Quack Word #12: ‘Organic’

I believe that organic food is a con, is not necessarily more healthy for you, tastes no different, and is damaging to the environment.

There, I have got that off my chest, but unfortunately I now feel like I have just admitted to being a child murderer, a racist or even a supporter of George Bush’s foreign policy.

Let me explain…

The word organic is now synonymous with everything good, healthy and caring. To be against organic is to be seen to be almost evil. Organic food has huge sections devoted to it in our supermarkets, and its not just food – our shampoos, clothing and beer can all be marketed as ‘organic’.

What does the word mean? Its original meaning was a scientific one. The chemistry of carbon-based molecules is described as organic chemistry. As such organic chemistry is the chemistry of life. In this definition, everything alive, and everything we eat, drink or wear (as long as it is natural fibres) is organic. In science, all apples are organic. Indeed all crops are organic. But that is not what the supermarkets mean when the flog us expensive ‘organic’ veg.

In this context, organic is used to denote crops that have been grown according to certain standards. Those standards are certified by the Soil Association. This body was set up in the forties by a group of people who wanted to turn away from the growing industrialisation of agriculture which they saw as damaging in various ways, environmentally, bodily and spiritually. Their philosophy had been heavily influenced by Rudolph Steiner who had a lot of mystical beliefs about the nature of soil. The basis of the philosophy was that farming should make use of local materials and maximise the use of manures and local grown animal feeds. Other beliefs involved planting at certain phases of the moon and encouraging ‘elemental forces’ into animals and seeking the help of ‘non-physical beings’.

Now it does not really matter if some of the more unhinged ideas were clearly batshit. The Soil Association has continued with the ideas about using manure rather than fertiliser, limited pesticides and limited drugs. The reason for this is so that we have healthier food, more sustainable farming and other benefits like better tasting food and less impact on wildlife.

Great. But the big question is to ask if this is actually true. What evidence is there that organic farming is healthier, tastier, more environmentally friendly and more sustainable?

Now the Quackometer Project is about exposing exaggerated health claims and so I would like to focus on the health claims for organic farming methods. Dick Tavern in his excellent book, The March of Unreason – science, democracy and the new fundamentalism, devotes a chapter to exposing the myths of organic methods and points out things like:

  • Tests conducted by independent consumer organisations show that people cannot taste the difference between organic and non-organic foods.
  • The rules for pesticides and fungicides use have no ‘rhyme or reason’. Older, more damaging chemicals like copper sulphate are allowed, but more modern and specific ones are not.
  • If most farming became organic then we would have returned to a time when crops were vulnerable to large scale blights, high labour costs were required and low yields the norm. The poorest in the world would suffer enormously.
  • Low yield crops need more land and that is damaging to the environment with more forest clearing and less land set aside.

So what about health? The main issue tends to focus on the ‘evils’ of pesticide residues. The problem here is that although pesticides can harm in large doses, there is no evidence that they harm at the minute quantities left on foods. As Dick Tavern points out in his book,

In fact every mouthful of food contains some poison, as does every sip of water. Carcinogenic’ substances are routinely consumed by all of us in the form of natural chemicals made by plants to repel predators, but at amounts so low they do not harm us. … There are some dioxons in every breath of air we take

It’s all in the dose. Only homeopathists believe that insignificant doses have huge effects. Sir John Krebbs in Nature noted that a cup of [even organic] coffee contains natural carcinogens equal to a year’s ingestion of synthetic carcinogenic substances found in the diet. Part of the problem is that our analytical measurement techniques can spot the tiniest traces of substances. But just because we can detect something does not mean that we need worry about it. Plants produce their own natural pesticides and we consume far more of that than the trace residues of the artificial stuff sprayed on. Concern about pesticide residue is just a modern phobia with no basis in evidence.



If there is little basis in fact for the claims made by the organic movement then it looks like the word organic is just one more advertising word used to push expensive, unnecessary products on us. Furthermore, and more damning, by focusing on organic production, our society pays less attention to farming methods and technology advances that really could improve health, protect wildlife and ensure a consistent quality and quantity of food supply. Rather than securing our health, the illogical worship of the word ‘organic’ could be damaging us all.

As such, I have no reservation in including the word ‘organic’ in the Quackometer Project. Promoting food that is grown according to ‘organic’ principles because it is supposed to be healthier for us is just one more form of quackery.

16 Comments on Quack Word #12: ‘Organic’

  1. “Tests conducted by independent consumer organisations show that people cannot taste the difference between organic and non-organic foods.”

    … Do you have a cite for that?

  2. ‘… Do you have a cite for that?’

    The bullets are a very quick summary of Dick Tavern’s book which has an excellent chapter on Organic food.

