Organic food is a waste of money and a scam

So-called “organic” food is everywhere now, as the striking success of Whole Foods shows; even major chain supermarkets have organic sections. All the hip people eat organic, and even plenty of not-so-hip people.

But why? Do they know something I don’t know or is it just possible they are the victims of a giant scam? Somehow I’m thinking it’s the latter…

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: “organic”, as science uses the word, means something that is composed mainly of the element carbon, as are virtually all molecules in any living creature. (Exceptions would be minerals such as sodium and potassium.) “Organic”, as Whole Foods and others use it, means free of artificial chemicals such as pesticides or fertilizers.

Organic food and pesticides: does it matter?

The idea behind eating organic food seems to be that pesticide residues in food cause harm to health. The idea makes some sort of sense; after all, pesticides are used to kill pests, so they must be toxic. But there are a few problems with this logic.

One is that conventional food doesn’t have enough pesticide residue to be of concern:

Organic fruits and vegetables can be expected to contain fewer agrochemical residues than conventionally grown alternatives; yet, the significance of this difference is questionable, inasmuch as actual levels of contamination in both types of food are generally well below acceptable limits. Also, some leafy, root, and tuber organic vegetables appear to have lower nitrate content compared with conventional ones, but whether or not dietary nitrate indeed constitutes a threat to human health is a matter of debate. On the other hand, no differences can be identified for environmental contaminants (e.g. cadmium and other heavy metals), which are likely to be present in food from both origins.

The average consumer of organic food would, I suppose, say that they’re going to be extra cautious, just in case. If they want to spend their money paying double the price of regular food, and if Whole Foods is willing to take their money, fine by me.

What makes the case against paying more for organic food more damning is the fact that our natural, human diet is loaded with pesticides, natural ones. All those dietary phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables that are so good for us are composed largely of chemicals made by plants to defend themselves from predators. It may be surprising for some to learn that plants do not want to be eaten.

Plants make their own pesticides

Animals defend themselves either by fight or by flight. Plants cannot flee, literally rooted to the ground as they are, so they fight using the only means possible: chemical warfare. Coffee plants don’t produce caffeine in order to satisfy human consumers; they do it to poison animals and insects that want to eat them. The sulforaphanes in cruciferous vegetables, the solanine in potatoes, the epicatechins in tea: none of those were put there for our benefit. The difference between an edible and an unedible plant lies merely in our ability to tolerate the toxins of an edible plant.

This was spelled out in a classic paper by Bruce Ames, Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural) (PDF). The abstract:

The toxicological significance of exposures to synthetic chemicals is examined in the context of exposures to naturally occurring chemicals. We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested [as of 1990] in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods. We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant

Nearly all of the pesticide chemicals that humans are exposed to are natural, produced by the plants themselves, and the fact that there’s little if any difference between natural and synthetic pesticides can be seen in the fact that half of the natural pesticides tested caused cancer in rodents.

Furthermore, the quantity of natural pesticides that humans ingest daily is many orders of magnitude greater than the amount of synthetic pesticides:

Concentrations of natural pesticides in plants are usually measured in parts per thousand or million rather than parts per billion, the usual concentration of synthetic pesticide residues or of water pollutants. We estimate that humans ingest roughly 5000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products.

The natural pesticides that are known to cause cancer are present in the most common foods ingested too.

…the 27 natural pesticides that are rodent carcinogens are present in the following foods: anise, apple, apricot, banana, basil, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, caraway, carrot, cauliflower, celery, cherries, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, coffee, collard greens, comfrey herb tea, currants, dill, eggplant, endive, fennel, grapefruit juice, grapes, guava, honey, honeydew melon, horseradish, kale, lentils, lettuce, mango, mushrooms, mustard, nutmeg, orange juice, parsley, parsnip, peach, pear, peas, black pepper, pineapple, plum, potato, radish, raspberries, rosemary, sesame seeds, tarragon, tea, tomato, and turnip. Thus, it is probable that almost every fruit and vegetable in the supermarket contains natural
plant pesticides that are rodent carcinogens. The levels of these 27 rodent carcinogens in the above plants are commonly thousands of times higher than the levels of synthetic pesticides.

Science, real actual science, shows that virtually every plant food we eat contains large amounts of natural pesticides, some of which are known to cause cancer in lab animals.

The conclusion must be that organic food is a waste of money, and to the extent that some people and corporations profit from the ignorance of the public, and even feed that ignorance, a scam.

PS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.



Leave a Comment:

Derek Wolf says February 11, 2015

Are you aware of any studies that measured the health effects of consuming the natural pesticides *in* wholefood form – such as eating the fruit itself – vs isolates as found in chemical pesticides?

