that chance.

      Again, I don’t personally agree with that position. But it’s more complicated than the straw man version you’re beating up.

  8. Retired Prof says:

    Organic food advocates are purists, people who promulgate esthetic rules as if they had moral force. Some purist attitudes are only half-serious, such as the melodramatic derision fly fishermen heap on anglers who use spinning or casting tackle or even (horrors!) a cane pole. Other rules are proclaimed in dead earnest, such as Kosher or Halal food restrictions. Organic gardening and dining rules fall in between, but toward the Kosher/Halal end of the spectrum.

    It was in high school chemistry class that I realized that my father was wrong to proclaim that commercial fertilizer is evil. I learned that a nitrate radical is a nitrate radical, whether it comes from a fertilizer sack or a turkey turd.

    In my experience your recommendation to evaluate each practice on its own merits in relation to where and when it’s being used is right on the money. Take my potato crop this year. I mulched it not out of idealism, but because my sandy soil needs all the help it can get retaining moisture. I pinched the potato bugs to death not out of fear of harmful residues, but because the local population had developed resistance to the insecticide I formerly used and the patch is small enough to make manual removal feasible. I treated the patch with commercial fertilizer not to insult my father’s memory, but because the horse manure I applied for soil tilth does not provide enough N/P/K to grow spuds as big as I like. Nothing either virtuous or corrupt about any of these practices. They just work, that’s all.

  9. MadScientist says:

    All fruits, vegetables, and animal flesh are organic, regardless of the silly meanings that the USDA approves of.

    I wonder why sewer sludge is off the list? Sludge approved for use on farms has to meet a number of requirements (harmful bacteria killed off and below a certain level, limitations on the concentrations of heavy metals, etc). Since farms aren’t allowed to flush the animal pens into the municipal sewage, I guess spraying the animal crap onto plants isn’t considered as using sewer sludge.

    As for ionizing radiation, I’m a big fan of cobalt batteries. Yeah, ionize those bacteria to death – it makes the produce safer to eat (no live e. coli and others at the point of origin) and improves the shelf life somewhat.

    As for “GM” – that’s another load of crap. What constitutes “GM”? Whether selective or natural, genes are modified from generation to generation. As for transgenic modification, what’s wrong with that?

    • matt says:

      Cross breeding corn is not the same as introducing Roundup Insecticide into it.

      • MikeB says:

        Roundup is an herbicide, not an insecticide.

        And Roundup Ready crops do not have Roundup “introduced…into” them. They have a gene spliced into them that makes the plant RESISTANT to Roundup.

      • Max says:

        Bt corn has insecticide in it.

  10. Retired Prof says:

    Grafted fruit trees used to be considered unnatural. In the medieval romance “Sir Orfeo,” anyone who falls asleep under one is subject to the power of evil faeries. Less specific fears persisted into the Enlightenment era; Alexander Pope defended grafting as working with Nature, not against it, as many charged.

    I like to point out to opponents of genetic modification that every apple, peach, plum, pear, and most other fruits they buy in a supermarket came from a grafted tree. Pope’s opinion is now universal; fruit from grafted trees is completely natural. Transgenic modification is merely grafting at the molecular level. I disapprove of the way Monsanto used GM to modify crops in a way that lets them sell more herbicide. Purpose aside, however, the process itself is ethically neutral.

    • Chris Howard says:

      Exactly.
      That’s the problem with the entire “natural” argument. It’s completely arbitrary as to what is considered to be “natural” and what is “unnatural.”
      It also doesn’t recognize that what is considered “natural” is different from culture to culture, with little in the way of a universally recognized standard.

      The fallacy also ignores the fact that given enough time every concept, and human invention (via tools, like other primates invent and use… “Natural” or it’s only natural for other animals?) will be considered “natural”.
      Agriculture, technically, isn’t a “natural” process, it is an ancient invention which we now consider to be “natural.” History imparts a romantic feel upon archaic technology, which is fine if you’re trying to evoke nostalgia, but useless in objective reality.

  11. Max says:

    “Rather we should strive for sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices that maximize production, minimize land use, minimize negative environmental impacts, and produce nutritious and safe products that people can afford.”

    I take it that you want to achieve this through top-down regulation by our benevolent overlords. Where does consumer choice enter the picture?

    • tmac57 says:

      You make a good point about consumer choice Max. Now all we have to do is make sure that the consumer isn’t being misinformed about the relative safety,nutrition content,and environmental pros and cons that influence their choices.

    • Student says:

      Preventing them from spreading misinformation about health benefits to sell food which provides none of them at a substantial markup is not violating consumer choice, any more than informing people that CAM modalities are not effective medicine violates a patients choice. Allowing people an informed decision rather than a misinformed one that exploits them doesn’t harm their choice.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Knowingly perpetrating a falsehood upon consumers is not, legally, considered a true choice. They call it consumer fraud, and prosecute those who perpetrate it. An uninformed choice based upon market propoganda, rather than fact isn’t really giving the consumer a true choice, because their decision was based upon a lie. So while they still have the power to make choices, it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that those choices are equal to fully informed choices.

  12. WScott says:

    Great article. You’re right that the “organic” label covers a lot of different practices, and lumping them all together adds to the confusion. Additionally there are a lot of practices that people associate with organic beyond what’s actually part of the USDA rubric: locally grown, farm fresh, heirloom varietals, etc. This further confuses the issue, because while the food you buy at the farmer’s market may indeed be fresher (and thus tastier), but that has nothing to do with what pesticides were/weren’t used.

