Should we buy organic food…?

I was having a discussion with my wife, and her father this morning about organic foods. My wife is a big proponent of them, I am skeptical of them, and my father-in-law really does not have an opinion either way, but is curious. In this respect, I think it was a good start to the discussion.

We went on for a little while discussing back and forth the pros and cons of what we each knew on the subject, when finally my wife sat down at the laptop in an effort to back up her side of the discussion with detailed facts. The site she came across, seemed to me to be a rather good authority on many subjects, and one which I think can be considered a trusted source: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255

The section she read from seemed to back up what both of us were saying about the methods of organic farming, but at least from what she read it did not go into the absolute benefits of “going organic”.

Conventional vs. organic farming

The word “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don’t use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using chemical weedkillers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.

Here are other differences between conventional farming and organic farming:

Conventional farmers Organic farmers
Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth. Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.
Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease. Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.
Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds. Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.
Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth. Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.

But thanks to my slightly obsessive intrest in many skeptical topics, I had heard an episode of Skeptoid on the subject, and thansk to Brian Dunning I knew just what site/podcast to show as my “rebutal”: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4019# 

First the a bit of the background info from Skeptoid:

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

And the specific portion of the podcast/article that I had in mind during this debate.

Organic foods are healthier to eat.

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

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

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

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

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

And while Brian Dunning goes into a good bit more detail, and a few other issues on this topic, the point we had been debating was health more than anything, so I won’t republish his entire article here at this time, but I’d highly recommend checking out not only this episode, but many other episodes of his podcast as well…

On a final note, as I was writting this up I noticed a bit of the article my wife had found,but had not scrolled down far enough to read yet, which I think is quite relevant to the topic, and doesw what I concider a VERY good job summarizing the issue of organic vs conventional farming / food.

Organic food: Buy or bypass?

Many factors may influence your decision to buy — or not buy — organic food. Consider these factors:

  • Nutrition. No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.
  • Quality and appearance. Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren’t treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however, organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.
  • Pesticides. Conventional growers use pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. Most experts agree, however, that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.
  • Environment. Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil.
  • Cost. Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don’t use herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may hand weed vegetables to control weeds, and you may end up paying more for these vegetables.
  • Taste.Some people say they can taste the difference between organic and nonorganic food. Others say they find no difference. Taste is a subjective and personal consideration, so decide for yourself. But whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may have the biggest impact on taste.
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About Rodibidably

Jeff Randall is a frequent volunteer for free-thought organizations, including the Center For Inquiry – DC. Having been blogging since January 2008, he decided that a community of bloggers would be an interesting new experience (or at the very least a fun way to annoy his friends into reading his posts more frequently). Since finding out about about the existence of, and then joining, the atheist/skeptic community in 2007 he has been committed to community activism, critical thinking in all aspects of life, science, reason, and a fostering a secular society.
This entry was posted in Debate, Science, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Should we buy organic food…?

  1. andrew says:

    interesting article, i’ll tell my friend max to include it in his blog ” ecologieparis” bye!

  2. How I Lost Thirty Pounds in Thirty Days says:

    Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

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