In the rodent test, I am to assume they used isolates to achieve the high-dose testing.

The toxicity of the ‘natural pesticides’ could be mitigated or neutralized by other compounds within fruit/veggie.

Is that an apples to apples comparison to a compound like glyphosate, relevant to the practical application: glyphosate + adjuvants(RoundUp)?

    P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2015

    Derek, no I’m not aware of any studies like that. It’s possible that toxicity could be mitigated in the way you suggest, but remember that these compounds, many of them anyway, were designed to be toxic to creatures eating them. They may very well be toxic to some organisms, like, certain insects, and not or less so to others, like humans. But it would seem not to be in a plant’s interest to mitigate the toxicity of one compound with other compounds.

      Undercover Slob says January 28, 2016

      Yes, there is that perspective but what of fruits? They are colorful and sweet for a reason; so that animals eat them and thus, spread their seeds. It would be counter productive for an apple to be simultaneously poisonous and also desiring to be dispersed by those it is designed to poison. In the case of wheat or grains in general, I can understand the evolutionary mechanism to poison its predators but fruits are clearly a benevolent offering from the plant world. Could it be that the host plants have developed mitigating mechanisms for their fruits so that the inherent protective poisons that would inevitably find their way into them would be neutralized? This way, environmental adaptation would teach animals to eat the fruits but leave the plant alone…

        MOBeard says February 3, 2016

        You don’t seem to understand that the so-called “natural foods” you refer to as being so generous and “benevolently offering” us their fruits were all bred to do that by human beings. If you were suddenly forced to live on a diet of nothing but purely natural foods unmodified by 100,000 years or more of deliberate modification by humans using hybridized breeding techniques, you’d find your diet notably less tasty, less nutritious, more dangerous, and far less convenient.

        We don’t eat “natural foods.” We haven’t since before history began.

          Undercover Slob says February 3, 2016

          You don’t seem to understand that as the bee goes, so go the flowers. If humans had hybridized these fruits and vegetables, we probably would’ve adapted to them anyhow. Evolution works in a symbiotic way. You need to grasp that very important concept. Humans didn’t invent the “fruit.” We have brought it along but it’s an error to give us credit for creating something like a fruit. Anyhow, your response seems more like a chance to spout off about how much that you think you understand but apparently misses the part about actually contributing to our discussion. The debate isn’t about what can be truly coined, “natural.” Semantics don’t change the fact that synthetic pesticides shouldn’t be compared with those that have occurred over many a millennium.

Luke Terry says February 12, 2015

If natural pesticides are good–and as you point out, they are–then it behooves us to let the plants suffer as much insect or cold or nutrient stress as it can handle without adversely effecting yields.

If plants naturally produce pesticides in response to insect stress, you would expect organically grown foods to have higher nutrient concentrations of natural pesticide molecules than conventionally grown.

This is in fact the case. Ascorbic acid is a good example of this. Organically grown oranges have 30% more vitamin C than conventionally grown, ostensibly due to higher insect stress.

Plainly put, organic agriculture, or as it’s otherwise known: agriculture until the age of synthetic chemistry, is more hormetic for plants than agriculture “enhanced” with synthetic chemistry. Or, to anthropomorphize: synthetic agriculture is the fat guy, sitting on his ass in a climate controlled home front of the TV, organic, or non-synthetic agriculture is the guy out in his back yard, doing strongman workouts in the cold and sun & eating paleo.

    P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2015

    Luke, interesting, never thought of it that way.

    Derek Wolf says February 16, 2015

    Luke, I’d wager that you’re right on the money.

    The flavonoids in fruits and veggies are pest deterrents, yet have antioxidant effects in humans… and a 2014 meta found that organic produce had on average 17% more antioxidants than conventional. Some were as high as ~40% more AO.

    It makes sense that chemical inputs create a weaker plant because of the external “immune” support, as you state.

    Also, I’ve seen Huber’s work criticized but if what he says about glyphosate and mineral chelation is true, then those plants are unable to pull in all their required minerals for growth.

    It’s your example of the climate controlled couch potato, who is also chronically malnourished.

Joshua says February 12, 2015

A thought-provoking take on the whole organic / industrial debate. Yet I don’t think that the case is as shut as your conclusion seems to imply. One big factor that I think this doesn’t address is that of evolutionary adaptation. I imagine it very likely (in fact, almost certain) that over hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve adapted to consuming these natural pesticides. This is basically the premise behind the paleo diet, after all. However, synthetic pesticides are a very novel phenomenon, introduced primarily in the last 70 years or so. Thus, even though the dosage may be far lower, our adaptation to these synthetic pesticides is also probably far lower, or nil. So it seems to me that caution is still warranted.

