Oct 08 2012

The Organic False Dichotomy

I don’t have any a-priori or ideological issue with any of the specific practices that fall under the “organic” rubric. I do have a problem with the fact that there is an organic rubric. In fact I think the USDA made a mistake in giving into pressure and creating their organic certification. At the time they tried to make it clear that “certified organic” said absolutely nothing about the product itself, only that certain rules and restrictions were followed in production. It was not an endorsement of organic farming, just a way to regulate the use of the term in labeling food. Unfortunately, it further solidified the organic false dichotomy.

I recently wrote about the Stanford study – a systematic review of studies of organic produce. They concluded:

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Some of the reaction to the Stanford study, and my discussion of it, illustrates the problem with the false dichotomy – it encourages muddy thinking. There is a range of practices that are allowed and not allowed in organic farming to meet USDA certification. Excluded practices include genetically modified (GM) ingredients, ionizing radiation, and use of sewer sludge. There is also a long list of allowed and excluded substances (such as organic vs non-organic pesticides).

This is a very diverse list of substances and practices. What does the use of ionizing radiation have to do with the relative advantages or disadvantages of plant-derived vs artificial pesticides? There is only one common theme that runs through all of these practices and that is, in my opinion, the naturalistic fallacy.

To be clear – I am not saying that there are no reasonable justifications, both on the evidence and philosophy, for any particular practice that is considered organic. I am just saying that lumping a diverse group of practices together under one certified marketing label discourages a dispassionate assessment of the risks and benefits of each individual practice. They are now a package deal.

Let’s get back to the Stanford study and specifically a New York Times opinion piece about the study and the media reaction to it. Mark Bittman argues:

If I may play with metaphor for a moment, the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries. It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness. It did, in short, miss the point.


How can something that reduces your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria not be “more nutritious” than food that doesn’t?

Because the study narrowly defines “nutritious” as containing more vitamins.

I think it is Bittman who misses the point. He is essentially criticizing the study for using a “narrow” definition of “nutritious.” That is one of the most scientifically naive statements I have read in a while. Scientists should use as narrow a definition of any term as possible – and by “narrow” I mean specific and precise, preferably with an operational definition detailed in the study.

Bittman accuses the authors of unfairly attacking all of organic farming by focusing on one narrow aspect of it – the nutrient content of organic produce. He compares this to the whiteness of glue vs milk, which is a false analogy. A proper scientific study, however, should separate and clearly define specific variables, not lump them together with a vague colloquial use of terms, as Bittman recommends.

I believe this is the kind of muddy thinking encouraged by the use of the term “organic.” The authors were addressing a very specific question – what does the current evidence say about the nutrient content of organic vs conventional produce? They added two separate questions about pesticide residue and antibiotic resistant bacteria – two factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the nutrient content of food.

I think Bittman’s attitude, and obvious anger at the study, reflects a general trait of human psychology – the need for simplicity. The world is a complex place, and we partly cope with that complexity by simplifying it in our minds. We use categories, pigeon holes, bottom lines, and executive summaries to break down the complex work into bite-sized chunks that we can handle. There is nothing wrong with this – I do this all the time, often consciously. I am aware of the fact that I cannot remember all the nitty gritty details about every subject, and so I often with boil a topic down to its important essence and try to remember that. However, I also couple with the bottom-line summary, knowledge of the fact that the topic is much more complex, and perhaps even some idea of the nature of that complexity, so I will remember to look into it further if those details become important. This approach also encourages humility toward topics of which I can remember only a simplified overview, and deference to experts who live in the nitty gritty details.

Often, however, an oversimplified approach, without recognition of the true complexity, is very counterproductive. Scientists cannot take this approach, they must delve as deeply as possible into the complexity.

