Sep 07 2010

Organic Food Quality

In my perfect world major societal decisions would be based upon logic and evidence, not ideology. But humans are ideological creatures – we develop belief systems that we jealously defend, and are subject to confirmation bias so that we falsely believe the evidence supports our ideology.

For example, I have never been a fan of organic farming. I have nothing specific against it, however it seems to me that the increasing popularity of organic farming is based largely on ideology (a naturalistic fallacy) than on evidence. I have no dog in that hunt, as they say – no vested interest in organic vs conventional farming at all. I really cannot think of a reason why I would care one way or the other – I simply want what works. Whatever farming methods are the most efficient and sustainable, producing the highest quality and cost-effective food – that’s what I support.

Organic farming is an odd mix of beliefs that are historically based upon the vague notion that “natural” is better. That does not mean that some good ideas have not emerged from the culture of organic farming, and I think if it has anything to offer it is a strong advocacy of sustainable farming. But when I listen to advocates, either personally or in a public forum, they seem to focus on a few specific claims that are rather dubious. I hear a lot about the evils of “big agro” and how organic farming supports small local farmers. However, if you buy organic at your supermarket you are likely buying from a “big agro” company that likes the higher profit margins of organic produce.

But the most common justification I hear for the higher price of organic food is that they are more nutritious. This is perhaps the one aspect of organic food that has the most evidence available to judge. The simple fact is there is no advantage to organic food vs convention food with regard to nutrition. One recent systematic review of published literature looking at nutrient content concluded:

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. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

Another recent systematic review, looking at health effects (rather than nutrient content) concluded:

From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.

So the best evidence we have to date indicates that organic food is neither more nutritious nor more healthful than conventionally grown food. Some people may support organic farming for other reasons, but the evidence does not support claims for nutritional or health superiority. I think the jury is still out regarding effects on the environment, and there is even evidence to suggest that organic farming may be worse for the environment.

But back to food quality – there is a recent study comparing organically grown to conventionally grown strawberries. This is a nice direct comparison. In the abstract the authors conclude:

Our findings show that the organic strawberry farms produced higher quality fruit and that their higher quality soils may have greater microbial functional capability and resilience to stress. These findings justify additional investigations aimed at detecting and quantifying such effects and their interactions.

The second claim seems non-controversial – organic farming methods cultivate a soil microbial system more than conventional methods. This finding is therefore no surprise, although it’s implications are unclear.

But I was struck by the first conclusion – that organic strawberries are “higher quality fruit”. Perhaps for some produce certain organic methods do have advantages – again, I will go wherever the evidence leads. But when I read the actual study I found that the data do not support the authors conclusions. You can look through the tables and decide for yourself how you would summarize the data, but in the body of the paper they report:

Leaf P (phosphorous) and fruit P and K (potassium) concentrations were significantly higher in conventionally grown strawberry plants than in organically grown plants; leaf Mg and fruit N (nitrogen) were also notably higher (P<0.10) in conventionally grown strawberry plants. All other strawberry and leaf nutrient concentrations were similar.

And elsewhere they note:

Organic strawberries had significantly higher total antioxidant activity (8.5% more), ascorbic acid (9.7% more), and total phenolics (10.5% more) than conventional berries, but significantly less phosphorus (13.6% less) and potassium (9.1% less).

So – the conventionally grown strawberries had some advantages, while organic strawberries had others, and otherwise the nutrient content was the same. How does that make organic strawberries superior? You get slightly more of a couple vitamins with organic strawberries, and slightly more minerals with conventional strawberries.  This seems like no significant difference to me.

You also have to consider that they were comparing multiple varieties of organic and conventional strawberries and making multiple comparisons. This looks like a scatter shot of random results from looking at tons of comparisons. There was no consistent pattern of superiority to any variety studied. Again – look through the tables and see for yourself.

They also found that organic strawberries were smaller (not surprising), which also means they were denser and redder. With one variety subjects rated the organic strawberries as more appealing, with another no difference, and with a third they rated the conventional strawberries better. Again – seems like a wash to me, but the authors emphasize that in one variety the organics were rated higher.

Conclusion:

I remain unconvinced that there is any advantage to organic farming. This study, if anything, supports the conclusion that there is no significant difference. Organic produce tends to be smaller and denser, and may have slightly higher concentrations of some vitamins (but not significant in terms of nutrition and health), while conventional produce has higher nitrogen and certain minerals. This makes sense based upon the methods of fertilizer used, and is consistent with previous studies. Bottom line – these are minor differences with no real impact on health and nutrition.

But the bigger issue is that organic farming is an eclectic collection of methods grouped together for purely ideological reasons (based largely on the naturalistic fallacy). In my opinion it would be better to judge each farming method on its own merits, based upon the best evidence available.

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104 responses so far

104 Responses to “Organic Food Quality”

  1. Sprawnon 07 Sep 2010 at 8:55 am

    The organic food problem illustrates several uncomfortable issues to me. First, the willingness of most people to believe a story over data. Second, the near inability of people to make sense of data when it is present. Third, how people will pay more for a good feeling.

    When I see the “Organic” label, I am unmoved. I have no way to verify it (someone would have to talk to a lot of farmers, sorters, pickers, and so on to verify such a thing), but I would not be surprised to hear that so-called “organic” foods are merely the best-looking conventionally grown produce, picked out of the line and handled more gently throughout the whole transportation and display process. How could anyone tell the difference? And if the trucks arrive and the crates say “Organic” on them how would anyone ever know? There is simply no way of knowing.

    I am certain that there are “Organic” farmers out there, conscientiously trying to improve the means of producing our food, hoping that there methods will be more sustainable, and their output will be nutritionally superior. But these conscientious growers are not in a vacuum. They are in direct competition with other organizations where it is not only difficult but well-nigh impossible to track produce from the fields to the display case. With the price markup for the organic label who would ever know?

    The incentive is there for “accidental” mislabeling. And it is totally and completely untrackable.

  2. einnivon 07 Sep 2010 at 9:00 am

    As someone who worked in a microbiology lab of an Agronomy dept in college, I always assumed the organic farming thing was more about land/environment management than health. Even this is far from clear but it does appear that organic, low-till farming might be even better, in some situations, than no-till for building healthy soils (see http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jul07/soil0707.htm).There are of course also issues with fertilizer and pesticide. Not on the food itself, but as runoff in to the environment. Fertilizer is actually a bigger problem in that area than pesticide (most people assume the opposite).

    There are also economic and political issues which may depend on one’s values. Improving low input and traditional techniques (such as crop rotation) may benefit developing world farmers the most. Is it better to support high input farming that requires a large supply of capital in developing countries? Well it depends on what you want. High input farming usually results in people being forced off their land where they may not be living the high life but at least they can support themselves and have a rural support network. They end up in , often disease ridden, slums fighting for factory jobs with everyone else that got pushed off their land. To me it isn’t really worth it. Human dignity may not be easy to put a price tag on but it is worth something imo.

    But ,yeah, it doesn’t surprise me there aren’t really any health effects. NPK is NPK is NPK. Unless there were significant trace nutrient differences we shouldn’t expect to see much difference there.

  3. John Ellison 07 Sep 2010 at 9:41 am

    FYI there was another review of organic food health claims recently. It also tracks the crappy media reporting and dubious claims of organic advocates.
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2010.00108.x/full

  4. Brian the Coyoteon 07 Sep 2010 at 10:30 am

    I think that as recently as there may have been a difference in organic produce but not for the reasons that organic advocates may believe.

    I come from a farming background going several generations back. When you live in a farming community it becomes clear that there all farmers are not created equal. Some are better than others, usually because they care more than others. My family’s farm was never an organic farm but we used far less herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers than most and still had better crop yields. The difference was that this was a family farm with generational knowledge of the land and it could be micro-managed to get the best crops. My late grandfather is almost a legend for pulling off good wheat crops even in bad years.

    So when becoming an organic farm first became a business option I think many of the first farmers attrracted to it were the good farmers who had a grasp of the husbandry of the land and simply carried those good practices to their organic operations.

    When organic farming became just another big agri-business all of that, for better or worse, was lost.

    All emotions and nostalgia aside, Steve is right. With 7-plus Billion people to feed agriculture needs to be about getting the most from limited resources. “Organic” has become just another statement of conspicuous consumption.

  5. Alain Miville de Cheneon 07 Sep 2010 at 10:39 am

    Modern agriculture has a host of undesirable consequences.

    Dead zones in the sea are produced by fertilizer runoff.
    Nitrates pollute groundwater.
    Fertile soils are impoverished by erosion and the collapse of their biological structure. Their function as CO2 sinks is greatly reduced.
    Mono-culture of a few varieties of plant species leaves us open to sudden devastating destruction by pests and fungus (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/19/rust-fungus-global-wheat-crops).
    By promoting the use of GM seeds, it is removing the possibility of farmers being allowed to reseed their fields from last year’s crop.
    It is highly dependent on petroleum for its fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

    Large scale organic agriculture can obviate these consequences while producing as much or more per hectare. It can actually rebuild degraded lands.

    Things are as they are not necessarily because they are the best way possible, but because there are large vested interests which will do all they can to keep things running their way. This is the way of the world. The system we have produces a lot of food but come with a lot of problems. It needs transformation to become more benign and especially sustainable.

    Organic produce is almost indistinguishable from non-organic as far as looks, taste, and contents goes. Organics are better for the planet and people as a system of production.

  6. aquademiaon 07 Sep 2010 at 10:42 am

    I understand the natural fallacy perfectly, and I am unmoved by claims that there is no evidence that organic food is better. The emphasis should be on “there is no evidence” — not yet. I buy organic food for what it doesn’t contain — pesticides — as well as for its sustainability.

  7. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 11:15 am

    OK, two post attempts later, testing…

  8. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 11:26 am

    Well said, eiinniv.

    To paraphrase philosopher Daniel Dennett: If you make youself really small, you can externalize virtually everything.

    Although he originally made that statement with respect to the subject of free will (which comes up here on occasion),

    it seems to apply just as well to how one looks at agriculture, which leads me to my next comment…

  9. superdaveon 07 Sep 2010 at 11:32 am

    @aqua
    Some non organic food has fewer pesticides than some organic foods. Aside from that, I find the experience of farmers markets that typically sell organic food more pleasant and fun than the supermarket but other than that see no real advantage.

  10. David in NYCon 07 Sep 2010 at 11:41 am

    I can’t believe there’s no mention of pesticides in the article, and only one mention in the comments.

    I buy organic when I can, and I have never once thought that the fruit or vegetables themselves are more nutritious.

    I’ve bought because I support local farmers, because I know in most cases the methods of production and distribution are more environmentally sound, and because I don’t want to eat all the crap that the big companies put in their food to ensure that the crops are big and bountiful and beautiful to look at.

