If Wikipedia is to be believed, less than 10% of organic farmers use pesticides and when they do it is often in concert with other strategies. I feel like the rise of organic as a narrative/lifestyle/ideology has been hastened by the rise of genetically modified crops in the conventional realm. It’s also highly ironic that Bt pesticides are in the toolkit for organic farming but decried when used as part of genetic modification.
There are some potential positives to organic farming but I agree it’s been far inflated beyond just farming production methods. Companies are advertising “organic” vitamins now and it’s gotten to the point where the average consumer sometimes forgets that it does really just refer to a set of farming practices. Looking at the marketing through the lens of semiotics, it’s clear the organic brand is supposed to embody a “safe”, “natural” and “pure” harbour in the face of tainted conventional practices.
Organic farming does offer some methods with solid environmental benefits, but the history of organic farming is deeply intertwined with pseudoscience and woo, and too often the term “organic” is an umbrella term used to mask even less evidence based systems such as “Biodynamic Farming” (the agricultural soul mate to alt med).
Ultimately though I think the authors of the report hit the nail on the head. In marketing organic foods it’s proponents quickly realized that there would be limited success if they simply stuck with the environmental claims. Fear sells. “Your food is covered in harmful pesticides” is a far better motivator than “fertilizer run off is contributing to a dead zone in the gulf of mexico”. This problem only grows larger when you factor in the premium pricing of organic products. I personally suspect that the misinformation is not one of pure evil and greed, so much as it is a more complex mix of confirmation bias, dogma, and desperation of “the ends justify the means” (and yes maybe some greed as well. Organic has become a very profitable business model).
I just finished Pam Ronald’s book “Tomorrow’s Table”. She wrote the book with her husband who runs the organic farm at UC Davis, and so a small number of chapters in the book discuss organic farming specifically. After finishing it I’ve come to the conclusion that while organic farming has brought some good things to the table in the form of promoting more sustainable agriculture (and it is hard to deny that the Organic Movement has played a major role in raising awareness of environmental and agricultural issues), it’s restrictions are just far too arbitrarily chosen to be an effective environmental tool. As Dr. Novella correctly points out these same arbitrary-all-natural restrictions are now being used to place roadblocks in front of potentially effective tools that could help solve these issues. Rather than label and demonize GMOs we would be far better off nurturing the tech to help solve environmental issues. Particularly since the simple reality is Biotech is a field that can motivate far more profit for both farmers and corporations, while providing consumers with cheaper food. This is simply not the hard sell that “Certified Organic” is.
In this way the Organic farming industry starts to hurt the very causes it set out to solve. The rigid dogma protects itself at all costs, forgetting the causes for which it was first developed.
Ekko – I decided to briefly look into that 10% figure. First, in the wikipedia article they are referring to insecticides specifically, excluding herbicides and fungicides, and in following the citation trail… the wikipedia entry cites a 2002 article titled “Organic Agriculture.” This article is an overview by Donald Lotter of the Rodale Institute, which is basically an organic agriculture advocacy group. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it does not read like a balanced paper, and that isn’t even the source of the figure.
The 10% statement in that paper cites a 1999 survey of organic farmers called “The third biennial National Organic Farmers’ Survey.” Keep in mind that this data is at least 2 years before the USDA even standardized the organic label, and 3 years before it went into effect. So we have data from 15 years ago from a survey about an industry that has changed considerably since that time. For me, what the industry reports that they do is less important than the bottom line – are those products made safer by having the arbitrary preference for nonsynthetic pesticides? I think my use of the term arbitrary gives a clue to what I think about that.
Hi Steve, I like linking to your posts elsewhere. I realized I didn’t know what the “A” in “AGW” stood for–I assumed it was something-Global-Warming). For readers that don’t frequent your blog, would you mind spelling out acronyms/initialisms the first time they’re used?
Thanks ccbowers – definitely sounds like that factoid could use an update then.
There is a 2008 survey on the USDA website of organic farm practices but it only uses “Practiced
biological pest management” as an endpoint that could cover pesticides (I’m not sure if there are other practices besides pesticide use that would go in there) and the survey only lists positive responders so I don’t know what % of the total they would be. http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Organics/organics_1_32.pdf
I’m not aware of any GMO advocates who believe that they are the be-all end-all panacea. The advocates I’ve ever known have always maintained that it’s one tool in the agricultural kit, among many. Also, the sustainable farming that organic touts isn’t lost on most conventional farmers as they want to strive for the future as well, meaning that it would be in their best interest to use methods that are the most productive and at the same time the least destructive (at least in terms of how it would affect them economically). I don’t think any GMO advocate disagrees with sustainable methods that are the most environmentally friendly.
