‘Organic’ food remains a scientifically and nutritionally bankrupt con perpetrated on us that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. But it’s back in the news again…
Gotta love the Grauniad. For non-UK readers unfamiliar with our nation’s favourite left-leaning ‘quality’ newspaper, if you’re a yoghurt-weaving, lentil-plaiting, muesli-snorting disabled vegan LGBT social worker this is the newspaper for you.
Incidentally the reason I put ‘quality’ into slightly sneery quotation marks is simple; if one defines ‘quality’ as the unshakeable belief one is always absolutely right and is intrinsically morally superior to everyone else – and terminally smug about it to boot – the Grauniad is a quality paper. And this self-satisfied, self-righteous conceit is shared by its readership too, many of whom contribute to the comments section of its website – one of the planet’s most impressive collections of internet stupidity ever; replete with Dunning-Kruger Derp from middle-class champagne socialists desperately trying to convince themselves they’re on the side of ‘the workers’ by contributing to discussions hosted by the world’s most bourgeois media institution.
Not that I have strong views, obviously.
Anyway, last week in a brilliant piece of science journalism the paper uncritically served up a really crappy meta-analysis that is at odds with all the others but panders brilliantly to its readership’s biases. ‘Clear differences between organic and non-organic food, study finds’ was the headline followed by the sentence ‘Research is first to find wide-ranging differences between organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and cereals‘.
Yes, it is – after several other large and credible studies have shown the opposite. Can you say ‘outlier’? To take two of many, the Food Standards Agency looked at this in depth and found no nutritional benefit to organic vs ‘conventional’ food. Also a 2012 Stanford paper analysed 237 other studies and came to the same conclusion. There are plenty of others.
This new paper – funded in part by <cough> the organic industry seems to have added back in all the crappy data and managed to come up with completely the opposite conclusion to all the others. I’ve talked about systematic reviews before – if you lump lots of data from different, similar studies together you might get statistical power – but if the base data are shite no amount of analysis will change that. You can’t polish a turd. But you can roll it in glitter, as the Grauniad demonstrates here with considerable aplomb.
So, what’s the science?
Organic’s Healthier, Innit
The infographic in the Grauniad article is interesting; they reckon 55% of whoever they polled think organic food is more healthful despite there being no evidence of a difference in nutritional quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. (There are small differences in nutrient content which mostly relate to differences in production methods. Funnily enough another recent study showed that birds prefer conventional vs organic seed probably because it has 10-15% more fat in it.)
Interestingly 53% want to avoid chemical residues such as pesticides. And organic food doesn’t have the pesticides, hormones and antibiotics that stuff produced by agri-business does, does it?
This is the biggest load of Utter Utter Bollocks (µ²B) about organic food of all.
While there is a broad consensus that organic foods have lower levels of synthetic pesticides and organic meat has lower levels of hormones there is no data to suggest the everso slightly higher levels found in conventional agriculture are significant or harmful for health. There’s a heap of anecdotes out there but don’t be fooled: ‘anecdotal evidence’ is a fallacy. Remember: the plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘anecdotes’, not data.
But that’s not the point. The real point is…
ORGANIC FOOD IS COVERED IN PESTICIDES.
Just ‘natural’ ones. This is one of the most egregious marketing con tricks of all time; to be certified organic you can still use ‘natural’ pesticides like pyrethroids – which persist for longer, you need to use larger quantities to get the same effect plus they are lethal to bees, dragonflies, all sorts.
AND YOUR ORGANIC VEGETABLES ARE COVERED IN THEM.
I wonder if the 44% of people who cite ‘care for the environment and nature’ or the 31% who cite ‘animal welfare’ realise Big Organic is selling a very expensive lie while pandering to their customers’ inbuilt bias called the naturalistic fallacy.
If you don’t believe me check out the Soil Association website – it bans only ‘synthetic’ pesticides and fertilisers and if you look at ‘natural’ agents like Chrysanthemum-derived pyrethroids they are not as well studied as synthetic ones, require more applications and persist longer in the soil.
I’m not suggesting it’s unreasonable to minimise our exposure to pesticides – but that can be done by simply washing the produce, FFS.
Let’s look at the second sentence:
Organic food has more of the antioxidant compounds linked to better health than regular food
Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B). When I was a student in the 80s it was thought that antioxidants might be protective against cancer, increase longevity, all sorts. Unfortunately not. Three decades later (shit – I’m getting old) we know a lot more but there are still few firm conclusions.So what are these antioxidants everyone is trying to persuade us we should be supplementing?