    He cites a number of sources including:

    Basker D, 1992, ‘Comparison of taste quality between organically and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables’, American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 7(3), p 129–136

    Hansen H, 1981, ‘Comparison of chemical composition and taste of biodynamically and conventionally grown vegetables’, Qualitas
    Plantarum – Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 30(3/4), p 203–211

  3. *Some* organic foods at Tesco do taste better – to me anyway- but that is more likely to with the variety than anything else. On the other hand their organic beef is not as good as the Scottish beef. The label “organic” seems irrelevent. I bet you can grow a tasteless hydroponic pepper to organic standards…

    I just want tasty food reared or grown with condsideration to welfare and/or environment.

  4. my personal favourite organic product is a brand of organic cigarettes that a friend of mine insists on smoking. They’re better for you apparently as they have fewer chemicals in them. *Ahem*

    But please don’t fall into the trap of quackery yourself… or at least being less specific in your ideas than is ideal. You say that there is no evidence that organic food is better or tastier. But is that becasue there is a lack of research? My hunch would say yes, as I understand how difficult it is to get impartial funding for medical or biological research outside of cancer, heart disease etc etc.

    Leaving aside the specific organic vs non-organic debate, it does seem to be true that there is a general belief that ‘Natural’ always equals ‘better for you’. On the basis of the purely chemical structure of natural vs man-made substances, theoretically there should be no difference.

    • Those organic cigarettes were the last ones I smoked almost 10 years ago. Normal cigarettes do have a lot of additives; they are not plain tobacco. Perhaps, I was only addicted to nicotine and that made the 10th or so quit easier.

  5. "Organic" carries different meanings in different jurisdictions. In the European Union, there is a meaningful and enforced definition (such as not using certain kinds of pesticides, limiting fertiliser run-off, not keeping chickens in small pens, etc.). Here, "organic" is actually a meaningful environmental and animal-welfare standard, not dissimilar to FSC certification for wood and fishing quotas for fish.

    And the point about vulnerability to blight is simply flat-out wrong. The second biggest single point of failure in the food supply of industrialised countries is the fact that we use monocultures with a very low genetic diversity. If you want to know what that gives you, look no further than the Irish Potato Plague in the mid-1800s. (The biggest single point of failure in industrial agriculture is that it requires ridiculous amounts of fossil fuels.)

    – Jake

  6. a myopic opinion, but entertaining read … like “lord of the rings”… very entertaining , but not based on facts. Organic anything is subjective to current definitions of the word. Your organic may be quackery but someone else’s “organic” is a defined operational standard of agriculture .It may not be Organic food that is the problem , but the FDA…

    BTW Dick Taverne has an “e” on the end of it .

  7. I suggest removing the first three words. We don’t need to preface established facts with “I Believe”. Using that phrase makes your position sound like it’s faith-based, rather than evidence-based. Example: I Believe the Earth orbits the sun, and not vice-versa. I believe vaccines don’t cause autism. I believe the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Don’t those sentences look silly with “I believe” in front of them?

  8. As 2015 is the Year of the Soil, and while I agree on all the main points the article mentions, you miss out one important area where to support an organic agriculture, (at least for farms that mulch and compost), might at the moment be preferable to conventional, pesticide heavy agriculture. Soil health and the rhizosphere.
    The rhizosphere is the layer of soil containing the majority of plant roots and the associated biota, the fungal, bacterial, macro, meso and micro-faunal life that all contribute to overall soil health. All are easily reduced, changed or destroyed by the extremes of modern conventional farming. All those interconnected webs of tiny lives supply the real food uptake for all plants to grow, in the form of NPK, Calcium, Sulphur etc, while reducing or neutralising the build up of harmful soil pathogens. These cycles are all still best supported and maintained for food production by a system that doesn’t only use systemic pesticides, herbicides and artificial NPK. Without this in place, as China and other major food producers are discovering, we are trying to farm in dirt, a humic-poor damp dust that we increasingly struggle to get things to grow in, however much NPK we throw in. There are ways to farm conventionally while retaining soil health, but this is still at a relatively early stage of exploration. Farming has to create a healthy soil first before it can grow decent food, and in this area at last, it may learn a lot from certain ‘organic’ agricultures. The problems for food production we’re having now will only get worse.

  9. In this definition, everything alive, and everything we eat, drink or wear (as long as it is natural fibres) is organic.

    Actually, synthetic fibers are organic by this definition as well. You’d have to exclude things like chainmail but that’s about it.

    So in the way that organic chemists use the word, copper sulfate is not organic and most synthetic pesticides are organic. Of course, that’s really an aside that doesn’t impact a discussion on organic agriculture.

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