When thinking about farming practices we should look at each practice on its own merits, with respect to every important outcome, such as the cost of production, land requirements, productivity, multiple environmental effects, sustainability, health effects on workers, nutrient quality and content of the food, and other specific health characteristics of the food. These should be considered separately, for each practice, based on the best evidence available. It is scientifically absurd to lump a long list of diverse practices together with a long list of outcomes and try to come up with a overall assessment – is organic farming better than conventional farming? The question is meaningless and deceptive, but that appears to the question that Bittman wants to ask, and he criticizes the authors of this review for not addressing it.

To some extent, however, we are stuck (at least for now) with the false dichotomy, since it has been adopted into regulations with the USDA certification. At least there is an operational definition as to what is “organic” and we can ask specific questions about the net effect of that. There is still the problem that “not organic” can run the full spectrum from almost but not quite organic to breaking every single criterion of the organic label. This is what we have for real world studies, however – looking at what farmers and agricultural companies are currently doing. It would be better to isolate each variable from the rest, and some studies do that.

What the Stanford study showed was three things – that organic certified produce are not significantly different in terms of nutrient content from conventional produce, that there is greater pesticide residue, and there is a greater risk of antibiotic-resistant bacterial contamination on conventional food. Bittman also brings up the fact that other researchers contest the first finding, but I think Bittman is cherry picking here. The systematic reviews that I can find largely agree that:

“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.”

Some studies do show a small difference, but it is possible that the small increase in nutrient density is caused mostly or entirely by the smaller size of organic produce.

With regard to the pesticide residue issue, while there is no question at this point that conventional produce has greater residue of conventional pesticides, this comparison may actually suffer from the kind of problem that Bittman falsely accused the Stanford study of – making a biased comparison. Most studies look for synthetic pesticides – so of course there are more synthetic pesticides on food grown with synthetic pesticides. Generally, however, they don’t look for the “biological” pesticides allowed for on organic food, because it is assumed they are safe (based solely on the naturalistic fallacy, as far as I can tell).

Further, there is no evidence that the levels of pesticides on conventional produce represent any health risk. They are well below safety limits. It should not be assumed, therefore, that the even lower level of synthetic pesticides on organic produce translate into a health benefit. The same is true of contamination with antibiotic resistant bacteria – there is no evidence this represents a health risk for the person who consumes the food. We have to distinguish this from the safety of farm workers and the overall impact this has on the existence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the world. There is a good case to be made for farming practices that do not rely on dosing animals with antibiotics.


Good science requires precision of definition and obsessive isolation of specific variables and specific outcomes. In order to optimize our food production industry with respect to as many outcomes as possible, we need to be able to ask and answer many specific questions. I want to know the effect on specific nutrient content of a specific kind of ionizing radiation on romaine lettuce. We can add this narrow bit of information to evidence for cost, other effects on nutrient quality, shelf life, adverse effects from bacterial contamination, and the net impact of the process on workers and the environment. If there is a way to further look at the net health impact of the practice, that would be useful information. Then we can look at all these individual bits of data and make an informed judgment about the costs, risks, and benefit of this specific practice, to individual consumers and to society.

What we don’t want to do is combine many practices and many outcomes together in a muddy way and then defend one ideological position or the other at all costs. It is probably too late, but in an ideal world I think we should abolish the concept of “organic farming.” Rather we should strive for sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices that maximize production, minimize land use, minimize negative environmental impacts, and produce nutritious and safe products that people can afford.


21 responses so far

21 thoughts on “The Organic False Dichotomy”

  1. MikeB says:

    This is one of the most cogent critiques of the “organic” definition I’ve seen.

    I worked for several years at an organic farm and saw nothing untoward in what they were doing. When I formed a partnership with three other people to start our own (very) small farm, “going organic” was a possibility. When I actually started reading the manuals and regulations, however, I discovered that the “organic” movement is, top to bottom, a great barrel raft of ideology-based (not science-based) claims that don’t hold water.

    When one claim is debunked–the “more nutritious” argument, for example–they either say they never made that argument (which is demonstrably false) or they jump to another claim on their barrel raft of claims, the “pesticides residues” claim, for example. But when that claim is debunked (see Steve Savage) they simply jump to another plank, like sustainability…and on it goes.