I doubt we could truly settle these questions without a long-term controlled study, and I’m sure none of those have happened. Epidemiological studies are bound to be confounded by all sorts of healthy user biases.

    P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2015

    That could well be the case. Off the top of my head though, many detox mechanisms in the human body, for example in the liver, are quite general in nature. For instance, the cytochrome p450 system is capable of detoxifying most of the drugs humans take. These drugs are essentially all novel, yet we’re capable of dealing with them physiologically. And as for being adapted to many of the phytochemicals, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat have undergone massive breeding programs that have manipulated them to the point that they don’t bear a lot of resemblance to wild ancestors. And another point is that these phytochemicals that we’re “adapted” to set off the same detox mechanisms, such as phase 2 enzymes, indicating that the body regards them as toxic.

    Benjamin Espen says February 12, 2015

    Sure, we’re likely to be adapted to some things you find in our food, but all else being equal, plants evolve at roughly the same rate we do. It isn’t a case of us evolving with a static backdrop of plant foods, but a continual back and forth adaption process with neither side having a clear advantage.

      P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2015

      Good point, Benjamin. It’s a Red Queen arms race, and actually, most plants are likely to evolve at a much faster rate than humans, since generation time can be less than a year and number of potential offspring huge.

        Benjamin Espen says February 13, 2015

        Yeah, I figured the rate probably isn’t actually identical, hence the weasel words, but genetics isn’t my specialty.

newlyaloof says February 12, 2015

So, grow your own food and the problem you seem to have with organics is solved. Pack of tomato seeds is $3. You’ll get 200 pounds of tomatoes if you know what you’re doing. I trust nature’s pesticides over Monsanto’s any day.

    P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2015

    3 bucks is far from what you spend on those tomatoes. You have to factor in opportunity cost of labor. OTOH, maybe one doesn’t labor much for tomatoes, I don’t really know.

      rycamor says February 13, 2015

      Yes, there is opportunity cost, but it is a good sort of cost: exercise, sun, the joy of making and arranging things, and coming into contact with soil via composting, etc… can have probiotic effects.

      With a family of 5 living on 2 acres with chickens, goats, and a garden that supplies a good percentage of our vegetables, I probably only spend an hour or two a day (on average) managing all this, yet I get fresh free range eggs, fresh goat milk (part of the year, at least), and many varieties of fruits and vegetables I can’t even get in the store. I’ll take that bet every time.

      And yes, I lift also. With my shirt off, in the sun, right next to my garden. Life is good.

P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2015

Another point: what fraction of all plants are considered edible? 5%? Less? This shows just how toxic plants can be, since toxicity is probably the main reason for being inedible.

    caforager says February 8, 2016

    This is it exactly. Hit the nail on the head. I’ve been foraging for decades, and I can tell you straight out that the difference between an edible plant and an inedible plant is, the vast majority of the time, toxicity. Now, there are some plants you simply cannot eat due to composition, toughness, rigidity, fibrous material, etc, that no manner of normal cooking can break down.

    (A pine tree is actually 100% edible from tip to root, including needles, bark, and wood. All true pinus are. Though, not many want to eat one…)

    Toxicity is the key. Apples are great for you and good to eat. In moderation. A tablespoon or more of appleseeds has enough cyanide compounds in it to seriously harm a child, and most adults, depending on body weight.

    If you eat pokeweed raw, it’ll likely kill you. If you boil it twice, it’s delicious. If you eat the poke root, raw or cooked, it’ll just flat out kill you.

    So yes, it’s all about toxins. All plants have toxins. It’s just how much do they have, and how do they affect you that is the prime concern.

Rob says February 12, 2015

People have been duped into thinking that organic = pesticide free. No, you just instead use commercial organic pesticides, often a lot more of them since they’re not as effective