    How many studies need to come out that show that additives to foods are bad for us? And, the religious view of SCIENCE is getting in the way, because it is impossible for one study to replicate the deleterious effects. It takes years of accumulation of these additives, plus other stressors on our system from our polluted environment to result in damage.

  11. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 11:41 am

    OK, WordPress is giving me grief again. I’ll give this one more try:

    The article linked above only supports the conclusion that “organic farming may be worse for the environment” (as Dr. Novella put it) if one externalizes all of the factors ignored in the study (e.g. biodiversity, improved landscape, animal welfare, soil condition, and water use – not to mention all of the foods that didn’t make the “pitfalls” list, which might fare better). Forgive me if I am unwilling to do so.

    Even the Wikipedia entry on organic farming seems to give a more comprehensive review, or at least works as a starting point to supplementary studies. It also provides some grounds for skepticism of (ideologically or commercially motivated) claims of having “debunked” organic methods.

    Hey, I don’t mind if some folks react with a warm fuzzy feeling to conventional methods. I only mind when they act like anyone who reacts that way to organic methods is less rational than they are.

  12. Ufoon 07 Sep 2010 at 11:49 am

    Here’s a link to a podcast with the guys who made the strawberry study:

    http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/510221/129638194/npr_129638194.mp3

    http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201009035

    The interviewer is giving them a lot of slack I think, and they still come across as dodging some important issues. Anyways, everything is worth looking into.

    Ufo

  13. RichWilsonon 07 Sep 2010 at 11:50 am

    @Sprawn
    I’m not sure about other countries, or what country you’re in, but in the US there are several Organic accreditation agencies, including the USDA. It does mean I have to trust the agency that is vouching for the farmer and the supply chain, but I can’t go out and interview the original source for anything else in life. The downside is that getting certified can be expensive. When someone at the local farmer’s market tells me their stuff is organic, they just can’t afford all the paperwork, I really have nothing but their word.

    All that said, I’m less concerned with the quality of the actual food, and more with the environmental impact. e.g. Methyl Bromide and Methyl Iodide in strawberry production, antibiotics not for bacterial control but for growth in livestock.

  14. davewon 07 Sep 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I think there is goal-post shifting happening on both sides of the argument. As Steve and a number of commenters add to is there are potentially many advantages to organic farming. In order to say whether it is better you first have to define what you mean by “organic” and then define what you mean by “better”.

    My notion of organic aligns with Rodale’s idea which is usually called “sustainable” in today’s parlance. The article hints that the style of organic farming is more sustainable. I know some more research is being done in this area and I eagerly wait the results.

    I know the stuff I grow and the farmer down the street grows fit the best definition of sustainable I have been able to come up with so this is mostly what I eat. In the megamart I’ll generally buy organic produce so I don’t have to think about pesticide residue. Whether a box of crackers is labeled organic or not I really couldn’t care.

  15. Steven Novellaon 07 Sep 2010 at 12:19 pm

    This article was not about pesticides or about sustainability or the environment. I was about food quality (just like the title says) – so forgive me if it is not a comprehensive treaty on all things organic.

    I made a side comment about the environment to make a simple point – this remains controversial. It cannot be taken for granted that organic farming is better for the environment.

    And I will emphasize, there is a problem with using the very concept of “organic” farming as if it is one thing – it is a collection of methods, some may be good while others are bad or neutral. It’s about marketing and ideology.

    Regarding pesticides – organic farming uses pesticides. They just use “natural” pesticides – but there is no reason to think they are any safer. They generally require higher or more frequent dosing, and may in fact be worse for the environment. They are not as well studied, based upon the false assurance that they are “natural.” They are a perfect example of substituting actual evidence with a warm and fuzzy ideology. Don’t look too carefully at the actual evidence – it’s all “natural.”

    But that is a topic for a separate blog entry – too much for one comment.

  16. sonicon 07 Sep 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I use organic methods in my garden- the soil has gone from hardpan to very loose and rich.
    It was the conventional methods that took the soil from rich to hardpan.
    The big farms in my area seem to have problems with the soils (salt, lose of fertility) and this is what makes the interest in new farming methods.
    Besides, I can walk around in my yard without having to wear a gas mask.

  17. colluvialon 07 Sep 2010 at 12:57 pm

    While organic farming may encompass practices that preserve/enhance soil quality, minimize ecological impacts, and produce healthier plants, in some cases it may exhibit none of those things. The emphasis should be on practices and not on particular ingredients. Besides economically producing a crop, the important considerations are:

    Does it keep erosion at an acceptable (sustainable) level?
    Does it preserve soil quality by maintaining adequate levels of organic matter and nutrients?
    Does it limit nutrient loss to surface and ground water to levels that won’t cause undesirable changes (eutrophication) of nearby bodies of water?
    Does it use pesticides in ways that won’t harm humans and other species that are not the target?
    Does it support a landscape with species other than the main crop so that it’s not otherwise a biological wasteland?

  18. bleroyon 07 Sep 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Seems to me there are three possible reasons to choose so called organic food:
    Environmental impact, nutritional value/health impact and taste. While the post does an excellent job refuting the first two, the third one probably deserves and has been the subject of studies. Any pointers on that?

    +1 on pushing the debate to sustainable agriculture.

  19. stompsfrogson 07 Sep 2010 at 1:47 pm

    @ davew: Does “crackerizing” wheat make the pesticide residue go away?

    Stonyfield, the organic yogurt company, gets strawberries from China, apple puree from Turkey, blueberries from Canada, and bananas from Ecuador. And they’re looking at importing milk powder from New Zealand next. See, they had to expand after they were sold to Danone, the $17 billion French company.

    There’s some sustainable food right there.

    China: known for quality, not fake stuff, right? They still manufacture DDT there. They paint hills green for international TV cameras. And that’s where your “organic” food is coming from, because organic demand is way outstripping supply, because conventional farming produces more food and the USDA guidelines for the “organic” labeling are extremely lax. The No. 1 producer of organic milk in the US, Horizon Organic Dairy, has 8,000 cows in the Idaho desert. They constantly pump water to grow grass so that their livestock can have “access to pasture.” That’s all you need to technically be USDA organic. They don’t care how much access. Their livestock eat mainly feed, grazing is not the majority of their diet. Feed grown – get this – conventionally. The USDA has a list of exceptions you can include in your “organic” food, all you have to do is claim that an organic version is not available in the quality or quantity needed. Because really, where does one get organic fructooligosaccharides?

    /rant. sry :D

  20. John2on 07 Sep 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Unsurprisingly we get people saying that it’s not really about the nutrition (which, strangely, was not the story before the data was in…), others saying that its about pesticides (as mentioned by Dr Novella, organic farming is allowed pesticides, too, just not the modern ones that break down so well and so can actually increase the damage that they do), and others giving us the sort of anecdotes that we’d all scoff at if they were from an advocate of alternative medicine “I took ginseng, and my soil improved, It was not eating ginseng that made my soil hard”.

    For some reason, otherwise rational people still manage to have their woo sacred cows, and organic produce is a common one.

    Sonic, you did not need to wear a gas mask around your garden before. Many of us grew up in the heyday of pesticides, herbicides, additives, preservatives, and all sorts of bizarre colourings in our food, without gas masks, and we were not all dying en mass from these exposures.

  21. Steven Novellaon 07 Sep 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Regarding taste – no evidence for an advantage there either:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11833635
    and
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17995860

    But there are too few well-designed studies to say anything conclusive.

    We are still left with organics being marketed with claims for specific advantages that are not based upon solid science.

  22. daedalus2uon 07 Sep 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Plants only absorb inorganic nutrients. Organic sources of nutrients must be mineralized by bacteria (converted to non-organic compounds) before they can be absorbed and utilized by the plant.

    The regulations of what constitutes “organic” fertilizers are not consistent. Any type of manure is considered acceptable as an “organic” fertilizer, even from non-organic sources. A great many chicken producers (chickens for meat, not eggs) put arsenic in the feed. Chicken manure from such chickens has ~10 to 20 ppm arsenic and yet is still considered “organic” because it came out of a chicken. Why is manure from conventionally fed chicken considered “organic” when the eggs and meat of those chickens is not?

    Some suppliers of chicken manure go to great lengths to show that they have a certificate that says they are “organic” but don’t post a chemical analysis of their product. Some places do require fertilizers to be assayed for heavy metals and some fertilizer containing chicken manure has warnings to not use more than a certain amount per area of land. They don’t say why, but the reason is to not exceed the allowed arsenic loading.

    Organic farming is not the same as sustainable farming. Growing and harvesting crops removes bulk and trace nutrients from the soil. If those bulk and trace nutrients are not replaced, the soil will become depleted. Organic farming only allows organic sources of nutrients. If a particular soil is depleted in a single trace nutrient (zinc for example), why not just add zinc? Why add only “organic” fertilizers containing many other things which the soil is not deficient in? All that does is add cost and potential for excesses and runoff. To deliver a few pounds of zinc, why supply many tons of manure at increased cost, increased compaction of the ground and increased CO2 emissions for transport and as the manure is oxidized by soil bacteria?

    There is not enough organic fertilizer to supply the world’s soils with the nutrients that are being harvested from them. This is why manure from conventionally farmed animals, even animals that are given toxic compounds like arsenic is considered “organic”. If only manure from “organic” animals was considered to be organic fertilizer, there would not be enough and “organic” yields would plummet.

    Some nutrients like potassium are highly soluble and so leach and flow to the sea where potassium chloride is recovered by solar evaporation to make the chemical fertilizer muriate of potash. Why is muriate of potash from urine considered to be “organic” but muriate of potash from sea water is non-organic? It is the naturalistic fallacy.

  23. Calli Arcaleon 07 Sep 2010 at 2:28 pm

    What it comes down to is that there are individual practices that are probably more efficient and more sustainable — but they are not limited to organic farming. (Note that the term “organic”, as applied to produce sold in the US, has nothing to do with tillage or quantity of pesticides or acreage or crop rotation. It’s about what sorts of pesticides and fertilizers you use.) I think applying a buzzword is foolish, because it creates a pointless dichotomy, and because it fails to reward farmers who farm sustainably but use chemical fertilizers while rewarding farmers who farm irresponsibly but use organic fertilizers. (Yes, it is possible to farm irresponsibly and get the “organic” label.)

    There’s a bigger problem behind it, though: the strong but fairly ridiculous belief that there is only one best way to farm. Though the buyers of organic produce (as a whole, not individually) seem to think that the best way is to farm organically, that isn’t universally true. In fact, this idea of one correct farming method comes from conventional farming, and it’s not good. It seemed good in the mid-20th century when so much focus was on standardization, but farming is one area where we need to be more cautious about standardizing. Some methods, some breeds, etc are better suited to some areas and situations than others. Why do California dairies have largely the same cattle as Wisconsin dairies? It’s a very different climate. And then there’s the sudden fashion for Angus beef. Why? Is it really so much superior that ranchers should switch their herds entirely over to Black Angus? The loss of “heirloom” breeds of livestock and plants should be more concerning to the general public than they currently are. The loss of genetic diversity is more than just a bit of nostalgia; we lose flexibility in the face of looming climate change.

