Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


JULY 19, 2010 9:20AM

Sacred Cow: Organic Food

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Previous posts in this series are here.

Organic food is one of my sacred cows: (Wikipedia): “[...] an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so.”

It seems to be common knowledge that organic foods have many benefits that justify the extra expense.  Purported benefits include: health benefits from fewer pesticides/herbicides, sustainable farming practices, humane treatment of food animals, health benefits from hormone and antibiotic-free meat and dairy, and supporting smaller producers.  

The entire industry is geared toward making conscientious liberals (me) feel good about food-purchases-as-activism.  It’s easy to imagine healthy dairy cows grazing on pesticide-free natural grasses.  Or to picture a family lovingly and sustainably raising organic strawberries.  In my mind all organic farming it looks like this...

It feels good to buy organic.  Plus, it’s a marker of status.  Such purchases indicate concern for health, for the environment, for small producers, and can also indicate (or embellish) financial status.  (I carry a Whole Foods branded cooler bag and frequently fill it at down-scale grocers.)  I feel like a Good MotherTM when I pull out our favorite yogurt at the playground.   

My first inkling that I might be wrong about organic foods came from my Awesome Girlfriend’s husband. He is a former cattleman and said that the flap over hormone-free and antibiotic-free dairy was silly.  He claimed that by law, regular milk was tested and had to be free of hormones and antibiotics.  He said it was a marketing ploy like the one depicted in this XKCD strip...


The second major blow to my organic sacred cow came from a Skeptoid episode.  First, unethical marketing by--gasp!--major agricultural conglomerates who are taking advantage of gullible organic consumers:

I want to stress that I am not opposed to organic food. It is generally a perfectly fine product. I do have objections to the way it's marketed: It's an identical product, sold at a premium, justified by baseless alarmism about standard food. Whether you agree or not that this alarmism is baseless, you should at least agree that that would be an unethical way to promote a product that offers no real benefit. I choose not to reward this with my food-buying dollar. People who willfully seek out the organic label when buying food are being taken advantage of by marketers employing unethical tactics.

It's a seductive message. Everyone loves to hear that corporations are bad, that all-natural is good, that chemicals and synthetic compounds are poisons. This is not a message that's difficult to sell. It's little wonder that organics have been the fastest growing agricultural market segment over the past decade. It's an ironic little secret that those very same corporate food producers taking our money to sell us organic foods are the same ones spending it on the ad agencies to stoke the anticorporate message that drives them. Nearly 100% of organic food in supermarkets comes from a producer owned by one of the major food companies that also sells regular food. Don't think for a minute that any well-managed food company has not already been on this bandwagon since it started rolling.

Next he tackles my strongest reason for buying organic foods (environmental concerns) and rips it to shreds:

The biggest misconception is that organic farming does not use fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides. Of course it does. Fertilizer is essentially chemical nutrient, and the organic version delivers exactly the same chemical load as the synthetic. It has to, otherwise it wouldn't function. All plant fertilizers, organic and synthetic, consist of the same three elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Referring to one as a "chemical" and implying that the other is not, is the worst kind of duplicity, and no intelligent person should tolerate it.

The difference between the two is the source of the chemicals. To make the high-volume commercial versions of both organic and synthetic fertilizer, the source materials are processed in factories and reduced to just the desired chemicals, and the end product, these days, is virtually indistinguishable. Small organic farmers, and home organic farmers, might use fish meal, bone meal, bat guano, or earthworm castings. These are fine products and do indeed deliver the required nutrients. They're just not useful for high volume farming because they're (a) far too expensive, and (b) contain too much ballast, or inactive ingredient, that the crops don't use and merely increase the energy requirements of moving and delivering them.

To make synthetic fertilizer, we start with nitrogen, which we extract from the atmosphere. This process is infinitely sustainable and produces no waste. The potassium is mined from ancient ocean deposits. The phosphorus we get from surface mining of phosphate rock. Although we have centuries of reserves of phosphate rock and millenia of reserves of potassium salts, mining is not sustainable, as these reserves will eventually run out. So, increasingly, producers are turning to seawater extraction for both. This forms a completely sustainable cycle, as the oceans are the ultimate destination of all plant matter and farm runoff.

