Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Big Issues: Is Organic Food a Sham?

A good friend asked for my thoughts today about this Gawker report (about a USA Today article about a meta-study and a University of Oxford study) which claims that organic food is no better (and in some cases worse) than non-organic food.

I get variations on this theme all the time, so this time I have actually written my answer down for posterity and for future reference - I will also tell you definitively whether I believe that Gawker is correct in its conclusion of "Science Suggests That Organic Food Is Largely a Sham". 

First though, I will frame my response to this specific article with three four observations:
  1. (Edit) I believe that most studies, meta-studies, and popular discussion on the topic of "organic vs. conventional" miss the point entirely (including, disappointingly this recent TreeHugger article)
  2. As someone who aspires to live sustainably, I don't give a shit about "organic food". I only care about "sustainable food".
  3. As someone who aspires to live rationally, I trust scientists to report results correctly and factually, within the parameters of their study.
  4. For the same reason as 3) I do not trust USA Today to report scientists' results impartially.
Next, I will roll into some customary Ramblings on Sustainable Human Flourishing, although I will try to be a little less rambly than normal:
  • A lot of organic food is sold in supermarkets.
  • Whether it is labeled "organic" or not, very little food (or anything else) sold in supermarkets is sustainable.
  • Sustainable food derives from sustainable farming practices. 
  • Sustainable farming practices almost invariably result in organic food. 
  • Although sustainably farmed food is almost certainly organic, food that is labeled "organic" is rarely sustainably farmed. This is because the label was put on the food to allow it to be sold in a supermarket, and because supermarkets are driven by economic rationalism. 
  • Supermarket food demands economically rational farming practices. The most economically rational farming practice is industrial farming.
  • Industrial farming is not sustainable because it degrades soil productivity, destroys biodiversity, pollutes waterways, and is highly dependent on fossil fuels. 
  • Industrial farming is also unsustainable because it requires very high inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 
  • Some time ago, to counter the Orwellian "conventional" label given to industrial farming, well-meaning but naïve people came up with the idea of an "organic farming" label.
  • Supermarkets quickly co-opted this idea to create an "organic" brand that they could market as a prestige product with alleged health and environmental benefits.
  • In their drive for economies of scale, supermarkets have aggressively undermined the standards behind the "organic" label - to the point where today, supermarket food can be labeled "organic" just because it was produced on an industrial farm that applied a few restrictions on the types of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used. 
  • Marketing-blinded consumers have thus allowed the "organic" label to be corrupted to the point where it is now used, for example, to sell perfectly preserved, individually wrapped, "organic" apples from New Zealand in the middle of the Northern summer. 
  • This is despite the fact that "organic" industrial farming with less chemicals and fertilizers is more wasteful, less economically rational, and no more sustainable than "conventional" industrial farming.
  • Sustainable farming on the other hand, involves smaller, better-managed farms that use natural practices and employ more people. Such farms deliver fresh food to local consumers that is naturally higher quality, better taste, higher nutrition, and lower waste than food grown on a factory farm on the other side of the world (whether that farm happens to use "organic" or "conventional" practices.)

Now, finally, I will give my specific thoughts on whether I believe that "science" is correct to "suggest that organic food is largely a sham"

It is not a sham if you buy organic food fresh from a small local producer who produces the food naturally. In general though, since very few people shop that way these days, I'm afraid that I must agree with the general findings of these reports. Organic food bought in a supermarket is, almost without exception, "largely a sham" :-(

I object violently, however, to any implication that "conventional" food is somehow the answer.

The answer is sustainable food. Unfortunately, you will not find sustainable food in a supermarket anywhere on the planet. 

Nor will you find it discussed in USA Today.


  1. Observation 2 is a risky one Jamie. There are so many so called "scientists" nowadays you do need to be a bit discerning. I do agree with the general thrust here - although it is worth pondering whether an industrial "organic" product on a supermarket shelf is still not worth purchasing over the generic supermarket product. A few less pesticides here or there must be good for something.

    Personally it annoys me when people tell me that it makes no difference as they taste the same and have the same nutrient value, as for me it has nothing to do with taste or nutrients. Sure I don;t want to put unnecessary chemicals in my body but the main driver is the quality of the land and retaining biodiversity.

    I don't think we can feed everyone on the planet using non-industrial processes unfortunately. Too many mouths. So ensuring that the big chains and producers don;t lobby-down decent organic regulations is important.

    1. Cheers Matt - thanks for the considered note,
      I completely agree that there is a lot of junk science out there, but it is usually very easy to spot, and this isn't I'm afraid. Science is the best basis for rational decisions, but it is clear that even good science can be perverted by manipulating the remit of the scientists. This is why I added my "within the parameters of their study" caveat.

      Since so few people (especially politicians) actually bother to read scientific studies (or could understand them even if they did), the perversion of science more typically comes from ideologically challenged reporting of the results by propaganda vehicles like USA Today. I always try to go to the source, but listed observation 3 nonetheless because like most people, I often don't have the time.

      On the rare occasion when I need to go to a supermarket*, of course I try to find an organic option Matt. I don't want to belittle your choice although I hope to encourage you to shop even more consciously ;-) When we choose to pay at a supermarket for a product with an organic label, then we must make that choice with full appreciation of the reality that the marketers who designed the product range have got us pegged as suckers who will self-select to pay anything from 20%-200% more for something that is only marginally better and costs them approximately 5% more to produce.