    There isn’t a “best” way to farm, and we should probably be cultivating a range of methods rather than obsessively focusing on a single method. And we shouldn’t have silly boxes for “organic” and “conventional”.

    Me, I like farmer’s markets. The produce usually happens to be organic, but that doesn’t really concern me. I’m more interested in supporting the hard-working people who grow it, and it’s neat getting to talk to them. It’s not some huge agri-giant hiring people of dubious legality who will have little recourse if the company treats them poorly. And it’s fun! The farmer’s market is open-air, and it’s almost got a carnival atmosphere. A lot more colorful than the supermarket, with artisans selling all sorts of things I probably wouldn’t have looked for and certainly would not have seen at Target.

    One product where I have noticed a difference is eggs. Not because of the organic part, or even the “no antibiotics” thing. Truly free-range hens eat bugs and stuff, and on a small farm, they probably also get table scraps. (My in-law’s hens do.) The more varied diet does affect the eggs, and I like the difference. The yolks are noticably darker in color, and richer in flavor. (Note, however, that I can only tell the difference if it’s plain eggs. If they’re mixed with anything else, like cheese or chocolate, that flavor difference is completely overpowered.)

  24. JasonEllison 07 Sep 2010 at 2:36 pm

    What about the recent study regarding ADHD and urinary concentrations of dialkyl phosphate metabolites of organophosphates in children?

    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/peds.2009-3058v1

    Wouldn’t this generally make the consumption of organics better without qualifying the notion that the composition of organics themselves is intrinsically superier to ‘GM’ foods?

    I’m not a current consumer of organics, but I am a Dad and naturally (no pun intended) concerned.

  25. Steven Novellaon 07 Sep 2010 at 2:58 pm

    The evidence for a link is preliminary, but let’s assume it’s real (a big assumption, but not crazy).

    You can minimize exposure by simply washing your produce. That is proven to dramatically reduce pesticide residue.

    Also – it may be that organophosphate pesticides need to be regulated differently.

    And further – we do not have good information on the safety of many organic pesticides.

    Calli got it right – “organic” vs “conventional” is a counterproductive false dichotomy. Each pesticide should be judged on its own merits by the evidence, and regulated accordingly.

  26. stompsfrogson 07 Sep 2010 at 3:15 pm

    “Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.”

    http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/06/synthetic-v-natural-pesticides/

    Reminds me of thimerosal.

  27. DEG80on 07 Sep 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I hesitate to post this because it borders on anecdotal given that I have no access to the data and the results were never intended to be published, but on the pesticide issue:

    I taught Instrumental Analysis at Berkeley twice (I’m a grad student in chemistry). One of the labs we had the students do was to test for pesticides on produce. The students were responsible to choose whatever produce they wanted from whatever source they wanted. Both semesters some students found conventional pesticides on supposedly organic produce from Berkeley Bowl (http://www.berkeleybowl.com). How it got there is anyone’s guess (two of my guesses: perhaps it wasn’t really organic produce or perhaps it was stocked on a shelf that had previously held conventionally grown produce that left pesticides on said shelf).

    The second part of the lab was testing for how to get rid of the pesticides. Most students found that washing with water was sufficient to remove the bulk of the pesticides present on produce. Washing with slightly soapy water removed all detectable traces of pesticides.

    So, I wouldn’t trust that organic produce is pesticide free. Wash your food, preferably with slightly soapy water.

  28. Eternally Learningon 07 Sep 2010 at 3:26 pm

    I’m by no means an expert in organic food/farming so I’ll not pretend otherwise, but several people I’ve known very well have made choices to use it primarily as opposed to conventionally produced food and have relayed the reasons for their choices to me. I’ve never really heard the nutrition arguments, but primarily the reasons given were pesticide use, supporting local/smaller businesses, and better taste. Also, though this obviously does not apply to this article’s point, the organic meat industry tends to be far more important to the people I know than the fruits and vegetables. The main reason behind this is the treatment of the animals and the lack of hormone injections and such.

    Please keep in mind, I’m not making any statements about the methods used in organic or non-organic farms. I’m merely stating the opinions expressed to me by others as to why they choose organic. Personally, I find the arguments for the meat industry (assuming they aren’t based on bad data of course) far more compelling than the ones for crop farms.

  29. Paideumaon 07 Sep 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I too remain unconvinced of the merits of organic farming.

    I have a friend who is very much an advocate who has chatted about this with me from time to time. Like me, he thinks the taste and health justifications are probably fictitious; however, he is very concerned about closing off the biodiversity. He feels that decreasing the biodiversity of a food crop is dangerous since it increases the damage done by any infectious agent that takes hold. He cites near-extinction of the once-popular Gros Michel banana variety and the current problem facing the Cavendish variety.

    While I’m not a geneticist, it seems to me that he may have a point, but then, as you say, to reify “maintaining a biologically diverse crop” as “organic farming” is fallacious.

  30. Steven Novellaon 07 Sep 2010 at 3:39 pm

    from the reference I linked to above regarding taste:

    “Consumer panelists in both tests considered organic produce to be healthier (72%) and more environmentally friendly (51%) than conventional produce, while 28% considered organic produce to have better taste.”

    I don’t know how the question was phrased, but it is likely that these numbers reflect reasons for buying organic, not just belief about organic.

    #1 is that organic food is healthier, and this is not supported by evidence, in fact 50 years of research shows otherwise.

  31. wallet55on 07 Sep 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Amazing, Science Friday on NPR did a piece on this and gave organic a glowing endorsement and presented the paper as a slam dunk. It is getting so you cannot trust any science reporting any more.

  32. david steadsonon 07 Sep 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Just thought I’d point out that more phosphorous in conventional strawberries is not a good thing. While it’s an essential nutrient, most western diets already have too much, and it can interfere with calcium metabolism.

  33. James Foxon 07 Sep 2010 at 4:15 pm

    @ Eternally Learning.

    One should not be ignorent of the nasty hidden aspects of organic meat.

    http://inthesetimes.com/article/6330/the_cruel_irony_of_organic_standards/

  34. JimSon 07 Sep 2010 at 4:19 pm

    The above discussion is very representative of both ways of thinking…

    I once was buying organic food for some time, not because I was thinking they are more nutritious, but mainly because I was afraid of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides residues.

    I think that is the main reason most of the consumers of organic food cling to; at least in Europe where I live.

    Then there were some really big scandals about organic companies: they were caught red-handed not adhering to their own rules of production. A typical example is Germany, where many organic producers lost their credibility.

    So I stopped consuming organic. There is probably no point in doing it. You depend too much on the good will of others. And you pay a lot for it.

    Concerning chemical pesticides or fertilizers: Dr. Novella, are there any studies linking them to greater health risks? What about similar studies for “natural” pesticides or fertilizers? And studies that a good washing strongly reduces the above risks?

  35. sonicon 07 Sep 2010 at 4:53 pm

    John 2-
    yes, people don’t usually fall over dead from pesticide exposure.
    But as is pointed here-
    http://www.kidsforsavingearth.org/mnchec/articles/pesticides.htm
    the risks are often longer term and more subtle than that.
    (I’m using a kids cite cause it came up first and is good, not cause I’m a kid– to the contrary…)

    I think the ‘organic’ label is the result of political maneuver, but it still is not meaningless and there is no doubt that better farm practices will take into account if they are sustainable and the larger environments that are impacted than the current conventional methods do.

  36. Draalon 07 Sep 2010 at 4:55 pm

    “Organic strawberries had significantly higher total antioxidant activity (8.5% more), ascorbic acid (9.7% more), and total phenolics (10.5% more) than conventional berries”

    Did no one else catch the hand waving? I haven’t seen any evidence that consuming plant antioxidants provide any benefit (great in a test tube but no evidence in improving human health). And the same with phenolic compounds (which many are also the antioxidants in question). And having more vitamin C is a non-issue since a normal diet has sufficient amounts (excess just gets peed away).

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=38
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=372
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1952
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=539
    and so on…

  37. colluvialon 07 Sep 2010 at 4:56 pm

    @ James Fox

    “One should not be ignorent of the nasty hidden aspects of organic meat.”

    You do realize the great potential for examples and counter-examples of cruelty and negligence in any agricultural system you care to name, don’t you? Seems to me no one has cornered the market on humane treatment.

  38. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 07 Sep 2010 at 4:57 pm

    I think organic carrots taste better. I haven’t blinded a study and I may be biased, but the real point to European conventional farming is this:

    With modern fertilizers and the like, potatoes grow twice as large. So instead of one sack, you get two. With population being more or less stagnant, nobody wants to eat all that many fries. So prices for potatoes plummet, and the EU is forced to buy that second sack and mush it into the dirt. In the end the the consumer gains nothing, he payed those extra potatoes with his tax money.

    Nowadays they smarted up and started paying farmers for not farming in the first place.

    For that reason I think as long as evidence doesn’t suggest there are strong benefits to conventional farmed products, we should keep it to a minimum on things we have a surplus of anyway.

  39. daedalus2uon 07 Sep 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Eternally learning, plants and animals put what we call “nutrients” in the parts of them that we consume for their own reasons, not to provide nutirents for the organisms that consume them (structures used to bribe animals to disperse seeds or pollon are an exception).

    Individual cows grow big because they have a physiology that produces large size, usually through large quantities of growth inducing regulatory molecules, usually called growth hormones. Does it matter if the growth hormone is “natural”, and put there by the organism by being selected for large size by selective breeding? Or if it is put there by an injection?

    Plants have much larger levels of hormone-like compounds. Wheat germ has much more estrogenic activity than does meat. The wheat plant puts the estrogen-like compounds there to control the fertility of animals that eat wheat, such as deer.

    It is the naturalist fallacy writ large that ignores (and even worships) “natural” hormones while it villifies synthetic ones.

  40. Eternally Learningon 07 Sep 2010 at 5:06 pm

    @James Fox,

    While I hadn’t realized that there even were “Organic” standards which one had to meet, I think that this simply shows one end of the spectrum and that over-reacting is not consequence free. It also does nothing to address the concern about injections which drives people to organic meats; that too many antibiotics and homones are a bad thing. I’ve not done the research so I can’t tell you if that’s the case, but I think that clearly farmers can go too far either way as can the reactions by the opposite sides.

  41. SquirrelEliteon 07 Sep 2010 at 5:07 pm

    A few thoughts on the organic food issue(s).

    Nutrition:

    As I recall, food that is commercially frozen close to where it is harvested generally has a higher nutrional content than the fresh produce you buy in your grocery store. Nutririon in fresh produce is a moving target because (at least the non-mineral) nutrients in the produce slowly break down as part of the multitude of decay processes that eventually ruin the food. So, locally produced and carefully transported (i.e. refrigerated) is probably better than organic food from South America.

