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how much damage is synthetic fertiliser doing to soil?

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt


In a recent conversation, in which I was accused of being too black-and-white about the positives of conventional agriculture and GMOs, the damaging effects of synthetic fertiliser were mentioned as a negative, as it ‘kills the soil’s organisms, including earthworms’.

So now I’m going to focus on that issue specifically, and follow the evidence where it leads me. There’s no doubt that intensive agriculture and mono-cropping are having a negative impact on soil quality, just as there’s no doubt that intensive agriculture  is currently required to feed the world’s human population. So what’s to be done? First, we could reduce or stabilise the world’s population, which we’re trying to do. Second, we can try to find biotech solutions, developing a type of intensive agriculture that’s less damaging to the soil and the environment – and organic approaches might help us in this. GMOs also offer promise, developing crops which require less in the way of fertilisers and pesticides, and deliver higher yields.

There are other ways of looking at this and so many other problems, as I’ve recently become aware of complexity theory, which I’ll write about soon, but for now I’ll look at the claims being made and the solutions being offered.

So what exactly is synthetic or chemical fertiliser doing to our soil?  Needless to say, in order to obtain accurate data in answer to this question we have to negotiate our way through sources  dedicated to maximising, or minimising, the harm being done. So I’ll start with a definition. Here’s one from a website called Diffen, dedicated apparently to making unbiased comparisons between rival goods and services, in this case chemical v organic fertilisers.

A chemical fertiliser is defined as any inorganic material of wholly or partially synthetic origin that is added to the soil to sustain plant growth. Chemical fertilisers are produced synthetically from inorganic materials. Since they are prepared from inorganic materials artificially, they may have some harmful acids, which stunt the growth of microorganisms found in the soil helpful for plant growth naturally. They’re rich in the three essential nutrients needed for plant growth. Some examples of chemical fertilisers are ammonium sulphate, ammonium phosphate, ammonium nitrate, urea, ammonium chloride and the like.

Diffen goes on to describe the pros and cons, but there isn’t much detail beyond high acidity and ‘changes to soil fertility’. A 2009 article in Scientific American goes further, describing these mostly petroleum-based fertilisers as having these dire effects:

wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.

What this article doesn’t mention is that human waste (i.e feces), grey water etc is also getting into our waterways and causing damage, and it’s hard to separate out these many forms of pollution. In any case, I’m confining this piece to direct damage to the soil rather than to waterways, important though that obviously is.

One of the principal causes of soil degradation is leaching, the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients through rains and storms, and irrigation. Fertiliser can contribute to this problem. When nitrate (NO3) is added to the soil to boost plant growth, excess NO3 ions aren’t able to be absorbed by the soil and are eventually leached out into groundwater and waterways. The degree of leaching depends on soil type, the nitrate content of the soil, and the degree of absorption of the nitrates by the plants or crops on that soil.  Again, though, the leaching is caused by water, and the soil degradation is largely a natural process, though over-irrigation can contribute. This is why the older soils, such as those in Australia, are the most lacking in nutrients. They’ve been subjected to eons of wind and water weathering. The richest areas have been renewed by volcanic activity.

Not all chemical fertiliser is the same, or of the same quality. Phosphate fertilisers commonly contain impurities such as fluorides and the heavy metals cadmium and uranium. Removing these completely is costly, so fertiliser can come in grades of purity (most backyard-gardener fertiliser, the stuff that comes in little pellets, is very pure). Many widely used phosphate fertilisers contain fluoride, and this has prompted research into the effects of a higher concentration of fluoride in soil. The effect on plants has been found to be minimal, as plants take up very little fluoride. Livestock ingesting contaminated soils as they munch on plants could be a bigger problem, as could be fluoride’s effect on soil microorganisms. Fluoride is very immobile in soil, so groundwater is unlikely to be contaminated.

Acidification from the regular use and over-use of acidulated phosphate fertilisers has been a problem in some areas, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where aluminium toxicity has caused severe soil degradation. Acidity of soils is a serious problem in Australia, where in NSW more than half the agricultural land is affected. Most agricultural plants require a pH of 5.5 to 8.0 to grow best, though some plants are  much more tolerant than others of lower pH levels. Surface acidity can be corrected with the application of ground limestone, but subsurface acidity is a growing problem and much more difficult to correct. Acidification is generally a slow natural process caused by wind and water weathering, but it can be greatly accelerated by the use of fertilisers containing ammonium or urea. It can also be caused by a build-up of organic matter. As an example of the complexity of all this, superphosphate doesn’t directly affect soil acidity but it promotes the growth of clover and other legumes, a build-up of organic matter which increases soil acidity.

A comment on fertiliser and worms. No, they don’t kill worms, and because they stimulate plant growth they’re likely to increase the population of worms – but there are worms and worms. Some are highly invasive and have been transported from elsewhere. Some can be damaging to plants. At the same time new plants, and new worms, tend to adapt to each other over time. Again, complexity cannot be underestimated.

Another concern about chemical fertiliser, again not connected to soil quality as such, is nitrous oxide emissions. About 75% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activity in the USA came from chemical fertiliser use in agriculture in 2012, and we are steadily adding to the nitrous oxide levels in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas which, on a unit comparison, is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

In conclusion, it’s likely that everything you do in agriculture has a downside. There are no free lunches. The key is to obtain as much knowledge as possible, not only about your patch, but about nutrient and resource cycles generally. It’s all connected.