    The Bittman article is a classic example of why this is so hard to debate – refute any one piece of the dogma, and rather than dispute your point they immediately point to other (alleged) benefits. It’s not even moving the goalposts, so much as switching games in mid-inning. Trying to analyze every single part of the jenga tower would be a herculean task indeed!

    But re the “naturalistic fallacy” I think it’s a little more subtle than that. I know a lot of organic consumers and a few farmers, and NONE of them think that just because something is natural automatically means it’s safe; everyone acknowledges that there are risks associated with natural substances (whether we’re talking pesticides, or medicine). However, because those “natural” substances have been around so long, they feel those risks are well-understood and well-documented. Whereas they don’t trust that the risks of modern “chemical” pesticides invented last Thursday are as well understood; they don’t trust the manufacturer to tell them the truth, or the regulatory structure to catch them. It’s really as much about anti-corporatism as a knee-jerk love of the natural world. And to be fair, they certainly have a long line of incidents they can point to where chemicals were touted as safe one day, and in the long term turned out to be not-so-safe.

    I’m not saying I agree with this position – there’s obviously much to critique there. I’m just saying we should address the concerns people actually have, and be careful not to debate straw men.

    • Max says:

      The last Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast discussed another naturalistic non-fallacy that I haven’t heard of before.
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121003082734.htm
      “The rise in allergies and inflammatory diseases seems at least partly due to gradually losing contact with the range of microbes our immune systems evolved with, way back in the Stone Age. Only now are we seeing the consequences of this, doubtless also driven by genetic predisposition and a range of factors in our modern lifestyle — from different diets and pollution to stress and inactivity.”

    • Max says:

      If you trust manufacturers and regulators, read this story.
      http://www.reddiamondteaistoxic.com

  13. harey says:

    Great article, very well said. There is a similar false dichotomy when it comes to the taste. People that are obsessed with organic also often insist it tastes better, yet at the farmers market, the ‘organic’ stands often sell produce that is harvested way before it is ripe, meat that is not butchered properly, meat that is deep frozen and not properly aged. It doesn’t taste better, because it is not produced properly, but people pay very high prices for that stuff!

    Meat and animal products are possibly the area where there is the biggest difference. Since there are very few butchers, resorting to supermarket meat and animal products likely means that the animals were kept in rather terrible conditions. ‘Organic’ products generally also claim to provide more space for the animals, grass instead of corn-feed for cows, no over-usage of antibiotics. There are few products that are not organic but have some labeling indicating how the animals are treated (cage-free eggs possibly being an exception). So, I personally mostly buy organic meat and milk products because I do want the animals to be treated reasonably well, yet I’d be perfectly fine with them eating normally grown food and getting some antibiotics if they ever get sick. Again, it’s silly to make the distinction between organic and conventional when it should be about the standard of animal welfare in the farms, but when farmers try to have higher production standard, they will likely just do all the silly organic stuff because there is a much bigger market for organic than there is for well-produced food.

    • WScott says:

      @ harey: “at the farmers market, the ‘organic’ stands often sell produce that is harvested way before it is ripe, meat that is not butchered properly, meat that is deep frozen and not properly aged.”
      Huh? How do you figure this? Most (maybe even all) conventional fruits/veggies are harvested long before they’re ripe so they can survive the trip to the grocery store without spoiling. You do raise a good point tho that many people equate “organic” with “locally grown and fresh-from-the-farm,” which is not necessarily true.

      “Since there are very few butchers…”
      I hadn’t realized they were an endangered species. Even if true, how would that affect organic meat more than conventionally-raised meat?

      “I’d be perfectly fine with [farm animals] eating normally grown food and getting some antibiotics if they ever get sick.”
      I think most people would. The concern is over feeding large doses of antibiotics to healthy animals as a prophylactic.

      “…because there is a much bigger market for organic than there is for well-produced food.”
      Again: huh? Organic food is a tiny niche market compared to conventional farming. Maybe I misunderstood you?

  14. Randal says:

    Ummm, wasn’t this study about the nutrition contained in the fruit and vegetables???

  15. d brown says:

    Much of the “natural crap in the plant” is only made save by cooking which destroys Mr.Naturals chemicals. The fact is that now one wants to spend money on chemicals. But there is no way to feed us with out them. Even in the long term the now banned ones were not so bad. In fact it is is a dumb 50′s law that was passed by congress over what was know then and now.

  16. Chris Howard says:

    As to genetic modification:

    Is it true that; 1) Humans have been genetically modifying crops, and animals since the very early beginnings of agriculture, and animal domestication? 2) There are no “fish genes” or “human genes” or “apple genes.” Those species have genomes, which is what makes them what they are, but genes are like Legos. One can make a fort, or a spaceship, or a town, but the individual bricks don’t change, no?

  17. sailor says:

    I have no doubt that in general regular food is as good for the consumer as organic. I also agree that the term “Organic” is a bit whacky.
    However, you may be helping the environment when you buy organic and this may affect everyone’s health in the long term.
    For example non-organically raised animals are fed low doses of antibiotics even when not sick. Bacteria then become resistant making them less effective when we need them.