    Quality:

    This varies from variety to variety and also during the season. The first strawberries of the summer usually look great and taste terrible. Later in the season when the plants have had time to develop more sugar content, they taste better. Not a controlled study, just my experience buying strawberries over several years.

    Pesticides and sustainability:

    To quote from Wikipedia:

    The most common organic pesticides, accepted for restricted use by most organic standards, include Bt, pyrethrum and rotenone. Rotenone has high toxicity to fish and aquatic creatures, causes Parkinson’s disease if injected into rats, and shows other toxicity to mammals.

    They are also toxic to insects (that is what they are for!) including honeybees, so how do you produce organic honey?

    Also, 90% of the pyrethrum used for organic pesticide comes from chrysanthemums grown in Kenya (Tanzania is another significant source).

    So, in effect we are clearing farmland in Africa that could be used to grow food crops for the locals so we can raise flowers to make organic pesticides to ship to South America where we have to clear more acres of rain forest because of the lower crop yields to grow organic crops to ship to North America so that Americans can go to their local grocery store and buy something they think is more nutritious, safer to eat and better for the environment!?!?!?!?

  42. SquirrelEliteon 07 Sep 2010 at 5:19 pm

    One other little point.

    GMO’s are prohibited in organic farming but we may need them anyway, especially in areas like subsaharan Africa that are suffering significant climate change.

    http://www.espp.msu.edu/climatechange/presentations/poster_zawedde.pdf

    A couple of interesting challenges for GMO crops from that link:

    • Advocacy for organic agriculture by many donors.
    Yet FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf has stated
    that “while organic agriculture should be promoted, it
    cannot feed the 6.8 billion people today nor 9.1 billion
    expected in 2050”.

    • Diffusion of GMOs into social system. GMO products
    must be superior, yet compatible with existing farming
    systems, and affordable.

  43. bleroyon 07 Sep 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks for the pointers on taste studies…

  44. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 5:25 pm

    Dr. Novella, I respect your professional opinion on the health & nutritional aspect of the “organic” label (even though neurology and nutrition are not quite the same specialty). I specifically targeted your side point because:

    1) I think you summarized the report in a biased way;

    2) The report itself basically admitted that the study ignored some important factors in comparing environmental impacts (along with some related, albeit more subjective, criteria, like “animal welfare” and “landscape”, presumably referring to differential aesthetic impacts on rural scenery); and

    3) As far as I can tell, you are no more of an authority on agroecology or environmental conservation than I am.

    Of course, you’re entitled to your own opinion. But are you sure that you have “no dog in that hunt”? Because I’m not.

  45. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 5:49 pm

    PS: That said, the “organic” label may not be completely meaningless (at least not yet), but eco-foodie advocate journalists like Michael Pollan have been warning for years about the green-washing practices of “Big Organic” and its own detrimental impacts on the environment. Such reporting has helped to feed a “beyond organic” trend, which emphasizes the importance of local and seasonal offerings from small farms that have good reputations (i.e. even when they are not certified-organic).

    Of course, this advice is easier to follow if you live in the country (like I do), but word-of-mouth does sometimes reach the nearby cities, aided by outdoor farmer’s markets and CSA (Community-Sponsored Agriculture) pick-up sites. And few people that I know are really rigid about this, in any case.

  46. CivilUnreston 07 Sep 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Mufi,

    Having “no dog in a hunt” means that you have no potential conflict of interest, not that you are a totally objective & unbiased party. Unless Dr. Novella has got a huge stock portfolio in Monstano or something, he can safely say he’s got no dog in the hunt.

    Onto your point:
    It’s clear that “big agro” doesn’t care about the environment in the same way (or for the same reasons) that organic food-lovers do. That being said, it’s nearly impossible to show that “organic” practices are better for the environment because they range quite wildly from one farm to another. I think it’s quite clear that conventional farming can learn (and, in fact, has learned) a few tricks from organic farmers. Likewise, organic farmers could increase their output AND have healthier soils if they adopted some conventional farming practices (such as using GM crops and timed-drip-irrigation).

    To say that either organic or conventional farming is better really misses the point that “farming” is not just one thing. It’s a whole slew of practices that, only now, are being rigorously analyzed for efficacy. Like so many scientific controversies, this will dichotomy will inevitably be resolved by combining the two extreme positions.

  47. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 7:58 pm

    CivilUnrest,

    I agree that there is a range of “organic” practices (and, for that matter, “conventional” practices), and I intended my previous comment to convey my own version of skepticism of that label. But Dr. Novella obviously found the label meaningful enough to include a link to an article that, in his words, suggests that “organic farming may be worse for the environment.” He can’t have it both ways. Either the label is meaningless or it isn’t, and, if it isn’t, then he should not claim to have refuted it.

    Beyond that, his claim that “the increasing popularity of organic farming is based largely on ideology” suggests that he is above such ideology himself. His biased reporting on the comparative environmental impacts of various categories of farming methods may be a side point, but suggest to me at least that he is no less above ideology.

  48. mufion 07 Sep 2010 at 7:59 pm

    correction: not above ideology himself.

  49. aquademiaon 07 Sep 2010 at 8:20 pm

    John2 says: “Many of us grew up in the heyday of pesticides, herbicides, additives, preservatives, and all sorts of bizarre colourings in our food, without gas masks, and we were not all dying en mass from these exposures.”

    Oh, dear. This reminds me a lot of a similar argument “my grandpa smoked 10 packs a day for 70 years and he died in his sleep at 102.”

    I agree – of course! – that each pesticide, organic or not, should be equally subjected to scrutiny. But the fact is, most are just not. We don’t have the resources for that kind of thorough and long-term investigation. It is my understanding that many synthetic pesticides are new (“better ones engineered every day!”) and so we don’t know the consequence of long-term exposure. In our western culture we embrace the new with an alarming nonchalance.

    As a historian of science, I am mesmerized by the current discourse on the topic. There is a certain bravado that doctors and scientists display; “we don’t panic easily, like the unwashed masses,” they often imply. “We are rational men, we require evidence, we don’t make the natural fallacy” (incidentally, most often “the natural fallacy” is the only concept that they have bothered to learn from the philosophy of science). I see this often in the history of late 19th and 20th centuries. Do you know how long it took for doctors to protect themselves and their patients from radiation, even though the dangers of exposure to X-rays was evident within a very short time? In the end, the medical community came together and glorified the early “martyrs to science” (their words) – the doctors and technicians who had died while wielding the x-ray machines in the early 20th c. A little less bravado, and a little bit of old-fashioned and non-rational panic would have saved quite a few lives.

    Just so it’s clear: I have no patience whatsoever with the alternative medicine types, or god forbid the anti-vaccine crowd, for whom I reserve a particular form of (historically informed) scorn. But I do think that as a society we should worry more about what we are doing to our bodies and our lands, and that we should do so before “irrefutable evidence” bites us in the proverbial behind. “Rationality,” and what counts as scientific evidence is very much historically contingent. Read the superb book called “Objectivity” written by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison.

  50. daedalus2uon 07 Sep 2010 at 10:38 pm

    I had a father-in-law (now ex and late) who subscribed to organic gardening methods. He had land on Cape Cod where he had a garden where he had attempted to build up the soil for decades using organic techniques, and where he allowed his daughter and me to have a small plot.

    Subscribing to science based agronomy, growing plants in sand is but a small challenge. All that plants need to grow is bulk nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium along with trace minerals, the right pH and enough water and lots of light and CO2. Cape Cod is all sand. The good thing about sand is that it has excellent drainage. That is the only good thing about sand. Everything except “good drainage” you have to supply to turn the sand into soil and grow reasonable crops.

    I added organic matter, mostly decayed pine needles (for water sorption mostly but they also have some ion exchange capacity), dolomitic lime (for magnesium and to neutralize the acidity of the pine needles), and fertilizer with trace minerals. The first season on newly turned land my crops grew better than his after decades of “building up” the soil organically (but I was careful to not grow the same things because I knew that would happen). Growing plants isn’t magic or difficult, you give plants what they need and they will grow as fast and as much as they can. It is soil chemistry and plant physiology.

    My preference is non-organic and strictly for environmental reasons. The issue with biodiversity is wild habitat. Unless you have completely wild habitat, you have very highly degraded biodiversity. In my opinion there is no significant or important difference between the biodiversity of “organic” farms and “conventional” farms. Both are a tiny fraction of the biodiversity of wild land. Because yields are lower with organic farming, more land is required to produce the same food. That means less wild land for wildlife habitat. Higher yields with conventional farming means less farm land which means more land potentially available for wildlife habitat.

    I completely agree that choosing “organic” food is a sign of conspicuous consumption; a status symbol that only rich people can afford. Poor people can’t afford the “organic” premium, and end up malnourished when compelled to reject non-organic by their governments (as has happened in famine areas in Africa where GMO maize (a non-native plant to Africa) was rejected due to fears that Europeans would reject African crops do to baseless fears about GMO maize (a non-native plant to Europe)).

    I have looked into the science of organic farming methods, environmental impact and it is not a close call. Organic farming has a larger environmental impact due to habitat loss. Once the habitat is cleared the first time, a gigantic amount of biodiversity is gone and gone for good. The primary reason that rain forest is being cleared is because the soil is very poor. The rain leaches away the nutrients except for what is held up in the biomass. Burn the biomass and those nutrients are liberated and you can get a few good crops. Then they are depleted; leached away and lost in the harvested crops. To restore the fertility all you need is fertilizer, NPK, trace and not so trace minerals.

    The issue of fertilizer runoff is not confined to conventional farming methods. Any type of nitrogen containing fertilizer will produce nitrate runoff. Synthetic urea or manure both need to be mineralized (converted to either ammonia or nitrate) before plants can absorb the nitrogen. Ammonia is not very mobile in the soil, nitrate is highly mobile.

  51. Starfuryon 07 Sep 2010 at 11:26 pm

    I believe Mr. Dunning covered the Organic issue in a couple episodes of Skeptoid.
    http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166 (Organic v. Conventional methods)
    http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4162 (Local vs Imports)
    http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4019 (Initial look at Organic food claims)
    In these episodes he touches on a few points people have brought up in the comments section.
    He was even nice enough to go into ‘Natural’ Pesticides and Fertilizers vs. ‘Unnatural’ Pesticides and Fertilizers. (In the first linked episode)

    But, I am no farmer. I am a city kid through and through, and have little basis to judge farming techniques.

  52. SARAon 08 Sep 2010 at 8:20 am

    Steve,
    Your point regarding whether it supports small farmers. While I’m sure lots of big agra is jumping on the bad wagon, as a marketing niche, its a decent choice for a small farmer. However, sometimes the cost of organic farming can be excessive.

    There was a recent article on organic milk and how in the US even 1 dose of antibiotic for a sick cow makes the cow unusable for organic milk. So the farmers have to weigh the value of treating a sick cow against the loss in value of the cow’s output.