OK. Here goes. We produce oxygen free radicals and other reactive oxygen species in our bodies all the time. They’re an integral part of respiration. And neurotransmission. And they can be useful for a number of things – killing Our Microbial Overlords, for example. But they can also bash into other molecules and turn them into free radicals and essentially bump about causing all sorts of damage – until they come across something that can mop up free radicals.
Many molecules have ‘antioxidant’ properties – some such as vitamins C and E are excellent antioxidants and many natural antioxidants are peddled as dietary supplements by the Warriors of Woo. Even Linus Pauling was taken in but that’s a whole other subject. Reactive oxygen species are an essential part of everyday metabolism, and evolution has equipped us to deal with them rather well in the ways described above – or with some rather clever enzymes such as the superoxide dismutases.
It had been thought that ‘oxidative stress’ might be implicated in diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and a number of others. And it is, but it’s complicated. The notion that ‘oxidative stress bad, antioxidants good’ is very simplistic and also very, very wrong; for example vitamin E is contraindicated in heart disease and trials of antioxidants against Alzheimer’s have shown no benefit. And no quantity of acai and blueberry smoothie will change that. It’ll give you the Hershey Squirts for sure but won’t stop you getting cancer or senile dementia. It’s biology. It’s complicated. Sorry.
Consensual. Not Galilean.
Key point. Science is about consensus. It’s only the nutters who claim to be the Galileo de nos jours – and when a paper like this is published which finds the complete opposite of many other respected studies, which is funded by someone with a dog in the fight it deserves scrutiny. Not by the Grauniad, obviously, but if one looks at the lead author according to the Daily Mail he apparently “dramatically quit” the then Government’s GM Science Review – or as the Daily Mail calls them ‘Frankenfoods’. No bias there, then. They claim he “resigned amid claims that the panel was hijacked by biotech supporters”.
While the study of Our Microbial Overlords remains my great interest, back in the day when I was still doing bench science most of my research projects involved recombinant DNA (or GM/GMOs to use the imprecise, popular term). Nowadays I don’t really ‘do’ practical science, I just look at its arse as it wanders down the street. And no, I was never funded by Big Pharma, Big Agri, Big Honey or Big Anything).
Anyway, cocking about with genetic material is a subject I know very, very well – but that’s not the point. My point is in any scientific discipline when you have an expert panel that comes up with a consensus it’s usually only described as ‘hijacking’ by an outile whose views are not part of the consensus statement. In fairness to Dr Leifert the Daily Mail article attributes its multiple ad hominem attacks to ‘an insider’ – but whenever you see attacks on people rather than ideas you know it’s fishy.
Benefits of Organic Agriculture
So,here we have a paper at odds with the established scientific consensus and data, part-funded by an interested party where the lead author appears to be in disagreement with the consensus on GM food too – which is a related and relevant bias.
The data still show that organic produce has no health benefits and is, quite simply, one of the greatest intellectual frauds perpetrated on the consumer of the modern age.
Yes, Prince Charles loves it. As he does homeopathy and all manner of other woo. And because this is my blog I can go off topic and say what I want, for what it’s worth here’s what I reckon on that subject… I think the sole redeeming aspect of this scientifically illiterate, self-indulgent, wretched moral coward’s potential succession – which I dread – is that he will then have to shut the fuck up and stop lecturing the nation (usually by proxy using stooges like Jeremy Hunt) about the environment, health, family values and all sorts of other subjects he is manifestly unqualified to comment on.
Back to the point. Apart from the Naturalistic Fallacy we have plenty of other evidence about ‘organic’ foods – they’ve been around since before Neolithic times delivering – errr – famine and sickness. And the odd war. Then we learned how to fix nitrogen in 1913, plus we learned how to mass-produce penicillin in the 1940s which just about did it for pestilence as well. Oh dear.
Just because I can’t resist it – while looking at their site I also note the Soil Association also recommends homeopathic remedies for livestock. Which will work fine, provided you only use it to treat the only thing it has been proven to cure: Polydipsia. Or for those unfamiliar with that clinical term – thirst.
OK, that must be getting on for 2,000 words and I’ve not got beyond the first two sentences. Crikey….