Is Organic Agriculture “Affluent Narcissism?”

(…) consumers who buy overpriced organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides they consume. (…) 99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.

Physician and molecular biologist Henry I. Miller reviews the furor generated by the recent article by Stanford University researchers that was dismissive of health or nutritional benefits of organic foods. Dr. Miller provides some excellent references to give needed context to the unwarranted fears of pesticide residues — which are presumed to be more harmful in conventionally-farmed produce. 

(…) Ironically, the designation ‘organic’ is itself a synthetic construct of bureaucrats that makes little sense.  It prohibits the use of synthetic chemical pesticides – although there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act  – but permits most ‘natural’ ones (and also allows the application of pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer).

These permitted pesticides can be toxic.  As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a September 2012 Scientific American article (‘Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic?  Probably not.’): ‘Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.  No matter what anyone tells you, organic pesticides don’t just disappear.  Rotenone is notorious for its lack of degradation, and copper sticks around for a long, long time.  Studies have shown that copper sulfate, pyrethrins, and rotenone all can be detected on plants after harvest—for copper sulfate and rotenone, those levels exceeded safe limits.  One study found such significant rotenone residues in olives and olive oil to warrant ‘serious doubts…about the safety and healthiness of oils extracted from [fruits] treated with rotenone.’’  (There is a well-known association between rotenone exposure and Parkinson’s Disease.)

There is another important but unobvious point about humans’ ingestion of pesticides: The vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume occur in our diets ‘naturally, and they are present in organic foods as well as conventional ones.  In a landmark research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that ‘99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.  Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods.’

The bottom line of Ames’ experiments: ‘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.’

In other words, consumers who buy overpriced organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides they consume.

(…) 

In an article entitled ‘The Organic Fable,’ New York Times columnist Roger Cohen had some pithy observations stimulated by the Stanford study.  ‘Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.’

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Please read the entire article.

6 thoughts on “Is Organic Agriculture “Affluent Narcissism?”

  1. “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves….”

    Yes, but the chemicals produced by plants are natural and all natural things are either good or harmless. Oh wait! I forgot about poison ivy and hemlock.

  2. You also forgot ricin…

    The good arguments for organic farming involve sustainability, but the US legal definitions don’t align with that.

    The problem with all of these labels is they obscure all the details, in favor of emotion-laden terminology that never aligns perfectly with reality.

  3. chemicals produced by plants are natural and all natural things are either good or harmless

    Thanks Frank – that’s a good example of the Naturalistic Fallacy

    • I have nothing against Whole Foods. I regularly buy two items there: bread and soy milk. But my grocery budget would be destroyed if I bought everything there.

      Despite the horror stories about soy, I still seem to be making progress at the gym.

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