But clean, sustainable atmospheric and seawater extraction are both taboo for organic certification, which I find astonishing. The chemicals for organic fertilizer must be sourced from post-consumer and animal waste, which is fine but the restriction strikes me as completely arbitrary. Food waste, animal manure, and other organic recyclables collectively provide all the needed ingredients to make refined, high quality fertilizer. The refining process is necessarily a little bit different, but the end product is comparable.

[...]On to pesticides and herbicides. All crops are subject to disease and infestation, and all farmers have to do something about it. Because organic herbicides and pesticides depend on toxic plant-derived chemicals like rotenone and pyrethrin, they've had a tougher time meeting the same standards, making them safe for farm workers and for human consumption, that synthetic versions have already met for decades. Organic versions do meet the standards and are just as safe, but doing so makes them considerably less efficient. According to one winemaker interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, most vineyards do not get certified organic because some of the rules emphasize the ideology over the science. Vineyards need fungicide. Organic fungicide lasts 7 days, while superior synthetic fungicide lasts 21 days. This means two fewer tractors pass through the vineyard spewing diesel exhaust and compacting the soil.

Curse you Brian Dunning!111!!!!

The third major blow came from Steve Novella at Science Based Medicine:

Overall there does not appear to be any advantage for health to organic farming (sustainability and environmental effects being a separate issue). However, despite the fact that organic farming has been around for over 50 years, there is a surprisingly small amount of quality research available. The organic farming industry and popularity of organic products is growing. Organic products are more expensive, and questions remain about whether or not such methods would be adequate to supply our food needs. There may also be hidden health risks or unintended consequences to relying upon organic farming. There may also be benefits that have not been adequately documented. Therefore, this is one area where I think it is reasonable to conclude more research is genuinely needed.

The comments here are fascinating. It was really interesting to watch science-minded people defend organic food against all critical evidence. Of course I added my own comment:

Organic foods is one of my sacred cows. I try to justify it against all conflicting evidence. I like organic bananas and dairy better–but probably because I’m subconsciously trying to justify the extra expense.

We eat very little meat and pay more for the humanely-raised variety. (Or we eat meat from hunting friends–but that brings the risk of chronic wasting disease.) Unfortunately trying to be a responsible carnivore might not be very helpful. How do the labels “cage-free” and “free-range” translate in real life?

I had finally settled on the “organic is more eco-responsible” meme, until a Brian Dunning podcast shot that down. Evidently organic farmers have to apply non-synthetic fertilizers/pesticides, etc far more often, so you have to consider the extra fuel, pollution, and added impact to the topsoil.

And finally, I learned that one of the vendors at my local farmer’s market travels to Costco or Sam’s Club the day before and buys a truck load of organic produce to sell at the farmer's market.  It really pisses me off to think I likely contributed to this vendor’s profits thinking I was really supporting regional producers. It further pisses me off to know I was duped about who owns most of the organic farms and about the purported environmental benefits of organic farming.


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Intriguing post, as always, A.U. That all fertilizers are about the same I can agree with. I still need to think a bit more about the synthetic pesticide safety issue-- true for some, I am sure, but perhaps not all? I think more research would be great, but I wonder which big companies will be interested in funding that! Your story about the costco organics at the farmers' market-- !!!
An interesting post -- it's good to see organic agribusiness subjected to careful, rational criticism. One of the fuzziest of the concepts used to promote organic agriculture is the idea that only "natural" farming is right. As Stewart Brand argues so clearly in Whole Earth Discipline, all farming is fundamentally un-natural, since there never has been any evolutionary advantage for plants to grow in concentrated plots producing huge caloric surpluses for other species. In farming, we try to engineer "nature" to do things that nature would not do on its own.

I think the organic certification rules include some rules that don't stand up to scrutiny. But I'm very unimpressed with the Brian Dunning analysis of fertilizers. Basically he just asserts as fact that the only three chemical constituents that matter are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. This reductionism is balderdash, IMHO – and there is a huge amount of evidence that this reductionism is also very harmful to soil, which after all is a complex ecological system.
First, I'll confess that organic food is also one of my sacred cows. I also really appreciate most of what you brought up for discussion here. A lot of is information that bears discussing and understanding. (Especially the take over of organic industry by agri-business and marketers.)