Oh and above all be sceptical of some of the ridiculous claims, and the ridiculous propaganda, out there. Check them out on a reputable, evidence-based site.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm

more on organic food

with 2 comments


Since my post of almost a year ago, on the marketing scam that is ‘organic’ food, I’ve noted that this niche market continues to be less niche and more mainstream, so that I no longer make an effort to avoid it. As long as the food’s fresh, tasty and nutritious, I’m happy.

And yet… I think part of my irritation is that I hate fashion. I mean, why the fuck do all these drongos go around wearing Hurley tank-tops and t-shirts? It’s not as if they’re even remotely interesting or imaginative or anything.

However, I must admit the fashion for ‘organics’ is more comprehensible to me than the fashion for Hurley or Nike, labels for goods that are clearly no better than those of their rivals. It seems that organic food has captured the imagination largely because it sounds environmentally positive for those who want to do the right thing without thinking about it too much. Okay it’s a bit more expensive, but there has to be a price for being on the side of the angels, and it’s nice to be trendy and holier-than-thou at the same time.

Then there are the hardened ideologues who take to ‘organics’ as to a religion, actively seeking converts and feeling smugly superior to those who haven’t yet been ‘saved’.  Among those are the real fanatics who warn that conventional food is killing us, that GM ‘horror’ foods and the agribusinesses pedalling them will take over the world and make zombies of us all, and/or that there’s a conspiracy to hide from us the damage that chemically-infested conventional food is doing world-wide.

Of course some will describe me as an ideologue through-and-through, or at least as a hopelessly biased person making fatuous claims to objectivity – a description I’m quite accustomed to hearing – but I can only do my best to be open-minded and undermining of my own prejudices. And if that doesn’t convince anyone I’ll soldier on anyway.

One excuse for returning to the subject is a blog/website called Academics Review, subtitled ‘testing popular claims against peer-reviewed science’, which has posted a piece called ‘Organic Marketing Report‘. Dr Stephen Novella has spoken about the piece on the SGU podcast and on Neurologica blog, but I want to take the opportunity to revisit the issue, as I’ve done so many times in my mind.

For me, three popular claims are made about ‘organic’ food, a kind of ‘nest of claims’ of increasing grandeur and complexity. The most basic claim is that it tastes better, the middle claim is that it’s more nutritious, and the grandest claim is that it’s better for the environment. So let’s look at these claims one at a time, with particular reference to the Academics Review post, where it can help us.


The perception of taste is one of the most subjective and easily manipulable of all our perceptions. Researchers have had a field day with this. You may have heard of the experiments done with white wine dyed with food colouring to look like red, and how this fooled all the wine experts. Numerous other experiments have been done to show that our taste perception can be influenced by mood, by colour, by setting and by the way the food is talked up or talked down before tasting. Then there’s the question of differences between people’s taste buds. What are taste buds? These are the areas on the surface of the tongue, the soft palate and the upper oesophagus that contain taste receptors. Taste buds are constantly being replenished, each one lasting on average 5 days, and it’s estimated that we’ve permanently lost half of our taste receptors by the age of 20. Separate receptors for the basic tastes of bitter, sweet and umami have been found, and the hunt is on for sour. It’s likely that the number of receptors and differences in action of those receptors varies slightly in individuals, so it’s pretty well impossible to get anything substantive out of individual claims that x tastes better than y. However, if in a blind tasting, with a good sample size, we get 80%, or a substantial majority, saying that x tastes better than y, that would be significant.

Of course, it’s difficult to control for all the variables and just to test for ‘organic’ versus conventional. The age of the food, freshness, soil quality, method of growing and various other factors not directly related to organics would have to be neutralised. So we have to take a skeptical approach to all findings.

One blind tasting, reported on here, compared tomatoes, broccoli and potatoes. 194 ‘expert food analysts’ tasted the food and found, according to the report, that the conventional tomatoes tasted sweeter, juicier and more flavoursome than ‘organic’ ones. No significant differences were noted with the broccoli and potatoes. The report doesn’t give the percentage of experts who preferred the conventional tomatoes, and there were some vital differences in the way the produce was grown. In all, not a very convincing study either way.

A series of informal taste tests, conducted in 2007 by Stephanie Zonis, an organic food advocate, comparing eggs, yoghurt, cheese, raspberries and peanut butter among other foodstuffs, found mixed results, mostly a tie in each case, though it seems not to have been a blind tasting and was entirely subjective. She showed commendable honesty, ending with the remark that she didn’t buy organic for the taste.

This cute little video has 3 different products – eggs, carrots and goat’s cheese – and three different subjects tasting them, all of them food experts. Results again are mixed, but the subsequent discussions show that it isn’t the organic v conventional distinction that matters so much. With the cheese it’s the cultures used to produce them, with the carrots it’s the soils and climate, with the eggs it’s whether they’re free range or battery animals, how long the eggs having been hanging around in the supermarket, etc. There are just too many variable to make these kinds of tests particularly useful.

The taste issue regarding organics, I contend, will never be resolved. The trouble is, organic food is constantly touted by advocates (though, to be fair, not all of them) as having superior taste.

Guys, stop doing that.

nutritional content and health

Organics are often recommended as the healthier option, and there are, it seems to me, two aspects to this claim. First, that they contain more and/or better nutrients, and second that they’re healthier because they contain less ‘toxic chemicals’ in the form of pesticides and/or fertilisers. Naturally most consumers of organic foods conflate these two separate issues.

So let’s look briefly at the nutrient issue first.

