The truth about organic food

David Farrar

One of may favourite podcasts is Skepticality, produced by the Skeptics Society.  They apply science and logic to a multitude of topics – from so called business success conferences, to health quacks, to religious claims to unusual occurrence odds.

The last episode I listened to have a great section on organic food. Their summary was:

  • The most dangerous bacteria in America’s food supply is E. coli, which is found in abundance in cattle manure, a favorite “natural” fertilizer of organic farming.)
  • The evidence for the superiority of organic food is mostly anecdotal and based more on irrational assumptions and wishful thinking than on hard scientific evidence.
  • Organic food does not offer special protection against cancer or any other disease.
  • Organic food is not “healthier” than food produced by conventional farming, using synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

A key useful line was that “natural” in no way equates to “safe” and “artificial” in  no way equates to “unsafe”. In fact often it can be the other way around. You can not generalise. Many poisons are natural, after all.

With that in mind, I saw this blog by Green MP Steffan Browning:

They do note, however, that the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land. I am reading that as a good opportunity for a lot more growth in organics – the other 99.1%.

There is definitely demand for change. This month also saw 25,000 people demonstrating in Berlin against industrial agriculture. I particularly like their chant “If you persecute farmers, animals and bees, you won’t become MPs!”

I absolutely agree with the Association of German Dairy Farmers that only if “farmers and citizens stand up together for reform of agricultural policy can we keep our farms operating and ensure that at long last we produce healthy food under conditions of fairness.”

So Steffan Browning repeats the myth that non-organic food is not healthy. He also seems to imply he wants all agriculture in the world to be organic.

As is well documented (with scores of references) at the Wikipedia article on organic food, the vast scientific consensus is that there is little or any difference in taste, no significant difference in nutrients or heavy metals. A review of 50 years of evidence concluded “there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content” and “There is no support in the scientific literature that the lower levels of nitrogen in certain organic vegetables translates to improved health risk”.

There is also no evidence that organic foods carry a lower risk of cancer according to the American Cancer Society.

Now when it comes to issues such as climate change, the Greens insist that we must follow the scientific consensus and act to mitigate against global warming. And, they are right. We should accept the scientific consensus.

But when it comes to other issues such as organic food, they point blank refuse to endorse the scientific consensus, and preach fear and doubt and cherry pick the odd study to back their near-religious view that organic is better.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against organic food. If you want to pay 40% more for your food, and it gives you peace of mind – good on you. but I object to MPs and parties denigrating science by insisting that organic is safer and better.

Political commentator David Farrar posts at Kiwiblog.

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37 Comments & Questions

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Wow. You really managed to cover the whole of food in a few short paragraphs. And to think it took Bernard Jensen many, many books and decades to understand about food and travel the world meeting the greatest researchers and growers before formulating his ideas.

And behold he could have just waited until Wikipedia was formed and become an expert between meals.

If you are an expert at something directly, write about it. If you aren't, just write a blog. Oh that's right - you do write a blog.

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Debate the issues don't dis the writer. I would be very interested in your counter arguments. Is the science really that conclusive as the blog suggests?

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I'm not qualified to debate the issues. Nor is the writer of this blog. He does look pretty good though, for a 60 year old.

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It is immediately obvious that David Farrar has no idea what he is talking about. Clearly he does not know what organic farming is.
Ask the MPI David. Check out their publications on the subject.
Organic farming is sustainable agriculture according to those who know.
What on earth were you talking about David?

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From the above -mentioned MAF (Policy) document:-

"4.0 - Description of organic agriculture

Organic farming, which includes the terms biodynamic, ecological and biological, is an approach to farming that seeks to create an integrated, sustainable and humane agricultural system.
Organic farming relies primarily on locally or farm derived renewable resources and the management of biological processes for crop, livestock and human nutrition and for protection from pests and diseases.
The same principles apply to organic horticulture and aquaculture."

Just in case you really don't get it, organic food is the product of organic agriculture.