What I do think the actual false dichotomy is is GMO vs. Organic. Their goals aren’t always diametrically opposed, the only true difference is that USDA Organic is supposed to be mostly GMO-free. There really is little difference between conventional farming and the use of GMOs, except in specific details such as the kind of pesticide used, or whatever trait is being leveraged with the particular GM seed.
The loudest voices we here from pro-GMO is that of defending the science and against misinformation. Most GMO advocates spend more time debunking myths and correcting factual inaccuracies than actually promoting GMOs themselves. In my estimation, that’s skepticism at work. What does get to GMO advocates is the suggestion that GMOs should not be used, period, for no good reason that’s ever given, and this would limit a highly useful resource. Why do that? Plus, we don’t like it when the science is mangled and bastardized.
So, the issue of organic vs. GMO is something the organic industry has made up in concert with environmentalist and food purists. In reality, the efficacy of organic production and the truth claims of its proponents are different arguments to that of GMOs. The thing is, the organic industry and other proponents try to make organic out to be the “healthy” alternative to GMOs, when it’s really comparing apples and oranges (no pun intended).
I absolutely agree with this blog post, though, in that the organic label is almost entirely based on fallacious reasoning, factual errors, weak science, and pseudoscience. I have yet to see any real benefits to organic. In some ways, its heart is in the right place with the desire to practice maximum sustainability and environmental friendliness, but it gets those things wrong in nearly every regard. Plus, it forms the erroneous conclusion that anyone who questions claims made by organic producers as well as is for the utilization of ALL modern farming tools, technologies, and techniques, is necessarily against, or just doesn’t care about, sustainability and environmental impact. Like many pseudoscientific proponents, they are setting up an emotionally charged “us versus them” argument that is based on falsehoods and fallacious reasoning.
I was once associated with the organic movement. I worked at an organic farm for four years, fancied myself an organic gardener…without really looking too deeply into what it really meant.
I spent a weekend at The Common Ground Fair in Maine helping a vendor back in 2002. Perusing the other booths, I found it to be a real alt/med, woo-woo dumping ground. Reiki, reflexology, homeopathy, herbal “remedies,” you name it, it was all there. That was clue number one.
Clue number two was reading Bob Carroll’s entry on organic food/farming in his Skeptics Dictionary. I was shocked, I tell you! I never bought the more healthy/safer line, but I was convinced organic was the “sustainable” way to go in a post-oil world… …but what exactly does sustainable mean?
In April of 2010, I found myself as an employee of an organic farm attending a workshop on how to properly apply organic pesticides… …I needed to be trained just like those awful “conventional” farmers.
Anyone smell cognitive dissonance?
Reading and researching the organic movement, I’m now more apt to view “organic” as an identity rather than as a set of farming techniques, and I’ve written extensively of my disillusionment with the whole thing:
A question – did the fear about toxins grow out of organic food or did organic food grow out of the fear about toxins? I was still pretty young in 2001, so I don’t remember much useful about the narratives that were flying back and forth back then.
MikeB – I wonder if you could help me out with some cognitive dissonance of my own. I’m a skeptic. I understand false dichotomy, the logical fallacies, and even some of the non-environmentally friendly aspects of organic farming. But … and this could be for any number of reasons…. certain organic vegetables do taste, look, and smell better than their conventional counterparts (includes fresh/frozen). I’ve reasoned this could be for a number of reasons: Of labels I’ve purchased: 1. the conventional products have been on the shelf longer, so the organic, on average are fresher because of shipping/stocking/buying/selling practices of the vendor from whom I purchase; 2. total confirmation bias, I’m paying more, it has the label, I’m shelling out cash to change how I perceive the item in my forebrain, which changes how I perceive the item in my olfactory center & visual comparisons; 3. Organic foods have less water, so the nutrients and flavonoids are more concentrated, therefore more colorful/flavorful; 4. Organic foods require more water, more nutrients, longer growing periods, so they accumulate nutrients, minerals, etc. over longer period of time; 5. Conventional foods are chemically fertilized so don’t have any of the characteristics of the “natural” soil/air/water that would surround them (like how a single malt scotch gets the salt / oak / earth / mushroom flavor based on where/how/when it was aged). …… I dunno … are all vegetables the same? Am I completely fooling myself? Seriously … grandpa’s tomatoes are WAY better than store-bought; and organic ketchup is (seems) better than conventional.