The Mayo Clinic, the Harvard Medical  School and various other reputable sites that I’ve checked out have all said much the same, that there is no statistically significant evidence that organic food is more nutritious. Of course you will be able to find studies, amongst the very many that have been carried out, that do provide such evidence, but that’s to be expected. Overall the jury’s still out. I don’t think it’ll ever be in. Personally, though, I think we can bypass the findings of endless studies by asking the question “How can nutrients be added to food by organic practices?” I can’t quite see how the practices of organic farming – no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, no food irradiation, no GMOs – can by themselves add to the nutrients of food grown conventionally. If anyone can explain to me how they can, I’d be prepared to take the studies more seriously.

A more complex issue is that of organics and food safety and public health.

This issue is largely a negative one – that organic foods are healthier because of what they don’t have. Unfortunately, this often involves playing up, as much as possible, the risks and dangers of conventional food. The Organic Marketing Report makes some disturbing points here, quoting one organics promoter, Kay Hamilton, speaking at a conference in 1999: If the threats posed by cheaper, conventionally produced products are removed, then the potential to develop organic foods will be limited. In other words, it’s in the interests of organic food marketers to stress the dangers of conventional foods at every opportunity, and this is being done all over the internet, in case you haven’t noticed.

Some 15 years ago, when the organic marketing push really started to get under way in the USA, conventional food producers expressed concern to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the organic movement was seeking to increase market share by promoting bogus claims about its own products and misinformation about conventional practices. In response, the USDA, with support from the organic food industry, sought to clarify the then recently developed formulation of the organic marketing label. The Secretary of Agriculture had this to say in 2000:

Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.

Not surprisingly, though, these remarks have fallen on deaf years, and consumer surveys regularly show that organic food is perceived as healthier, safer and more nutritious, both in the US and elsewhere. Also, a study by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service showed that people bought organic on the basis of the organic label or seal, rather than their understanding of the organic definition. Some 79% of those familiar with the seal could not identify the production standards behind the seal. As many independent observers have noted, the aggressive marketing of organic produce, with little concern for accuracy, has been the main driver of sales. US observers have also noted that the responsible regulators in terms of consumer protection and truth in advertising, namely the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been ineffective due to lack of resources and a lack of will to investigate vague and nebulous claims.

The organic food industry constantly plays on public fears in its marketing strategies, without necessarily telling outright lies. For example, a campaign by the USA’s  Organic Trade Association, using the slogan ‘Organic, it’s worth it’ trumpeted the fact that “All products bearing the organic label must comply with federal, state, FDA, and international food safety requirements”, as if this wasn’t the case with conventional food. Similarly, Stonyfield Organic, a major US producer of organic foods, made a decision in August 2013 to add to the organic seal on their products the term ‘no toxic pesticides used here’, as if this marked them out from other food producers.

If we look beyond the aggressive marketing, which appears to be a mixture of deliberate misinformation and wishful thinking – a sort of naturalistic utopianism, – we find no clear evidence at all that organic food is either more safe or more nutritious than conventional food. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of these claims to date was published by Stanford University School of Medicine in September 2012. The study ‘did not find evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives’ (that’s a quote from the above-linked ‘Organic Marketing Report’).

The authors of the Organic Marketing Report have little to say about the broader environmental claims made by the organic food industry, because they’ve found from their own market research that the industry sees that health and safety concerns are the main drivers of consumer organic purchasing. So the focus of the industry has been on driving home the message that conventional food is unhealthy if not dangerous, and less nutritious. This message is succeeding in spite of a complete lack of scientific support. People should, I think, be more annoyed than they currently are about a campaign of exaggeration and misinformation that is in no way aligned to the evidence.

I should point out that, while many organic growers are sincere in their belief that they’re producing safer foods, the fact is that using ‘natural’ fertilisers and pesticides is not necessarily safer. David Waltner-Toews provides a salutary example in his excellently-titled book The Origin of Feces:

In spring 2011, a mutant, severely pathogenic, and antibiotic-resistant strain of E coli spread across 13 countries in Europe, sickening more than 3000 people and killing 48. The normal home for all E coli species, most of which are law-abiding, contributing members of society, is in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals – that is, in excrement. This epidemic, however, was spread through fresh sprouts from an organic farm in Germany. The  original contamination source was identified as fenugreek seeds from Egypt. The genetic make-up of the strain of E coli includes material last seen in sub-Saharan Africa.

Waltner-Toews isn’t trying to bag organic farming here – this is about the only mention he makes about organics in his book. As one of the world’s foremost experts on shit, or manure if you prefer, his concern is to educate us on the enormous complexity of the ‘shit cycle’, and its potential for harm as well as good. It’s a complexity that, I suspect, few commercial organic producers are aware of, though they’re dedicated to the idea that their naturally-fertilised produce is safer than conventional stuff. Sadly, food regulators have been conned into believing this, and organic foods, like naturopathic ‘medicines’, are nowhere near as rigorously checked and tested as their conventional counterparts. More than thirty years’ experience of studying manure and fecal-borne infections has convinced Waltner-Toews that these fecal-borne infections are becoming more frequent and more dangerous because global in their reach, due to the internationalism of modern agribusiness. The lack of monitoring of ‘organic’ production with its ‘safe’ natural fertilisers and pesticides is arguably a greater threat to global health than conventional production, which is well-regulated and heavily scrutinised, at least in the west.

