Friday, September 7, 2012

What I Feared Would Happen...

...seems to be happening. A recent study at Stanford University may indicate that organically produced food is no more or less nutritious than industrially produced food. I say "may" because the study is behind a paywall, making access difficult, to say the least. Most people are reacting to the press release.  But, while access to the study is restricted, the response to it is not. Everyone has piled on board, not the least of whom is Roger Cohen in the op-ed pages of the NY Times, with a piece titled The Organic Fable:

The takeaway from the study could be summed up in two words: Organic, schmorganic. That’s been my feeling for a while.
Now let me say three nice things about the organic phenomenon. The first is that it reflects a growing awareness about diet that has spurred quality, small-scale local farming that had been at risk of disappearance.
The second is that even if it’s not better for you, organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals (although of course, without fertilizers, you have to use more land to grow the same amount of produce or feed the same amount of livestock.) So this is food that is better ecologically even if it is not better nutritionally.
The third is that the word organic — unlike other feel-good descriptions of food like “natural” — actually means something. Certification procedures in both the United States and Britain are strict. In the United States, organic food must meet standards ensuring that genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers, sewage and irradiation were not used in the food’s production. It must also be produced using methods that, according to the Department of Agriculture, “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.”
Still, the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype. There is a niche for it, if you can afford to shop at Whole Foods, but the future is nonorganic.
To feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.
Logically, the organic movement should favor genetically modified produce. If you cannot use pesticides or fertilizers, you might at least want to modify your crops so they are more resilient and plentiful. But that would go against the ideology and romance of a movement that says: We are for nature, everyone else is against nature.
So the study is being used as a club to bash organic food, relegating it to a niche market for the wealthy. Which is, of course, complete and utter crap. Colin Tudge did the math a few years back (I reviewed his book Feeding People Is Easy some time back). As he put it "The cause of all our troubles has almost nothing to do with the difficulties that nature presents us with. The fault lies almost entirely with policy and strategy: ideas and courses of action dreamed up by human beings." And Tudge was writing before the recent development and successes of the agro-ecology movement.
Organic is not about an "ideology and romance," although both of those things are present in the movement.(And why not? Even after growing food for market and a living for a decade and a half I still feel "romantic" about the land and religious about growing food). It is about sustainability, which, regardless of its seeming successes, the industrial agriculture movement is not.
The study also seems to indicate that eating organic reduces the amount of pesticides/herbicides in the diet by 30%. Considering that organic certification requires the avoidance of pesticides, this raises a red flag for  me about just how the hell those pesticide residues are getting on my food.
And then I read today at Infowars that there is a certain amount of suspicion about the authors of the study. To quote from the article: "one of the key co-authors of the study, Dr. Ingram Olkin, has a deep history as an “anti-science” propagandist working for Big Tobacco. Stanford University has also been found to have deep financial ties to Cargill, a powerful proponent of genetically engineered foods and an enemy of GMO labeling Proposition 37." I'd dismiss this as paranoia, except that we are seeing more and more push-back from the industrial food conglomerates as the criticism piles up.
So, not having read the study as of yet, I really can't comment on it. What I can comment on is Roger Cohen's wilful misunderstanding of the organic and local food movement, and the lack of rigour in his writing--based, as it seems to be, on belief rather than any consideration of the evidence. And I point to the Infowars piece just as a red flag--I have no idea how accurate it is, but the application of multivariate statistical algorithms to metastudies regarding smoking doesn't have a history that gives one confidence. To quote: “Obviously, if one chooses convenient mathematical functions, the result may not conform to reality.”

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