That being said, here's my take on some of the evidence-based deconstructions of our shared beliefs you offered here.

1.) The problems w/ giving antibiotics to cows is NOT that the milk will then transfer an antibiotic load to people who consume it...the problem IS that the use of antibiotics to prophylactically treat animals that aren't sick is contributing to a much larger problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics- which just so happen to be our best weapon for combating them. Not to mention, there would be no need to prophylactically treat feed and dairy animals the way we do if they were allowed to eat diets that are natural from them and weren't kept in the filthy, disgusting environments in which they are raised. I'll further add that there IS scientific proof that cows fed diets adequately suited to their evolution and digestive systems are healthier and have more healthful fat profiles than cows fed food not natural for them...much like there is the same proof for the fat profiles of farmed salmon vs. wild salmon. Same idea as feeding our house pets the best diets for their evolutionary designed digestive systems. When we feed them what they are supposed to eat, they are healthier. Not to mention keeping animals in CAFOs not only creates the "need" for prophylatically dosing them w/ antibiotics because they literally live in filthy, antibiotic ridden environments, but it also puts the consumers at greater risks for food born illness such as e. coli.

2.) His look at chemicals (be they natural or synthetic) is pretty reductionist for a number of reasons. The things that jumped to mind immediately: "Chemical" fertilizers and pesticides are linked to destruction of habitats in ways that no "natural" fertilizers and pesticides are. (Such as the bleaching of the Gulf of Mexico.) "Chemical" fertilizers and pesticides are known endocrine and neurological disruptors in ways that no "natural" fertlizers are.

3.) One of the comments you cited mentioned organic bananas...and that's a point I like to talk about a lot. Did you know that men who work on the conventional banana fincas in Central America have dramatically higher levels of reproductive system cancer than men from the same region who do other work? Yes, it's just a correlation at this point, but it's a pretty convincing correlation if you ask me.

4.) As to the vendor at your local farmer's market who is selling produce he bought from a big box warehouse, talk to the organizers of your Farmer's Markets. Markets all of the country have regulations for who can sell what at their markets to prevent just this sort of thing and how things must be clearly labeled if they aren't produced by the seller. Even when market regulations don't prevent this, it's still where the beauty lies at such markets-- you can talk to the sellers and ask about their sourcing. Whenever I shop a new market or a new vendor I never buy anything without first talking to the vendor... It's as much about the community, making personal connections and supporting my local economy as it is about understanding my food and where it comes from as well as supporting my values.
Firestorm: Thanks for the comment!

There are probably some demonstrable environmental benefits to organic foods, but perhaps they are overstated/not supported by evidence yet. I liked Steve Novell's conclusion that we need more research.

I'm interested that
Linda: Thanks for casting doubt on the synthetic pesticide question! I am also now very curious about this claim.
BHK: Thanks for commenting! What really gives me pause about the claimed benefits of organic or natural fertilizer is that there may be more environmental damage because of increased application frequency.

Great point that all our food is engineered, genetically altered from its original, etc. The naturalistic fallacy is seductive.
Kim: Thanks for commenting! Regarding organic dairy, yes I agree and have read several well-sourced articles about breeding resistant bacteria.

I clearly don't know enough about the fertilizer/pesticide chemistry. Would natural fertilizers/pesticides not have caused the environmental damage you describe? As I said upthread, what really gave me pause about natural vs synthetic is the environmental impact from increased application frequency. I don't know if the natural stuff is better once you factor in the increased impact or not.

Bananas: I read another article a few years ago about how gigantic agri-business settled on one variety of banana, and caused the extinction or near-extinction of all other varietals. If some disease attacks the kind most of us eat, bananas (organic and conventional--they're all the same species) may be off the table for most of us.

I think the farmer's market vendor got evicted this year. Still, these types of incidents speak to how easily I fall for this stuff.
My favorite recent Onion Radio News:
All-Natural Food Preservative Causes All-Natural Cancer,17639/

Nattyblonde: Awesome link! Thanks!