Organic Frustrations?


CNN is reporting today on a new study that shows Americans are getting increasingly reluctant about  Organic products:  http://money.cnn.com/2008/04/23/news/companies/organics_backlash/index.htm?postversion=2008042314

Folks, that is a good thing because for the most part the whole concept of organic food superiority is at best wrong and at worst…fraudulent and marketing hype driven. 

In terms of pesticides and other chemical concerns, few regular vegetables have more measurable problems than organic vegetables.    However for other concerns, such as insect contamination – you can make the case that organics are riskier since those production methods have eliminated from the production chain chemicals and treatments that prevent bugs, rot, or other forms of biological contaminations.    But I’m not trying to make a case here that organics are “more dangerous” than non-organics.  Rather they are indistinguishable in terms of the health impact on a human, and therefore generally a waste of time, money, and resources.     We surround ourselves with huge risk every day in the form of traffic, smoking (for those who do), and a plethora of contaminants we largely ignore despite the fact they represent measureably far more risk than vegetable items which are far overregulated at almost every part of the production cycle.

It might make your mind *feel* better about your health to eat organic, but unlike hundreds of other behaviors you don’t worry about (bikes in traffic, no seatbelts, smoking, etc, etc, etc) eating organic is not having any measureable impact on your health.

I’m very open to criticism on this and trying to keep an open mind, so if anybody knows of any research on health and organic stuff I’d be very interested in reading it.

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About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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9 Responses to Organic Frustrations?

  1. Hey there Joe,

    I am actually writing an article on this currently for my health site (http://www.almostfit.com). There are plenty of studies on both sides of the argument to be certain, so I tend to think that eating organic for the nutrition is actually the wrong tack in making a choice.

    I really like the author Nina Planck’s advice on organics vs. conventional. I highly recommend her book, Real Food, which has a lot of “down to earth” advice on the impact (personally and globally) of your choices in what you eat. Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan) is also an excellent choice, and they are closely aligned, but Nina Planck’s basic reasoning is she spends more money at the “top” of the food chain; meaning she would rather spend more money on grass-fed beef than organic fruits and vegetables, because ultimately the aggregation of the “bad stuff” is much more concentrated/scientifically proven to be stored in the fatty tissue of animals than it is just under the skin of a bell pepper. There is a plethora of science that proves significant reductions in cancer risks from grass-fed beef vs. conventionally raised grain and animal byproduct-fed cattle for example, particularly when steroids and antibiotics are the standard in conventional beef. On fruits and vegetables specifically, she prefers organics for some things, but eats non-organic locally grown as well, which I do also, and the scientific evidence on chemical residue left in conventional vegetables is, on whole, somewhat inconclusive.

    When it comes to organic fruits and vegetables, I generally find that I prefer organic (when its affordable because its in season where I live), but with significant exceptions. My first priority is distance that the fruit or vegetable has traveled; I will take a conventional peach from a local Oregon farmer over an organic import from China/Peru/Chile any day. It supports a local economy; it uses far less fuel to get here; and they are typically not “gassed” during transport to alter the natural ripening cycle (which radically changes the flavor development). To me, typically I find that organically grown _local_ vegetables and fruits bought directly from a Farmer’s Market simply taste better, and are a good value when you’re buying seasonally. Conventionally grown local fruits may be more predictable, but the soil has been so overworked and chemically augmented that the flavor ultimately suffers. The chemical residue is likely negligible. The biggest advantage of a Farmer’s Market purchase directly from the farm (organic or otherwise)? It is picked at the peak of ripeness, which means it almost always tastes better.

    That said, if you are thinking about your health over the long haul rather than just from paycheck to paycheck, knowing that pesticides and chemicals are stored in fatty tissue over the span of years (this is proven as well) sure does make you think twice about the hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables that you eat over the span of years, that leave an aggregation of trace amounts of chemicals in your midsection. “Insect residue” is processed naturally by our bodies (we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years now); chemicals added to the growth process are very new in evolutionary terms, and we truly don’t know yet what the long term effects are. Thus, defaulting to non-chemically grown plant matter may have some merit. But the jury’s still out. 🙂

  2. JoeDuck says:

    Hey, a great and detailed comment Metroknow – thanks!

    I need to do more research because I was under the impression that there is not quality research that shows cancer is less from organics…

  3. One thing I thought of this morning with this: Do a little research on Bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical component found in plastics that is now being banned all over the world for its previously unknown/undisclosed link to interfering with childhood development, and as a precursor to prostate and breast cancer. While big industry still maintains its safe, with all of the misinformation no one really knows.

    This relates to organics in one specific way: For me, common sense prevails: If its a “no one knows” whether its really safe for my kids (or “well you can’t prove that it does harm them, yet”), then my conclusion is simple: Its not safe for my kids.

    This maps directly to the reasoning on organics vs. conventional – for 50 years we’ve all been told that plastics are perfectly safe, so by all means keep buying them. But now we’re finding out that maybe they’re not as safe as we’ve been led to believe, and *maybe* some of the baffling Western diseases have something to do with these. The same *could* apply to chemically raised produce; with studies finding completely contradictory evidence on both sides, it becomes a common sense choice to me.

    Real, whole foods grown traditionally (meaning, without evolutionarily new chemicals), don’t have those big unknowns. They are what they are, bugs sometimes and all. But you won’t get any big surprises that they cause cancer. Unfortunately, the same does not apply for “new” inventions in chemistry. Only time will tell; and in the mean time, it becomes a matter of accepting the risk or playing it safe.