Aside from a few minor differences within specific cultivars, in all likelihood taste differences will result from consuming different cultivars of the same plant. Tomatoes, for instance, vary quite differently between Early Girl and Beef, in both taste and texture, and these are a mere two examples out of thousands of different cultivars.
Also, it’s possible for tomatoes of the same cultivar to vary in taste and freshness depending on growing conditions, but typically not by much.
Penn and Teller do a decent BS episode on organic where they offer organic versus conventionally grown produce for blind taste testing at a farmer’s market, with entertaining results. Not scientific, but informs nonetheless.
etatro, honestly, I don’t know how it could possibly be true. Was the “organic” produce simply fresher? Put an “organic” label on anything and people will think they can tell the difference.
As for “chemical fertilizer”: that’s a pejorative phrase. I understand that plants reduce the inputs–whether “natural” or “chemical”–to their elements anyway, so a plant can’t possibly tell the difference between whether the element is coming from manure or a bag of 10-10-10.
And what is “conventional produce”? What is “conventional farming”? It’s a straw man, that’s what. Like the terms “gentile,” or “infidel,” or “pagan,” “conventional” is yet another pejorative term that simply means “those who are not one of Us [organic].”
By the way–Barbara Kucinich, in conjunction with the Holy Sanctuary of Chipotle Restaurant, is pushing a “link” between pesticides use and Parkinson’s disease. I wonder if anyone can comment on that. Sometimes I hate being a lay person:
Kudos for asking your question – you are indeed a good skeptic.
Grandpa’s tomatoes versus store bought is not at all about organic versus conventional farming. It’s about freshness, shipping, and tomato variety. Imagine Grandpa divided his tomato patch in half. On one side he used standard 10-10-10 fertilizer, Round-up on weeds, and an application of Terminix for hornworms. On the other half he uses cow manure, hand weeding and hand picks the worms. All other things being equal, do you think the tomatoes would taste differently? Would you be more concerned about pesticide residue on your tomatoes, or about bacteria from cow manure?
I dunno … are all vegetables the same? Am I completely fooling myself? Seriously … grandpa’s tomatoes are WAY better than store-bought; and organic ketchup is (seems) better than conventional.
We don’t know the reasons for our likes and dislikes, and even when there is, scientifically speaking, no difference between organic and non-organic food, there is nothing wrong with preferring one thing over another. It’s OK to prefer raspberries over strawberries, or vice-versa.
The problems start with the rationalizations our brains engage in when confronted (at the conscious level) with our actions. Somehow, “I like it better” is not acceptable as a reason, and we proceed to invent “real” reasons. The more zealous (and the less scrupulous) segue into wanting to impose their rationalizations on others, with force if necessary. This is compounded by our social nature, which causes us to adopt the beliefs (and manners, habits etc) of the people we live with. This process modifies our memories, and we end up re-creating our lives to be in line with our current belief system (so we really remember feeling less healthy and vigorous before that change in diet). Human memory is not a rigorous reference, but a survival tool — if we need fixed-up memories to integrate in a new group, they will be fixed up.
No need to feel bad though. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Etatro – My understanding is that it is mostly about cultivar. Mass produced produce has been optimized for shipping, shelf life, and shelf appeal, at the expense of taste.
When you buy local you are likely to be getting heirloom varieties that are better tasting, but are not suitable for shipping or long storage.
When you control for variety, taste tests show no difference in organic vs conventional.
The good news is that plant breeders (including GM) are creating new heirloom varieties and are working on improving the taste and nutritional value of varieties used for shipping. This derives mainly from research into which genes have what affects on the produce’s characteristics.
Sustainable agriculture is the key. Without it we’re doomed as a species. We (as in people other than myself) should create a sustainability accreditation process, kind of like they’ve done for forestry products. Imo, it should be completely separated out from organic accreditation.
“When you buy local you are likely to be getting heirloom varieties that are better tasting, but are not suitable for shipping or long storage.”
Using the example of tomatoes, it’s true that heirloom varieties tend to be softer and irregularly shaped, which is problematic for shipping, but there are other considerations with climacteric fruits. Climacteric fruits (i.e those that undergo a specific ripening process utilizing ethylene) such as tomatoes, apricots, bananas, apples, pears, etc, are usually picked prior to full ripening, which aids in shipping since the fruit has not softened. Once reaching its destination, ethylene is used to finish the ripening, but this process is compromised somewhat since the fruit has already been picked. This can impact the flavor, so that you end up with a good looking fruits that tastes only OK.
