American Elephants

The Dirty Secrets of Organic Food by The Elephant's Child

Organic-Produce-in-Grocery-Store-PhotoThe cleverest words devised by marketing experts can be found in greatest abundance in your friendly neighborhood grocery store. In the supermarket world, shelf space is a coveted commodity, and producers are desperately trying to retain and grow the amount of shelf space they are allowed. Just stop and think for a moment of the cereal aisle, and how many different brands of cereal are there.

What can you hook a kid on? Chocolate dinosaurs? or will mom go for ‘natural’ or ‘organic’? The words chosen matter in sales success. There’s ‘natural’ which has an enticing ring, until you compare it to ‘unnatural’ which immediately shows how meaningless it is. You have GMO Free, Gluten Free, Whole Grain, Heart Healthy and a whole raft of other enticements promising more health, strength and happiness. They are mostly marketing ploys, but none is so prevalent as “Organic.”

In most stores a whole section is set aside for organic foods, but what does that mean for the customer? Better health, better nutrition? No.

Passionate advocates of organic farming and foods resemble members of a religious cult, one founded on a “back to Nature” mentality. They are not so fundamentalist, however, that they do not make concessions to reality. For example, organic standards arbitrarily define which pesticides are acceptable, but allow “deviations” if based on “need.” Synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, although there is a lengthy list of exceptions in the Organic Foods Production Act, while most “natural” ones are permitted (and the application of pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer is allowed). The decisions are made in a murky process that combines agronomy, lobbying, and fundamentalism. …

Ironically, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic construct of activists and bureaucrats that makes little sense. That brings us to another anomaly: Organic agriculture is based on agreed, allowed sets of principles and techniques, but it has little to do with the ultimate quality or composition of the final products. For example, if prohibited chemical pesticides or forbidden pollen from genetically engineered plants wafts onto and “contaminates” an organic field, guess what? The farmer gets a mulligan: He does not lose his organic certification.

Organic foods arrived on a fear of “chemicals,” (scare quotes) which pops up now and then. Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones do, and there is the added risk of pathogen-laden animal excreta — manure. Organic foods have never been shown to be healthier or to have any environmental benefit.

Moreover, a study published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.

Organic farms typically have smaller yields than conventional farms. In those examples when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable, the organic yield is 34% less. The dirty little secret ia  that organic agriculture is kept afloat by massive subsidies and bolstered by  a whole range of USDA programs, misleading advertising, and marketing that dishonestly disparages the competition.

There are new commercials on radio, advertising bed sheets that are less expensive because of the absence of a brick and mortar store, and softer, better because the cotton is grown with manure rather than an ordinary nitrogen-based fertilizer. And that makes sense because?  Because millions of Americans have been led to believe that “organic” means better for you. It isn’t. Costs about 30% more though.



“Organic” Is Only a Marketing Ploy. by The Elephant's Child

Headline in the New York Times environment section: “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” They’re a little late with this, but if “Stanford University scientists have weighed in on the “maybe not” side of the debate after an extensive examination of four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods,” then it is more official than it has been for umpty-ump years.

“Organic” has always been a marketing ploy. Organic growers, years ago convinced the Department of Agriculture that they should have guidelines for calling their produce “organic.” The guidelines refer to the process by which organic produce is grown. Only “natural” fertilizers and pesticides. The “organic” label has never indicated healthier, fresher, more nutritious, or even less pesticides. The pesticides used are derived from plants (pyrethrums). Fertilizers are natural manure.

The whole thing was born in one of those periodic panics about pesticides in foods. Who knows how they arise, but common sense goes out the window, and gullibility opens the door for promoters. Here is the guideline: The dose makes the poison. There are all sort of things that are completely harmless or even beneficial in small amounts that in large amounts might be poisonous — from radiation to pesticides.

The NYT article has big boosts from the organic trade association, the Environmental Working Group. The study is also a meta-analysis, meaning that they didn’t do any new studies, just combined all the old ones (not generally considered excellence). So there you go. Nothing new. If you want to pay extra (about 30%) more for organic food, the farmers will welcome your money.

I once bought a bottle of “organic” shampoo, in full knowledge of how totally ridiculous that was, but it was lemon verbena, and I can’t resist lemon verbena soap.

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