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organic (food and farming)*

"People got in their head, well, if it's man-made somehow it's potentially dangerous, but if it's natural, it isn't. That doesn't really fit with anything we know about toxicology. When we understand how animals are resistant to chemicals, the mechanisms are all independent of whether it's natural or synthetic. And in fact, when you look at natural chemicals, half of those tested came out positive [for toxicity in humans]." --Bruce Ames

"I'm going to live to be 100 unless I'm run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." --J. I. Rodale, a father of the organic movement who died of a heart attack at age 72 while taping an episode of "The Dick Cavett Show" shortly after announcing "I’ve decided to live to be a hundred" and "I never felt better in my life!" The show never aired. [For those who think this is a cheap shot: this kind of wishful thinking is  common among the defenders of all things organic.]

key myths and beliefs

Organic food is food produced by organic farming, a set of techniques based on anti-scientific beliefs, myths, and superstition.

A key belief of groups like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and the Soil Association, which oppose conventional farming in favor of organic farming, is that pesticides and fertilizers are so harmful that they should be avoided unless they are "natural." This belief is contradicted by the vast majority of scientific studies that have been done on these subjects  (Morris and Bate 1999; Taverne 2006; NCPA study). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. "USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled, and processed."*

Harm from bacterial contamination is a much greater possibility from natural fertilizers (Stossel 2005: 194). (For those of you who hate John Stossel, read the newspaper. 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 residues from pesticides on food, natural or synthetic, are not likely to cause harm to consumers because they occur in minute quantities.* (This fact does not make either kind of pesticide safe for those who work with them and are exposed to large quantities on a regular basis. I refer to residues on foods you and I are likely to find on fruits and vegetable we buy at the store or market.) Using natural biological controls rather than synthetic pesticides is more dangerous to the environment (Morris and Bate 1999). The amounts of pesticide residue produced by plants themselves or introduced by organic farmers are significantly greater than the amounts of synthetic pesticide residues. Almost all of the pesticides we ingest in food are naturally produced by plants to defend themselves against insects, fungi, and animal predators (Ames and Gold 1997). The bottom line is that fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you and it doesn't matter whether they're organic.

Over 30 separate investigations of about 500,000 people have shown that farmers, millers, pesticide-users, and foresters, occupationally exposed to much higher levels of pesticide than the general public, have much lower rates of cancer overall (Taverne 2006: 73.)

Groups like IFOAM refer to synthetic pesticides as "toxic," even though the amount of pesticides people are likely to ingest through food are always in non-toxic amounts. Many toxic substances occur naturally in foods, e.g.,arsenic in meat, poultry, dairy products, cereals, fish, and shellfish, but usually in doses so small as not to be worthy of concern. On the IFOAM website you will find the following message:

Although IFOAM has no official position on the quality of organic food, it's easy to conclude that the overall nutritional and health-promoting value of food is compromised by farming methods that utilize synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

It's easy to conclude—as long as you ignore the bulk of the scientific evidence that is available.

the myth of organic superiority

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. There is no significant difference between a natural molecule and one created in the laboratory. Being natural or organic does not make a substance safe* nor does being synthetic make a substance unsafe.  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. Organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment than conventional farming. There is scant scientific evidence that most people can tell the difference in taste between organic and conventional foods. The bottom line is: fresher is better. Organic produce that travels thousands of miles to market is generally inferior to the same produce from local farmers, organic or not.

Is there any difference between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables? According to one scientific paper, there are several differences:

Based on the results of our literature review and experiment we conclude that there are substantial differences between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables. They differ with respect to production method, labeling, marketing, price and potentially other parameters.

You don't need to do a scientific study to know that organic foods are produced differently from conventionally farmed foods. Anyone who has been to the market knows that you will pay substantially more for food labeled "organic." Marketing of organic foods banks on perpetuating the myth that organic means safer, healthier, and tastier. One thing it means is "growing business." Even Wal-Mart wants in on the action. "While organic food is still just 2.4 percent of the overall food industry, it has been growing at least 15 percent a year for the last 10 years. Currently valued at $14 billion, the organic food business is expected to increase to $23 billion over the next three years, though that figure could rise further with Wal-Mart's push."* European markets are also growing.*

The aforementioned scientific study did find that the literature provides evidence for one nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods: vitamin C was found to be higher for organic food.

coddling by the media

The way the media treat "green" issues accounts for one reason that the organic-is-better myth is pervasive. Here's an example from BBC News:

Growing apples organically is not only better for the environment than other methods but makes them taste better than normal apples, US scientists say.

The study is among the first to give scientific credence to the claim that organic farming really is the better option.

The researchers found organic cultivation was more sustainable than either conventional or integrated farming, which cuts the use of chemicals.

The scientists, from Washington State University in Pullman, found the organic apples were rated highest for sweetness by amateur tasting panels.

They reported: "Escalating production costs, heavy reliance on non-renewable resources, reduced biodiversity, water contamination, chemical residues in food, soil degradation and health risks to farm workers handling pesticides all bring into question the sustainability of conventional farming systems."

The headline for the story reads: Organic apples tickle tastebuds.

Most people might stop reading the story after five paragraphs of nothing but positive statements about organic farming and the mention of a number of problems ahead for conventional farming. For those who persevere, however, the following bits of information are also provided:

...organic farming systems were "less efficient, pose greater health risks and produce half the yields of conventional farming".

...the tests "found no differences among organic, conventional and integrated apples in texture or overall acceptance".

...Growers of more sustainable systems may be unable to maintain profitable enterprises without economic incentives, such as price premiums or subsidies for organic and integrated products.

