The Organic Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

As I, like many, became more aware of what I was eating, and what was in it, I started eating more organic foods. My commitment to organics reached a peak a few years ago. But then I started seeing studies and articles that began to change my mind. A piece by Bjørn Lomborg in The Telegraph titled “Think organic food is better for you, animals, and the planet? Think again” (Mr. Lomborg also had a similar piece published in the NY Times), has convinced me to no longer waste my time, energy,—and especially my money—on organics. His well-written dismantling of organics (which he backs up with links to scientific studies) is the final nail in the coffin for me. In some cases I will still buy organic but if given the choice, I’m going to choose conventionally farmed food over organic, and I will no longer seek out organic alternatives to conventional foods.

Well before the Lomborg piece, I was becoming more and more skeptical of the advantages of organics and dismayed with the mendacious marketing tactics of many organic companies. I also hold contempt for the nasty radical environmentalists that advocate for organic. I don’t want to help them or their causes. Of course, they’re the extreme fringe and not the norm, and most of us just want to eat healthier and feel like we’re helping the environment. Feel is a key word here. It’s one thing to feel good; it’s another to do good.

Am I doing me, my family, and the world any good by buying organic foods?

I’m now entirely convinced I’m not. It’s time to turn out the lights and lock the doors; the organic party is over.

Here’re some excerpts from the Telegraph article, with my commentary added:

In 2012 Stanford University’s Centre for Health Policy did the biggest comparison of organic and conventional foods and found no robust evidence for organics being more nutritious. A brand-new review has just repeated its finding: “Scientific studies do not show that organic products are more nutritious and safer than conventional foods.”

The number one reason for eating organic has been proven false. There are minimal, if any, health benefits to eating organic.

Likewise, animals on organic farms are not generally healthier. A five year US study showed that organic “health outcomes are similar to conventional dairies”. The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety found “no difference in objective disease occurrence.” Organic pigs and poultry may enjoy better access to open areas, but this increases their load of parasites, pathogens and predators. Meanwhile the organic regulation against feeding bee colonies with pollen supplements in low-pollen periods along with regulation against proper disinfection leads to sharply lower bee welfare.

I agree that caging animals in small cages where they can’t move is cruel, and the practice must be ended, but “free range” does not equal “healthier.” Don’t confuse the two. And assuming it’s true, bees are being harmed by organic bee practices, which is motivation enough for me to avoid buying organic honey.

Organic farming is sold as good for the environment. This is correct for a single farm field: organic farming uses less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. But each organic field yields much, much less. So, to grow the same amount of wheat, spinach or strawberries, you need much more land. That means that average organic produce results in the emission of about as many greenhouse gasses as conventional produce; and about 10 per cent more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification. Worse, to produce equivalent quantities, organic farms need to occupy 84 per cent more land…

Organic farming requires much more land, land that could remain wild. That also means far fewer people are fed per acre of land than conventional farming. One can then logically draw the conclusion that organic farming contributes to food insecurity and scarcity.

But surely organics avoid pesticides? No. Organic farming can use any pesticide that is “natural”. This includes copper sulphate, which has resulted in liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France. Pyrethrin is another organic pesticide; one study shows a 3.7-fold increase in leukaemia among farmers who handled pyrethrins compared to those who had not.

For many years I was under the impression that organic rules prohibited pesticides. They, of course, do not. The dirty little secret is that the ‘natural’ pesticides allowed under organic rules are in many cases as dangerous as synthetic pesticides and in some cases more dangerous.

Conventional food, it’s true, has higher pesticide contamination. Although it is still very low, this is a definite benefit of organics. However, using a rough upper estimate by the head of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Toxicology, all conventional pesticide residues may cause an extra 20 cancer deaths per year in America.

I’m glad he addresses this. Yes, there are more pesticide residues on conventionally farmed food, but that has not translated into a health hazard. 20 cancer deaths per year is an infinitesimally small number of deaths and amounts to virtually zero risk. For comparison, more than 30,000 people die each year from accidental falls. It’s ok to eat those strawberries that contain a very low amount of pesticide residue, but be careful next time you walk down ice covered steps.

Organics is a rich world phenomenon, with 90 percent of sales in North America and Europe…

Essentially, organic food is rich people spending their extra cash to feel good. While that is just as valid as spending it on holidays, we should resist any implied moral superiority. Organics are not healthier or better for animals. To expand to any great scale would cost tens of billions of [dollars] while killing thousands. Indeed, a widespread organics revolution will increase environmental damage, and cut global forests.

That is a damning summation. Remember, it’s one thing to feel good, it’s another to do good.

I’m aware there’re rebuttals to this position, I’ve read some of them. They’ve not dissuaded me.

Like I said, I will still buy some organic products, but not because they’re organic, I’ll buy them because they have fewer processed ingredients, or taste better than other choices. For example, I buy Stonyfield organic half and half because it contains only milk and cream, and almost all non-organic half and half contains additives. But I couldn’t care less that it’s organic.

I am not advocating you stop buying organic foods. As they say, “whatever floats your boat”. I’m only laying out why I’m not going to buy them anymore. But I think Mr. Lomborg (and many others, he’s not alone) makes a very good case for why buying organic may not always be the right thing to do or be the best choice one can make, and in some instances may actually be harmful to both society and the environment.


2 thoughts on “The Organic Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

  1. Hi, Great post. I like the way of your writing. After reading this blog, I am planning to start taking organic foods. Let me know how to find difference between organic and conventional foods. Thanks for sharing useful information. Keep blogging.

    Sathish from Organic Beauty Products


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