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Here are the principle aims of Organic Agriculture:-

-to produce food of high nutritional quality in sufficient quantity;

-to interact in a constructive and life enhancing way with all natural systems and cycles;

-to encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving micro organisms, soil flora and fauna, plants and animals;

-to maintain and increase long-term fertility of soils;

-to promote the healthy use and proper care of water, water resources and all life therein;

-to help in the conservation of soil and water;

-to use, as far as is possible, renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems;

-to work, as far as possible, within a closed system with regard to organic matter and nutrient elements;

-to work, as far as possible, with materials and substances which can be reused or recycled, either on the farm or elsewhere;

-to give all livestock conditions of life which allow them to perform the basic aspects of their innate behaviour;

-to minimize all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural practices;

-to maintain the genetic diversity of the agricultural system and its surroundings, including the protection of plant and wildlife habitats;

-to allow everyone involved in organic production and processing a quality of life conforming to the UN Human Rights Charter, to cover their basic needs and obtain an adequate return and satisfaction from their work, including a safe working environment;
-
to consider the wider social and ecological impact of the farming system;

-to produce non-food products from renewable resources, which are fully biodegradable;

-to encourage organic agriculture associations to function along democratic lines and the principle of division of powers;

-to progress towards an entire organic production chain, which is both socially just and ecologically responsible.

Sustainable agriculture , pure and simple.
You have a problem with that?

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Excellent response. Thanks, Farmer Brown.

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He is quite clear in what he is talking about. He doesn't deny that it's sustainable farming. What he reports is the Skeptics' findings that there is little, if any, evidence to back up claims relating to health benefits.
The main points, which you seem to have missed are as follows:

The most dangerous bacteria in America’s food supply is E. coli, which is found in abundance in cattle manure, a favorite “natural” fertilizer of organic farming.)
• The evidence for the superiority of organic food is mostly anecdotal and based more on irrational assumptions and wishful thinking than on hard scientific evidence.
• Organic food does not offer special protection against cancer or any other disease.
• Organic food is not “healthier” than food produced by conventional farming, using synthetic pesticides and herbicides

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All I know is that the pond on my land is full of frogs and I never use Roundup. That the pond on my neighbour's land has no frogs - and he uses Roundup.

I also wash my vegetables rather than eat E Coli. No washing will ever rid the chemicals from my neighbour's veges.

Science is inseparable from growing plants. Those who wish to grow in a non-organic way can do so, and those who wish to not participate in yet another boom and bust industry so they hand a diverse and life-giving planet to their children also have that right.

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Main points?
You mean straw men.

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Farmer Brown has been an organic farmer for over 35 years. In that time he has used very little fertiliser, but none of it was cattle manure. It was limestone and phosphate rock.
There is a considerable body of scientific evidence on mineral composition of organic vegetables; it's easily searched .
There is little if any scientific research on the effects on human health of consuming "cocktails " of biocides in food . All the research is on single chemicals; never in combination , and never over a lifetime.

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What are his qualifications in this field? none!.
So farrar thinks his blind ignorance allows him to spread misinformation and lies about organic food does he ?. Farrar knows nothing about nutrition and food, that is an obvious observation, if he had any knowledge he would not have allowed himself to get morbidly obese and sick.

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David Farrar looks like he could do well on organic food - his current diet doesn't seem to be working - or more exercise and organic food maybe.

Just a thought

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The true "scientific consensus" on climate change is so shrouded in "may be"s as to be meaningless. On that topic Farrer is a sucker for the consensus of activists.

What is the Sceptics Society's position on it? Its founder, Denis Dutton, was himself sceptical of AGW alarmism.

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Common sense - and plenty of evidence - begs to differ. It may be that organic food is not "healthier" (whatever the speech marks are supposed to indicate), but that food grown inorganically is "unhealthier".

I am skeptical of the skeptics. They have started with a bias to disprove any benefit of organics - and there's a lot of money invested in this, of course they're going to find it. Their reference notes on this topic show that they rely entirely on publications written with a strong bias against organic food and farming principles. However, there are unbiased scientific books on the topic, as well as screeds of scientific evidence showing that organic food IS better for people and the planet. Why didn't the skeptics scrutinise the full picture? They thrive on disproving things, at the expense of their own lucidity and credibility. Here the skeptics appear to rely entirely on reported scientific data with limited capacity, not designed to describe the full spectrum of implications and experiences.

Skeptics should also default to common sense, personal observation, intelligence, abundant curiosity, and self-motivated experimental research.