Apparently, the measure used to determine that organic farming was "better for the environment" was based on physical, chemical, and biological soil properties. The scientists created their own index and found that organic was better mainly because of the addition of compost and mulch. Certainly, there are going to be some organic farms that use methods of composting and mulching that improve growing conditions. But there are also methods conventional farmers can use to accomplish the same thing. Finally, there are some organic farmers who used methods of composting and mulching that don't improve anything except the chances of bacterial infection. Only a "green" journalist or scientist could turn being less efficient, posing greater health risks, no different in texture or appearance, and producing half the yields of conventional farming into "better than conventional farming."

I'll provide just one more example of how the media and scientists with agendas distort the results of scientific studies that compare organic with conventional agricultural practices. In 2003, Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., a food scientist at the University of California, Davis, co-authored a paper with the formidable title of "Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices." The article was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society. The article got some good press from "green" journalists, who proclaimed that the study showed that organic foods have significantly higher levels of antioxidants than conventional foods. (Examples of glowing press reports can be found here, here, and here.) There is a strong belief among promoters of organic foods that there is good scientific support for the claim that diets rich in antioxidants contribute to significantly lower cancer rates. The data, however, do not support this belief. “Study after study has shown no benefit of antioxidants for heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or longevity” (Hall 2011).

The study compared total phenolic metabolites and ascorbic acid in only two crops, marionberries and corn. Both crops were grown organically and conventionally on different farms. The organic berries were grown on land that had been used for growing berries for four years; the conventional berries were grown on land that had been used to grow conventional berries for 21-22 years. The crops were grown on different soil types: the organic soil was "sandy, clay, loam"; the conventional was "sandy, Ritzville loam." The soil for the conventional corn had been used before for wheat; the soil for the organic corn had been used for green beans. The conventional farm used well water; the organic farm used a combination of well and creek water. (I don't mention the strawberry listed in the title of the article because no organic strawberries were tested.) As you can tell from the title of the article, the metabolites measured were not taken from fresh berries or corn but from samples that had been freeze-dried and air-dried. Though not mentioned in the title, the scientists also compared samples that were simply frozen.

The data provided by the authors in their published study shows clearly that there was not enough measurable ascorbic acid (AA) in either of the marionberry samples to compare the organic to the conventional. As already noted, no organic strawberries were studied. There was not enough measurable AA for the freeze-dried or air-dried corn to be compared. So, the only data on AA is for the frozen corn: organic had a value of 3.2 and conventional had a value of 2.1. You can read the study yourself to find out what these numbers represent, but whatever they represent they do not merit the conclusion drawn by the authors of the study: "Levels of AA in organically grown ... samples were consistently higher than the levels for the conventionally grown crops."

The study also compared what it calls "sustainable agricultural practices" to organic and conventional practices. Sustainable practices in this study included the use of synthetic fertilizers. "Our results indicate," the authors write, "that TPs [total phenolics] were highest in the crops grown by sustainable agricultural methods as compared to organic methods." Dr. Mitchell is quoted in the press as saying that their study "helps explain why the level of antioxidants is so much higher in organically grown food." Yet, her study clearly states that the evidence for this claim is anecdotal. In fact, the authors write of the comparative studies that have been done:

These data demonstrate inconsistent differences in the nutritional quality of conventionally and organically produced vegetables with the exception of nitrate and ascorbic acid (AA) in vegetables.

distortion of evidence by scientists

One thing these "green" advocates are good at is distorting data to make lead appear to be gold. Another study led by Mitchell claims that organic tomatoes have "statistically higher levels (P < 0.05) of quercetin and kaempferol aglycones" than conventional tomatoes. The increase of these flavonoids corresponds "with reduced manure application rates once soils in the organic systems had reached equilibrium levels of organic matter." In fact, the study suggests that it is the nitrogen "in the organic and conventional systems that most strongly influence these differences." The authors suggest that "overfertilization (conventional or organic) might reduce health benefits from tomatoes." The argument is that the flavonoids are a protective response by the plants and one of the things they respond to is the amount of nitrogen in the soil. In any case, the thrust of these and similar studies is that both organic and conventional crops can be manipulated to yield higher levels of antioxidants. At least one study has found "organic food products have a higher total antioxidant activity and bioactivity than the conventional foods."* That study, however, involved only ten Italian men, aged 30-65 years.

I have to say that I am underwhelmed by the studies I have reviewed that claim to have found organic foods are more nourishing or healthy than conventional fruits and vegetables. At present, there is no strong body of scientific evidence that supports the contention that organic fruits and vegetables are superior to conventional produce. A best case scenario for the organic folks would be that to achieve the recommended nutrients from five helpings a day of fruits or vegetables you might have to eat four or five more conventionally grown strawberries or two or three more baby carrots to get the same amount of vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants as provided by organic fruits and vegetables. But I'm not sure the evidence supports even that weak position.

The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that the average fruit and vegetable consumption among adults aged 19 to 64 years living in private households in Great Britain is less than 3 portions a day. [Most Americans get only 3 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, not including potatoes.*] Overall only 13% of men and 15% of women consume five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Consumption tends to be lower among younger adults, children and people on low incomes. For example, in the survey young men only averaged 1.3 portions per day compared with 3.6 portions by the oldest group of men.*

 organic history

The term 'organic' as a descriptor for certain sustainable agriculture systems appears to have been used first by Lord Northbourn in his book Look to the Land (1940). "Northbourn used the term to describe farming systems that focused on the farm as a dynamic, living, balanced, organic whole, or an organism."* The term 'organic' was first widely used in the U.S. by J. I. Rodale, founder of Rodale Press, in the 1950s. "Rodale failed to convince scientists of the validity of his approach because of his reliance on what were perceived to be outrageous unscientific claims of organic farming's benefits."*

The USDA standards for organic food state:

Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.