    The main problem with “going organic” is that you are constrained in your abilities to make your own farming decisions: You get the whole raft, as it were, and you don’t get to pick and choose those methods that are best suited for your situation. And if you don’t adhere, you are cast outside the camp.

    You have your thinking done for you in the organic movement. You get the anti-GMO fear-mongering. You get the blanket prohibitions against antibiotics. And, yes, you get homeopathy!

    Further, “organic” has become an identity, not just a set of “approved” practices, so you can bet when criticisms are meted out, acolytes will fight back in a manner that befits any tribe that feels it is being “attacked.” And all those attendant psychological mechanisms and fallacies so amply discussed on blogs like this come to the fore.

  2. MikeB says:

    If I may, I would add another observation: The word “organic” itself becomes more irritating the more I hear it used. It conflicts with the scientific definition (chemistry involving carbon-based molecules) in almost every sense, so that you get the following absurdities:

    Natural, carbon-based pesticides such as pyrethrum are considered “organic” by the NOP, but other natural, carbon-based pesticides such as tobacco dust are not “organic.”

    Perfectly reasonable carbon-based synthetic pesticides such as the fungicide captan are not “organic” according to the rules. But the more harmful, synthetic fungicide copper sulfate is considered “organic,” because there are no “natural” equivalents.

    Go figure.

    For fun, just review the lists of “allowed synthetic” and “prohibited non-synthetic” substances in the NOP.

  3. ccbowers says:

    “I am just saying that lumping a diverse groups of practices together under one certified marketing label discourages a dispassionate assessment of the risks and benefits of each individual practice. They are now a package deal.”

    I completely agree with your stance on the term “organic” as its used in the US, particularly in that it has the naturalistic fallacy built in to the criteria and the terms lumps practices together in an arbitrary way. I do not object to creating standards in principle, however, if they are based upon the best evidence available for given criteria. The process of creating standard(s) would be messy and would need periodic updating, but I think having some information about products could be a good thing, even if there was some unavoidable arbitrariness to the standard(s).

  4. locutusbrg says:

    I agree, organic is a marketing term not a scientific definition. There is strong undercurrent of almost magical thinking about food and food production in our culture.

    “I want to know the effect on specific nutrient content of a specific kind of ionizing radiation on romaine lettuce. We can add this narrow bit of information to evidence for cost, other effects on nutrient quality, shelf life, adverse effects from bacterial contamination, and the net impact of the process on workers and the environment. If there is a way to further look at the net health impact of the practice, that would be useful information. Then we can look at all these individual bits of data and make an informed judgment about the costs, risks, and benefit of this specific practice, to individual consumers and to society.”
    I would add that we not focus extensive resources checking and rechecking answered questions when there is a stack of good evidence because we don’t like the answers.

    In my opinion it is where I see the most logical, intelligent people I know lose their skepticism and become Ideologues. If you want to pay more for your food go ahead, leave me and my children out of it.

  5. Anastasia says:

    The research has shown that, in at least some cases, conventional methods are more environmentally friendly than organic. It’s clear to everyone but the organic folks and staunch anti organic folks that what we really need is to break it down method by method. We can still have an easy to read label that quantifies the environmental friendliness of an agricultural product – by giving each method a score. I describe this idea at the Biofortified Blog, would love to hear your thoughts.

  6. petrossa says:

    To me the matter is very simple. Mankind has been eating pesticides and resistant microbes for decades now (much worse when they where just invented) and the only result is a longer average lifespan.

    Puts kind of a dent in the ‘dangers’ of non-organic food and begs the question what’s the use of organic food other then to satisfy some idealistic worldview.

  7. Lenoxus says:

    Perhaps the label system should be replaced with something like a “scale” of organic-ness. Or better still, a bunch of different relevant facts — which types of pesticides were used, which antibiotics, etc.

