Sunday, September 16, 2012

Weekend Post - The organic food movement is bogus

Let me be blunt. The “organic” food movement is largely bogus.

To understand organic food you 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 Halaal 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 chicken 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 and will continue to do so.

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 also resurrected an old farming practice that industry had begun to eradicate: using excrement as a fertiliser.

While over two-thirds (pdf document) of people who buy organic food say they do so for the health benefits there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that this is mistaken. Not only is there no evidence that they are healthier, there IS growing evidence that they’re not. They’re not actually worse for your health, they just don’t seem to offer any actual health benefit either.

For instance a report by scientists at Stanford School of Medicine and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine just a few days ago concluded, after reviewing “17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods” that the “published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

The studies they included suggested, amongst other things, that there was no difference in the levels of nutrients between organic and conventional food, there were no difference in the risk of exposure to pesticides or bacteria and there was no difference in the levels of allergies people experienced. In short, there’s no evidence that organic food actually offers anything to its consumers.

Needless to say you can expect a bit of a backlash from the organic food industry. Like the so-called “alternative” medicine industry you shouldn’t see organic food as an idealistic community of hippies growing a few things in some prehistoric paradise. Both “alternative” medicine and organic food are parts of massive industries. While they sound small and unorthodox they are both produced in almost exactly the same way as any other item, just without certain chemicals. Admittedly alternative medicines are usually cheap to produce but that’s because they don’t actually contain any ingredients or because they aren’t produced to the same exacting standards as real medicines. Organic foods on the other hand are produced incredibly inefficiently which is the main reason they cost so much.

The organic industry is going to do its best to persuade us that their products are, in fact, wonderful despite the complete lack of evidence. They’ll say they’re healthier which we know they’re not. They’ll claim they safer, which they’re also not. They’ll claim that they have a smaller impact on the environment when clearly they don’t, being highly inefficient to produce.

If health is your concern, you can save a lot of money by buying conventionally produced food and use the savings to join your local gym instead.

They might even claim that they’re tastier but all I can offer is my personal experience. They’re not. The only thing they have left is an appeal to our sense of magic. Like homeopathy and other bogus ideas all they have left is a feeling that they’re good. If that’s enough for you then I wish you good luck. Just don’t ask me to lend you money when you’ve spent it all on food three times more expensive than it needs to be and is covered in traces of poo.

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