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.
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.
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.