Friday, 30 April 2010

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

In my previous post I looked at why I don't like the way organic food makes dubious claims for its products. In this I want to uncover the way its rules are based more on magic than sense.

There is no doubt that organics had a flaky origin, based more on mysticism than any real understanding of agriculture. In itself this isn't disastrous. Medicine's history is also flaky, based more on mysticism than any real understanding of how the body works, and we've shaken that off (mostly). But organics has kept too much of its mystical past, buried in the rules and regulations that organic farmers have to follow.

Here are four examples.

The EU tried to ban the fungicide copper sulphate, which is known to be more environmentally damaging than many alternatives. The ban was postponed because of lobbying by organic groups – they like copper sulphate because it’s traditional. All too often organic standards are not about what's best, but about what we've always done, so it must be good. It's farming by nostalgia.

Secondly, I’ve spoken to organic farmers who were really upset because they have lost livestock because organic regulations insist they use alternative and complimentary medicines before getting special permission to treat with something that works. This is putting ideology above the welfare of animals. As we get increasing evidence of the lack of value of CAM, this can't be justified.

A third example of total lack of logic in organic standards is the approach taken to the addition of potassium in the form of potassium chloride. This is the harmless chemical used in ‘low salt’ preparations to reduce the amount of sodium for those in danger of high blood pressure. It seems that it the early days of setting organic standards, someone didn’t know their chemistry and because chlorine is a dangerous, poisonous gas, also thought that a chloride was dangerous – so organic farmers are not allowed to use potassium chloride on their land. But they are allowed used to sylvinite, which is a mix of potassium chloride and sodium chloride (salt).

Potassium chloride is a natural mineral, dug up out of the ground like salt, and it often forms layers with salt – sylvinite is just the pair of layers dug up together. Now the really bizarre thing is that in this attempt to avoid the chloride in potassium chloride, the organic specifications require the farmer to put on twice as much chloride. To get the right amount of potassium, you need twice as much sylvinite as pure potassium chloride.

Finally, there's the little matter of nanoparticles. In January 2008, the Soil Association, the biggest organic certification body in the UK, banned nanoparticles – ultra small particles just a few nanometres (billionths of a metre) across from organic products. But it specifically only banned man-made nanoparticles, claiming that natural ones (like soot) are fine because ‘life has evolved with these.’

This is just not an acceptable argument. Where nanoparticles are dangerous it is because of their scale – because the physics (rather than chemistry) of particles of this size is quite different from the objects we are familiar with – changing their ability to interact with the body. This danger is just as present whether the particles are natural or not. (Viruses, by the way, are natural nanoparticles, and like soot, aren’t ideal for the health.)

In summing up, the Soil Association lets slip the reason it takes this strange attitude. ‘[T]he organic movement nearly always takes a principles-based regulatory approach, rather than a case-by-case approach based on scientific information.’ In other words, theirs is a knee-jerk reaction to concepts, rather than one based on genuine concerns about the dangers of various products. Forget the science, we've got principles. Magical principles.

As long as the organic movement relies on such ridiculous rules and regulations I will go out of my way not to buy organic produce.

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU. I'm so tired of hearing "but it's natural" being used as an excuse to stop thinking. So is E. coli.