    Of course, that might not only pose problems in cost and enforcement, but could lead to consumers (previously unaware of the presence of trace amounts of pesticides in their food) seeking totally-pesticide-free solutions, which could lead to disease issues. Hmm, this is complex…

  8. ccbowers says:

    “To me the matter is very simple. Mankind has been eating pesticides and resistant microbes for decades now (much worse when they where just invented) and the only result is a longer average lifespan.”

    Your statement implies a causal connection, which I assume is not intended, but I have used a similar reasoning in the following: If exposure to pesticides at levels we find in fruits and vegetables were indeed harmful then we would expect more harm with a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, we the opposite association, which tells me that the concern that people have is missplaced. It reminds me that people are often more concerned about the invisible or unknown risks, even if those risks are small, relative to more transparent or obvious risks whose effect is relatively large

  9. SimonW says:

    ccbowers – unless the pesticides people are concerned about concentrate in the food chain, when eating animal products might be worse than eating fruit and veg. I agree the concern is probably largely misplaced, but I don’t think the general argument about lifespan for example is a way to prove it for exactly the same sorts of reason Steve doesn’t like the “organic” label, it bundles too many variables into the same pot. For example it would be entirely possible for us to be eating a common pesticide residue that causes a low incidence of cancer, or adversely affects some sub-groups, and the majority of people still to live longer with improved medical care, vaccinations, more food etc. Thus I think you need to consider each pesticide individually and study it carefully.

    Possibly what we need Steve is additional standards that a range of goals, and let the market decide. Thus we could define more animal welfare standards, more soil protection standards, and let the consumer decide what better cow welfare is worth per litre, or if soil ecology is what concerns them.

    The UK introduced an egg mark with Lions on, to denote a code of practice based on evidence of dealing with Salmonella. I suspect the motive was largely to squash public unease over egg safety, since if they had evidence of high salmonella rates in any eggs (or at least high rates of food poisoning from these eggs) you can bet they would have been banned pretty sharpish. However the last study I saw suggested that salmonella levels in eggs were so low as to make it hard to demonstrate any objective benefit of the Lion, over non-Lion eggs. So it is not enough to select goals which seem worthy, and use evidence and science to define the practice, but also one needs to test to see if it is worthwhile and achieves those aims otherwise you end up with people stamping Lions on 85% of your eggs for no particular purpose.

  10. petrossa says:

    Evidently i used the lifespan story as a flippant remark as to show how slightly absurd the preposition of organic food as being ‘healthier’ is.

    As for the market, that’s already clear. Organic food is way more expensive, and actually a luxury item. If you have to feed a family and you earn average wages you’ll run out of money before the first week is over.

    I guess that answers also what value people attach to the welfare of animals. As long as it doesn’t make them go hungry they are all for it, but if they are starving the family dog is the first one to meet his maker.

    So, if people want to believe organic food is good and they are willing to pay the price, good for them. Personally i’ll eat whatever has a fair price, organic or not.

    Btw, here in France its standard to eat a raw egg with raw beef. Also unpasteurized milkproducts are fairly common. Afaik France doesn’t have dis-proportionally large numbers of salmonella cases.

  11. a.lokin says:

    “Organic” is a way of life, a political point of view, and a social perspective in addition to a set of farming practices. Attend a large, national conference devoted to organic farming such as the annual EcoFarm event in Asilomar, CA, and one finds a fairly homogenous group with skepticism and objectivity in very short supply.

    No surprise that Bittman expands the definition or “nutritious”; every organic grower I have spoken to sees their farm as a holistic enterprise, not a collection of narrowly defined components.

  12. pseudonymoniae says:

    It might be worth noting the sad statement about the quality of modern journalism when Mark Bittman provides commentary for the New York Times on this issue.

    So far as I can tell the closest thing he has to a “qualification” on this topic is having written a few books for uninformed foodies. This would hardly be a problem (as it doesn’t follow that credentials somehow imbue a person with inherently valid arguments), except that his writings on organic food indicate he clearly lacks ANY knowledge sufficient to analyze studies on this topic. Take a look at a few of his posts. He often doesn’t even cite the primary literature. He links to Huffington Post articles and “organic” propaganda sites.

