Skepticism

Skepchick Quickies, 8.10

Jen

Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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45 Comments

  1. Maybe I missed that study, but does it REALLY make sense to say organic food is no better for you than conventional food? For certain foods, I’d agree. Bananas, pineapples, stuff with hard outer peels that pesticides can’t get through, sure those chemicals probably have no effect on you. But come on, are they really saying that those chemicals can’t permeate a grape or a tomato? How are they really weighing the long term effects of hormones or whatever it is that’s in regular milk.

    Mind you, I’m open to the ideas, it’s just that right now I can’t imagine that study is 100 percent correct. My knee jerk reaction (left over from several years of antivax thinking no doubt) is that somebody got paid off to creatively interpret the results.

  2. A link on the sidebar of the organic article leads to another article about the report. It states “The study did not look at pesticide residue or the environmental implications of organic food because this would be beyond the specialism of the scientists involved. ” I can easily believe that the nutritional value of the produce is the same but the key is the pesticides and herbicides used on the factory farms. I think the pendulum organic movement has swung too far but at its core there are good values. I also think it’s more important to know your farmer and buy local.

  3. Well, I’ve heard that plants produce their own pesticides in such an amount as to make human-added ones negligible, but I can’t find the source for it, so don’t take my word for it. If someone else can find that source, I’d be grateful. I generally don’t worry about pesticides because they are so dilute by the time we eat them, even if they have managed to permeate into produce. When certain pesticides are banned, it’s usually because of an environmental effect, and not because of an acute health risk for human consumers. I’ll actually be researching some pesticides for work this week, so I’ll see if I can find any relevant information.

  4. @catgirl:

    … plants produce their own pesticides in such an amount as to make human-added ones negligible….

    If that were indeed true, why on earth would any farmer, small scale or industrial, continue to spend such massive amounts of money using pesticides?

    When certain pesticides are banned, it’s usually because of an environmental effect, and not because of an acute health risk for human consumers.

    I am not sure how the two can be cleanly separated? Or is the key concept the term “acute”?

  5. @Imrryr: “Wait, the Soil Association’s policy director is named Lord Melchett?”

    This threw me too, but apparently it is the case. The Barony still exists and has a lord.

    This organic food article was particularly annoying. First of all it would be nearly impossible to prove in general that one was better or worse. You could say the vitamin, mineral, and other nutritional content was comparable, but this will always leave room for a parameter you didn’t measure. Secondly, rather than hoping enough of the poison has washed off so the food no longer poses a danger to me is a unutterably worse choice than eating food that hasn’t been dipped in poison the first place. Lastly me, and most regular consumers of organic fare who I know, do so because we believe it is more sustainable. Buying it is voting with our wallets.

  6. As a backyard gardener who has tried to grow food without pesticide I will tell you it is very difficult to do. Also a farm that is certified organic can be right next to a traditional farm that does use pesticides and much of that pesticide can drift through the air and land on the organic produce. So you can still be getting pesticides on your organic produce. If you have the time try to garden. If it works your produce will be much tastier, it will be vine ripened and you will have the satisfaction of having grown it yourself. I still think that orgainc is silly but if you want to spend your money on it feel free.

  7. @FFFearlesss: The recent study (actually a review of 160-odd other studies) found that there was no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods. That is, an organic orange and a non-organic orange have the same amount of calories, vitamin C, etc. It apparently did not take into account the potential health effects of the various sorts of poisons and fertilizers sprayed on the non-organic produce, except as they affected the nutritional content. Here is a link to one of many news articles Google turned up about the study.

  8. My first issue with the organic movement is that people tend to see “organic” on the label, and are automatically willing to spend more for the product without questioning what it really means, or where it comes from.

    My wife buys organic baby carrots. Granted, they’re the only brand of baby carrots at the store, but she buys them primarily because they’re organic, which she automatically assumes means that they’re better for you, and better for the environment. Then I point out that on the label it says “product of U.S.A.” I’ve got nothing against American produce, but you’ve got to raise the question, where in the U.S.A. did these carrots come from? The label doesn’t say. If they came from Maine, then that’s one thing. They probably wouldn’t have traveled much farther than carrots from PEI, Nova Scotia, or Edmonston. But if they came from Iowa, then they had to be shipped halfway across the continent. How much greenhouse gas was produced to ship these organic carrots from Unknown Town USA to our fridge? Does the claim that they’re organic offset the environmental impact of producing and transporting them?

    Then you’ve got to consider that the regulations for organic produce in the States is different from Canada. If something is certified organic in the US, it’s automatically qualified in Canada, whether it meets Canadian standards or not, and regardless of which country has stricter standards for organic produce. I don’t know if it works the other way for Canadian organic produce sold in the US.