These standards capture the essence of the organic mythology:

  1. Conventional pesticides should be avoided.

  2. Synthetic fertilizers should be avoided.

  3. Food should not be genetically altered.

  4. Food should not be subjected to ionizing radiation.

The bit about sewage sludge is there because some organic farmers follow the "law of return" as proposed by Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), a founder and pioneer of the organic movement. He advocated recycling  all organic waste materials, including sewage sludge, in farmland compost. The practice of adding human and animal feces to the soil is an ancient practice found in many cultures even today. The fact that these cultures developed their practices without benefit of modern knowledge of such things as bacteria or heavy metals is trumped by the romantic notion that farm life was idyllic in those times and places when life expectancy was half that of today.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of a set of superstitious agricultural practices known as biodynamics, also advocated using manure as fertilizer but it had to be prepared according to a magical formula based on his belief that cosmic forces entered animals through their horns. Steiner also romanticized farming. Commenting on some peasants stirring up manure, he said: "I have always had the opinion ... that [the peasants'] alleged stupidity or foolishness is wisdom before God [sic], that is to say, before the Spirit. I have always considered what the peasants and farmers thought about their things far wiser than what the scientists were thinking."* Steiner gave lectures on farming, but did no scientific research to test his ideas.

A central concept of these lectures was to "individualize" the farm by bringing no or few outside materials onto the farm, but producing all needed materials such as manure and animal feed from within what he called the "farm organism." Other aspects of biodynamic farming inspired by Steiner's lectures include timing activities such as planting in relation to the movement patterns of the moon and planets and applying "preparations," which consist of natural materials which have been processed in specific ways, to soil, compost piles, and plants with the intention of engaging non-physical beings and elemental forces. Steiner, in his lectures, encouraged his listeners to verify his suggestions scientifically, as he had not yet done.*

Steiner opposed the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not on scientific grounds but on spiritual grounds. He claimed there were "spiritual shortcomings in the whole chemical approach to farming."* He had a mystical idea of the farm as an organism, "a closed self-nourishing system."*

myths about genetically engineered food

Enough of this manure. Let's move on. We've already addressed the issues of pesticides and fertilizers, but what about genetically modified (GM) foods and ionizing radiation? Is there good evidence that these practices should be avoided? No. Even so, the public is frightened of both, party because of scary claims spread by organizations like Friends of the Earth (FOE), who claim in a posting labeled Organic, Not Genetically Engineered:  Health Risks associated with GE Foods:

Genetic Engineering is imprecise and unpredictable. By inserting genes from organisms that have never been eaten as food, new proteins are introduced into the human and animal food chains. There is concern that these could cause allergic reactions or other health effects. In 1996, for example, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. (a seed company now owned by DuPont) developed a genetically engineered soybean using a gene from a Brazil nut to increase the protein content of its animal feed. Independent tests on the GE soybean revealed that people allergic to Brazil nuts reacted to the engineered soybean.

Scientists are unable to predict whether a particular protein will be a food allergen if ingested by humans. A genetically engineered food supply is therefore a major gamble with human health.

Beware of new proteins! What FOE doesn't say is that all GM crops are rigorously tested for toxins and allergens before being licensed for use. The Brazil nut is full of nutrients and the gene could be a source of cheap nutrition for people in poor countries. A small biotech firm explored the possibility of transferring the gene but dropped the idea when scientists pointed out "that it was unwise to transfer a gene from a nut with known allergenic potential into food." Later, Pioneer Hi-Bred revived the project for animal feed, tested the product for human allergic reaction, published their results, and abandoned the project. (Taverne 2006: 112). FOE's claim that genetic engineering is imprecise and unpredictable is misguided. The scientific process was very precise. The idea behind testing is to see what happens: if everything were predictable there wouldn't be any need for the tests! The only major gamble in this process is by the company putting up the research funds. If the product turns out to be an allergen, the product is not developed.

FOE also claims

Many genetically engineered foods contain genes that code for resistance to commonly used antibiotics. Genes that encode antibiotic-resistance are used as "markers" to show which cells have taken up foreign genes. Though they have no further use, they remain present in plant tissue.

The presence of antibiotic genes in foods is a potential health risk. Genes for antibiotic resistance could be passed onto the bacteria in the guts of humans and animals, making antibiotics ineffective in the case of illness. Such a scenario would be very serious as hospitals are already reporting increased incidences of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

The fear that genes for antibiotic resistance in GM foods will take up residence in our guts and make antibiotics ineffective is not supported by the scientific evidence (Taverne 2006: 111-112). (See especially this report and "GM foods - a case for resistance".) Still, the fear aroused by the thought of the possibility of some damage being done at some time to somebody led several scientific groups to recommend that the use of markers for antibiotic resistance be phased out (Taverne: 112).

Finally, FOE claims:

Genetic engineering could also lead to toxicity of some foods. Genetic engineers have little control over where a gene is inserted or how many copies of that gene are inserted into the receiving organism. Modifying organisms at the genetic level can change the chemical composition of crops and foods. These changes in chemical composition—changes that are hard for scientists to predict— could lead to unexpected toxicity of the "novel" organism.