Before me, I have two tomatoes. One is a relatively pale, perfectly formed, shiny tomato from a supermarket, induced into maturity and consistent presentation through a series of inorganic treatments and interventions. The other is a dark red, irregularly shaped tomato from my garden, grown without sprays, pesticides, or chemically treated soil. I bite into the first tomato - it's completely insipid, tasteless, and juiceless. You know the ones. They're bland, flavourless - and found everywhere. I bite my second tomato - it explodes with power packed flavour, inducing a chemical reaction in my mouth of reactive saliva. It's delicious, and the juice is strong and intense. Common sense and my own physical response tells me tells me that these tomatoes are not created equal.

I was once fairly open minded about organics vs non-organics. Now, because I can read my own human responses, I can't discount the truth of first-hand experience and observation, and my obvious preference for organic food.

Farrar - call this anecdotal tosh, if you like. Then go and read some more biased statistics, so you feel reassuredly justified in what you're saying. I know you're getting healthier now, but I need to point out the obvious, even if it's rather personal... you haven't exactly been a credible advocate for a fast, relatively cheap, chemically-contrived urban diet.

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#6 anonymous. Farrar presents the view of science, not himself. What are you talking about?

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This blogger David Farrar is not presenting the view of science. No one presents the view of science. Science is like food varieties and life itself. Ever changing, ever evolving - ever under pressure from the powerful. (Flat earth anyone? Ozone layer?)

There is no science - only dedicated scientists publishing works. Sometimes motivated by truth, sometimes motivated by prejudice or who is paying for their research.

This blogger has spent a few hours on the internet and come up with an article. I hope he has not been paid for it.

The views of the responders are much more illuminating.

That said, the most valuable opinion is that of nellie. An organic tomato properly grown by an expert gardener is capable of thrilling us like climbing a beautiful mountain or listening to extraordinary music.

In the end food for humans is to be eaten and enjoyed and sustain life. If it is only to sustain life (which mass agricultural produce indeed can do) then we are no higher than pigs in swill. It seems that a life in the swill is adequate for this blogger.

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AND today's big headline on stuff.co.nz DPF. DCD in your waterways and your coffee, anyone? Thank goodness we mostly drink organic milk.

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#9, Nellie. It's you who have the bias. Just from your comment I can conclude that you believe:
- Eating organic food guarantees health and regular weight. (Special pleading. A healthy diet has nothing to do with how the food is sourced.)
- Organic foods are ethical. (Ask ConAgra, Monsanto, and Cargill about that. They're in on it, too. After all, lots of money to be had.)
- Your tomato argument is a clear straw man. It's quite possible to grow dreadful tomatoes in my garden with or without chemicals. But don't forget the cost of your homegrown tomato against store bought. You'd be surprised.
Go back and read the article more carefully. The point he makes is that policy decisions not based on the available evidence can be harmful. Sustainable agriculture, at this moment anyway, is the equivalent of somebody's idea of a better mousetrap. It's a great idea, and lots of people (including myself) want it to succeed. But so far it is coming up short.

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In what way is sustainable agriculture failing? An oxymoron, surely.

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You consider the aims quoted in #4 above to be inadequate?
In what way?

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Rich. Organic food is no guarantee of health and regular weight. What a ridiculous presumption.

Way to start a rebuttal, NOT.

Bad luck about your dreadful gardening, I'm sorry to hear of your failed tomato growing experiments. It's harder to pick a bad tomato in a supermarket than really stuff up at home. Or are you talking hyporthetically?

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Guys, it'a a con; there are no real discernible benefits, whether it be taste or health. You can compare this to the debate over bottled water vs tap water.
It wasn't that long ago, that a huckster was selling water distillers and make outlandish claims as to their efficacy. Don't fall for the ruses of the charlatans and Hare Krishna-chanting mystic freaks; they are your modern-day snake oil merchants roaming from town to town on their horse and buggy, duping the feckless and the gullible.

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Thank you for your comment Darcy. Krishna.

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Darcy, just regarding the benefits of tap water -Harvard did an interesting study on the poison fluoride which is added to our water (without consent with no benefits), in which fluoride was found to be lowering IQ's.

NBR should beware of lowing their standard to kiwiblog's level and becoming that of hosting articles by ignorant the pretend "wannabe " skeptics . Real skeptics are only interested in truth.
The "Skeptics society" +"dragoncon" are not interested in the truth, they make money in and just distribute and specialize in spreading lies and sci fi.