    We still buy the organic baby carrots, but mostly because they are pretty good, and we can’t get baby carrots with a more forthcoming label.

    So what are we buying when we buy into the “organic” label? The whole organic movement has become so much of a “trend” in its own right, that I have my doubts that any more than half the products that fit the label even meet the qualifications, let alone whether or not they’re better for the consumer, the environment, or both. The original idea behind the movement is the right to know where our food comes from, which I could totally get behind if it had any bearing on the end result. But the end result, from what I’ve seen, is that it just clouds the issue even more.

  9. In February a plant in Plainview, TX that produced “Organic” peanut products was closed because of salmonella contamination. Further investigation showed widespread fecal contamination from rodents and apparantly a lot of dead rodents and birds throughout the food production area of the plant. “Organic” on the lable doesn’t neccessarily mean clean.

  10. @Peregrine: “We still buy the organic baby carrots, but mostly because they are pretty good, and we can’t get baby carrots with a more forthcoming label.”

    This is more than a little amusing. Do you know what “baby carrots” are? Ordinary carrots, mostly seconds and rejects, milled down to more pleasing shapes. They may be organic in the legalistic sense, but Rodale would spin in his grave.

  11. @Gabrielbrawley: “As a backyard gardener who has tried to grow food without pesticide I will tell you it is very difficult to do. ”

    My experience in Colorado’s front range is different. Maybe I’ve been uncommonly lucky, but I’ve never been overrun by insects or disease. I make my own compost which keeps the soil fertile, well structured, and alive with creepy-crawlies of all description. I’ve had good success growing pretty much everything I have attempted including some of the best tomatoes and cucumbers to ever pass these lips.

  12. @davew: I don’t garden as much as I used to, but I’ve never been a big pesticide user. I’m too lazy, and my plants should be tougher than that anyway ;)

    But I’ve never had a large problem with pests, other than fire ants.

    My guess is that it depends on your scale – for me, I can handle a small invasion of pests like fire ants with things like boiling water because I’m not trying to tend hundreds of acres. If I was a farmer, it will be much harder to watch for problems on a large field.

  13. Once a month I have to go to Cincinnati on business. I stay in a hotel in Kentucky that offers cheap tickets to the Creation Museum, I kind of want to go, but I don’t know if I’ll have a good laugh, or if in the middle of the museum I’ll break down and scream “THE STUPID, IT BURNS!”

  14. @davew: Maybe it is because I live in Texas. Some years the grasshoppers are so bad they strip the trees bare it looks like winter in the middle of summer. I have seen them eat ever leaf and start in on the bark. Without pesticide my entire garden is nothing but chewed up nubs.

  15. @Gabrielbrawley: “Maybe it is because I live in Texas.”

    I think this is very likely so. Colorado is cold and dry in the winter so pests have a hard time overwintering. We don’t even have fleas. The summers are dry enough that molds and mildews have trouble gaining a foothold, but wet enough that only periodic watering is required. I haven’t even seen a grasshopper this year, but we had tree-fulls of lady bugs.


    What gets confused in this great debate about organic gardening is the two senses of the word. I admit that the narrower sense of commercial organic food with the morass of confusing labeling laws and dubious practices such as long-distance refrigerated shipping could use a lot of work. The broader sense of organic where food is locally-raised in a sustainable fashion is mostly what I’m about.

  16. @Gabrielbrawley: Not only is it effective, it’s cathartic… the little bastards! :D

    I’m in TX too, in the DFW area. It’s a bit more difficult to grow stuff here for me, I cut my gardening teeth in Florida, where I could poke a stick in the ground and it would grow. But my herb garden runs out of my ears, and I neglect it dreadfully.

  17. @SicPreFix:

    If that were indeed true, why on earth would any farmer, small scale or industrial, continue to spend such massive amounts of money using pesticides?

    As I said, don’t take my word for it. I can’t remember where I read about that and I only have access to a select few peer-reviewed journals anymore. However, remember that plants didn’t evolve perfectly; they’re only good enough. Additional pesticides are used to increase yields, but plants do produce some of their own natural defenses. Still, I fully admit that I could be completely wrong about this.

    I am not sure how the two can be cleanly separated? Or is the key concept the term “acute”?

    The level of a pesticide that it takes to negatively effect the environment is usually much less than the amount it takes to affect humans as consumers. For example, pesticides can run-off and accumulate in water to a level that will affect fish or wildlife. Whatever amount is used, it’s much less by the time it reaches the consumer. By “acute” I mean specific effects of being exposed to too much of a toxin, which varies depending on the chemical. This has nothing to do with environmental effects, which are certainly still important. It’s more difficult to rule out effects of chronic, low-level exposure, such as increasing the chances of developing cancer. This is partly because it’s hard to pinpoint cancer to a specific factor, even when you get a clear cluster of cases. It’s also more difficult because it’s hard to determine the actual exposure that people have had. Human memory is notoriously bad and it’s difficult to do large-scale animal studies on the order of decades.