Actually, genetic engineering means that scientists do control what genes are inserted in the plants and the insertion is done with knowledge that leads them to think that there is a good chance that they will get a particular result. Genetic modification of plants by natural radiation from cosmic rays or of seeds by irradiation is unpredictable, but the decision, for example, to put the Bt bacteria gene into cotton was not haphazard and the predicted result, a strain of cotton that would not need to be sprayed with pesticide, happened according to plan. The results have been nothing less that outstanding.* Again, FOE doesn't mention that all GM crops undergo rigorous testing before they are approved for general use. Any dangerous toxicity in GM plants would be unexpected and would lead to abandonment of the product, unless developing poison was your goal.

It is true that a study by John E. Losey et al. of Cornell University published in Nature (not as a peer-reviewed article but as "scientific correspondence") "showed high mortality among Monarch larvae that ingested genetically engineered pollen." This was a laboratory study from which some anti-GM folks inferred that Bt corn could get into milkweed in the wild (the butterfly's meal of choice) and devastate the Monarch species. For example, a press release from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) claimed:

Nature magazine finds that pollen from genetically engineered corn plants is toxic to monarch butterflies

The headline for this press release on CommonDreams.org is identical to the one still posted on the EDF site. It reads:

Genetic Engineering Kills Monarch Butterflies

The Sierra Club also jumped on the bandwagon. However, "an Iowa State University study by Laura Hansen and John Obrycki showed low mortality even when Monarch larvae were fed milkweed that had the highest levels of Bt pollen that would be encountered in the field." Anthony M. Shelton, professor of entomology at Cornell's New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Richard T. Roush of the University of Adelaide, Australia, urged the public not to be swayed "by laboratory reports that, when looked at with a critical eye, may not have any reality in the field or even in the laboratory."  Shelton and Roush say it is unlikely that these high Bt pollen levels would be encountered by the insects in the field, and they say that "few entomologists or weed scientists familiar with the butterflies or corn production give credence to the Nature article."* Dick Taverne writes:

A variety of field studies, as opposed to laboratory studies commissioned in response to the report in Nature concluded that the impact of pollen from Bt corn on Monarch butterflies in the field, as opposed to the artificial conditions of the laboratory, was negligible and not substantially different from the effect of conventional corn. (2006: p. 122.)

These studies are ongoing but nobody can promise that no butterfly will ever be harmed by Bt corn.*

ActionAid International, an organization that fights poverty worldwide, has published a paper called "GM crops – going against the grain" (May 2003) that makes two claims that contradict the scientific evidence:

The widespread adoption of GM crops seems likely to exacerbate the underlying causes of food insecurity, leading to more hungry people, not fewer. To have a lasting impact on poverty, ActionAid believes policy makers must address the real constraints facing poor communities - lack of access to land, credit, resources and markets – instead of focusing on risky technologies that have no track record in addressing hunger.

Adoption of GM crops is not at all likely to lead to more hungry people. In fact, as arable land becomes more scarce, GM crops may be the only hope of feeding the growing world population. It is patently false to claim that biotechnology has no track record in addressing hunger. ActionAid

ignores the findings of independent experts, the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican Academies of Sciences, the third World Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, USA, and four separate reports by the Royal Society, as well as the two reports from the Nuffield Foundation published in 1999 and 2004. (Taverne: 81).

ActionAid relies on Greenpeace for its GM claims. Unfortunately, Greenpeace does not have a good track record of fairly presenting the evidence regarding GM crops. One example will have to suffice. ActionAid cites Greenpeace on the Golden Rice project, where genetically modified rice contains β-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. In Golden Rice, two genes from daffodils have been inserted into the rice genome by genetic engineering to make it synthesize β-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A. (By the way, carrots used to be white or purple. Orange-colored carrots are the product of a mutation selected by a Dutch horticulturist a few hundred years ago because it was the color of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau.) Golden Rice provides a cheap source of Vitamin A, which is no big deal in the U.S. but it a very big deal to millions of children in poorer countries.

ActionAid dismissed the Golden Rice project as worthless, citing Greenpeace's claim that a child would have to eat about 7kg of cooked Golden Rice each day to obtain an adequate amount of Vitamin A. The report failed to quote the conclusions of the project's original researchers, who said that a child would benefit by consuming 200g of rice a day. The project did not intend to provide the only source of Vitamin A. (For more on GM food claims by critics see "Response to GM Food Myths" at AgBioWorld. For another success story on modified rice, see here.)

extremism in the environmental movement

One of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, left that organization and says the environmental movement has been hijacked by extremists who have little regard for evidence:

People who base their opinion on science and reason and who are politically centrist need to take the movement back from the extremists who have hijacked it, often to further agendas that have nothing to do with ecology. It is important to remember that the environmental movement is only 30 years old. All movements go through some mucky periods. But environmentalism has become codified to such an extent that if you disagree with a single word, then you are apparently not an environmentalist. Rational discord is being discouraged.*

Another former member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, Dick Taverne, has documented the opposition of Greenpeace and other groups to GM crops in "The Rise of Eco-fundamentalism," chapter six in The March of Unreason. He likens the organization to religious fundamentalism with dogma, orthodoxy, heretics, and contempt for the scientific evidence. He's not the only one who has made such a comparison. Author Michael Crichton has referred to organic food as Holy Communion, the wafer that unites the saved ("Environmentalism as Religion"). "This trend began with the DDT campaign," he notes, "and it persists to this day." Crichton is referring to the campaign largely fueled by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962).

In defense of Greenpeace, Stephen Tindale has posted a response to Taverne's criticisms:

Greenpeace has never based its campaigns solely on science. Cartesian science strips everything down to cold logic: there is no room for ethics or emotion. We believe, in contrast, that there is a moral basis for our defense of the natural world....