I came across an NPR article in which they described how appearance preferences of uniformity decades ago lead to a compromise in flavor. On a positive note, this appears to be reversible without too much difficulty:
I’m thinking much of your experience is confirmation bias, but it is very possible that in your area you have an organic supplier that has good produce. I have noticed differences in other organic products like ketchup or other prepared products, In these cases the manufacturers are attempting to distinguish their products in order to further justify the higher cost for consumers. Sometimes I’ve found this to be better, but not always nor even usually. I tend to go back to products I like the taste better regardless of organic label.
You are mostly right, climacteric fruits ripen after harvest, but they don’t always require an external source of ethylene.
For instance, peach, like apricot, is a climacteric fruit; as long as it is picked fully mature, it will produce it’s own ethylene and soften to eating ripe all by itself. Best to ripen peaches and apricots at room temperature. Once fully ripe and ready to eat, eat it or put it in the Fridge for the next day, but not later than that. Put them in an open-top brown bag if you want to hasten the process by keeping more naturally evolved ethylene around the fruit.
Grapes, on the other hand, are non-climacteric; they are harvested fully ripe and don’t get any better than the day they were picked. Ditto for citrus, but with a twist. The flesh of an orange may be ready to eat even though the skin has a bit of green in it. Soon after harvest, oranges may be gassed with ethylene in degreening rooms to make them more attractive, but they are still a non-climacteric fruit.
Sustainable agriculture is the key. Without it we’re doomed as a species.
Sustainable implies for a certain population. Unless we can no longer grow any food, the result of a decrease in food production will be a commensurate decrease in population. The survival of the species is not the problem, it’s the untimely demise of a (potentially very large) number of humans, and how this will be “managed”.
I’m glad to get a little more perspective on cultivars and the selective pressures the market put on the crops. I’m also glad that it’s been pointed out that subjective preferences are a big factor on the issue of taste, since I’ve rolled my eyes on occasion when some organic fan speaks of better taste as if it were objective. It’s got something of a hipster tone, as if people only liked mainstream stuff because they don’t know about their objectively superior obscure niche.
“You are mostly right, climacteric fruits ripen after harvest, but they don’t always require an external source of ethylene.”
I didn’t mean to imply otherwise- I realize that etheylene (ethene) is a hormone that is within the cells of the plant and are not always externally added, but external sources are used with certain fruits like tomatoes. Actually I meant to discuss tomatoes specifically then added other fruits as examples. The point of bringing it up was to mention how flavor can be compromised by having to pick those fruits early, which is a somewhat separate issue from what was being discussed above- the specific cultivars used today versus heirloom varieties.
I realize that each fruit is handled somewhat differently depending on their individual characteristics. Apples seem odd to me, because they are a climacteric fruit that don’t seem to change much, or improve in flavor or texture once picked. I assume that it is probably due to their very slow ripening/aging after being picked, or that the ripening/aging that does occur is not viewed as necessarily desirable.
I actually read through the referenced paper! My take away from their analysis is to ask “Why is there USDA Organic Labeling in the first place?” Why bother if its all a marketing scam? They spend
the whole paper debunking organic foods from many angles. The ultimate answer according to this
paper is its all smoke and mirrors in an effort to suck in the segment of Eco/Health centered
consumers. They infer collusion amongst the the organic health hucksters marketing claims. “This use of the USDA Organic Seal to convey superior food nutrition, safety or quality attributes of organic over conventional foods contradicts both the stated USDA intention for the National Organic
Standards Program and the extensive body of published academic research which show conventional foods to be as safe and nutritious as higher priced organic products.” Again why does the USDA offer organic labeling?
They cast the commercial foods industry as being overrun by the flood of organic food propaganda
confusing the marketplace. The last paragraph of their analysis states “These combined marketing
and advocacy expenditures disparaging conventional food health and safety by organic food marketers can be estimated to be in the billions of dollars annually. However it would be interesting to see what would happen if a corresponding product disparagement campaign by conventional food industry competitors was run. It is likely any similar types of disparagement marketing and use of false or misleading health claims to increase conventional sales would result in condemning media headlines and editorials, mass tort litigation and congressional hearings.”
This statement is directly refuted by examining the The California (Prop 37) and Washington (522)
state propositions to label GMO products. In both states a Yes vote was in favor of labeling. Both were defeated.
