Organics just green psuedo science

Attempting, and failing ,to find the opposite of organic – in the green farming sense of the word – made me question the use of that word and I now have scientific backing for my doubts.

Bob Brockie, in his World of Science column in the Dominion points out that organic has a precise scientific meaning.

Science divides chemicals into two kinds – inorganic and organic. Inorganic chemists work with about 90 elements ranging from hydrogen to uranium, but organic chemists work almost exclusively with one element – carbon.

You and I, all plants, microbes and animals, living or dead, all meat, fish, dairy products and all fruit and vegetables are made of carbon, so to scientists, all these things are organic. To proclaim that only those things approved by Wellington certification authority Bio Gro are organic is preposterous and gets up scientists’ noses.

Language is a living thing  and whether or not scientists like it, organic has acquired a different meaning from that used by chemists. And while agree with Bob, my interest isn’t so much the misuse of the word but whether “organic” production is better than conventional methods, and he says it isn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with rotating crops, manuring soil or treating animals humanely, but the wider claims of some organophiles are open to scientific question.

Organic promoters reckon their products taste better, and are better for health and the environment. They claim that pesticides and fertilisers are harmful and that “natural” products are better than synthetics. But all these assertions are plain wishful thinking.

Tony Trewavas, professor of plant biochemistry at Edinburgh University, reports that “hundred of rigorous scientific tests have failed to reveal better- tasting properties or improved nutritional value for organic produce but have consistently shown that it has lower nitrate and protein content”.

Sir John Krebs, head of the British Food Standards Authority agrees, saying the only real value that well-heeled organic customers get for their money is the moral legitimation of organic farming.

Claims that pesticides and chemical fertilisers threaten our health are demonstrably untrue. Regular tests show that New Zealanders’ food is among the cleanest in the world. The poisons centre at Otago University reports almost nothing in the way of poisoning from pesticide residues in food.

The trifling quantity of synthetic poisons we ingest are a hundred times less threatening than all the natural poisons we swallow with our coffee, celery and barbecued steaks. Nor has cutting the use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals helped reduce cancer rates.

Ironically the organic movement is a product of affluence because if you’re poor getting enough food is far more important than how it’s produced. It’s the better off people who have the luxury of choice who are more likely to be concerned about the way their food is grown.

If people prefer “organic” produce and can afford to buy it they should be free to do so, what concerns me is that unscientific claims on the merits of “organic” produce can threaten markets for conventionally produced food.

Claims about “organic” food aren’t the only ones which aren’t scientifically based, other clean-green claims are equally dubious. Buying local, recycling and bio fuels for example aren’t necessarily better for the for the environment than buying imported goods, dumping rubbish and using petrol.

And sometimes the supposedly “green” solution causes more problems than it solves. Recylcing plastic causes pollution and if crops grown for bio fuels replace those grown for human and animal consumption they add to the world food shortage so saving the planet might starve the world.

This isn’t to say we should not take a responsible attitude to the environment, we all have a responsibility to protect and enhance it. But how we do that should be based on science not on psuedo-science feel good theories.

8 Responses to Organics just green psuedo science

  1. MacDoctor says:

    I have an alarming suspicion that the only effect of eating organic is to make you feel slightly superior. Oh, and slightly poorer…

  2. Farmer Baby Boomer says:

    I’m not an “organic” farmer but I know of farmers using “organic” systems who get premiums for their beef because tests show it has significantly higher levels of Omega 3s than “conventionally” produced NZ Beef . In their case the claim “better for health” claim has some merit. I’d like to say more but it’s late and i’ve got a bit on at the moment. Have a good day.

  3. I have often thought that “organic” is a nonsensical term. However, the eggs of free range chickens are far more nutritious than those of chooks kept indoors, even if the free range ones aren’t “organic”. Thus the traditional farming methods do have a lot of merit.

    The other nonsensical neologism is “environmentally friendly”.

  4. JC says:

    Organic also means fundamental, of the people, a natural growth unassisted by outside and/or unrelated things or processes.

    In this respect organic can acquire a more poetic meaning that expresses a desire for a more simple or natural life style.. not unlike the policies of the McGillicuddy Serious Party.. it’s no accident that several members of that party (Tanczos and Turei) went on to represent the Greens in Parliament.

    “Organic” agriculture may indeed be a serious undertaking for it’s advocates, but in NZ it’s well rooted in farce.


  5. Gregory says:

    There are always side-effects that come from any sort of process. I believe (based on many poorly-researched assumptions) that one of the benefits of organic farming techniques is that there are less fertilizer chemicals running into the water system. If I understand correctly, increased nitrogen content in rivers and streams leads to an increase in algae. Considering that the Ministry for the Environment considers algal blooms in river systems as an indicator for poor water quality, there’s something to be said for avoiding heavy fertilizer use.

  6. Matt Long says:

    “Organic” now has brand recognition, although overuse is probably starting to dilute the message. Of course we are going to use “Organic” where ever we can; as the hidden message of the Sprite advert states “Image is everything, thirst is nothing.”

    Those people who get pedantic about semantics really lack some fundamental emotional intelligence.

    There are certainly things that appear farcical in the Bio-grow certification process, however in order to achieve price premiums we play the game to meet US or EU standards. It is then our responsibility to do due diligence to determine if the premium is worth the farce.

    Incidentally do people like the recycled sewerage that Cities use for tap water, or fresh rainwater? Health authorities will tell you that the treated water is perfectly healthy and nitritious.

  7. KiwiRadaR says:

    At last some clear thinking. I’ve often been struck by three things about the organic/green movement, firstly it is totalitarian (ie “organic by 2020” as the GE Free stickers used to demand) , the second is their double standards when it comes to science (ie the want the highest standards of proof of safety for conventional foods yet they never disclose the risks associated with organic food!) and the final irony is the way they then try alter the behaviour of their neighbours etc… The taste irony is something marketers call “post-purchase discognisance” that is having spent twice as much on the organic apples, you hand them over saying “taste these they’re organic!” and expect an enthusiastic reply.
    Yet when you investigate organics it is still about “muck and magic” the premiums will disappear as the market grows but NZ’s agricultural productivity advantage (the basis of NZ’s wealth) will disappear! Even the supposed environmental advantages are pretty spurious and I know of organic methods creating issues for neighbouring farmers too.

  8. Andrew D says:

    It’s my understanding that in most countries the term “organic” is regulated in line with what is now a pretty old Californian law defining exactly which practises are allowed (use of copper sulphate for example) and which are not (use of more modern methods of pest control).

    This is pretty dismaying over and above the points you make, since innovations aimed at farming with lower environmental impact, by avoiding copper sulphate pesticides for example, cannot necessarily be termed organic and hence attract a premium from those of us that can afford to pay extra for a feeling of environmental virtue. This surely limits the resources that can be put into such research to the detriment of the environment.

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