environmental impact

Probably the most important claim made by the organic movement, though not as attention-grabbing as the health and safety claims, is that it is more sustainable and has less of an environmental impact than conventional farming and food production. This is, of course, a very difficult claim to analyse because of the enormous variations within conventional food production, but let’s look at some problems with the claim. First, if the organic marketeers succeed in their clear aim of taking over the world, there will be a problem of space. Small-scale backyard organic producers often con themselves into thinking ‘if I can do it, the world can’, but this is a false logic. In my own small backyard I’ve grown – ‘organically’ I suppose – lettuce and spinach and rocket and tomatoes and quinces and almonds and a whole range of herbs, and if I wasn’t such a slackarse I could produce much more, but the fact is that I work for a living, and increasingly my burgeoning neighbourhood is becoming stacked with medium to high-density housing for corporate types who have no time for gardening even if they had an interest, and they have no gardens to garden in anyway. And I suspect a high and growing percentage of these young corporate types  would swear by ‘organic’ food. So just a clear-eyed view of the square kilometre or so around my home tells me feeding the multitude with organics would be quite a feat. As James Mitchell Crow reports, in the science magazine Cosmos, ‘Yields drop when switching to organic, and there isn’t enough organic fertiliser to go around anyway’. As long-time organic farmer Raul Adamchauk (one of the world’s foremost experts on organic farming) puts it:

The challenge for organic agriculture is to help solve the global issues of feeding people in the face of climate change and with increasing population… On some level, it becomes clear that organic agriculture isn’t going to do that by itself. No matter how you figure it, there aren’t enough animals making enough waste to fertilise more than a small fraction of the cropland that we need.

Much more land, therefore, would have to be dedicated to agriculture, with consequences for forestation and biodiversity  – and then there’s the fertiliser problem. There are solutions, but the organic movement’s ideological negativity towards biotechnology will block them for the foreseeable future.
These global problems hold little interest, however, for most urban organic consumers. They’ve largely swallowed the negative message that conventional food is both unhealthy and environmentally damaging. For some, it’s part of a whole ideology of anti-modernity – the modern world is toxically chemical and we need to get back to nature.

But conventional food production, like science, never stands still. Over the past 50 years, during which the world’s population has doubled, food production has increased by 300%, though land taken up with such production has increased by only 12%. These astonishing statistics describe the results of the green revolution begun by Norman Borlaug in the sixties and still ongoing. The green revolution saved millions of lives, and could even be ‘blamed’ for contemporary obesity problems. Here are some more statistics: In 1960, the world’s population stood at just over 3 billion, and the average calorie consumption per person per day was 2189 (according to the UN Dept of Economic and Social Affairs). By 2010 the population was near 7 billion, and the average consumption had risen to 2830. Yields per hectare of rice, wheat, maize and other cereals have been spectacular, and these increases have been attributed more or less equally to improved irrigation, improved seeds and more effective synthetic fertiliser. There have been downsides of course, but biotechnological solutions, if they could be applied, would greatly improve the situation. They include not only pest-resistant and higher-yielding GMOs, but such exciting developments as precision agriculture, an automated agricultural system which restricts pesticide and fertiliser use to those areas of a crop that need them, reducing wastage to a minimum.

The green revolution has been far more beneficial than harmful, and the harms have been exaggerated by the ideologues and marketeers of the organic movement, but organic techniques have been effective in many areas, especially in low-tech farming. The real problem isn’t organic farming per se, it’s ideology, ignorance and sometimes downright dishonesty. Almost all the food we eat has been genetically modified – especially if you’re a vegetarian. It was through playing around with modifications and noting recessive and dominant traits in peas that Mendel discovered genes, that’s to say, he discovered just what it was that we’d been manipulating for millennia. We have transformed the food we eat to make it more tasty and filling and life-giving, though for centuries we barely knew what we were doing. The ‘nature’ that some of us want to go back to is entirely mythical. And we’re not being poisoned by our food, we’re too smart and determined to thrive for that.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2014 at 7:56 pm

food irradiation and the organic food movement

with 3 comments

Oh,rats - they've exposed the conspiracy!

Oh,rats – they’ve exposed the conspiracy!

Food irradiation is a well-known process for preserving food and eliminating or reducing bacteria. It’s used for much the same purpose that pressure cooking of tinned food is used, or the pasteurization of milk. All food used by NASA astronauts in space is irradiated, to reduce the possibility of food-borne illness.

advantages and disadvantages of irradiation

According to the US Department of Health’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), irradiation, if applied correctly, has been clearly shown to reduce or eliminate food pathogens, without reducing the nutritional value of the food. It should be noted that irradiation doesn’t make food radioactive. I’ll look at the science of irradiation shortly.

Of course it’s not a cure-all. For example, it doesn’t halt the ageing process, and can make older fruit look fresher than it is. The reduction in nutritional value of the food, caused by the ageing process, can be masked by irradiation. It can also kill off bacteria that produce an odour that alerts you that the food is going off. Also, it doesn’t get rid of neurotoxins like those produced by Clostridium botulinum. Irradiation will kill off the bacteria, but not the toxins produced by the bacteria prior to irradiation.

how does food irradiation work?

Three different types of irradiation technology are used, using gamma rays (cobalt-60), electron beams and x-rays. The idea is the same with each, the use of ionising radiation to break chemical bonds in molecules within bacteria and other microbes, leading to their death or greatly inhibiting their growth. The amount of ionising radiation is carefully measured, and the radiation takes place in a special room or chamber for a specified duration.

When radioactive cobalt 60 is the energy source, it’s contained in two stainless steel tubes, one inside the other, called ‘source pencils’. They’re kept on a rack in an underground water chamber, and raised out of the water when required. The water isn’t radioactive. Food products move along a conveyor belt into a room where they’re exposed to the rack containing the source pencils. Gamma rays (photons) pass through the tubes and treat the food. The cobalt 60 process is generally used in the USA.