    Not to mention just the cruelty to the cow.

    From a practical viewpoint, its not likely that we would be able support the world population especially in the future on organics.

  53. Eternally Learningon 08 Sep 2010 at 8:39 am

    @daedalus2u

    I wasn’t saying I don’t know what nutrients are, just that the people I know who use primarily organic food hadn’t stated better nutrition as a reason for choosing it.

    As for your appeal to the naturalistic fallacy, I agree that there are people who feel that way about the injected hormones (although I’m not sure about worshiping naturally present hormones… Was there something specific you were referring to?) but I think the distinction is more about what is naturally present in the animal. The people I know at least do not reject it on the basis of the hormones themselves being “unnatural.” They reject it because of the increased quantity of it that the meats presumably now contain.

    To flip it on you though; aren’t you committing the naturalistic fallacy in your own post when you imply that injecting additional growth hormones into an animal is ok, because the hormones are no less natural than what their bodies produce?

    As I’ve said though, multiple times; I’m no expert on this and have not done any serious amount of research on the matter. I am fully open to the fact that they may be wrong and there is nothing to be concerned about with hormone, antibiotic, and other injections. The point in all my posts was to present an opinion I hadn’t seen represented yet.

  54. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 8:45 am

    Sara, “from a practical viewpoint, its not likely that we would be able support the world population especially in the future” on conventional methods (e.g. given their high dependency on increasingly scarce fossil-fuel feedstocks and rates of soil and water depletion), if those methods are as unsustainable as many believe. That’s not to suggest that “organic” is necessarily the solution, but the quest for more sustainable alternatives to conventional methods seems entirely rational to me.

  55. John2on 08 Sep 2010 at 11:42 am

    Aquademia, you most definitely should not confuse the vast evidence that pesticides are not, and never have been, poisoning us en mass with a person’s picking one long lived tobacco smoker to try to disprove the link between smoking and cancer.

    That’s really a very dishonest form of criticism that you are making there. As I’d hope that you well know, there is not even a suggestion of an epidemic of health issues and death from environmental pesticides, let alone any firm evidence.

    I was making the point to counter Sonic’s suggestion that since he’s gone organic he no longer needs to use a respirator in his garden. If you think that my point is false, then please do point out the evidence otherwise, but please don’t try t cast a statement on the statistics as a cherry picked individual data point that cuts against a well accepted trend.

  56. John2on 08 Sep 2010 at 11:51 am

    Oone funny feature of some organic farms is their use of Biodynamics, which is a weird synthesis of sympathetic magic, homeopathy and astrology for farmers.

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

    I have to say, when I listen to many of the proponents of organic farming, I hear a litany of common fallacies and magical thinking, very, very much like I’d get if I were discussing homeopathy or crystal healing.

    People will emphasise its “naturalness”, its “holistic nature”, its sense of balance, and quality, and rightness. They will insist that there is a taste preference, when tests show otherwise, will make claims for longevity, nutrition, and even for yields, which are not borne out by the facts.

    It’s a rare proponent of organic farming that will come up with a cogent and valid reason, other than simple personal preference for the label. If you prefer fresh produce, buy fresh produce. If you prefer local, buy local, and if you prefer older cultivars, bred for flavour over appearance, then by all means buy those, but please, don’t confuse organic with any of the following properties.

    Local
    more nutritious
    better tasting
    better for the environment
    higher yielding
    more natural
    pesticide free

    Organic can be all, or none of these, just as conventionaly grown products can be.

  57. Steven Novellaon 08 Sep 2010 at 12:18 pm

    My position is that the “organic” label is mainly about marketing and ideology, and fosters a false dichotomy. Rather, we should evaluate each practice on its own merits, without applying such labels.

    But – the research is the research, and so I am forced to evaluate “organic” practices in the published literature.

    And as I said – this article was not about environmental impact. I only wanted to quickly point out that we cannot assume “organic” practices are better for the environment, not that it is proven that they are worse.

  58. daedalus2uon 08 Sep 2010 at 1:11 pm

    There is the whole “bioidentical hormone” movement discussed on SBM.

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=5812

    Some people take soy for the estrogen-like activity of the soy phytoestrogens. In the absence of studies showing there is some health advantage to doing so, the reasoning is based on the naturalistic fallacy.

  59. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Testing, again. (WordPress really doesn’t like me these days.)

  60. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Dr. Novella, I completely agree that each practice should be judged on its own merits, whether it be traditionally associated with “organic” or “conventional.”

  61. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Unfortunately, that recognition does not seem to be widely shared among your commentators, several of whom seem to believe that only “organic” (and never “conventional”) advocates are motivated by ideology and fallacious reasoning.

  62. locutusbrgon 08 Sep 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Wow you really kicked over the sacred cow hornets nest on this one Steve.
    I would like a copy of this blog just to use as a Logical Fallacy treatise. Argument from authority, straw man, et Al. All I know about Organic to a scientific certainty is that it involves the element carbon.

    I am pretty sure everything else is marketing. People are passionate about the environment I get that. Lets remember that the benefit to the environment, and the consumer are far from proven. As a viable alternative to conventional agriculture to feed a world population with rampant starvation it does not hold up to non-expert scrutiny.
    Rant away
    Steve P.

  63. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Furthermore, Steve, when you say “the research is the research”, you seem to suggest that you have reviewed all such research that compares the environmental impacts of these categories, and that conventional always comes out on top. If so, then you are very much mistaken.

  64. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Just for one counter-example of a traditionally “organic” practice coming out on top:

    Furthermore, a 21-year study was conducted testing the effects of organic soil matter and its relationship to soil quality and yield. Controls included actively managed soil with varying levels of manure, compared to a plot with no manure input. After the study commenced, there was significantly lower yields on the control plot when compared to the fields with manure. The concluded reason was an increased soil microbe community in the manure fields, providing a healthier, more arable soil system.

  65. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I’m having trouble submitting the source, but see the “organic farming” entry in Wikipedia, under “Biodiversity” and its footnote.

  66. locutusbrgon 08 Sep 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Since we are submitting evidence from non-science sources like wikipedia… Lets use Brian Dunning
    The biggest misconception is that organic farming does not use fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides. Of course it does. Fertilizer is essentially chemical nutrient, and the organic version delivers exactly the same chemical load as the synthetic. It has to, otherwise it wouldn’t function. All plant fertilizers, organic and synthetic, consist of the same three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Referring to one as a “chemical” and implying that the other is not, is the worst kind of duplicity, and no intelligent person should tolerate it.

    The difference between the two is the source of the chemicals. To make the high-volume commercial versions of both organic and synthetic fertilizer, the source materials are processed in factories and reduced to just the desired chemicals, and the end product, these days, is virtually indistinguishable. Small organic farmers, and home organic farmers, might use fish meal, bone meal, bat guano, or earthworm castings. These are fine products and do indeed deliver the required nutrients. They’re just not useful for high volume farming because they’re (a) far too expensive, and (b) contain too much ballast, or inactive ingredient, that the crops don’t use and merely increase the energy requirements of moving and delivering them.

    To make synthetic fertilizer, we start with nitrogen, which we extract from the atmosphere. This process is infinitely sustainable and produces no waste. The potassium is mined from ancient ocean deposits. The phosphorus we get from surface mining of phosphate rock. Although we have centuries of reserves of phosphate rock and millenia of reserves of potassium salts, mining is not sustainable, as these reserves will eventually run out. So, increasingly, producers are turning to seawater extraction for both. This forms a completely sustainable cycle, as the oceans are the ultimate destination of all plant matter and farm runoff.
    As usual his arguments usually hold up to scrutiny and have references.
    Steve P.

  67. Draalon 08 Sep 2010 at 3:06 pm

    “Organic strawberries had significantly higher total antioxidant activity (8.5% more), ascorbic acid (9.7% more), and total phenolics (10.5% more) than conventional berries”

    Did no one else catch the hand waving? I haven’t seen any evidence that consuming plant antioxidants provide any benefit (great in a test tube but no evidence in improving human health). And the same with phenolic compounds (which many are also the antioxidants in question). And having more vitamin C is a non-issue since a normal diet has sufficient amounts (excess just gets peed away).

    www sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=38
    www sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=372
    www sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1952
    www sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=539
    and so on…

  68. sonicon 08 Sep 2010 at 3:07 pm

    If you want what works, you would have to understand what the situation is–

    http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange2/current/lectures/land_deg/land_deg.html

    It seems few realize the level of land degradation that has occurred and the role ‘conventional’ agriculture has played.

    This doesn’t mean that ‘organic’ is the answer, but thinking all is well and we should continue the current practices reveals an ignorance of the current situation.
    Based on my experience and reading and the fact that in places where certain methods are used (the Amish have been farming for a long time without soil degradation- for example)- I think ‘organic’ or something like it will have to be used on larger scales if humans want to continue farming.

    http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~christos/articles/cv_organic_farming.html

    This last reference cites good studies and points out the problems well (although a bit stridently for my taste-)

    BTW- thinking that all decisions should be made on logic and evidence is ideology.

  69. Calli Arcaleon 08 Sep 2010 at 3:32 pm

    sonic, I didn’t notice anyone saying that conventional agriculture (whatever that means; there is actually quite a bit of variation) is the greatest thing since sliced bread and could not possibly be improved.

    The problem with “organic’ is that it is a red herring. It distracts from the real problems — and organic farmers can stripmine the land of nutrients every bit as effectively as non-organic farmers, since the term “organic” has nothing whatsoever to do with sustainability. (It’s about what pesticides and fertilizers you use, and in livestock, whether or not they are medicated.) Plenty of “conventional” farmers here in Minnesota use low-till methods to reduce soil loss, and heck, they’ve been using crop rotation to reduce fertilizer needs for generations now. Even on really big farms. (Note: most of these really big farms are still family farms.)

    One of the worst run-off pollution problems I can remember was a massive fish kill in my favorite fishing stream. It was traced to an organic dairy — phosphorus from the cow waste was running off into the stream. Last I checked, the stream was still marked “catch and release only”, as they were trying to rebuild the trout population.

  70. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 4:03 pm

    No question about it: acroecology and organic farming are not synonymous. But it is sheer ideology to claim (against all the evidence) that organic practice necessarily violates good agroecological practice.

    BTW, Wikipedia is not a scientific source, but it contains footnoted summaries of scientific papers that in some cases concur and in other places conflict with the dogma that conventional practice is better for the environment than organic practice.

    Like Steve said: “the research is the research.” Or, like what I suspect he really means: Deal with it.

  71. DanielZupellaon 08 Sep 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I do think the real issue with organic revolves around pesticides and how safe they are for consumption. But like you said, that was not the point of the article.

    As for the point of your article, I fully agree with you. A lot of the organic products are marketed as “healthier” and you should buy organic because it’s better for you. But the truth is that it really isn’t.

