Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekend Post - the organic food deception

Why do people seem to think that things that are “natural” are somehow better than things seen as “unnatural”? Why is “organic” food so highly prized? Why do people object to “unnatural” additives in their foods, medicines and even their clothing?

Anyway, what does “natural” even mean?

Of course many natural products are perfectly wonderful. Oxygen is natural. Water is natural. Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, is natural. But all of these things, if taken to excess, will kill you. Arsenic, cyanides and many bacteria are all perfectly natural but they too will kill you stone dead. Lions and hippos are natural, as are mosquitos.

Unnatural products like anti-retroviral drugs, plastics and semiconductors have improved the quality of our lives almost immeasurably. Hospital operating theatres, telephone exchanges and refrigerators are all completely unnatural.

It’s not as simple as natural is good, unnatural is bad. That’s the “naturalistic fallacy”.

A very good example of the exaggeration of the benefits of so-called natural products is the organic food industry. Again we have to play with words a bit. All foods are organic, they’ve all come from some other form of life, whether animal or vegetable. Organic foods are no more “organic” than conventionally produced foods. So-called organic food is actually just conventional food that’s been grown, processed and delivered according to certain agreed standards. It’s similar to the production of Haalal meat. Fundamentally there’s no noticeable difference between an organic potato and a conventional one, just like there’s no observable difference between a Halaal chick burger and a conventional one. It’s just the production method that’s different.

Organic foods are produced largely without modern farming products like pesticides, veterinary products like antibiotics and modern fertilizers. That’s the main reason why organic foods are so expensive. In a store I visited recently they offered conventional spaghetti and organic spaghetti for exactly three times the price. Given that there’s no noticeable difference in taste, texture or quality I happily bought the cheaper version.

Perhaps the biggest argument for organic food, and the reason that many people are willing to spend three times as much for certain items is that they think it’s somehow healthier. The inconvenient truth for the followers of the organic movement is that there appears to be no evidence for this whatsoever. None.

In fact some of the fertilizers used in organic farming are really rather scary. Although the chemicals often used are “natural” that doesn’t mean they don’t cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease or food-poisoning. Unfortunately the organic food movement has resurrected an old farming practice that industry had begun to eradicate: spreading excrement over growing crops.

Here’s a simple science lesson. Excrement, faeces, poo, whatever you want to call it, is bad for you. Why do you think we spend so much time disposing of it hygienically? Why do you think we’ve evolved over millennia to find it revolting? It’s because given the slightest chance it will kill us, that’s why.

One of the tragedies in science is how little certain scientists are known. Most educated people can think of Einstein, Newton, Curie and Pasteur. Others can perhaps name Fleming, Lister and Watson and Crick. But how many know of true greats, absolute heroes like Norman Borlaug? As well as winning a huge variety of international awards, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to the world food supply. It’s impossible to prove but it’s been said that Borlaug and his work in agriculture saved perhaps a billion human lives by drastically increasing crop production.

Like many great breakthroughs Borlaug’s achievements sound very simple. He made maximum use of seasons, used multiple genetic lines of crops to provide disease resistance, planted stronger, dwarf strains of crops that were much sturdier and, just as importantly, made liberal use of inorganic fertilizers. He encountered enormous resistance from well-meaning but ignorant objectors to this approach and some of the most aggressive objections came from the so-called “environmental lobby”, probably the very same people who can afford to pay silly prices for organic foods. Borlaug’s reaction was damning:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Organic food advocates should think hard about this. If they want to spend three times as much on food that’s absolutely identical to normal food, offers no real health benefits and doesn’t help the environment even a tiny bit then they’re welcome to. Just leave the rest of us out of it please?

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