  4. DerekV says:

    I certainly do not need research to make my own personal decision to ingest organic milk over conventional milk from RBGH (bovine growth hormone) treated animals. Same goes for meat. My uncle watched his neighbor “overjuice” his cattle in an attempt to fatten them up for market. The neighbor killed a bunch of cows with hormone overdose. Another no brainer for me is avoiding nut butters that may have come from conventional treatments. I try to eat organic while not smoking, wearing my seatbelt and wearing a helmet when I ride my bike. We should not forget the lessons of the “green revolution” where agribusiness was going to save the world. The social and health result was clear failure for many developing world communities. I believe the trap affluent Americans fall into is the willingness to “overcritique” things that are generally good. We have heard critiques of MLK as a philanderer, Wilderness as not that great because it is not truly “untrammeled by man” and of course, Organics (chemical free living) as a sham. I would like to avoid the possibility of pesticide/insecticide drift from the wind that is sure to reach us both, Joe, as we are a stones throw from numerous conventional orchards. I will deal with bugs, rot and biological contamination in lieu of chemicals, given a choice.

  5. FoolsGold says:

    You can die in a traffic accident driving the few extra miles to get to an organic food store. Or you can avoid some nanogram of an unknown chemical but get dosed with it but good in some restaurant. A great deal of consumers dollars are mis-applied as a result of advertising’s adjectives-strewn messages.

    Insects in vegetables? That is Nature’s way of making sure vegetarians get protein. In some spices the legal ‘filth tolerance’ level for insect parts is amazingly high.

    Some dirt probably primes our immune systems anyway so paying for sterilized food may not be sensible at all.

    You are dealing with unknown risks over vast amounts of time wherein people are exposed to hordes of confounding factors. So you might as well make whatever decision is a comfortable one for you and be happy with it.

  6. DerekV says:

    FoolsGold, when you say dirt, you mean poison right? “Some poison probably primes our immune systems.” Well, I am happy to let you live with that philosophy but I won’t. As a species, modern Homo sap is further away from a “natural” environment than ever. You can dismiss it with the Al Bundy cockroach theory that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger, but I see that theory as stimulated intellectual dwarfism or laziness. I imagine we should be concerned with totals in the bioaccumulation realm, not an occasional trip to a restaurant. I do not argue for purity, only intellectual honesty. Free radicals bring us down, right? We are actually dealing with known knowns in a way.

  7. JoeDuck says:

    We should not forget the lessons of the “green revolution” where agribusiness was going to save the world. The social and health result was clear failure for many developing world communities.

    Derek I’m not sure what you mean here – the Green Revolution increased yields so dramatically and kept food costs so low (until literally the last few months of trouble) that the mass starvation predicted by World Watch and other folks never has materialized and probably never will.

    This is a really interesting discussion to me. As with things like Global Warming, how we deal with *uncertainties* seems to affect our decisions about eating. My working hypoth is that if uncertainty swamps out the known factors there is generally no reason to act on those known factors.

  8. Hey there Joe – here’s a link to part 1 of the series I mentioned in my comment above: http://almostfit.com/2008/04/30/should-you-bother-with-organic-fruits-and-vegetables/

    Part 2 addresses the “risk” aspect, which assists me in my decisions (because I don’t believe that something that is labeled organic and shipped 3000 miles is worth the extra fuel costs that it took to get it to me…and the quality is bound to be poor more often than not). It is a loud, heated debate for sure!

  9. DerekV says:

    Joe, my knowledge of the critique of Green Revolution agriculture (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, dams, irrigation, equipment, and tractors), came from University study and a book called radical ecology, which is around 15 years old. Since then, the data have only reinforced the position that the GR has disrupted native ecologies and peoples. Results include reduced genetic diversity (shaky monoculture systems), vulnerability to pests, erosion, and drought.

    The authors also include plantation forestry (fast-growing, non-indigenous species, herbicides, chip harvesters, and mills), capitalist ranching (land conversion, imported grasses, fertilizers, and factory farms) and reproductive technologies (potentially harmful contraceptive drugs, sterilization, and bottle feeding) in the list of contributors.

    Vandana Shiva documents many of these experiences in the Punjab and other scientists have experienced similar results around the world. A web search of failures of the green revolution provides a nice contemporary list for the whole case.

    Sure yields were dramatically increased but what did we lose or what was the true cost?

    With regard to your assessment of uncertainty, I do the same but prefer a conservative approach. That is, in Hippocratic Oath style, first do no harm. Eating organic, especially in certain arenas, is acting on that philosophy.

    I suppose we could easily shatter this discussion by distinguishing between large scale versus small scale farmers and find examples of conventional operations that don’t use chemicals and don’t have the stamp (that goes back to my overcritique comment that I now realize is more about relying on the exception to argue against the rule, which I do inappropriately employ myself).

    I do believe a better example for your uncertainty hypothesis in the food realm would be vegetarians arguing that humans should not eat meat. Health and environmental arguments fall apart quickly at an individual level,if one makes the right choices but again that is the exception. Generally, for society, the critique holds. Wow, I digress.

    I suppose our uncertainty is personal and we have to go with our gut given our ignorance of reality. My gut tells me that even with lots of uncertainty, to reject “better living through chemicals!” more often than not.

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