  18. Haven’t we been conducting large scale human studies for several decades? We all have been eating food produced using these methods for a long time. I think current farming methods have been more or less the same since the 1970’s. Are there studies linking farming methods to increases in disease? I don’t know and am not sure how I would even go about trying to find the information. Also what would we be trading for the elemination of commercial farming for orgainic farming? There was a time before the introduction of large scale commercial farming that economists were predicting world wide famine that would kill billions of people and cause wars. Could we produce enough food to feed everyone using organic methods? We do produce enough to feed the world now but policital obstructions keep that food from reaching everyone.

  19. @Gabrielbrawley: I used my stock pot. Might have been overkill, but then, I hate fire ants!

    I’ve only used it in my herb bed, in a spot where I had a plant that I’d given up for dead since the ants invaded. If you get it too close to an existing plant, you’re going to cook it, though my soapwort did manage to pull through, surprisingly.

    I think my plants know I’ll just get more if they die, so they live in self-defense. ;)

  20. @Gabrielbrawley: “Haven’t we been conducting large scale human studies for several decades? We all have been eating food produced using these methods for a long time. I think current farming methods have been more or less the same since the 1970’s. Are there studies linking farming methods to increases in disease?”

    Sort of, but with no controls. You’d want to have two populations where the only difference was organic vs. not-organic diet. This research would be tricky bordering on impossible.

    It’s hard to look at trends such as cancer rates because we have done so much more than just change our diet. For one thing we’ve gotten really good at treating the things that used to kill us before cancer does.

    The one thing that is unarguable is that fertility rates have been crashing in men in developed countries. Estrogen-mimicking compounds including some agricultural chemicals are still tops on the list of suspected culprits, but this also would be very hard to prove. Me, I think it’s just depression. After watching millions of my spermy comrades come a cropper in showers, socks, and imprisoned in latex a tantalizing inch away from the promised land what would the point be? I’d just stay home safely in my fur-covered egg and grab a quick nap or two.

  21. “[Prince Charles] believes in organic food.”

    These “do you believe in ____” statements make me laugh because they always make me imagine that one day, people are going to figure out that, like Santa Claus, organic food or what-have-you doesn’t actually exist.

  22. @davew: I salute you, oh agroecologically informed one.

    Though I will add, on the topic of the pesticides brought up by catgirl, that there is for true serious acute health effects of many of the chemicals used in the agro industry, but for the workers that apply them, not necessarily the consumer. At one public garden I worked at, it was the number 1 reason we stopped using them. Chemical applicators have to have training and licenses which were tedious to get for all the student workers each year, and people were not using the Tyvek suits and respirators properly, resulting in some people developing breathing problems. People were particularly concerned about going home and hugging their kids (anyone see that CSI episode with the pesticide-poisoned baby?), or even having kids in the park put something that had recently been sprayed into their mouth. It’s just not worth the risk (a great deal of the chemicals applied agriculturally are cosmetic, as well).

    The consumption problems are lessened for the consumer since all of the -icides also have guidelines about how close to harvest they can be applied – from up to days before to weeks, depending on the crop and the chemical because they really aren’t good for you to ingest. That doesn’t mean anything really in itself – one has to properly time when ‘natural’ things like manure are applied, too, and ‘organic’ pesticides derived from plant defense chemical have time-guidelines too. (Of course, all those guidelines are completely ignored in the developing world, but who cares about them, amiright? Our banned products are good enough for their children, and they oughta thank us really… sorry I get all ranty about food politics….)

    Mostly, I’m all for decreased dumping of excessive chemicals (lab-created or naturally derived and concentrated and dosed at unnatural levels). When I was researching ecosystem health effects of estrogen mimics for a professor in undergrad, I seriously almost lost the will to live. It was frightening. Two articles in particular stand out in my memory: one, discussing the multiplicative effects of two or more estrogen-mimics – the researchers examined 12 in several combinations, and discovered that for say, 2 compounds, one with an estrogen receptor affinity 1/10th that of endogenous estrogen and one with an affinity equal to endo estrogen, when combined, they inexplicably had an affinity 1000x that of endogenous estrogen. There are thousands of known estrogen mimics being pumped into our water and food, and there is no way we could possibly predict what any of those gabillions of combinations can do. The second study was about frog tolerance to another known estrogen mimic. At concentrations of parts per million, well above guidelines, there was actually no effect on the frogs. At concentrations of parts per billion, well below acceptable guidelines, the frogs had hideous development problems. Basically, we have no ability to predict the effects of all these things we dump out by the ton, and it just seems to make more sense to stick to the precautionary principle on this one.

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