    I grow my own vegetables in the summer with my own organic vegetable garden. My vegetables are no more healthy from a nutrient aspect than non-organic. As far as taste, the only reason my tomatoes taste better than the non-organic grocery tomatoes is because they are ripe and fresh; not artificially ripened with hydrogen.

  72. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 4:59 pm

    sonic,

    I seem to recall reading that article, “Organic Farming can Feed the World!”, some years ago. While I agree that there is evidence that organic yields can outcompete conventional ones, I have a beef is with this statement:

    “Industrial agriculture relies heavily on monocultures, the planting of a single crop throughout the farm, because they simplify management and allow the use of heavy machinery.”

    because, in practice, the term “organic” is flexible enough to accommodate both monocultures and heavy machinery, so long as certain other guidelines are followed (e.g. regarding synthetic chemical inputs). So, really, the suggested alternative here seems to be some mix of polyculture and “light machinery.” The former (e.g. crop-rotation or inter-cropping) is not necessarily “organic” (again, in terms of chemical use) and the latter connotes a more labor-intensive (possibly preindustrial) process.

    Which brings me to my other beef:

    “Conversion to small organic farms therefore, would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide.”

    Sure, all else being equal (e.g. population size). But most people I know have no wish to adopt farming as a way of life (and I live in the country!) – especially a more labor-intensive (possibly preindustrial) version of it. So this advice just strikes me as very naive, demographic non-starter.

  73. mufion 08 Sep 2010 at 5:11 pm

    PS: Of course, the forces of Nature and History (so to speak) might very well coerce us (or at least those of us who survive a cataclysmic dieoff) into adopting practices that most of us nowadays would never adopt voluntarily (like exchanging our laptops for pitchforks, office desks for plows, etc.). But then it seems we’re trying to sell fear of a Mad Max-type scenario, and that’s a hard sell indeed!

  74. sonicon 08 Sep 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Calli-
    You are right- the term organic is the result of political maneuver (to quote myself) and is different from sustainable and less meaningful than would be optimum.
    (My mentor, who has been using these methods for @ 40 years like to call himself a ‘compost farmer’ as the term ‘organic’ has been bastardized by the political process)
    I also realize that many farmers (conventional and otherwise) have become aware of the problems and are taking steps to improve methods.

  75. MKandeferon 08 Sep 2010 at 6:44 pm

    mufi said,

    “Furthermore, Steve, when you say “the research is the research”, you seem to suggest that you have reviewed all such research that compares the environmental impacts of these categories, and that conventional always comes out on top. If so, then you are very much mistaken.”

    I don’t think that’s what Steve was suggesting. It seemed he was suggesting that even researchers in agriculture use the term “organic”, and thus, since they have in this instance he analyzed the study using the term, despite his misgivings over the false dichotomy the term creates.

  76. Andronicusrexon 08 Sep 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Enjoyed this blog and most of the comments. Nice work guys.

  77. Quokkaon 08 Sep 2010 at 11:36 pm

    Mufi, you claim that it is “sheer ideology to claim (against all the evidence) that organic practice necessarily violates good agroecological practice”.

    This is true as long as the particular organic farm involved would not benefit from some sort non-organic practice. As pointed out by numerous posts; organic farming restrictions are completely arbitrary, and not based on individually weighing up the pros and cons of each practice. With this in mind and the plethora of biotechnology, pesticide and fertiliser options not available to organic farms; it is highly unlikely that there is an organic farm that could not be improved upon by some sort of non organic practice.

    On a side point, there is often the suggestion that organic farmers have a better understanding of soil health. From my experience (for whatever it’s worth) farmers today are incredibly well skilled at identifying and maintaining or improving their soils. I believe it is a complete myth that organic farmers better understand the role of nutrition, organic matter, compacting and the many other factors involved in soil health.

  78. ccbowerson 09 Sep 2010 at 1:46 am

    I find that when organic food comes up among informed people (to varying degrees) some of the disagreement comes from people talking past each other. I’m in agreement with Steve’s perpective here, and it is not an anti-organic perspective:

    The problem is that the term organic (in the US at least) is a term that encompasses a cluster of distinct characteristics and practices. Some of these are positive and are supported by evidence and some of these are arbitrary and often fall under the “naturalistic fallacy.”

    The real problem is that if you followed the evidence for the most sustainable, evironmentally friendly, using the safest pescide method of farming for a given crop, this method would not likely conform to the label “organic.” If so then the term has limited utility. Someone needs to come up with more objective measures/terms.

  79. TheRedQueenon 09 Sep 2010 at 2:47 am

    When Dan Glickmann was the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA organic standards were being finalized, he commented that the Department of Agriculture had received more public comment on those standards [over 240,000]than any other previous proposed standards in the history of the Department. The three biggest areas of contention were inclusion/exclusion of: toxic sludge as fertilizer, GMO/GE, and irradiation. These practices were all excluded because of public opposition. Glickmann explicitly said that the USDA Organic label did not mean that the product was “healthier or more nutritious.”

    I get that as social primates, farmers markets are much more relational (one-on-one) than shopping at WalMart, although when I was Vice President and on the Board of Directors of a local food cooperative grocery store we were well aware that WalMart is the largest retail distributor of organic produce in the United States.
    Their volume is staggering and their price points are in line with the low prices of all their items.

    As a former member inside the Organic Locavore Food Cult, I saw first hand the schisms and competing claims of the Organic Humane Animal Treatment Omnivores vs. the Organic Vegetarians vs. the Vegans (no exploiting animals) to the Raw Fooders (oh dear cooking destroys enzymes). The quest for the Purest Holiest Food is relentless.

    And indeed much more profitable for stores like Whole Foods that could produce 5%+ net profits in a grocery industry that generally yield 1-2% net profits.

  80. mufion 09 Sep 2010 at 9:33 am

    I’m happy to end my part in this thread on a note of agreement. Although I joined it in defense of organic methods (or, rather, those practices traditionally associated with organic farming, when they have evidence in their favor – and they sometimes do), it should be clear by now that I have my own issues with the label, some of which overlap with Steve’s; in particular, the part that invokes the naturalistic fallacy (which I also encounter often in the medical domain with respect to herbal remedies).

    That’s not to suggest that all attempts to shop conscientiously (in the social/ecological or “green” sense) necessarily commit the fallacy, or that whatever produce is available at the supermarket is necessarily the greenest option available. It’s simply that I agree that the “organic” label is not a reliable indicator of the greener option. Although I don’t always agree with Michael Pollan (e.g. I think his critique of food science goes too far in the direction of anti-science rhetoric), I think he basically got it right when he advised folks to: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That green advice applies whether one shops at a supermarket chain or at a local (read: hippy) food co-op.

    Lastly, I think there is a reasonable concern about conventional agriculture’s over-reliance on fossil fuels, but that is part of a bigger problem, for which I think the solution is not organic farming so much as a mix of political-economic planning and technological innovation. [Note: The first part of the mix is likely to scare some right-wing libertarian types, which is where a lot of the ideological opposition to organic farming seems to originate. My point here is simply that I don't believe that the profit-driven "free market" is forward-thinking enough to avoid a crisis - whether the crisis concern food, energy, or finance.]

  81. Calli Arcaleon 09 Sep 2010 at 10:53 am

    Well said, mufi — even if the term “organic” (and the muddier term “natural”) doesn’t provide much guidance as to the sustainability of heathfulness of the product, it’s still worthwhile to shop conscientiously. I also like Pollan’s general advice; it’s so terse and yet so useful. And I likewise share some misgivings about other claims of his.

    ccbowers spoke of someone coming up with new labels. Labels are prone to abuse by marketers, and I worry that if a regulated label for a particular, rigid farming method is introduced that goes beyond organic, we’ll only compound the problem because there really is no ideal farming method; it would probably be better to encourage farming in ways best for a particular crop/region/market/etc, but that doesn’t lend itself well to a concrete label. On the other hand, maybe a *set* of labels would be helpful (as long as they don’t end up discouraging flexibility in farming; farmers persisting in one particular method because they’ve invested in meeting a particular label, even when it becomes clear it’s not ideal after all).

    Even so, I’ve found a few labels that are helpful. One of them is “fair trade”. It’s not really applicable to local produce in the US, but is instead applied to imported goods to indicate that the original producer was paid a fair price and treated fairly. Going for sustainable agriculture in the developing world is not going to happen unless the growers first have a say, so this is a good place to start. So far, I’ve seen it applied to things like coffee, tea, chocolate, and some handcrafted goods.

    For domestic farming, while the current Black Angus fad is potentially damaging to cattle biodiversity, it might be interesting to encourage “varietal beef”. It’s certainly had an influence in viticulture; used to be, you bought wine for its style or region, not the type of grape used to make it. This could encourage more bovine diversity, which could in turn drive more sensitivity to regional needs. That would be a good thing, I think, as long as we can avoid the nonsense of “and this one is best of all so if you have any sense, that’s the only one you grow”.

  82. ccbowerson 09 Sep 2010 at 11:12 am

    “Lastly, I think there is a reasonable concern about conventional agriculture’s over-reliance on fossil fuels.”

    There is not necessarily a relationship between fossil fuels and “conventional agriculture.” Locally grown non-organic foods are likely to be much better in this regard than organic food shipped across the globe. The increase demand for organic food often results in the latter, which is an unintended consequence of seeking organic foods.

    “ccbowers spoke of someone coming up with new labels. Labels are prone to abuse by marketers”

    What I mean is that if we are to use labels or terms, make them mean something that we should care about. Mixing of unrelated characteristics muddies the value of the label or term. If you oppose the use of labels then perhaps we should be trying to rid ourselves of the term “organic” first. I would rather have a more meaningful term if I had a choice, but I realize this is not realistic. I guess its not the worst of labels (e.g. all natural, whole grains, etc) , but it is a very popular one and most people have a very vague notion of what it means.

  83. Bo Gardineron 09 Sep 2010 at 12:17 pm

    There’s important outreach that should flow from conversations like this, and I’m grateful to Steven for raising it. I take my skepticism seriously, and I take this debate seriously. I must, because most of my career has been spent in government and nonprofit programs to promote water quality and wildlife habitat, especially in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

    I have for many years worked with many top Bay Program environmental scientists, coming from academia and federal government. The deeply troubled Chesapeake Bay’s health is dominated by land use, as it has one of the highest watershed area to water volume ratios in the world. Its watershed extends from the small truck farmers on the Eastern Shore to the intensive agricultural and poultry operations beyond the mountains and into the valleys such as the Shenandoah Valley. The watershed, groundwater and surfacewater, is also heavily influenced by residential chemical uses in massive population centers like Washington DC and Virginia Beach/Norfolk.

    Eutrophication and sedimentation are the most visible issues, but the Bay is a toxic soup whose complexity has defied some of the best modelers in the world to tease out and make management recommendations. So we go for the low-hanging fruit of relatively easily modeled nutrients and sediment, while watching uneasily many unexplainable chronic problems in critical aquatic vegetation and organisms such as reduced immunity to disease and reproduction.