GM agriculture is a misuse of science because it entails the release of unstable and potentially harmful life forms into the environment; once released, they cannot be recalled.

GM crops are not released into the environment without rigorous testing. To assert that GM agriculture is a "misuse of science" is reprehensible. It is a use of science whose benefits should be weighed against its detriments. A general fear that someday, somewhere, somebody might release something harmful into the environment does not justify calling GM research a "misuse" of science. There are moral issues here, but Greenpeace's decision that it is the arbiter of what is good for the world is a misuse of logic and ethics. The benefits of biotechnology are well documented. To ignore them and tell scary tales of potential Frankenfoods is to misuse themy fishberry findings and applications of science. The benefits of biotechnology, such as the potential for raising plants that can manufacture insulin or antibiotics or can produce plants that eliminate or greatly reduce the need for synthetic pesticides or herbicides, has to be weighed against potential harm. To arbitrarily decide that you can ignore scientific facts and possibilities because you have decided in your infinite wisdom that GM crops must be stopped to save the world is the height of arrogance, hubris, and unreason of the same order that we are accustomed to seeing in fundamentalist religions. Wealthy folks who have plenty of organic food on the table can't take away freedom of choice from billions of people and claim the high moral ground if they won't even consider the known benefits from conventional and GM crops or look at the scientific evidence relevant to potential harm. As somebody once said, you can't ride the high horse on the low road.

* Note: this article does not deal with animals or animal products.


the QLIF project: more distortion by scientists and the media

About the same time the above was posted, the news media reported that a new study in Britain found that organic fruit and vegetables contained as much as 40% more antioxidants and higher levels of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc. The study has been going on for four years and was funded by a grant of £12m from the European Union. It is called the Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project. The data and conclusions of the studies, however, have not been submitted for peer review but are being published in the form of several leaflets by QLIF. The conclusions will later be published as a book by Blackwell. For example, one leaflet is called "Taste, Freshness and Nutrients Information to Consumers regarding Control of Quality and Safety in Organic Production Chains" and it bears the stamp of Organic HACCP on its cover. The function of Organic HACCP is to oversee the safety and quality of certified organic food products. The claims of the QLIF project contradict the position of Britain's Food Standards Agency, which asserts:

Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view.*

The QLIF project co-coordinator Carlo Leifert said the government was wrong about there being no difference between organic and conventional produce. "There is enough evidence now that the level of good things is higher in organics," he said. The Sunday Times reports that the Food Standards Agency is reviewing the evidence.

Two things concern me about the QLIF study. Going directly to the media and the public, bypassing the peer review process, is a sign of voodoo science. Second, having an organic advocacy group produce the leaflets does not instill confidence that the studies are objective and unbiased. Even so, I will review the leaflets and see if there is enough information given to evaluate this research.

I did find a summary of one study called "Comparison of the quality of organic and conventional crops" by Jana Hajšlová et al., Institute of Chemical Technology, Czech Republic. The report says that comparisons were made, but no results are given. The study, “Does Organic Offer a Nutrition Edge Over Conventional Crops,” was published in Environmental Nutrition, on page 7 (Apr. 2005).* A one-page study doesn't sound too promising. Much is made in the organic research community about producing products with greater amounts of antioxidants, a good idea. But there is no reason why GM foods couldn't also be produced that increase the amounts of antioxidants in foods.

The BBC quoted project co-coordinator Carlo Leifert as saying: "We have shown there are more of certain nutritionally desirable compounds and less of the baddies in organic foods, or improved amounts of the fatty acids you want and less of those you don't want. Our research is trying to find out where the difference between organic and conventional food comes from." In other words, Leifert claims it an established fact that organic foods are superior and his group is trying to explain that superiority. Yet, in one report he states:

...compositional differences between organic and conventional foods are relatively small, generally 10-30%, and it is clearly possible to obtain a nutritious healthy diet with either organic or conventional plant foods.*

He contends, however, that since people usually don't eat enough fruit or vegetables, any difference in organic food is a bonus. A few years ago, Leifert resigned from the British government's GM science review panel. Leifert is based at the Tesco Centre for Organic Agriculture at Newcastle University. There is nothing on his web page about a new study being published. I have e-mailed Dr. Leifert, requesting a copy of any published studies that show the superiority of organic food. (Read on for his response.) The BBC reports that results of the project are due to be published over the next 12 months, but some of the leaflets have been out for more than two years. In other words, it seems that what is new today is the media blitz, not the study.

Twelve leaflets have already been produced. They do not appear to be presenting the results of scientific studies so much as promoting various ideas regarding organic food. Here are descriptions from six of the pamphlets on the QLIF website:

  1. The leaflet informs consumers on how freshness, taste and nutrient content of organic products are affected by production, processing and storage of the products.

  2. The leaflet informs consumers on what is done to secure authenticity and integrity of organically produced food and what consumers can do to further support efforts that meet their demands.

  3. The leaflet informs consumers on what is done and what consumers can do to further control the risks from pathogenic bacteria, mycotoxins etc. in organic food.

  4. The leaflet informs retailers on what affects the taste, freshness and nutrient content of organic food and what retailers can do to support further improvements and ensure the best possible food quality.

  5. The leaflet informs retailers on what is done to secure authenticity and integrity of organically produced food and what retailers can do to further support efforts that meet their costumer's demands.

  6. The leaflet informs retailers on what is done and what retailers can do to further preserve food safety until purchase.