But at least organics taste better

Michael says February 12, 2015

Lol. Are you going to encourage us to spray dioxins on our lemon trees next?
If the chemicals contained in plants commonly consumed by humans were as toxic to living beings as are the synthetic chemicals used as pesticides ie. dioxins, it would follow that the pests themselves would be killed by the actual plants. Why not? Because that logic simply doesn’t apply in actuality, nor is there science that demonstrates that plants are as toxic as a whole as a given pesticide / herbicide. If pesticides like DDT & dioxins were harmless, there would not be an epidemic of cancers associated with their use, nor incidents of cancer positively correlated with people living near areas where pesticides are sprayed. Nor would there be an association between the disappearance of bee colonies with the use of glyphosates such as Roundup. Nor would there be ecosystem problems associated with waterways receiving runoff from agricultural pesticides, nor the hindering of microflora such as the bacteria & algae commonly found in soils by the use of pesticides (eg. – There’s a reason why people use organic farming outside of just the health implications – look at the longevity of the soils of organic farms for a start, which tend to remain fertile and healthier over more cropping cycles than their chemically sprayed equivalents. Also, anyone with an ounce of scientific understanding knows that a combination of chemicals can and often do have effects on ecosystems and human physiology that are greater than & less predictable than the sum of their parts, which means combining tens or hundreds of synthetic chemicals in a human body is likely to have effects that are extremely hard to predict.

    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2015

    Despite your impassioned comment, no, I do not encourage water pollution or killing bees and fully acknowledge that direct contact with certain pesticides, as in the case of farm workers, is no good. To attain your organic utopia, we would need to outlaw pesticides, which is what I assume you want. My point about the costs and benefits of “organic” food still stands.

JRM says February 13, 2015

Pointing out that this is an agribusiness defense of the use of pesticides does not affect the truth of the argument. But when there is a lot of money behind an argument, it should make you consider other angles.

A nuanced position on pesticides would acknowledge that some pesticides are better than others. It would acknowledge that some types of produce use more pesticides to grow than other types.

I have noticed that conventional grapes (and wine made from those grapes) give me acne. Organic grapes (and wine) do not. Grapes appear on a “dirty dozen” list of foods must likely to contain pesticides.

Is acne benign? I don’t think so. It is an early warning sign of blood sugar dysregulation.

I haven’t noticed ill effects from other paleo foods on conventional vs. organic. Although, generally organic food tastes better. I assume that taste is a nutrient sensing mechanism and that better taste means more nutrients.

    Dahlia says February 15, 2015

    Exactly. Trust your taste buds: organic food is more nutritious.
    No two farms are alike; depends greatly on the ethics of the farmer. If possible, become familiar with the farms that supply your food.
    Last year, I noticed our local strawberries, even grade premium, were just not edible and had to forego my annual jam making which the kids love. They had been declining over the years. Because I was familiar with the farms here, it was no mystery why they had so little flavor.

George Ironthumb says February 15, 2015

Here in the Phlippines, you can get a stash of any veggies freshly picked from the fields, with little to no pesticides, since the farmers would be too poor to afford hi tech pesticides,.. and they’re naturally grown as well, no DNA manipulations whatsoever, and they taste great, fresh and anything that the west would say “organic” and they are available everyday from the local wet market together with loads of fresh meat and grass fed beef. those veggies you can buy for 5-10 pesos per stash and a dollar is equivalent to 44 pesos, you do the math.

The problem is that foods like these have been ravaged to the point of rarity with all of these GMOs and stuff, ..bad news is that Monsanto (not sure of the spelling) is already making its way here, so good luck to us.

Dahlia says February 15, 2015

IMHO the main benefit from organic food comes from it being grown in good, fertile soil.

Synthetic fertilizers allow many farms to grow plants in poor soil. The fertilizers put back in some of the minerals, some farms more than others but you’ll still have a problem with insufficient trace minerals.

This is why organic produce tastes better.

I once heard a shill years ago on Rush Limbaugh explain the better rate away by saying organic food was mostly being bought at farmer’s markets and the consumers were benefitting from freshness, not inherently better flavor. It helps, but he’s still wrong.

Research the history of synthetic fertilizers and how they facilitate poor practices with regards to soil. People were already noticing in the 20s that food wasn’t as good and sound. You have to eat more of it to get the same nutrition.

And then if you really want to blow your mind, finally read up on biodynamics.

My dad is a farmer and picking apart the vegetables and fruit on his plate just comes naturally: that broccoli sure is pretty, but has no flavor! That farmer’s just growing it in nothing but fertilizer!

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Sam says February 18, 2015

What would be great is if they breed plants have better taste, beneficial nutrients, to not have any pesticides internally and we could just wash off the pesticides on the outside. My guess is that if we can ever get large amounts of fusion and/or nuclear fission that all plants will be grown indoors and nutrition will be ramped up in the plant genes.

Baron says March 31, 2015

Eating fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residues linked with poor semen quality:

    P. D. Mangan says March 31, 2015

    Note that they didn’t actually measure any pesticide residues, and food consumption was based on dietary recall, so they didn’t measure the food eaten either.

