Organic supporters try to change history

I often get into arguments with supporters of the organic movement. While I share their interest in ensuring the long term health of the soil, the methods they espouse are not always the same as mine. Practices that discourage soil erosion by wind and water are easy. So are proper crop rotations and the use of legumes to increase organic matter and nitrogen levels. However, I strongly believe that the future of agriculture must contain genetically modified crops and the use of chemical fertilizers. One of the areas we most strongly battle is the idea that supporting the use of GMOs is the same as supporting the business practices of Monsanto and the other large multi-nationals.

My attitude is that the requirements of feeding an ever growing population lie in using the best practices that will promote sustainability while providing cheap and nutritious food to as many people as possible.

Most everyone is now aware of the study that was just published that demonstrated there is no discernible difference between the nutrition in organic and non-organic food. The organic industry has responded predictably. First they are denouncing the study. That’s to be expected, and actually it is very reasonable to examine the methodology and conclusions. Although it seems that no one outside of the organic movement has found any serious problems.

The other more interesting claim is the organic supporters who are now claiming that the movement was never about nutrition in the first place.

Did people actually think an organic vegetable has more vitamins than a non-organic vegetable? I didn’t know anyone thought that.

This is interesting because of the contradiction between the two statements. If the study is flawed, claims of nutritional differences are real—but we never claimed there was a difference, so there shouldn’t be. As anyone with a memory longer than 3 days can attest, nutritional claims were often placed ahead of, or on par, with environmental ones.

The other part of the study concerns pesticides and antibiotics. The study found that the actual risk from eating either type of produce was small. This is because while the organic produce had lower pesticide residue, the non-organic rarely exceeded safety levels.

From Steve Novella at Science Based Medicine:

So while there was a difference, this did not result in a significant difference in terms of exceeding safe limits. Further, studies looking at health outcomes did not find any significant difference between consuming organic vs conventional produce. These studies are limited in number and duration, however. Further, there may be a bias in how these studies are performed. Organic farming does use pesticides, but only “natural” pesticides are allowed. There is little to no evidence that these organic pesticides are less harmful for consumers or the environment. It is just assumed that they are based upon the naturalistic fallacy.

Even if we take the most pro-organic assumption – that there are more pesticides on conventional produce and that those pesticides have greater negative health effects than organic pesticides, it must still be recognized that simply washing fruits and vegetables effectively reduces pesticide residue. If minimized exposure to pesticide residue is your goal, thoroughly washing your produce is probably the easiest and cheapest way to achieve that end.

Differences in bacterial contamination were similar. There were no differences seen in E. coli contamination. There was a 33% greater chance of isolated a multi-antibiotic resistance bacteria on conventional produce, but no evidence this translates into a health risk. Again – even if we assume a difference in health risk (something not demonstrated by the data) this can be remedied by thorough washing.

The best conclusion to draw from this study is that if you have the money, or the space to grow your own, organic is perfectly acceptable. If you don’t have the money, simply don’t want to spend the extra, practice good foods hygiene and you’ll get along just fine. If you want to help your neighbours, support sustainable modern agriculture.

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9 Responses to Organic supporters try to change history

  1. You are completely correct–and it was definitely thought-leaders on this issue who made such claims. Here are some from Michael Pollan, in his own book:

    And as nauseating as it is to call Mike Adams a thought leader in this arena, we all know his stuff is repeated endlessly as legit:

    It is hilarious to me to see everyone walk away from this claim. Dudes, we have the evidence.

  2. michael artinian says:

    Not once did the study mention “GMO” or “genetically modified,” which makes one wonder what they were comparing organic food to (not oragnic doesn’t necessarily mean GMO). As for pesticides within safety levels, organic food still has significantly less, and the safety levels themselves have been a topic of debate for quite a while. Also, certain organic foods were more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts, such as omega-3’s. Have you wondered who was behind the study? I recommend checking this out –>

    • The argument on the blog you reference seem to be that Stanford receives money from corporate donors, the research must be flawed,
      GMOs were obviously outside of the scope of the paper. However, if GMOs had been included by default, it still points out that lack of difference in nutritional value.
      Again, the safety measures are totally outside the scope of the paper.

      There may be personal reasons why you choose to eat organic food, and that is fine. Just remember, your decision is not backed by differences in nutrition.

  3. Caribsays says:

    The point you are missing is that organic food tastes better, texture is better and has been grown without recourse to harmful chemicals…my Dad was a small holder and saw how big and beautiful non organic crops grew but did not last any more than a couple days in the firdge. CHickens likewise.

  4. I spent the first 35 years on a farm and i have continued to garden over most of the next 20. In general, fresh fruits and vegetables do taste batter than those that have been shipped long distances and been on the shelf in the produce section for longer periods of time. In my experience, much organic produce is sold through farmer’s markets where there is a very short time between field and table. This is the primary difference in taste between organic and non-organic. I also have never noticed a difference in the storage of organic and non-organic produce that wasn’t directly explained by this same field to table time difference.

    The issue of the ‘harmful’ chemicals is also addressed in the paper.

    • CC says:

      There’s the freshness issue, one reason I buy all my veggies at the farm market in the summer when they’re running, and the other is which variety of fruit or veggie you are getting. Seriously, supermarket strawberries (giant and mostly tasteless, but travels well) and the variety I grow in my backyard (small, but gloriously flavourful) just can’t be compared.

      I’ve noticed that organic vendors are more likely to be growing heritage varieties that you just don’t see in supermarkets. (And tomatoes. OMG heritage variety tomatoes are so TASTY. I don’t buy supermarket tomatoes anymore either. Like the strawberries, I do without when they’re not in season. Life’s too short to eat bland strawberries.)

      Generally I only buy certified-organic where they have stuff the non-certified-organic (and thus less expensive) farm market stand doesn’t have. (Or if it looks better. The certified-organic stand usually has much nicer-looking chard than the other stands at my local farm market.)

      • You obviously have the money and are able to make that kind of choice. Food from farmer’s markets is generally fresher and tastier than anything you buy in the supermarket, organic or modern. As long as you and others understand what the difference is.

      • CC says:

        Yes, entirely true. I’m glad I both have the money to take this option, and that there are local farmers who grow great food for me to buy.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Reading « Science-Based Pharmacy

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