“The Yes on 522 campaign has raised almost $5.6 million from organic consumer groups, anti-GMO
groups, alternative health firms and organics companies such as Nutiva, Natures Path Foods and
Annie’s Inc. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps tops the list with $1.8 million in contributions to Yes on
California Organic Principles are aligned with this statement from Steven’s post:
“Rather, it would be better to evaluate each farming practice on the evidence and the outcomes it
produces, regardless of whether or not it fits a naturalistic narrative. Some practices considered
“organic” are really just good sustainable practices, such as avoiding monoculture, crop rotation, and using cover crops. The evidence suggests these are good practices, whether or not they are part of achieving an “organic” label or not.”
California Organic Principles state:
Organic standards promote and enhance biodiversity, biologicalcycles, and soil fertility while
restoring, maintaining, and enhancing ecological harmony. The legacy of organic will be in catalyzing healthy, sustainable, and humane production systems. CCOF believes that organic standards should continually evolve to address a broadening range of issues, including:
These principles subvert the strawman argument of creating a equivalency between organic and commercial foods. Obviously how organic farming is practiced varies greatly from CAFO and other commercial practices.
More simply commercial food operations do not care about these principles. They care about profits.
My last point is this!
Counter argument to the Appeal to Nature/Natural Fallacy argument:
A thousand millenia ago there was nothing but appeal to nature.
The appeal to nature/natural fallacy misstep referenced in this post (and others) did not and could not have existed.
In our primordial past all food was natural.
Our genetic code was built from interacting with the natural environment.
Human beings are optimized for the natural environment and foods from it.
A fossil fuel based existence was not a factor in our base line genetic blueprint.
By dismissing appeals to nature as a fallacy we are rejecting the very evolutionary process that
makes us who we are.
Granting equivalency to commercially manufactured foods and associated ingredients is the real fallacy.
Lets call it the Industrial Food Fallacy. (I am open to alternate name suggestions)
Therefore appeals to nature/Natural Fallacy is ARE a valid point when discussing the merits of commercial and organic foods. To deny the natural fallacy in regards to food/environmental health is to deny our evolutionary past.
Here are some studies and articles about other studies that offer evidence to the contrary about
organics and their nutrient density as well as other issues surrounding organic foods. Good ahead
and laugh at my references! I don’t mind!
@Teaser – “This statement is directly refuted by examining the The California (Prop 37) and Washington (522) state propositions to label GMO products.”
This in no way refutes, or even challenges, the statement you quoted. In the statement it was claimed that organic marketing is disparaging the health and safety of their competitors products. Evoking fear with claims that are not backed up by science or evidence. As a result of such non-evidence based fear-mongering state propositions were initiated to enact non-science based mandatory labeling requirements. The organic promoters then spent millions to support and promote a labeling requirement that would harm their competition. Shockingly the groups that would be affected by such a non-evidence based labeling requirement spent money to counteract the misinformation being spread by the organic promoters. And the reality is that takes far more time and money to counteract fear-based lies once they have spread.
Second, you seem to have no understanding of what the appeal to nature fallacy is. Steve, did not mention that fallacy, but the closely related naturalistic fallacy (which I don’t think you understand either based on your post).
Organic producers knew from the start that the reasons consumers bought organic was because of perceptions related to nutrition and safety. They had tried to establish a set of standards at the state level beginning in Oregon in 1973. There was too much variability among those standards and that was harming the organic “brand” by confusing consumers, so the organic industry petitioned Congress to draft federal legislation.
In turn, Congress agreed that inconsistent labeling in the marketplace was leading to consumer confusion, and they were also concerns that, since organic products were being sold at premium prices, there was an incentive for misrepresentation. The Organic Food Protection Act was passed in 1990.
From a business point of view, this also served the interests of organic producers. Businesses spend a great deal of resources in trying to distinguish themselves from among the competition and establish brand recognition. By establishing the USDA Organic label, Congress helped the organic industry as a whole do just that. However, OFPA standards only address production methods, not the quality of the end product. In making quality claims, the organic industry is essentially misrepresenting that label.
When the final rule was written in 2000, the Secretary of Agriculture made a point to say that the label meant nothing in terms of food safety or nutrition, but the organic industry knew a good thing when they saw it. Congress had saved them a bunch of money by establishing brand recognition for them and the organic industry could make just about any claim they wanted knowing full well consumers would associate whatever they said with the USDA Organic label.
“The fallacy here is the same as in some other areas, like alternative medicine – things that are “natural” are presumed safe and superior, and therefore don’t have to be studied. This is nothing