      Yes, it is better, but it is not good enough - don't let the marketing try to convince you to feel good about your choice - use your appreciation of the reality to make you feel furious that this is the choice that you are given! Then channel your righteous rage into a life-affirming decision to never go back to that f&ˆ%$#$% supermarket again! Find other, more sustainable and truly healthy sources of food for you and your family.

      On your last point Matt, I disagree - and so does the science - on the rare occasion when science is asked the right question (i.e. "how can we sustainably feed 7 billion people?" instead of bullshit like "is organic better than conventional?") the science invariably responds that a return to natural farming practices (supported by modern technologies) is a vital part of the solution (along with a massive decrease in meat consumption, and many other things, of course.)

      Please don't get confused between "natural farming supported by modern technologies" and "industrial organic farming" though. There is a big difference!

      * Note: I try to do everything I can to avoid supermarkets though - Not only because I'm already suppressing enough righteous rage to last a lifetime, but also because I find myself wasting time just staring at other shoppers - I find the way people behave in supermarkets to be so curious and entirely detached from reality - like a slow-motion train wreck though, I just can't drag myself away from it :-)

  2. Jamie points taken and well made. Look I've got the veggie garden, the chooks, catch the bus and ride the bike everywhere, in fact only last month I decided that the entertainment for me was to dress in a safari suit and dance around the UWA Tav. Much as I would like otherwise my personal sustainability journey has taken me to a place where I realise that as desirable as it may be not everyone in the western world is like me, and attempts to make them (encourage them to be) like me are doomed to failure.

    Woolies, Coles and Aldi are not suddenly going to shut up shop, and the reality is nearly everyone shops there, so best make it as good as possible rather than have everyone sourcing growers marts. So where you say "a return to natural farming practices (supported by modern technologies) is a vital part of the solution" I 110% agree (note even my stats show a certain cynicism to science!).

    I will add that generally I find that a sentiment to return to more natural practices is coupled with a sentiment that the planet cannot support a large(r) population. Maybe it is that a range of old school conservatives have found that it is much more socially acceptable in Australia to oppose immigration and be cautious about the rise of China on sustainability grounds rather than admit to being card carrying One Nation members.

    Hmm not much time to give this structure so excuse the rambling, but I would rather that the 95% are doing 10% better in supermarkets than have 5% doing 80% better in our communes:)

    Science? Schmience;) And I've got a "back off man I'm a scientist" t-shirt.

    p.s. no I dnon;t get email notification as I don't use avatars etc just anonymous login:)

    1. LOL :-) No need to apologise for rambling here Matt :-) I'm really jealous that I missed the Tav party :-(

      I would never belittle your admirable efforts Matt, and I admit that my own sustainability journey has taken me to a similar kind of place (and headspace, no doubt) as you… I've had to move on though, at least mentally because I've come to the realisation that sustainability cannot be all about personal responsibility and personal sacrifice (even though very few "sacrifices" seem that way once you've taken the plunge, as I'm sure you appreciate ;-)

      I had to move on because I realised that this is not a 95%:10% vs. 5%:80% discussion (or any other kind of number crunching exercise.) There was a point where I realised that even if every one of us who wants to build a sustainable future decides to make the ultimate personal sacrifice tomorrow - Even if we stop consuming altogether and reduce our emissions to zero (after decomposition), then it will not make a sod of difference.

      No amount of personal sacrifice will result in a sustainable future for our children.

      Reflecting on this harsh reality led me to accept that the problem is in "the system". At the crux of it is the way that we have allowed the economy to be configured such that we must steal from the future to live today.

      Ok - yes, supermarkets can certainly be a part of the solution, because they have many benefits that serve human flourishing (up to a point) - but they cannot be a part of the solution until the system under which they operate is reconfigured - The way that the global and local economies are currently configured mean that sustainability is not economically rational.

      People like us who strive to live consciously must find ways to change the conversation. We must start to talk about how the economy can be redesigned so it is possible for even the poorest and most ignorant person to live a dignified life and eat well, sustainably.

      The economy is a human construction, it should serve human interests. Sustainability is the ultimate human interest.

    2. Just playing devils... but is sustainability just a human construction?

    3. Oooh! What a fantastic question Matty! Have to admit that I've never asked myself that before (or at least, never in that way...)

      Need to sleep on this because there are many different ways to approach an answer, and I'm pretty sure that most of them are self-contradictory... Need time to reflect upon and tease out the true qualitative aspects of sustainability...

      Think this will need a whole new post, or maybe a series of posts. Dammit! I knew that starting to blog again was a bad decision...

  3. I live just down the road from an "organic" food store that is situated on thirty-five acres, yet there is no farming on the grounds. Everything offered in the store is imported from far away places like countries in South America,New Zealand,and the West Coast of the United States.The citrus like kiwi and mangoes are picked green and as hard as golf balls.This stuff is called organic. By whom? Regulations on what is called "organic" is different in countries outside the United States.
    Most of the can goods have some form of sugar in processing. There are frozen foods that are processed with sugar and as you know sugar is referred to as the gate way drug.
    To top it off the entrance to the store leads down the isle that has all this "magic" pills and new age snake oil.
    So what is the difference? The cost. A big difference like three times the cost of $upermaret prices.Where ever you live you can find a sustainable farm store or a roadside stand that has what you are looking for. If you cant find it you do not need it.
    Support local family farms.If you not sure about the character and quality of their product ask the owner to give you a tour of their farm.The necessity of organic may lose some of the importance you have assigned to it once you have seen the the respect they have for Mother Earth.

    1. Cheers dear Anon - you got it - that is precisely the spirit that I was trying to convey. Respect for nature and our place in it is what sustainability is all about. Thanks for stopping by.