    Thus we set nutrient and sediment reduction goals, but the science for setting toxin reduction goals is simply beyond our reach, despite one of the most well-funded programs in the world. Rather than direct money to the research, which seems to most a hopeless drop in the bucket, we’ve directed the money to outreach to reduce input of chemical contaminants.

    So it will always be said that the science is not there, and the hard truth, that most regulators and scientists will never admit out loud, is it will never be there. With thousands of new chemicals on the market each year, the synergistic effects unknown, the tiny dilutions capable of producing significant effects, the high lab costs of measuring small dilutions, the need to therefore look for concentrations in aquatic sediment and fish tissue, the astronomical cost of analyzing more than a handful of known analytes, and the near impossibility of analyzing or tracking the thousands of unknown analytes, we’ve essentially thrown up our hands. EPA currently regulates a trifling hundred or so chemical pollutants in natural waters, which are all most states monitor for, and sparsely at that. Nowadays politics makes it impossible to add to that list, and it’s remained nearly static for decades.

    Instead we’ve no choice but to opt toward the precautionary principle. Rather than keep treating the watershed as a petri dish for infinite chemical experiments that can never be monitored, we direct money to outreach efforts to simply reduce chemical inputs across the board, and limit chemical inputs to those with known low chronic toxicity.

    We know the acute and chronic toxicity of most common pesticides, although we are unable to predict synergistic effects. Our biggest priority has always been those pesticides with chronic (long-term) effects, rather than short term (acutely) toxic effects. Thus the priority concern is appropriate with synthetic pesticides. Glyphosate, a synthetic, is acutely toxic, but has low chronic toxicity, so if applied carefully to minimize short-term kill of plants and animals, it may have important uses. All the so-called “organic” or “natural” pesticides, to the best of my knowledge, fall into this same camp. They can be highly acutely toxic (despite the gentle reassurances of purveyors), but have low residual, low or no chronic effects. So yes, we’ve promoted “organic” landscaping and agricultural to minimize persistent toxins.

    Can we predict what amounts will cause which ecological effects? No. And we never will. The computer power, the money, and the math for modeling such as fate and transport modeling math itself, are beyond humanity at this time. Is the answer to simply let it all flow? No, because that presumes that we’ve ruled them safe without evidence, which is no more skeptical or rational than ruling them unsafe without evidence. Letting the Bay be a petri dish for uncontrolled experiments is a profoundly failed practice.

    Federal and state programs tend to use the term IPM (integrated pest management) rather than organic, but our literature will generally just urge finding the right combination of IPM, organic, or low-input strategies for the situation.

    I’m concerned about a polarizing effect that could occur by causing a backlash against these efforts by unduly demonizing the word “organic.” I’m with you guys all the way on scoffing at the nutritional differences. I long ago canceled my subscription to Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine in disgust when they switched from evidence-based methods to Feng Shui. It gave a bad name to organic. And of course the word “organic” is meaningless and silly, I agree. It’s tempting to recoil against everything they represent. I feel that recoiling myself. But that movement has in fact produced some good methods, and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath.

    So I guess my main point concerns acute vs chronic toxicity in the environment, and the serious issue we face as a society in how to regulate/manage pesticides when the science is necessarily limited, and the risk of guessing wrong may be irreversible loss in biodiversity.

    One example: Oysters are down to less than 1% of historic levels. They once filtered the entire Bay in a day, greatly suppressing eutrophication, but due to disease and harvesting now take a year to do the same. Many scientists believe the disease may be due to reduced immunity from that toxic soup. It’s extremely complicated. We can’t continue to do nothing while we wait for science that may never come.

  84. Bo Gardineron 09 Sep 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Oops, forgot to mention in my longwinded comment above another major biodiversity issue related to pesticide use that hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that’s effect on pollinators. Pollinators are crucial in our ecology and our agriculture, and are in trouble. Persistent synthetic chemicals are considered a greater risk than the short-acting ones typically used by organic farmers. Although of course if they’re dumping “natural” pesticides continuously, it could conceivably arise, I suppose, to the seriousness of persistent synthetics. Guidelines or regs could address the latter issue.

    Regulators can get a much better handle on monitoring the effects of a smaller group of known chemicals, and so would like to keep that group to ones we’re familiar with, which do include “natural” pesticides. The reasons are more logistical and financial than scientific, but pressing nonetheless.

    The focus on water quality has shifted from point sources like pipe discharges to “nonpoint”, or area sources, like agriculture, residential lawns and urban stormwater. Nonpoint has traditionally been managed by nonregulatory agencies using a carrot rather than stick approach. EPA is being sued because this hasn’t worked for the Chesapeake Bay, so this topic is one of high priority. First on their list will have to be the long-hanging fruit — nutrients, though. Those unmanageable toxins will of necessity be way, way down the list.

  85. SimonWon 09 Sep 2010 at 4:29 pm

    When these studies first came out the stand out item for me was the lack of evidence meeting the criteria of the analysis, and thus the limited number of studies included.

    The study actually concludes that there are statistically significant nutritional differences. There is no evidence that these differences are significant to health, but that is no surprise given the science showing vitamin pills are a waste of money for the majority of people, simply because most people in the west are not malnourished.

    Note there may be no or little relationship between these studies and the average shopping experience. Since the studies inclusion criteria are different from most supermarkets.

    I noted previously commenting on the same studies that I buy organic eggs for cooking. I don’t need a scientific study, I can see the difference between these eggs, and the other eggs available at the same supermarket. If I were to do a study to show the difference in chemical composition (that presumably underlies the colour and texture differences), it couldn’t meet the inclusion criteria for this study. Does this make my purchasing decision irrational?

    Now I’m sure conventional farmers could easily produce eggs of the same or better quality as the organic eggs, and probably some do. But clearly market forces aren’t striving to provide good eggs, only cheap eggs, the only premium eggs available at that supermarket are the organic (with some free range, and grain fed options, which don’t match the organic for quality – the grain fed eggs are closest). So if I want an egg with a nice colour, good texture and taste, I have to buy from the “naturalistic fallacy” vendors, I suspect because they are the only ones giving the chickens a decent meal and otherwise treating them well.

  86. mufion 09 Sep 2010 at 9:50 pm

    ccbowers,

    I’m well aware that a lot of (most?) organic food on the market is not locally (or even regionally) grown; thus, the “locavore” or “beyond organic” movement (e.g. google “The 100 Mile Diet”). That’s why I think it only makes sense at this point to compare production phases.

    Some organic advocates like to mention the fossil-fuel-powered “heavy machinery” of conventional farms, but my hunch is that these folks have never visited an organic farm of comparable scale (see my reply to sonic above).

    However, when I think of “conventional” farming, I think of primarily of synthetic fertilizers and other agrochemicals, which consume fossil fuel in their production (e.g. natural gas, or sometimes coal, which are used as a hydrogen feedstock in the Haber-Bosch process). As long as fossil fuels are abundant and cheap, this dependency poses no imminent threat to our food security. But (as any devotee of the “peak oil” hypothesis will be quick to tell you) this situation will not likely last indefinitely.

  87. mufion 09 Sep 2010 at 10:44 pm

    PS: Just to end on a more positive note, I see no reason why renewable energy (carried via electricity) could not substitute for fossil fuels both on the farm and in the manufacturing plant where agrochemicals are produced, given enough of a stimulus. The alternatives may not be cost-competitive now, but I see that as resulting more from a lack of political will (e.g. that we still don’t tax carbon pollution) than from a lack of technological ingenuity.

  88. mufion 10 Sep 2010 at 7:59 am

    PPS: I should clarify that petroleum is used as a source of raw materials in agrochemical synthesis (i.e. not just as a fuel to power the plant).

  89. daedalus2uon 10 Sep 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Combined nitrogen is the only fertilizer that can be made synthetically. Every other element in fertilizer exists naturally and is only recovered and purified. Manufactured fertilizers have the advantage that their composition can be controlled to match what is actually needed by the soil. Avoiding excess reduces the potential for runoff.

    Most of the combined nitrogen, even in organic fertilizers such as manure ultimately comes from synthetic ammonia used to fertilize the land used to grow the feed that farm animals turn into manure. If synthetic fixed nitrogen fertilizers were not used, there would be widespread protein insufficiency.

    Rich countries would still subsidize their farming as they do now, so it is only farmers in poor countries that would be unable to compete. Of course the rich would still have enough protein; it is only the poor that would be malnourished.

  90. Allyon 10 Sep 2010 at 9:51 pm

    1. Marketing with the word “organic”

    The terminology “organic” is loaded. All food is produced organically in a literal sense, but if the buzz word “organic” is used to market foods that are grown without pesticides and by rotating crops etc., then of course people will be attracted to buying these products.

    2. The article by Cahal Milmo

    The article you reference as evidence that “organic farming may be worse for the environment” is actually saying that many products are more efficient if produced organically, and that others, like milk and tomatoes, are more efficiently produced by conventional farming methods. It would be smart to have a specific look at which foods are more efficient to produce organically and which are more efficient to produce conventionally. By taking this approach, we could shift to a more efficient combination of organic and conventional farming methods that is better for the environment overall.

    3. My focus

    As you can tell, my main focus is the environmental impact of farming. Since there isn’t evidence that there is a major difference in the nutritional value of foods produced via either method, the benefit to the environment would mainly need to be balanced against the economic cost. However, it would be better if the economic costs could be reduced so that the ecological benefits could be enjoyed. But that’s market influences and governmental policy territory, and I can’t influence that alone. Changes to the way we farm would have to be addressed on a large scale by consumers and governments.

  91. kevinfon 11 Sep 2010 at 8:01 pm

    This was at least a decent study in an excellent journal. The more I thought about it the more I thought, “Why is this surprising?”

    1. Smaller berries on organic fruit, and better tasting. It is well understood that smaller berries taste better. The expansion dilutes sugars, acids and volatiles. No surprise.

    2. What about yields? If you make something with 10% more antioxidants, but the plant produces 30% fewer fruit, how does this help the farmer/consumer.

    3. No surprise that soil populations would be more diverse. Soil was not sterilized with methyl bromide or comparable fumigants.

    No big surprise, but it is good that science is at least testing these parameters in valid ways.

    Also Steven, if organic and conventional are the same for nutrition and yield, then organic wins. Lower inputs. That’s still a big deal- and as you mention, not all evidence suggests it so, but certainly it is true for some crops.

  92. Scott Youngon 12 Sep 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I agree with your overall conclusions about the strawberries, but your Podcast seems to make a logical fallacy in making comparisons. You state that some components are up a bit and some are down a bit. You conclude, therefore, that their results are a wash (this is a separate argument from the more reasonable one you make that the small changes are probably unimportant), due to some sort of cancellation. Of course, this is not a valid evaluation technique. If 5 were up 100% and 5 were down 50% (factors of 2), I doubt you would conclude that the results were a wash…

  93. SquirrelEliteon 12 Sep 2010 at 6:15 pm

    @Scott Young,

    I did a quick survey of the raw data published in the PLoS1 strawberry study and there were very few 50-100% differences.