An Electron-beam Linear Accelerator generates, concentrates and accelerates electrons to up to 99% of light-speed.These electron beams are scanned over the product. The machine uses energy levels of 5, 7.5 or 10 MeV (million electron volts). Again the product is usually guided under the beam by a conveyor system at a predetermined speed to obtain the appropriate dosage. This will clearly vary with product type and thickness.

The X-ray process starts with an electron beam accelerator targeting electrons on a metal plate. The energy that isn’t absorbed is converted into x-rays, which, like gamma rays, can penetrate food containers more than 40cms thick. Shipping containers, for example.

Most of the radiation used in these processes passes through the food without being absorbed. It’s the absorbed radiation, of course, that has the effect, destroying microbes and so extending shelf life, and slowing down the ripening of fruits and vegetables. The potential is there for food irradiation to replace chemical fumigants and fungicides used after harvest. It also has the potential, through the use of higher doses, to kill contaminating bacteria in meat, such as Salmonella.

Food irradiation is a cold treatment. It doesn’t significantly raise the temperature of the food, and this minimises nutrient loss or changes in texture, colour and flavour. The energy it uses is too low to cause food to become radioactive. It has been compared to light passing through a window. Food irradiation uses the same principle as pasteurization, and can be described as pasteurization by energy instead of heat, or cold pasteurization..

the use of food irradiation in Australia

Due largely to fears about irradiation having to do with radioactivity and nuclear energy, the process isn’t used as widely in Australia (or indeed the USA) as it could be. Irradiation is used in some 50 countries, but the level of usage varies for each country, from very limited in Austria and other EU countries, to a very widespread usage in Brazil. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) summarises our situation thus:

In Australia and New Zealand, only herbs and spices, herbal infusions, tomatoes, capsicums and some tropical fruits can be irradiated.

FSANZ has established that there is a technological need to irradiate these foods, and that there are no safety concerns or significant loss of nutrients when irradiating these foods.

Irradiated food or ingredients must be labelled clearly as having been treated by ionising radiation.

food irradiation, health and safety

Since 1950 hundreds of studies have been carried out on animals fed with irradiated products, including multi-generational studies. On the basis of these studies, food irradiation has been approved by the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, the Scientific Committee of the European Union and many other national and international monitoring bodies. Of course this hasn’t stopped many individuals and organisations from complaining and campaigning against the practice. Concerns include: chemical changes harmful to the consumer; impairment of flavour; the destruction of more ‘good’ than ‘bad’ bacteria; and that it’s an unnecessary process which runs counter to the movement towards regional product, seasonality and real freshness. I’ve already mentioned other problems, such as that it can mask spoiled food, and that it doesn’t destroy toxins already released by bacteria.

opposition from the organic food movement

Food products  must be irradiation-free if they are to certified as ‘organic’, in Australia and elsewhere. Now, I’ve fairly regularly expressed irritation with the ‘organic’ food ideology, most particularly in this post, but I recognise that it appeals to a very diverse set of people, with perhaps a majority simply believing, on faith, that ‘organic’ food will be more nutritious, safer and better for the environment than conventional food. Most of those people wouldn’t know much about food irradiation, but hey, it sounds dodgy, so why not avoid it? I’ve no great argument to make with such people, apart from the old ‘knowledge is power’ arguments, but there are a few individuals and organisations trying to get food irradiation banned, based on what they claim to be evidence. Unsurprisingly, most of these critics are also ‘organic’ food proponents. I’ll look at some criticisms from Eden Organic Foods, a US outfit, which admittedly represents the extreme end of the spectrum (nature before the fall?).

Firstly, in their ‘factsheet’ on irradiation, linked to above (and reprinted verbatim here by another alarmist organisation, the Center for Food Safety), they waste no time in informing us that the beams used are ‘millions of times more powerful than standard medical x-rays’. This sounds pretty scary, but it’s a bogus comparison. Irradiation is designed to kill bugs and bacteria, whereas medical x-rays are for making visible what is invisible to the naked eye. Clearly, the first and foremost concern in testing and studying the technology is to make sure that the chemical changes it induces are safe for humans. Comparisons with medical x-rays are more than irrelevant to this concern, as the author of this factsheet well knows.

Next comes this disturbing claim:

Radiation can do strange things to food, by creating substances called “unique radiolytic products.” These irradiation byproducts include a variety of mutagens – substances that can cause gene mutations, polyploidy (an abnormal condition in which cells contain more than two sets of chromosomes), chromosome aberrations (often associated with cancerous cells), and dominant lethal mutations (a change in a cell that prevents it from reproducing) in human cells. Making matters worse, many mutagens are also carcinogens

Wow. So much for the poor people of Brazil – they’re obviously done for. But how is it that the world’s top scientific agencies missed all these mutagens and carcinogens? Let’s take a closer look.

The term ‘radiolytic products’ simply means the products created by chemical changes that occur when food is irradiated. Similarly, the products created by heat treatment, or simply cooking, might be called ‘thermolytic products’. These are not ‘strange’, they’re quite predictable, for irradiation would be totally ineffective if it didn’t bring about some chemical changes. One of the differences is that radiolytic products are generally undetectable and produce only minor changes in the food compared to the major operation we call cooking. It is, of course, precisely these products that the scientific community scrutinises when determining the safety of irradiated foods.

Interestingly, in an article, dating back to 1999, called ‘Scientific answers to irradiation bugaboos’, for 21st Century Science & Technology magazine, Marjorie Mazel Hecht has this to say:

The July 1986 report of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), which reviewed all the research work on food irradiation, defined unique radiolytic products “as compounds that are formed by treating foods with ionizing energy, but are not found normally in any untreated foods and are not formed by other accepted methods of food processing.”

