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The Day the Organic Movement Died

 

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In the past couple weeks there have been numerous skirmishes on social media and in the news on the not-so-new debate over the benefits of organic vs. conventional foods and farming. A Stanford study published in the September 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine pissed gasoline all over the fire and set it alight anew.

Let me begin with one semantic gripe about this debate. To call this “organic vs. conventional” is a misnomer. Conventional farming is an invention of the 20th century whereas organic farming was invented some time around 8,000 b.c. Therefore the burden of proof is upon “conventional” farming, not organic. But I digress.

I read about the Stanford study the day it was published. There wasn’t anything too surprising or groundbreaking about it. The study’s conclusions were basically that no significant difference was found between organic and conventional meats and produce in nutritional value. It also concluded that organic foods contained considerably less pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria contamination.

The conclusions were based on 17 studies in humans and 223 studies on nutrient values in foods.  One detail I think was important but largely overlooked was that the study was non-clinical and heterogeneous. Meaning, for example, its conclusions could be drawn by comparing a ripe tomato from one part of the US to an unripe tomato from a different part of the US.

The problem started when the media grabbed ahold of it, knowing this could be spun into a controversial topic, and a frenzy ensued. Headlines read “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce” from the New York Times and “Organic food no healthier than non-organic: study” from Reuters. Really Reuters? Is that the most accurate way to depict the findings?

Following the media reaction as always is the social media over-reaction. First came a million “I told you so tweets” from the curious anti-organic camp.

Dozens of foolish straw man arguments have been popping up on the internet recently to purport this as the silver bullet that killed the organic movement. Their approach is to poorly refute an argument that we never made, and then call us all hippies (I wish this was a joke).

 

I don’t know if Michael Specter would characterize me as an “organomaniac,” since I generally prefer organic foods but have been know to occasionally devour an entire bag of Cheddar Cheese Jalapeño-Flavored Cheetos. Nothing but full on hypocrisy here at Mr. Delicious, and that’s a promise!

But ignore it they did not. To the contrary this study became a huge inflammatory topic amongst organics enthusiasts and activists with many crying conspiracy, even attacking the scientists behind the study.

Now everyone, please, take a deep breath and relax. The organic movement isn’t going anywhere, and for those of you who prefer the taste of pesticides on your produce, I’m sure Monsanto isn’t either. This study really didn’t change anything and we’re all going to die on December 21 anyway. So you might as well just settle in.

For those that are at all informed on the topic, it was never about nutritional content, but rather a distrust of the effects of chemical pesticides and reckless use of antibiotics in or foods.

It’s also about the effects that conventional farming is having on the environment. With a relatively short history it’s hard to determine what the long term effects might be. I remember being stung by a lot of bees when I was a child. Somehow I suspect my son will not be so imperiled as they’re a lot harder to find now.

Many of us find it hard to believe or even a bit arrogant the claim that science has an exhaustive understanding of the effects all of the chemicals in our lives. Each generation looks at the last in disbelief. How could they not have known better? What will the next generation think about this?

Trust us, we’re scientists!

The conclusion here is that there is no conclusion. I really don’t believe these scientists did anything wrong and were only furthering our understanding of important issues. So don’t kill the scientists, we might need them. By there own admission there is still much to study. And the debate will go on.

Comments

  1. Nico Goco says:

    The problem with studies is that the media and even the public at large can’t truly make sense of the data and the conclusions, and what they mean for the public in general. It would take a broader study and a very specific scope to detail each and every point of comparison between organic and non-organically grown food.

    And from what the articles against organic farming write, it seems to me they’re more angry at the people buying organic (hippies and hipsters) than they are with organic food itself. So yeah, it’s going to get pretty subjective from there on out. I guess when we start to sacrifice quality for convenience’s sake, we pretty much groan at anything that involves hard work and going against the machinery that makes everything so easy for us. Even the idea itself starts to smack of “hippie” thinking rather than a sensible, scientific and well though of system.

    Still, organic farming is a great leap towards sustainability. It will mean less reliance on chemicals sold by corporations and the long-term damage these can do to the earth and to people. At the end of the day, practicing organic farming or even a percentage of it just makes sense.

    That’s why community projects like GK’s Enchanted Farm is so great. It brings organic farming to a grass roots level, where marginalized people can learn to appreciate it and make a living from it too. It doesn’t become a hard-sell practice but a way of life.

    • Jeremy says:

      Very well put. I think you have identified something that I did not discuss. There are two problems, one social and one scientific. Sometimes people fight over it when they don’t even know what they’re fighting.

  2. Nico Goco says:

    Plus there’s great organic beer now available, which should really just end all arguments against organic farming in general.

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