    I noticed that manganese was 50% more in conventional strawberries and the two glycosides were about 100% more for the organic strawberries. But there was a large standard deviation for those numbers which gave a considerable overlap in the ranges.

    Most of the percentage differences were in the 8-13% level mentioned in a couple of Dr Novella’s explicit quotes. And, those varied up and down from location to location with one location favoring organic and another favoring conventional.

    So, with the nutritional differences being pretty small with a slight edge for organic in some nutrients and conventional in others, I don’t perceive that there is enough of an advantage to favor organic produce for that reason alone.

  94. LibertyFreedomPatrioton 12 Sep 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Skeptics sometimes remind me of journalists — they both do an hour or two of Google searches then anoint themselves experts in the field, ready to pontificate to the masses. Steve is no more knowledgeable about agricultural science than he is about quantum mechanics, as this podcast painfully showed.

    For example, Steve said that 50 years of research has demonstrated that there are no nutritional advantages to organic farming. Really? Why didn’t he mention this line in the PLOS article: “In the past 10 years, ten review studies of the scientific literature comparing the nutrition of organic and conventional foods have been published. Eight of these review studies found some evidence of organic food being more nutritious…”

    Did he forget about that? Was this a case of convenient amnesia, since it didn’t fit into his narrative?

    Granted, this literature is relatively new and evolving, but a consensus is slowly emerging that organic foods are indeed nutritionally superior (how that translates into human health improvements is another question). The evidence for the superiority of organic practices in terms of soil quality and other environmental parameters is even stronger.

    Plus, as somebody mentioned above, even if organics had the same nutrition and environmental impact as industrial food, organics win: why line the pockets of Cargill and Monsanto? Why not just stroll over to your local farmer’s market and support a local farmer instead of a corporate employee who sprays 2-chloro-4-(ethylamine)-6-(isopropylamine)-s-triazine all day.

    One wonders why “skeptics” like Steve, Penn/Teller, Dunning, et al are so biased when it comes to this topic. Could it be that they are politically libertarian/right, and so have a knee-jerk, personal, non-scientific reaction against it? In the case of Penn, Teller, Dunning, the answer is yes, without a doubt. Now I’m not so sure about Steve.

    –PhD listener

  95. John2on 13 Sep 2010 at 3:57 am

    Mufi, you ought not conflates locally grown with environmentally friendly. It can often be far better to grow a crop where the conditions are ideal, and to transport it, than to grow it close to the end users in sub-optimal conditions.

    Similarly, minimising food miles often can mean that you are better off shopping at a local supermarket than driving to several local producers, or even to a farmers’ market. Your own carbon footprint in needing to own and run a vehicle, for example, can more than offset the miles driven by the supermarket’s delivery vehicles.

  96. Scott Youngon 13 Sep 2010 at 7:15 am

    @ quirrelElite
    Please re-read my post. It addressed the logic of “canceling” ups and downs, not the significances of small changes (and factors of 2 was just a hypothetical, not something from this particular study).

  97. Steven Novellaon 13 Sep 2010 at 7:49 am

    Scott – I don’t understand your point, because I specifically said they were up or down by a little bit. That is what made it a wash. The smallness of the changes is more important, but even then there is a scatter of changes in both directions among the various varieties.

    PhD – I never claimed to be an expert. I’m a science blogger – I raise a lot of issues and give my opinion. That should be obvious. But I have read about organics for years before ever blogging about it, because it is a complex and politically charged issue.

    Regarding reviews of nutritional quality – I simply disagree with these authors, who seem very biased to me (as evidenced by their conclusions). A PubMed search of published studies and reviews reveals the following conclusions:
    - there is insufficient evidence to compare organic and conventional
    - there are slight differences in both directions
    - there is not enough of a difference to have any health impact

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12907407
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12002790

    And the most recent reviews I can find conclude no difference:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19640946

    The same is true of food safety – no conclusive evidence:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16403682

    I am just interpreting the published evidence. I agree there are political biases – on both sides. Whereas the evidence is paper thin.

  98. mufion 13 Sep 2010 at 11:56 am

    John2,

    I don’t recall making that conflation, although I do recall reporting that there are social movements that label themselves “beyond organic” or “locavore”, which specifically respond to the charge (repeated by ccbowers) that long-distance travel adds to the carbon footprint of one’s diet.

    In other words, at least some eco-foodie types recognize that the “organic” label does not capture the ecological impact of long-distance distribution. That does not necessarily mean that they believe it is the only source of such impacts. But it seems clear that these folks are looking for simple guidelines or rules-of-thumb, which are supposed to work in most (though not necessarily all) cases. Given the complexity of the issue, I think that quest is understandable (i.e. psychologically, for those who are sincerely concerned about such matters).

    But, as I alluded above, if I had to choose a simple guideline for myself, it would not be “eat local”, “eat organic”, or even “eat local organic” (which I saw on a car bumper sticker just yesterday); rather, it would be something along the lines of Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Among other things, this guideline does not require me to drive any further than my local supermarket – although it so happens that, in my particular case, the “hippy-dippy” places (e.g. the food co-op and health food store) are actually located closer to my home than the supermarket (not that that’s the only reason to patronize one business over another).

  99. Scott Youngon 13 Sep 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Steve, at about 18:50 in the podcast, you state that some things go up some go down and that makes it a wash. I give you credit for meaning that small changes don’t matter in this case, not that some go up and some go down so they cancel out…that would be a fallacy.

  100. halincohon 13 Sep 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Steve, on skepchick this was posted :

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-31727_162-20015982-10391695.html

    It on the surface looks at a case linking autism to vaccines, but in fact it is linking an interaction between vaccines and mitochondrial disease with a resulting case of autism as determined in a court of law.

    My question is is there any other evidence ( and how good is it ) between mitochondrial disease and autism or mitochondrial disease and vaccines that produce chronic consequences like autism or other neurological diseases. This is not routinely screened for in infancy. But IF there is evidence for an interaction, then it seems that we should screen infants as we screen for Tay Sachs etc. But I know of no interaction. Do you?

  101. SquirrelEliteon 13 Sep 2010 at 3:57 pm

    @halincoh,

    There have been several good posts on the Hannah Poling case on Science Based Medicine, including this one from Dr Novella:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=174#more-174

    Or, for a different point of view on Sharyl Atkisson’s reporting on autism from a couple years ago, check out this one:

    http://autism-news-beat.com/archives/71

    and this link on Respectful Insolence:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/08/sharyl_attkisson_of_cbs_and_generation_r.php

    I think she left us another present recently, but I didn’t find the link to the response article I read.

  102. SquirrelEliteon 13 Sep 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Ah, here it is:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/09/cbs_news_resident_anti-vaccine_propagand.php

  103. LarryGon 01 Oct 2010 at 10:53 am

    “In my perfect world major societal decisions would be based upon logic and evidence, not ideology. But humans are ideological creatures – we develop belief systems that we jealously defend, and are subject to confirmation bias so that we falsely believe the evidence supports our ideology.”

    It may be incomplete to consider this logic and evidence vs. ideology. For most people, it may not be practical to properly evaluate the evidence. For those people, they have to depend on somebody else to evaluate it for them. And that’s where our system breaks down, either in practice or perception. Who do we trust?

    Many people won’t trust the producers, distributors or retailers because they have the profit motive.

    It then falls to the government to properly regulate the industry. The perception of politicians in the west is what it is. And these are the people who make the leadership appointments in the agencies that monitor and regulate our foods.

    (Bias disclosure: I live in Canada and can only speak of Canadian and American politics.)

    And as for those who work directly in research at universities, etc., there’s still the question of the money motive. Not everybody will trust somebody to be unbiased if they’re receiving six, seven or eight figure research grants from a party with a vested interest in the outcome. Combine this with the practice at some schools of salary or a market differential being correlated to research funding received and there’s even a perceived personal financial conflict of interest.

    No conspiracy or anything, just simply follow the money. And personally, I don’t disagree with a professor’s salary or market differential being connected to the funding they bring in. Universities do not have the funds necessary to increase salaries across the board to the levels needed to compete with industry, and they don’t have the funds to financially support the kinds of research that needs to be done.

    But there is still the perceived conflict of interest.

    Then add veggie libel laws, opposition to food labelling, etc. to the situation…

    In short, in the absence of a trusted mechanism to safeguard the quality of our food, people are left to decide for themselves. The overly simplistic perception of the “natural” (mis)label is that it’s something tried and true, that worked for our ancestors, whereas everything else is newer and needs to be evaluated but who do we trust to evaluate it?

  104. LarryGon 01 Oct 2010 at 11:46 am

    “This article was not about pesticides or about sustainability or the environment. I was about food quality (just like the title says)…”

    I would have thought the ideology of “organic” and “natural” was more about the perceived lack of pesticides than about nutrition or taste.

    But it doesn’t change the validity of your comments of “natural” pesticides. I remember first when I read about this some years ago. I apologize for not remembering the specific pesticide (or fungicide), bacteria or target crop. But the case I read about went something like this…

    Instead of spreading the pesticide, bacteria that naturally produced it would be spread. The bacteria would generally die after a short period of time in the environment where the intended vegetable was grown, leaving a certain amount of the pesticide present.

    The first question raised is: What’s the difference?

    If it’s the same pesticide, it’s the same pesticide. How is it necessarily better because of its natural origin?

    We’d also have to look at the sourcing of both and compare. What else is present in the “non-natural” sourced pesticide and the “natural” source pesticide?

    I’m not a microbiologist, so maybe it’s not uncommon for bacteria to produce only one waste material. I don’t know really… But I know it isn’t guaranteed as I’m aware of bacteria where it doesn’t work like that.

    The bacterial output could consist of more than the intended pesticide whereas the non-natural source may be more pure. That other waste could be unhealthy.

    Not to mention the dead bacteria themselves would leave traces of other material, again potentially unhealthy.

    Some would argue the natural source is less concentrated. That’s fine, perhaps, but raises other questions. Should it be more or less concentrated? There’s no reason the non-organic source couldn’t be less concentrated if that’s indeed better.

    But then, with a less concentrated form of the pesticide, are we inadvertently breeding a more resistent strain of the pest that we’re trying to control?

    And also, since the bacteria would die shortly afterwards, it was clearly not adapted to that environment. But with repeated use, how long would it be before a small percentage survives? And once it spreads, could we find ourselves in a situation with this bacteria spreading out of control, generating uncontrollable amounts of a pesticide whether we wanted it or not?

    The whole situation sounded like a case of “organic by technicality.”

    And lacking in foresight, which is often an accusation against the use of non-natural pesticides, GM crops, etc.

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