Thursday, 29 April 2010

Organic Food - the CAM of agriculture - part 1 of 2

CAM - complementary and alternative medicine - is taking quite a battering at the moment. The forces of rationality have seen a UK parliament committee recommend that we don't waste NHS money on homeopathy, while the chiropracters have seen their attempt to use libel law to suppress criticism by Simon Singh collapse. At the same time, Prince Charles' foundation to try to impose alternative medicine on the health service is in trouble.

So perhaps this isn't the best time to liken organic food to complementary and alternative medicine. But I think it's something we ought to do.

This isn't a direct comparison. Organic food is usually good food, where CAM is not good medicine. But the organic movement uses many of the approaches of the alternative bunch, to its detriment. In this post and the next I want to look at two ways organics parallels CAM - in the second I will be looking at the way it depends on magic rather than science. In this first post, I want to look at the way it uses misinformation to try to sell a product.

Two of the mainstays of the organic marketing programme - and in the end, the term 'organic' is largely used as a marketing tool - are claims that the food tastes better, and that it's better for you.

The 'tastes better' claim we can pretty easily dismiss, as the organic movement has been banned from claiming this by the ASA for lack of proof (though you will still hear it over and over again). I don't deny that fresh, local produce tastes better than something that has been chilled, flown half way around the world and stored for weeks. But the same is true of fresh, local non-organic produce. Being organic has no influence on taste.

'Better for you' broadly divides into two. Partly this refers to nutrition. Given the above proviso, there is a little evidence for nutrional benefits for organics. A couple of products, for instance, do have increased anti-oxidant levels, but this is a red herring. We very much need the anti-oxidants our bodies produce to fight damage - but there is no evidence that consuming anti-oxidants has a positive health benefit. It's a bit like consuming brains in the hope it will improve your brain.

But the part of 'better for you' where I get positively angry is the scaremongering about pesticide residues used to sell organic food. Scaremongering is evil. Here's the Soil Association's Joanna Blythman: 'You can switch to organic... Or you could just accept that every third mouthful of food you eat contains poison. Are you up for that?'

This isn't just faintly dubious it is totally and absolutely wrong. Every mouthful of food you eat contains poison, both natural and artificial. And the natural poisons outweigh the artificial by about 99 to 1.

Practically everything is poisonous if you consume enough, water included. The fact is that pesticide residue levels are so low that they are overwhelmed by the risk from natural poisons. If you look at the total cancer risk, for instance, to the typical person from all foods that might have pesticide residues (I'm excluding meats here to compare like for like) by far the biggest danger is from alcohol. We're talking about 93% of the risk. Then coffee - about 2.6%. After that, the rest is pretty tiny. You have to get through things like orange juice and celery before getting to the first artificial residue at around 0.05%. If you add up all the chemical contaminents and pesticide residue, the risk is about the same as celery (around 0.1%). And bear in mind all these risks are low - this is just showing how insignificant the subject of this scaremongering is.

I'll come back on the magic behind the organic rules tomorrow - if you want to read more about why I have issues with organics, see my book Ecologic.
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