    As Steve elucidates so clearly, the organic vs conventional debate is not based upon reason but fallacy.

    I think most people, myself included, are quite welcoming of criticisms of modern agricultural practices and wholly support any movement which calls for better practices. If conventional agriculture produces food that has higher than needed pesticide levels and promotes the spread of bacterial resistance genes, this may be an actual cause for a concern–one which I would love to see some unbiased third party investigate. However, the “organic” movement is neither an unbiased third party, nor a legitimate, reasonable alternative to poor agricultural practices.

    In 2012, you’d think we might have something better to offer.

  13. Thadius says:

    I agree with the notion that term “Organic” is nothing but a marketing devise loosely related to cretin agricultural practices. The way people involved in the culture of organic food defend the idea of “Organic” or any claim made in the name of “Organic” food without regard to evidence saddens me. Living in Rural Colorado i do support food produced locally in non-industrial or at least less-industrial ways. I do so purely on ideological social-economic grounds. That is I believe small farms with local distribution are better for the farmers and the environment (less fuel used to transport the goods if done properly). I think that few people would contest that modern industrial mono culture farming is detrimental to the economy and the environment, but the claim that a tomato grown with or without pesticide has more or less nutritional value is baseless and illogical. There are very good arguments for small economy and even organic method food production, none need be made up.

  14. ccbowers says:

    “ccbowers – unless the pesticides people are concerned about concentrate in the food chain, when eating animal products might be worse than eating fruit and veg.”

    If this were true, then concern about produce is even more off the mark (therefore it doesn’t support the argument either way). Admittedly this is a specialized area, beyond what I am comfortable commenting on too strongly without looking into it more, but I would be surprised if there are many pesticides allowed in regulated countries that would accumulate in the way you describe.

    It would be pretty easy to avoid by not allow such pesticides to be used. Generally speaking, molecules that are more lipophillic are the ones that would be prone to accumulation, primarily in fatty tissue. I’m sure this has been an issue in the past, and perhaps in areas with little or ineffective regulation, but I would be surprised if this was a big issue for our discussion here. I’m open to anyone with more information on the topic

  15. Bronze Dog says:

    I think you make a very good general point behind “muddy thinking” and oversimplification. I think I’d like to call it “bundling” or “the package deal fallacy.” It extends into a lot of topics, and one troll I had took it to the biggest extreme I’ve seen: He asserted that I had to believe in alien visitation if I believed in global warming, otherwise I’m being “inconsistent,” presumably inconsistent with his straw version of “liberal.”

    Another version I’ve seen from countless alties is the assumption that if you’re in favor of science-based medicine, you’re obviously in favor of the Triple Baconator Diet, because real doctors and fast food chains are both eeeee-ville things allied under the sway of the one and only corporate monolith.

    On the more closely related topic, there are a lot of naturalistic fallacy users who assume that if you’re in favor of GM food, you’re automatically pro-Monsanto and a shill for them because they can’t handle the idea that someone might have a different vision for the future of GM crops.

  16. Human says:

    I presume you wanted to make things as complex as possible, so you make statements that are misleading but generally true such as “there is no evidence that the levels of pesticides on conventional produce represent any health risk. “.

    Your statement rings true because the damage resulting from the consumption of a single conventional non-USDA organic apple alone is most often negligible. But it is irresponsible to make misleading statements that gives people comfort in purchasing pesticide laden produce.

    Very rarely will someone consume only one non-organic unit of produce in their lifetime.

    It is irrefutable that pesticides pose a health risk with continued consumption, as pesticides accumulate in the body. There’s plenty of evidence proving that pesticides are in fact detrimental to one’s health.

    It’s okay that monetary influence has likely driven you to make misleading statements; which can certainly hurt your less informed and less intelligent readers; as long as you intend to use that money for the greater good. Upon discovery of your blog about an hour ago, I had hoped I’d discovered a freethinking intellectual that wants to better humanity, but I find more flaws the more I read.