Apparently, at present, there is no study or pamphlet available to the public that would allow us to evaluate the claim that organic food is superior. We will have to wait for another leaflet or the book from Blackwell's. Stay tuned. However, my guess is that if Dr. Leifert and his team of organic proponents had new slam-dunk evidence for the superiority of organic food, we would be writing about an article published in a major scientific journal. Instead, we're writing about some media stories apparently instigated by a group that has been putting out pro-organic food leaflets for several years.

update (Nov. 2, 2007): I have heard from Carlo Leifert, who informs me that the recent media interest was associated with the publication of the last QLIF report and the "Handbook of Food Safety and Quality." In his e-mail, he said the handbook is published by Woodhouse publishing (www.woodhousepublishing.com), but a review of that site indicates its only interest is in publishing items about Ogden, Utah. I did find a Handbook of Organic Food Safety and Quality edited by Julia Cooper and published by Chipsbooks. Leifert wrote me that the book is available from CRC Press in America. It is, for a mere $309.95 (as of 9/1/08). According to Leifert, this Handbook reviews the literature on differences between organic and conventional foods and includes some early results from the QLIF project. The blurb on the CRC website says: "This handbook provides comprehensive coverage of the latest research and best practice in ensuring the safety, sensory and nutritional quality of foods from organic and low input production systems to enable professionals to meet consumer demand for safe and high quality foods." In any case, none of the news stories I read mentioned any handbook (including Nature.com and the Guardian).

Leifert also confirmed my suspicion that, despite the hype in the news media about new evidence showing that organic is better, their project "was not so much focused on demonstrating differences between organic and conventional foods (based on the literature available 4 years ago we were already convinced that there are systematic differences), but on identifying which components of the production system contribute to differences." He refers to the leaflets as "workpackages of the QLIF" and notes that there are more to come over the next one to two years.

It seems obvious that the bulk of the work of the QLIF project has had nothing to do with testing the nutritional differences between organic and conventional crops. Yet, that is the thrust of the recent flurry of media coverage. QLIF's main focus seems to be to provide good press for the growing organic food industry to counteract the bad press it had been getting about the quality of organic foods. In short, the leaflets are part of a food fight between the proponents of organic crops and the proponents of conventional, including GM, crops. Even so, there are three reports in the last QLIF report that address the issue of food quality in organic as compared to conventional crops.

One report compares organic and conventional tomatoes grown in Poland that found: "The organic tomato fruits contained more dry matter, total and reducing sugars, vitamin C, total flavones and beta-carotene, but less lycopene in comparison to conventionally grown tomatoes."*

Another compared the quality of organic to conventional winter wheat in Italy and found: "Organic grain samples resulted 20% lower in protein content and exhibited poor bread production qualities."*

One study is called "Influence of Processing on Bioactive Substances Content and Antioxidant Properties of Apple Purée from Organic and Conventional Production in Poland." It found "The apple purée prepared from the organic apples contained significantly more total phenols, vitamin C, total flavones and showed a higher antioxidant capacity than the preserves prepared from conventional apples." However, pasteurization decreased these good things in both types of purée.*

Like I said, I'm underwhelmed. I'm also bothered by the manipulation of the press. An article dated November 15, 2007, appeared on green.msn.com by Deirdre Dolan that passes on the same kind of misinformation as the BBC. The headline reads: The Proof is In: Organic is More Nutritious - British studies justify the higher cost. She claims that "a new study ... shows organic foods have far more nutritional value" and that "the results will be published over the next year." Dolan ought to realize that if the results of a study haven't been published, you don't know what the study proves. In any case, as noted above, this latest press release from the QLIF project was not a study comparing organic to conventional foods. The one's doing the study, like Dolan, are already believers that organic is better. (She tell us she spends up to $15 a day on organic milk and worries about the toxins in plastics her child might ingest. She also thinks wooden toys don't have any toxins. Apparently, she thinks that since wood is natural, unlike plastic, it is toxin-free. How does she think trees fight off insects? Is she not aware that wood is often treated with toxic substances?) Dolan is co-author of a book called The Complete Organic Pregnancy. She seems to take the word of the QLIF folks without investigating or reading their pamphlets. I suspect other true believers will cite her article as proof that the scientific evidence is in and it shows that organic is tastier and healthier. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think the evidence supports that claim.

postscript 2

Some opponents of GMOs find solace in the so-called Institute of Responsible Technology and Yes! Books, which are actually fronts for the beliefs of Jeffrey Smith and funded by Organic Valley (George Simeon), Stonyfield Organic Yogurt (Gary Hirshfield), Natural News Insider (Mike Adams) and Mercola.com -  alternative health and nutraceuticals (Joe Mercola).

See also natural and The Superiority of Organic Fog by Robert Todd Carroll (an evaluation of the Organic Center's report: New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.


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further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Ames, Bruce N. Ph.D. and Lois S. Gold Ph.D. "Pollution, Pesticides, and Cancer: Misconceptions," 1997.

Fedoroff, Nina. "Can We Trust Montsanto with our Food?" Scientific American, July 25, 2013. "Monsanto and the other big ag-biotech companies have developed reliable, biologically insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant commodity crops that benefit people, farmers and the environment, and are nutritionally identical to their non-GM counterparts.

GM insect-resistant crops contain a gene that codes for a bacterial protein that’s toxic to an insect pest, but not animals or people....

Insect-resistant GM corn also decreases human and animal exposure to mycotoxins, highly toxic and carcinogenic compounds made by fungi. The fungi that produce mycotoxins follow insects into plants; insect-resistant plants have no insect holes for fungi to enter and therefore no mycotoxins.

Monsanto developed GM crops that tolerate a nontoxic herbicide called glyphosate, aka Roundup. Herbicide-tolerant crops have made a major contribution to decreasing topsoil loss by facilitating no-till farming. This farming method reduces CO2 emissions from plowing and improves soil quality."