The report states that “on the basis of this definition no unique radiolytic compounds have been found in 30 years of research. Compounds produced in specific foods by ionizing energy have always been found in the same foods when processed by other accepted methods or in other foods” (Vol. 1, p. 15).

This slightly contradicts the factsheet put out by Idaho University’s Radiation Information Network, which acknowledges the existence of such products while insisting on their nugatory nature:

Scientists find the changes in food created by irradiation minor to those created by cooking. The products created by cooking are so significant that consumers can smell and taste them, whereas only a chemist with extremely sensitive lab equipment may be able to detect radiolytic products.

Needless to say, alarmists thrive on these contradictions. So what evidence is there of mutagenic irradiation byproducts? Well, there are radiolytic byproducts of fatty acids in meat, called alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs), first detected a few decades ago, and the research done on them seems to be so far inconclusive. A book entitled Food Irradiation Research and Technologythe second edition of which was published last year, states that ‘knowledge about the toxicological properties of 2-ACBs is still scarce’, and that ‘it may be prudent to collect more knowledge on the toxicological and metabolic properties of 2-ACBs in order to quantify a possible risk – albeit minimal.’ The book describes a number of studies on rats and humans, going into more detail than I can comprehend, but the results have been difficult to interpret and generally not easily replicable in other studies, indicating very minute and hard-to-measure effects. No doubt such studies will be ongoing. As far as I know, 2-ACBs are the only products about which there is any concern.

What is obvious though, in looking at the research material available online, is the difference between the caution, skepticism and uncertainty of researchers compared to the adamantine certainty of such critics as the Center for Food Safety.

But what about polyploidy? Polyploid cells contain more than two paired sets of chromosomes. Eukaryotic cells, those of multicellular creatures, are diploid (two sets), and prokaryotic, bacterial cells are haploid (one set). Polyploidy is regarded as a chromosomal aberration, common in many plants and some invertebrates, but relatively rare in humans. However it is present in humans, and the percentage varies from individual to individual, and within individuals from day to day and week to week, depending on a range of factors including diet, age, and even circadian rhythms. Levels of up to 3-4% in human lymphocytes have been found in healthy individuals, though some researchers have claimed much higher percentages, in liver cells. The overall finding so far is that fluctuations in polyploidy are the norm, and no clear correlation has been found so far between these fluctuations and health profiles. It seems that the biological significance of polyploidy isn’t known.

Critics of irradiation have been going on about polyploidy and other mutations supposedly caused by irradiation for decades, and unsurprisingly, some are fanatically obsessed with the issue, accompanying their rants with long reference lists, mostly from like-minded activists. However, the text Safety of irradiated foods, 2nd edition discusses polyploidy in some detail, with particular reference to a study of malnourished Indian children fed irradiated wheat, a study regularly cited by anti-irradiation activists. It turns out that there were many problems with the study. First, not enough cells were counted to validly pinpoint an effect, such as a change in diet. Secondly, polyploidy is notoriously difficult to detect – superimposed diploid cells can be easily mistaken for polyploid cells under a microscope (in fact when two independent observers looked at the same microscope slides, one found 34 polyploid cells, the other found 9). Further, the study only gave group results rather than individual results, so it wasn’t possible to know whether the polyploidy was restricted to one or two individuals rather than spread over the group. Another problem was that the reference or control group was found to have no polyploidy at all, a very strange finding given that other researchers always found some degree of polyploidy in their subjects, regardless of irradiation or other effects. In fact, the study was so poorly written up that it’s impossible to replicate – for example the exact diet given the children wasn’t described. How was the wheat fed to the children?. Presumably it was prepared in some way, but how? The omission is crucial. The study also didn’t take into account the effect of malnutrition itself on chromosomal abnormalities. And so on.

You get the picture, and it’s the same with other claims about mutations and carcinogens. Every time you look into the claims you find the same problems that no doubt other scientific watchdog organisations have found – poorly conducted studies that either can’t be replicated or haven’t survived replication. That, of course is no reason for complacency, and at least the activists can assist, in their sometimes muddle-headed ways, in improving our knowledge of 2-ACBs, polyploidy and other biological effects, just as the creationists who bang on about a lack of transitional forms, or ‘irreducible complexity’, help us to focus on refutations, clarifications and further evidence.

Finally, food irradiation, while clearly not the zappo-horrorshow that activists are determined to make it, doesn’t replace proper handling techniques and a good instinct about food quality. The fact is, though, that it does increase shelf life, and is a useful tool in our increasingly global economy, where food is shipped from here to there and everywhere, in season and out. If you prefer to eat locally, with fresh and seasonal produce, fine, and we can argue about the sustainability of that approach on a worldwide scale, but let’s none of us pretend that food irradiation is other than what it is. Let the evidence, properly evaluated, be your guide.

Written by stewart henderson

January 14, 2014 at 12:09 pm

are biodynamic olives better for you?

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cowhorns and bullshit

cowhorns and bullshit

This afternoon I was watching a Landline program, in which an Australian olive farmer was described as doing very good business, the key to her success being that her olives were marketed as ‘biodynamic’. It’s such a catchy term isn’t it? Don’t buy  those sluggish, more or less static olives, get stuck into these lively, energetic ones.