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Rich - I didn't get onto the cost. We grow from seed, so that cost is negligible at best.
Yes it did cost a pretty penny to get our soil naturally rich and truly fertile. But now that it is, we simply top up with dried kelp as a nutrient, and eggshells around the edges was our only real pest deterrent last summer. This year, the worst that's happened is a neighbourhood cat shredding one of our lettuces while we were on holiday. Everything else - strawberries, courgettes, lettuce, cauliflowers, broccoli - is just awesome.

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Organic and other alternative production methods are also less efficient and therefore require more land for an equivalent output. The scientific evidence is as Farrar states and there is no advantage to organic food.

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There was no scientific evidence for the claims, it is misinformation from the "skeptics society/Dragon con" ( I don't believe unfounded claims from a science fiction distribution company).
Again for clarity, there was absolutely no scientific evidence/proof of the "skeptics society " "dragoncon" false claims that Farrar has copied here.

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First point to #7 - attacks ad hominem are unbecoming.

2nd point - whether organic or otherwise - eating too much or too little will have results on the shape of one's body.

3 point - the "organic" option is only available to an elite which has a great deal of disposable income; if that were the only issue then it would be merely unjust; the real point is that normal, middle income people or less, are given to understand that if you don't have a premium supply of money you can't be healthy. This is a fallacy and needs to be attacked vigorously. Does anybody remember what enormous benefits the " green revolution" brought to the citizens of the poorer nations during the 60s and 70s? Millions are now alive who would not otherwise have lived to primary school age or beyond. Lets not be like the Taliban who kill women seeking to administer polio vaccine to children upon the grounds that the women are part of a conspiracy to undermine Islam; Poppycock must be seen for what it is - nonsense.

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You say "- the "organic" option is only available to an elite which has a great deal of disposable income; ".

You then say: "Poppycock must be seen for what it is - nonsense."

There are thousands of organic /sustainable consumers in NZ.
To suggest that they are an elite is pure nonsense.
For example the most popular brand of organic yoghurt (Biofarm) compares very favourably in price with the other options .

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Poppycock must be seen for what it is - nonsense

Farrar's ( in- your- face) very relevant lack of knowledge about health and nutrition did need to be brought to peoples attention.
Lacking all personal credibility he copies some "skeptics society"/ dragoncom misinformation about health and nutrition, and he is calling it truth/science .
It is completely without any supporting evidence.

You look at what unsustainable farming practices have brought to the citizens of poorer nations. Their nations have been turned into resource war zones. That you dare allege big agri- businesses stranglehold helps the poorer nations . Monsanto is harmful, we all know this by now, we have seen what it has done to smaller growers in poorer nations!

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That's irrelevant; the criterion is sustainability.
High production for a short term leads to disaster.
The aim is to have optimum production levels for the long term.

Care to quote your "evidence".

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The above was in reply to #17:-
"Organic and other alternative production methods are also less efficient and therefore require more land for an equivalent output."

That's irrelevant; the criterion is sustainability.
High production for a short term leads to disaster.

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Dear Mr Farrar

Your concluding paragraph in this article states:

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against organic food. If you want to pay 40% more for your food, and it gives you peace of mind – good on you. but I object to MPs and parties denigrating science by insisting that organic is safer and better.

I can't see anywhere in your article where you quoted the Green Party as saying "organic is safer and better"

Could you please give the references where the Green Party has said this.

Many thanks.

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Organic is a marketing ripoff.
Try doing it on a large scale with staple foods you noobs. It would be very hard to grow millions of tonnes of wheat with homeopathic sprays and a buried goats horn. Good luck pillaging the ocean for your magic brew seaweed too. It's obviously a limitless resource. Most organic farmers are hopeless romantics, ( perhaps without the romantic) there are a few that are doing it well on a large scale. But the rest are too lazy and unrealistic.
As for the Green Party supporters who are always linked to this sort of dribble they are about as flexible as he islamo-fascists. Eg we are right and everyone else must be exterminated.

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"We should accept the scientific consensus." This is an astonishing credo. It suggests curiosity, innovation and progress should be shelved in the interests of avoiding unseemly arguments.

It eschews the approach of all admired scientists from Copernicus and Galileo through Newton and Pasteur to Crick and Watson.

And it assumes that there is a consensus between all scientists regarding the net effects of feedbacks from greenhouse warming. What consensus? Where is it recorded? Who conducted the poll?

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