Apr 28 2014

Dueling Narratives on Organic Farming

There are many public debates raging that are essentially dueling narratives, both sides claiming to have science, evidence, and logic on their side. It always fascinates me when two groups can look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions. Is man-made climate change a real danger or all hype? Are alternative medicine treatments a revolution or a scam? Is GMO our best hope for sustainable agriculture or a looming health menace? Is organic farming useful or just marketing the naturalistic fallacy?

These binary choices are a bit of a false dichotomy, but not entirely, as people do tend to fall into one or the other camp. The narratives then tend to polarize the two sides with self-reinforcing echochambers of opinion and information.

I am also not suggesting that in each of the topics above the two sides are symmetrical or equally valid. Alternative medicine, for example, is a scam – it is the explicit creation of a double standard in order to market treatments that fail the test of scientific validity.

On many issues, however, there is a nuanced opinion somewhere in between the two extremes. I have no reason to doubt the scientific consensus on AGW, but we have to remember the current consensus is that AGW is 95% probable, meaning (if accurate) that one in 20 such statements will turn out to be wrong. Also, it is reasonable to question the efficacy of individual proposed solutions to AGW. I am still solidly in the “AGW is probably real and if we are going to do something about it we better start acting now,” camp, but I also don’t think we should white wash over current uncertainties in order to present a clean and united front. Science is messy and we have to deal with it.

One aspect of the dueling narratives I find frustrating is when the side that is mostly against the science hits upon an effective marketing campaign that plays to common human emotions. Science is often at a huge disadvantage in that (when communicated properly): with science, desires are secondary to reality; science is often messy and confusing, delivering mixed messages; and science is incompatible with deception. So science is often fighting with one-hand tied behind its back and is playing fair, while the other side is fighting dirty.

Science, however, has one huge advantage – it actually works, and the truth in the long run has an advantage over deception. Science-based medicine will continue to advance, while so-called alternative medicine will continue to nibble at the fringes, desperate for a legitimacy it will never have. (But it can still cause a lot of personal and societal damage in the meantime.)

The reality of the dueling narrative was recently showcased with respect to organic farming as a result of a report published by Academics Review. This is an independent group, founded by two PhD food and nutrition scientists, who claim to be “testing popular claims against peer-reviewed science.” I did some background research, and they appear to be legitimate and not grossly ideologically aligned. I am not that familiar with the organization, however, and it is not uncommon for ideological groups to present themselves as objective academic organizations. I’ll keep digging, but for now they seem legitimate.

The reports looks at the marketing of organic products and consumer attitudes toward organic produce. The review is pretty damning:

Our review suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal.

Specifically they criticize what they perceive as the organic food industry creating the impression that organic food is safer and more nutritious than conventionally grown crops, even though there is no science to back up such claims.

The authors of the review take an in-depth look at organic marketing and public perceptions. They make a fairly compelling case that the organic industry has deliberately created the brand perception that “organic” means healthier and safer, even though that is explicitly not what the label means.

In 2001 the USDA standardized the term organic under its organic seal of approval. At the time there was controversy over the net effects of the label, with critics warning that it would be exploited to create this “healthy halo” effect through deceptive marketing.

The USDA, however, simply stated that the label does not in any way imply safety or healthfulness, and is merely a statement about production methods. Meaning, Katherine DiMatteo, head of the Organic Trade Association, acknowledged both that the organic label does not promise a safer product, but that consumers are likely to assume that it does.

There have been many studies and systematic reviews comparing organic and conventionally grown crops. They found essentially no difference in nutritional quality or health outcomes.

It is true that organic produce has fewer pesticide residues, but this is partly an artifact of measuring pesticides used by conventional farming. Organic farmers also use pesticides – they use “natural” pesticides that are presumed safe, without real evidence. There is also no evidence that the small residues on conventional produce have any negative health effects.

The fallacy here is the same as in some other areas, like alternative medicine – things that are “natural” are presumed safe and superior, and therefore don’t have to be studied. This is nothing more than the naturalistic fallacy. Organic pesticides that are studied have been found to be as toxic as synthetic pesticides, and in general are less effective and so have to be used more often, which can be worse for the environment.

The authors report the result of various surveys that indicate that people choose organic to avoid pesticides, because they believe it is more nutritious and healthy, because they think it is environmentally better, and because organic food tastes better. None of these claims are supported by science.

My personal biggest problem with the organic label is the false dichotomy it creates. Organic has become a brand, a lifestyle, an attitude. It is a narrative, and the narrative comes first. In fact, one study found that people believed identical coffee tasted better if they were told it was ecofriendly, and were also willing to pay more for it.

Rather, it would be better to evaluate each farming practice on the evidence and the outcomes it produces, regardless of whether or not it fits a naturalistic narrative. Some practices considered “organic” are really just good sustainable practices, such as avoiding monoculture, crop rotation, and using cover crops. The evidence suggests these are good practices, whether or not they are part of achieving an “organic” label or not.

Two example of the organic false dichotomy throwing out the baby with the bathwater are their opposition to food irradiation and GMO. There are no health concerns with irradiating food (the food does not become radioactive). It just kills all the microorganisms that spoil food and can cause disease. Opposition to irradiation is based entirely on the perception that it’s not natural, and back-filled with weak claims about altered nutritional quality.

I believe opposition to GMO is the same – it’s ideological. Why else would they consider golden rice together with glyphosate resistant crops – two completely different applications of GMO technology. They oppose all GMO all the time – that’s ideology.

The organic marketing, however, has worked. They have successfully created fears in the public about “toxins” and unnatural mutants in their food, and offer the organic label as an assurance of wholesomeness, despite an utter lack of evidence to support such claims. The USDA was warned this would happen, they knew it would happen, and they facilitated this deception with their official seal of approval.

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