    Are you a mortality defeatist? Do you actually do anything to better humanity other than just talking? Surely I’m inviting many angered responses, but it seems to me that someone with your credentials is not doing enough. Do you intend to let your brain atrophy and your knowledge die within the next 40 or so years?

  17. Mlema says:

    Non-organic foods are typically cheaper because their production is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars.

    Pesticides aren’t good to eat, breathe or have on your skin. Especially for pregnant women’s unborn babies or for children.

    But even if none of that were true, I’d buy organic just to be sure I wasn’t eating toxic sludge.

  18. Mlema says:

    Remember bee colony collapse? It’s been found to be associated with the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, the use of which is increasing.

    3 New Studies Link Bee Decline to Bayer Pesticide

    guess we won’t need to worry about whether to choose organic fruit to eat: there won’t be no fruit if there ain’t no bees!

  19. Aardwark says:

    I know my comment comes in rather late, but cannot resist the temptation to share a scene I stumbled upon last night while watching Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent documentary about Sicily.

    At one point, he interviews a wine producer working a vineyard on the fertile slopes of Mt. Etna. A very traditional wine producer. One that never uses pesticides or synthetic additives. In fact, one that considers even irrigation as ‘cheating’ (‘a dry year should be reflected in the taste of the vine’, he says).

    Andrew then asks him something like ‘I see… So you’re an organic wine producer?’ and gets an admirable response:

    ‘Oh no, I don’t put the organic label on the bottle… I want people to buy my wine BECAUSE IT IS GOOD’.

    I sincerely applaud to this attitude and can only hope that this will gradually become the prevailing public position on ‘organic’. Yes, many actual practices that currently come under the ‘organic’ umbrella are, to many of us, highly desirable and worthy of respect and support. But no, it is not the label that counts. Nor the essentially meaningless term (unless applied to carbon-based chemistry). Nor does ‘not organic’ in all instances automatically equal ‘harmful’.

    It is high time we start assessing everything (not just the way we produce food) on its own merits, not based on what ideologically inspired category we put it in.

  20. Aardwark says:


    Regarding the “misleading statements; which can certainly hurt your less informed and less intelligent readers”…

    It is not the discussion that hurts those readers. It is precisely BEING less informed that causes them harm. So a reasonably informative blog could do some, if admittedly small, good after all.

    The article was not about “non-organic” being generally better than “organic” or vice versa. It was about all the harm brought about by insisting upon this, arguably false, dichotomy.

    The question is not whether pesticides are harmful. We all know that they are. It is rather about which pesticides may be safely used, in what way, what doses, on which products, in what context etc. It is about doing serious analysis of each and every particular case, not simply rallying under banners, however ‘right’ the slogans written on them may sound.

    Critical thinkers are not the ones that make things complex. Things ARE complex. We merely refuse to make things look simple at all costs and thus reduce the complex issues to ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘us’ or ‘them’.

    When I was in high school, I had a terrific teacher of mathematics. Sadly, I lost to time most of the mathematical knowledge I gained from him, but retained something else – a bit of wisdom he kept repeating to us with every lesson:
    ‘If the problem is not defined correctly, no amount of skill or work will help to solve it.’

    Oh yes, and as to the ‘money’ issue – ‘organic’ farming can be big business as well, and just as ruthless as any.

  21. geeksquad100 says:

    It suits well that this shill would say some ubsurd shit like conventional pesticide and herbicide drenched food isnt bad for you! lol why dont you drink some round up to show us it isnt harmful! you fucking lame http://www.cornucopia.org/2012/09/stanfords-spin-on-organics-allegedly-tainted-by-biotechnology-funding/

    Its too late people are losing conventional foods like its a hot potato! So its only a matter of time before your out of business because the corporations that pay you will be out of business.

    But theirs alot of things I want to say to a scum like you but I will keep my mouth shut. I hope you sleep well at night you sellout and enemy to humanity!

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