But what does biodynamic really mean? Is there any science to it, or is it just another fad? Well, anybody with a reasonably decent scientific education, or self-education, will not be encouraged by the fact that ‘biodynamic agriculture’ was first developed by Rudolf Steiner, that utterly earnest pedlar of pseudo-scientific dogma of the early twentieth century. So, okay, let’s leave aside the more loopy beliefs that he and his followers tried to put into practice, such as ‘astrological’ sowing, burying ground quartz stuffed into the horn of a cow (thus releasing “cosmic forces in the soil”), and the general treatment of the farm and its soils as an ‘organic entity’. What, then, is left of ‘biodynamics’ that makes it any different from integrated farming techniques practiced the world over?

Well, as far as I can see, nothing. However , biodynamic farming is also ‘organic’, in that it subscribes to zero toleration of synthetic fertilisers. What exactly makes it different from other ‘organic’ farming is an interesting question, but it seems that, like ‘organic’ farming, it follows a more or less arbitrary set of practices, which differ from country to country, in order to gain ‘certification’. Australia’s Department of Agriculture has this fact sheet up on its website, which conflates ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ produce in a revealing way. There we learn that there’s a National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, the most recent update of which I’ve tracked down here. Near the beginning of the document we have ‘definitions’, two of which are clearly relevant to my little investigation:

biodynamic: means an agricultural system that introduces specific additional requirements to an organic system. These are based on the application of preparations indicated by Rudolf Steiner and subsequent developments for management derived from practical application, experience and research based on these preparations.

biodynamic preparation(s): means the natural activators developed according to Steiner’s original indications.

All of which appears to indicate that ‘biodynamic’ agriculture is still based on Steiner, the Austrian founder of ‘anthroposophy’ and ‘spiritual science’ (he never did any farming in his life). But what are the ‘preparations’ indicated by Steiner, and what are the ‘natural activators’ derived from Steiner?

Well, we might find out (but we probably won’t) as we wade through this document, but meanwhile, I note, among the definitions, one for genetically modified organisms (now I wonder why?), and, even more disturbingly, homeopathic preparation/treatment, and allopathic veterinary drugs. Homeopathy is probably the most thoroughly discredited pseudo-science of the past 200 years, and its mention in these guidelines for ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ farming should set alarm bells ringing from here to kingdom come (the term ‘allopathic’ was coined by homeopathy’s creator, Samuel Hahnemann). But it’ll be interesting to see how the authors of this document, namely the “Organic Industry Export Consultative Committee”, connect homeopathy with biodynamism.

Under the section “Scope of this Standard” we have this:

1.1 This standard stipulates the minimum criteria that must be met by operators before any certified product can be labelled as in-conversion, organic or bio-dynamic.

‘In-conversion’ presumably means a product in the process of being converted to being organic or biodynamic. Further along, we have this more controversial section:

1.5 Products or by-products that

a. are derived from genetic modification technology, or

b. treated with ionising radiation, or

c. which interfere with the natural metabolism of livestock and plants,

d. that are manufactured/produced using nanotechnology

e. are not compatible with the principles of organic and biodynamic agriculture and are therefore not permitted under this Standard.

The writer seems unaware that 1.5 (e) is not a similar point to 1.5 (a) to (d), but is part of the main clause that starts 1.5, and defines (a) to (d) as verboten. But nanotechnology? Really? Presumably any other newly developing science that might help agriculture in the future will also be banned, as GMOs have been – an indication of the thoroughly ideological nature of this ‘methodology’. It should also be pointed out that ionising radiation is perfectly safe and does not produce ‘radioactive food’. To quote Wikipedia, ‘This treatment is used to preserve food, reduce the risk of food borne illness, prevent the spread of invasive pests, delay or eliminate sprouting or ripening, increase juice yield, and improve re-hydration.’  It consists of stripping atoms of electrons, which interferes with chemical bonding and reproduction, and of course such processes are seen as ‘unnatural’ by ‘biodynamic’ and ‘organic’ ideologues, in thrall to the ‘natural is always better’ fallacy. In fact, 1.6 mentions other ‘environmental contaminants’ and pollutants – that’s to say, other than nanotech, GMOs and irradiation. Contamination is often used as a bogey-term here, always seeking to give the impression that all non-biodynamic and non-‘organic’ food is contaminated.

More specific info about biodynamics is given further down the document, in Section 3.23, where mention is made once again of Steiner’s 1924 lectures and the ‘natural activators’ or ‘biodynamic preparations’ he apparently recommended. What a surprise to find, though, that these activators or preparations aren’t described, either chemically or physically. They’re simply referred to as Preparation 500 through to Preparation 507. I wonder what happened to the previous 499? Some 14 ‘principles’ of biodynamic preparation or production are mentioned, most of which speak of nutrient cycles and dynamic biological processes without leaving us any wiser. Principle 4, though says this:

The Bio-dynamic Preparations are not fertilisers themselves but greatly assist the fertilising process. As the name suggests, these Preparations are designed to work directly with the dynamic biological processes and cycles which are the basis of soil fertility. As activators of life processes they only need to be used in very small amounts.

Very small amounts – hmmm, could this be the connection with homeopathy? And why are they so coy about the precise make-up of these ‘preparations’? Anyway these preparations are to be used in conjunction with more conventional ‘organic’ treatments, such as composting, manuring, crop rotation and diverse planting – all of which can be done without reference to ‘organic’ farming at all, I might add.

We do get some tiny tidbits of info about these preparations, which stop short of decent descriptions. That’s to say,  the information describes their effects rather than their ingredients:

Preparation 500, and “prepared” 500 (500 with Compost Preparations 502 to 507 added) specifically enlivens the soil, increasing the micro flora, root exudation and availability of nutrients and trace elements via humus and not through soil water. 500 promotes root growth, especially the fine root hairs. It develops humus formation, soil structure and water holding capacity.

