Monday, May 4, 2009


Freeman Hunt tweeted an article on organic being unsafe relative to other foods. This is probably true, if you take the entire category of foods that slap the word "organic" on their box/package/can, whatever.

The usual attack on "organic" begins with "organic doesn't mean anything" or "it means 'containing carbon'". But, of course, since the '40s at least, it's meant "raised or conducted without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals", presumably going back to the earlier meaning of derived from or pertaining to living organisms. Then, of course, there's a larger, vaguer meaning which has to do with adherence to a particular set of dogma as varied and splintered as Christianity.

The premise of "organic" is that modern agricultural techniques result in less nutritious food, or food that otherwise has unwanted side-effects. If only, the argument goes, we had the nutritious food of the 19th century, we might all live into our 50s.

Actually, it's easy to snark, and harder to make truly substantive points here. Many factors led to the earlier deaths of our ancestors, including (perhaps) a lack of food, but perhaps not the general quality of food when you could get it.

My suspicion is that many modern agricultural techniques are truly harmful, but only in the slow, ticking time-bomb way that is rather preferable to the less slow, horrible approach of starvation. The organic market is one that places a premium on long-term health (they presume) over short-term economic gain.

The yin to the synthetic pesticide yang is mineral depletion of the soil. It's really not debatable that the foods we get in the market are not optimal, nutrient-wise. All you have to do is stop by a roadside vegetable stand or pick an apple off a tree to know that something is lost in transit.

Whether that's due to the soil we can debate, and I'll take that up at a later time. The point is, if mineral depletion of the soil is the key element, a product can be certified organic, be produced with the greatest attention to health imaginable, and still be as bad or worse than non-organic food. (For simplicity's sake, I'm ignoring the myriad shams.) As bad, because just like their conventional counterparts, they lack the nutrients. Worse, because without conventional treatments, they're susceptible to all the same diseases with none of the protections.

So, it's not at all surprising to find "organic" foods more susceptible to disease or bearing disease: Between the charlatans, the well-meaning-but-ignorant, and maybe some bias in the research, I would be surprised to find anything else. (See the earlier discussion here about raw milk.)

I don't have any kind of magic bullet here. Obviously, the ideal would be to test food items for both the presence of various substances: poisons, pathogens, phytochemicals, minerals, and so on.

Tricorder anyone?


  1. Of course, fertilizing with animal dung is organic, too!

  2. Well, yeah, that's a common approach.

  3. Freeman just tweets because she is an uncontrolable flirt.

  4. I just bought some Monsanto shares today so I'm betting on better living through applied life science. It's really death science though, that is, the science of killing weeds selectively. I'm a fan of Roundup but use it sparingly.

    I don't give a hoot one way or the other about pesticides really. I buy fruits and vegetables at Trader Joe's, which is ostensibly better than getting stuff at Ralph's or another big chain.

    I have started drinking delivered water from Palomar Mountain. The stuff that comes out of the tap out here is barely potable.


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