Organics just green psuedo science

December 8, 2008

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.

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