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...
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.