Miller, Henry I. and Gregory Conko. (1994). The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution. Praeger Publishers.

Morris, Julian and Roger Bate. Editors. (1999). Fearing Food: Risk, Health and Environment. Butterworth-Heinemann.

Penn & Teller. (2003). Bullshit! Watch Charles Margulis, campaign spokesperson for Greenpeace, claim that GM crops are not tested before being sent to market.*

Smith-Spangler, Crystal MD, et al. "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review," Annals of Internal Medicine, 4 September 2012, Vol 157, No. 5. "Conclusion: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

However, "More than one-third of conventional produce had detectable pesticide residues, compared with 7% of organic produce samples. Organic pork and chicken were 33% less likely to carry bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than conventionally produced meat."* Geroge Pace (who has written me and others several times to make this point) writes: "The incidence of such contamination was (approximately) 48% for conventional chicken and pork, and (approximately) 16% for the organic chicken and pork. When you subtract the rates (using the exact decimal point numbers), 48% - 16%, you get 32.8%, the number that was rounded to 33% RISK DIFFERENCE....

I hope you can see that the chances of being exposed to such bacteria are actually, in common relative risk language, 300% (48%/16%), or 3 times greater, when purchasing the conventional product.I believe you are doing a disservice to your readers by stating the risk as 33%, which most people will assume is relative risk  (1/3 greater risk of contamination), when in fact the relative risk is 300% greater. It is a difference of 900%! (300%/33%)...." In other words, organic meat may have many fewer bacteria than conventionally farmed meat.

My editorial comment:Moral of the story? Make sure you cook your meat well to kill all the bacteria whether you buy organic or inorganic.

Stossel, John. (2005). Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media. Harper Paperbacks.

Taverne, Dick. (2006). The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism. Oxford University Press.

websites and blogs

Why I'm Through With Organic Farming by Mike Bendzela "Go organic”: slander a farmer

The Truth About Organic Farming By Christie Wilcox This article provides an overview of the three main myths about organic farming and food.

Myth 1: Organic Foods Are Free From Pesticides And Harmful Chemicals

Myth 2: Organic Foods Are More Nutritious

Myth 3: Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment

Of Mice and Men: Bruce Ames Interview Reason.com "In the 1970s, Bruce Ames was a hero to environmentalists--the inventor of the Ames Test, which allows scientists to test chemicals to see whether they cause mutations in bacteria and perhaps cancer in humans. His research and testimony led to bans on such synthetic chemicals as Tris, the flame-retardant used in children's pajamas....Today, Ames, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley, stands on the other side of the chemical-ban debate. In 1990, he spoke out against California's Proposition 128, which would have banned many pesticides, and he has been highly critical of the ban on Alar. The best way to prevent cancer, Ames now believes, is to 'eat your veggies.' Any government action that makes fruits and vegetables more expensive ultimately causes cancer."

Agave Nectar: Healthful or Harmful? Agave "nectar" is advertised as a “diabetic friendly,” raw, and “100% natural sweetener.” Yet it is none of these. It's note even a nectar. In spite of manufacturers’ claims, agave “nectar” is not made from the sap of the yucca or agave plant but from the starch of the giant pineapple-like, root bulb. The principal constituent of the agave root is starch, similar to the starch in corn or rice, and a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which is made up of chains of fructose molecules. Technically a highly indigestible fiber, inulin, which does not taste sweet, comprises about half of the carbohydrate content of agave. (See Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought.)

Biotechnology for Sustainability How genetically engineered foods conserve soil and energy, protect air and water quality, minimize use of toxics, and conserve biodiversity and genetic resources.

What is the meaning of "organic food" (and inorganic food)? by Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and public policy at Princeton University

Response to GM Food Myths - AgBioWorld

Misconceptions About Environmental Pollution, Pesticides and the Causes of Cancer - National Center for Policy Analysis

EPA: Pesticides and Food: Health Problems Pesticides May Pose (effects depend on how toxic the pesticide is and how much of it is consumed)

The Deadly Chemicals in Organic Food

Europe Engaged In A Phony War on Biotechnology

Bugs Not Building Resistance to Biotech Crops

Are Dangerous Bacteria Lurking Inside Your Organic Produce by Dennis T. Avery

Organic Food Has 'Significantly Higher' [fecal] Contamination, Study Finds by Marc Morano

"Organic" Foods: Certification Does Not Protect Consumers by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Norman Borlaug

Fish-Gene Strawberries and Tomatoes

Beating the ‘Frankenfood’ Rap (2002) by Michael Fumento

GM corn

news stories

New Organic food does not reduce women's risk of cancer Women who mostly or always eat organic foods have the same overall chance of developing cancer as women who never eat it, according to a new study from the UK's University of Oxford and published in the British Journal of Cancer that followed over 600,000 middle-aged women for nearly a decade. [/new]

GM crops don’t kill kids. Opposing them does By Matt Ridley, Ottawa Citizen August 1, 2013 While Greenpeace consumed millions in lawyers’ fees, millions of children died from a vitamin A deficiency. "...not a single British journalist or blogger to my knowledge has bothered to research the facts about golden rice....Greenpeace and its pals lobbied governments to slow down the project [to develop golden rice] and drive up its costs. Their objections have been, variously, that golden rice was a corporate plot (untrue), did not produce enough vitamin A (not true), might cause health problems (a vitamin enriched bowl of rice?), might upset ecosystems (unlikely for a domesticated crop) and that capsules of vitamin A were a better bet (vitamin A capsules still reach too few people)."

