“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.
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