Sally says October 5, 2015

If what you say is true, maybe you can explain why Cancer has exploded off the charts at the SAME TIME as corporations started spraying our food with vast amounts of chemicals? Not everyone knew of, or had a family member with cancer back in the pilgrim or plantation days.
If YOU truly BELIEVE this article you wrote is True, try drinking a glass of water mixed with glyphosates, & maybe some DDT for a year, & let us all know how ‘harmless’ they Really are! -As safe as nature, right?

Tuba says November 23, 2015

I switched from mainstream food to organic long ago. Why? Unlike you food is something I happen to know a lot about. In fact I am a leading expert in my specialty. Do plants have natural pesticides? Sure, but they are not man-made, recent, or artificial. We’ve been eating them for a long time. Many of them are good for us in small amounts. We’ve evolved and adapted together. This is not the case with much commercial pesticides, fertilizers, additives, enhancers et cetera. Then there is the phrase: “Actual levels of contamination in both types of food are generally well below acceptable limits.” Do you think the RDA’s the government recommends for vitamins and minerals are 100 accurate and good and promote the best of health for everyone? Probably not. Yet the government’s word on acceptable levels of contamination are good enough? Hardly. The chemist in the kitchen has a horrible track record. Acceptable levels of contamination are not good nor promote health. Also, along with organic vegetables one can buy “organic” protein products without residue antibiotics, without artificial hormones, and from animals fed a wholesome natural diet not feed lot garbage. This creates more healthful food. It is irrational of you to pay so much attention to exercise and supplements but then ignore the bad side of non-organic food and the good side of organic food. One could also argue that it is not that organic food is that good but rather non-organic food is that so bad. It is one more thing people can do to make their health better. How can that add up? Today I ate organic eggs. They were laid by chickens that run around and eat bugs and wild seeds. The yokes are richer and they taste better. My homemade kefir was made with milk from pastured cows not fed corn or artificial hormones to force more milk out of them. The shrimp I ate were wild caught. No fish-farm antibiotics to kill of my beneficial gut bacteria. I ate a pomegranate and dried the skin for tea. Or I could of had oxidized eggs, hormone laced milk, a does of shrimp antibiotics, and man-made pesticides and wash along with the good stuff in the pomegranate peel. You say there is no difference. When it comes to food you don’t know what you are talking about.

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Undercover Slob says January 28, 2016

I can’t abide by your ultimate conclusion. Certainly, you understand at this stage of the health and wellness game that not all studies should be taken at face value. Firstly, we are not lab animals, at least not in the conventional sense and we certainly are not small rodents. Still, these studies are of significant interest to me. I simply have trouble coming to the conclusion that organic food items are a “scam.” Your opinion piece that subsequent study would have us believe that there is little if any difference between natural pesticides and synthetic but that is very much the same logic that supported margarine consumption in its early days. From an ancestral perspective, there is virtually no way that we can simply choose to believe that pesticides are alike whether they be synthetic or natural.

Sure, further tests would be warranted as this issue is hardly a polar one but it comes down to me not trusting Big Agra and Big Pharma and the various evil concoctions with which they douse our food. I’ll just go ahead and err on the side of caution, thanks.

caforager says February 8, 2016

It is very true that plants do not want to be eaten, and have internal defense mechanisms to ‘do damage’ to animals that consume them, including humans.

Conventionally grown produce, which I call ‘Pampered Produce’, has it’s insects fought off for it, and it is watered copiously. It does not need to struggle to survive. The end product may taste good to us, but is it good FOR us? I’d venture that the answer is probably a resounding ‘no’.

This is the reason that I practice foraging every chance I get and eat as close to natural and wild as I can. The plant that struggles to survive and eke out an existence in nature will be far better for you than any pampered plant ever will.

(This is assuming the plant is edible, mind you…)

Tough plants make you tougher. Weak plants make you weaker. More or less.

    Undercover Slob says February 10, 2016

    That is a bit of a reductive statement, I think. I agree with much of what you say but you failed to address the notion of a plant’s fruit. It has developed to be attractive and desirable to ingest by fauna. This a a major way to spread it’s gene pool, this concept ins’t changed no matter how sweet that man’s breeding has lead them to be. However, “tougher plants making us tougher” applies only in so far as hormesis will allow. If we break the limits of hormesis, we cause damage to ourselves. Remember, that which does not kill us makes us stronger…but again, only if we don’t actually die in the process.

      Undercover Slob says February 10, 2016

      Of course, you did make the disclaimer regarding edible plants but I would maintain that eating plants is about the calories and it’s micronutrient profile and then, as a by product, it’s polyphenol content. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that “weaker plants” make us weaker.

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