A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA by Amy Harmon, New York Times, July 27, 2013. "But the idea of eating plants and animals whose DNA has been manipulated in a laboratory — called genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.’s — still spooks many people. Critics worry that such crops carry risks not yet detected, and distrust the big agrochemical companies that have produced the few in wide use. And hostility toward the technology, long ingrained in Europe, has deepened recently among Americans as organic food advocates, environmentalists and others have made opposition to it a pillar of a growing movement for healthier and ethical food choices.

Arguing that the Food and Drug Administration should require labels on food containing G.M.O.’s, one leader of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, cited “pink slime, deadly melons, tainted turkeys and BPA in our soup.”

Mr. Kress attributed the labeling campaigns to the kind of tactic any industry might use to gain a competitive edge: they were financed largely by companies that sell organic products, which stood to gain if packaging implying a hazard drove customers to their own non-G.M.O. alternatives." emphasis added.

Russell Libby, Organic Farming Advocate, Dies at 56 (of cancer)

Arsenic Found in Organic Baby Formula, Cereal Bars Products that contain organic brown rice syrup may be a significant source of dietary arsenic.

Molecular Breeding Makes Crops Hardier and More Nutritious "...scientists are changing crops without tapping foreign genes....Many of these crops use latent effects of genes squirreled away in discarded seed varieties to create breeds that at first glance seem artificial. There is corn so infused with vitamin A precursors that it practically glows orange, rice that can survive more than two weeks of flooded conditions, and wheat that resists the advance of devastating aphids.".

Global hunger worsening, warns UN The UN's annual report on global food security confirms that more than one billion people - a sixth of the world's population - are undernourished.

Food production 'must rise 70%' If more land is not used for food production now, 370 million people could be facing famine by 2050. The world population is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.1 billion by mid-century. Food production will have to increase by 70% over the next 40 years to feed the world's growing population, the United Nations food agency predicts.

Customers call for Whole Foods boycott The Whole Foods brand is what attracts liberals with a social conscience. The store "sells organic vegetables, biodegradable washing powder and sustainable seafood to a well-heeled clientele and champions its liberal credentials." So, when CEO John Mackey wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that began with a quote from Margaret Thatcher and argued that Americans do not have an intrinsic right to healthcare a large number of customers got on Twitter and started a boycott. Unlike most critics of Obama's health initiatives, Mackey offers eight alternative libertarian reforms.

Organic 'has no health benefits' (BBC: "Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at all the evidence on nutrition and health benefits from the past 50 years. Among the 55 of 162 studies that were included in the final analysis, there were a small number of differences in nutrition between organic and conventionally produced food but not large enough to be of any public health relevance....Overall the report, which is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found no differences in most nutrients in organically or conventionally grown crops, including in vitamin C, calcium, and iron. The same was true for studies looking at meat, dairy and eggs.")

Engineered corn's vitamin boost ("A genetically modified corn fortified with three vitamins has been created by European researchers. The modifications make the growing corn, or maize, produce large amounts of beta carotene and precursors of vitamin C and folic acid. The development marks the first time any plant has been engineered to make more than one vitamin.")

Global crisis 'to strike by 2030' (Professor John Beddington, the UK government chief scientist, warns that the demand for resources will create a crisis with dire consequences by 2030. World population will reach 8.3 billion. Demand for food and energy will jump 50%. Demand for fresh water will increase by 30%. Beddington said that genetically-modified food could be part of the solution.) In a related story, the United Nations has released a report that says the world's population is moving toward exceeding nine billion people by 2050 and almost a quarter of those alive will be over 60.

Organic farms unknowingly used a synthetic fertilizer. For seven years a company that held 1/3 of the market in California sold fertilizer as organic that was spiked with ammonium sulfate. State officials knew about it in 2006, but revealed the problem only after The Sacramento Bee got documentation through a Public Acts request. Nobody was penalized. Makes you wonder: how organic is organic food if the companies that sell the organic fertilizer are in charge of certifying that their product is organic? How many satisfied customers paid more for their "tastier and healthier" organic food that wasn't organic?

Organic Food Has No More Nutritional Value Than Food Grown With Pesticides, Study Shows

A study of 207 pre-schoolers finds 14% ate no fruit and vegetables at all on an average day. 39% of the sample consumed no vegetables.

A Dutch study of 521 children finds 46%  report no daily fruit intake

A Scottish study found only 56% of boys and 63% of girls eat fresh fruit daily. 18% of boys and 12% of girls have fresh fruit as little as once a week.

A study of Australian children under the age of 15 found that around one-third of children younger than 12 had no fruit in their diets, and more than one-fifth had no vegetables.

Doug Krahmer claims that on any given day, 45 percent of children eat no fruit at all, while 20 percent eat fewer than one serving of vegetables. I have been unable to track down the source of his claim. Krahmer is chair of the Oregon state Soil and Water Commission and is a member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture. He is the co-owner of Blue Horizon Farms, Inc. based out of St. Paul, Oregon. He argued before Congress for farm subsidies for crops like blueberries, hazel nuts, and clover, which he grows.

Over half of the most heavily advertised children's food and beverage products that clearly feature fruit on their packaging contain no fruit at all

Extra fruit and veg doesn't reduce breast cancer recurrence

For Three Years, Every Bite Organic by Tare Parker-Pope, New York Times

California organic-food company linked to widespread E. coli scare by Andrew Bridges

Are Organic Foods Really Safer? (One of the few media pieces I was able to find that is critical of the organic myths.)

Last updated 01-Apr-2014

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