Preparations 502 to 507 are ‘Compost Preparations’, and Preparation 501 ‘enhances the light assimilation of the plant, leading to better fruit and seed development with improved flavour, aroma, colour and nutritional quality‘.

Apparently these are like Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe for KFC, you can’t have authentic bio-dynamic olives, grapes or whatever without them. Having said that, it doesn’t seem all that bad does it? Increased micro-flora, humus formation, putting hairs on your roots and nicely structuring your soil – where’s the harm? And when it comes to livestock, they’re very caring and sensitive. Yet you have to question some of these strictures:

Standard 3.23.2

(f) – Bio-dynamic Preparations 500 and 501 are to be stirred for one hour.

(g) – Stirring of Bio-dynamic Preparations shall be organised to achieve an energetic vortex, followed by an immediate reverse action – causing a ‘bubbling’ chaos and reverse vortex – then subsequent reverse chaos and vortex etc for the full hour (Steiner, Pfeiffer)

And of course there are more of these ‘Standards’, with not a scientific explanation in sight. How do you know when you’ve achieved an energetic vortex? How bubbly is a bubbling chaos? And how, exactly, do all these stirrings help plants to grow? You would think, wouldn’t you, that the scientific mechanisms that connect these activities with plant growth and health would be the first things cited. But no, there’s nothing, zilch, zero.

We move on, then, to “General Principles”. Again, there’s a great deal of vague but positive talk about healthy soils, a healthy atmosphere, and of course, dynamism and nutrient cycles, but no scientific detail on plant or soil chemistry. But get this one:

In accordance with the research evidence of Lily Kolisko on the often-dangerous effect of minutest substances (even less than a molecule), materials used for the storage of the Bio-dynamic Preparations, stirring machines, spray tanks etc., need to be carefully considered.

I do wonder how substances of ‘less than a molecule’ (supposing such substances exist in soils!) can have such deleterious effects on plants, but hey, don’t homeopaths think that the more diluted a substance is, the more potent? And who is Lily Kolisko? She was a leading anthroposophist who did lots of experiments trying to prove the efficacy of astrological and lunar plantings, and, as you can see, she also believed in homeopathy. Nothing has, of course, come of her theories and claims, and there is no ‘research evidence’.

Both biodynamism and homeopathy are products of the guru effect – allegiance to one charismatic purveyor of pseudo-science – Steiner in the case of biodynamism, and Hahnemann in the case of homeopathy. At least, to Steiner’s credit, he called for thorough scientific experimental support for his agricultural claims, made at the very end of his life. His call has gone largely unheeded, leaving aside hopelessly compromised anthroposophical rersearchers. Had this not been the case, we might not be plagued today by no doubt over-priced ‘biodynamic’ products. But given the gullibility quotient, I’m probably being way too optimistic.

Having said this, these products are no doubt very tasty, and their makers no doubt really care for the land and its fruits, and sustainability and all the rest of it. But biodynamics is something else altogether. It’s bullshit, and the products are not made better by following some guru’s directives.

Don’t get angry, get educated.

Written by stewart henderson

December 26, 2013 at 8:12 am

‘organic’ food – the greatest scam in the west

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foison or poison?


[there is a] fashion to talk as if art were something different from nature, so that things artificial should be separated from things natural, as differing totally in kind… Things artificial differ from things natural not in form or essence, but only in the efficient.

Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum, 1623

Someone at work offers me some food, from a cooking class she teaches. She describes it as very healthful, ‘and organic too’, she proudly confides. ‘Well of course, it’s organic, it’s food,’ I mildly reply. ‘Well, yes, but you know what I mean,’ she says.

Unfortunately, I did know what she meant. She meant ‘organic’ in the cheap, shallow, duplicitous, marketing way, not in the deep, scientific way.

And so I begin a piece that is long overdue, and which, I’m sure, will not win me any friends, assuming anybody reads it at all.

‘Organic’ food has been getting my goat for a few years now, and it’s time I laid out my objections based on the evidence I’ve accumulated over the years, while at the same time looking again at the evidence, just in case there’s something redeeming about this labelling and marketing practice that I’ve missed.

First, though, I’ll talk about marketing, which is the real focus of my ire. The term ‘organic food’, as so many people have pointed out, is tautologous. All food is organic, that is an unarguable, scientific fact. So it takes a deal of hubris, and, I reluctantly admit, a deal of marketing genius, to be able to sell a product and a process intended, quite deliberately, to cast doubt on the health and nutritional value of 99.999% of the food we eat. This is the scam of all scams, and what’s more, it has been entirely successful. Usually when we think of scams, we think of those who got caught – the Bernie Madoffs and Jeff Skillings of the world, the bad and the blameworthy who make us feel better for not being like them. Their scams are over, lessons learnt, systems tightened, vigilance heightened, but there’s no end in sight for the organic food scam. It’ll be with us for as long as the words ‘toxic chemicals’ have currency, and that’ll be around the twelfth of forever. What’s more, there’s no ‘body’ to blame, no obvious perpetrator or mastermind. In that way, and in more than a few others, it’s a bit like religion. 

I note that most people I know who swear by ‘organic’ food are also opposed to GMOs, suspicious of mainstream medicine, and dabblers in various pseudo-scientific approaches to health and well-being. They certainly place more value in ‘the fruits of the earth’ than the products of the lab. This article of faith has been labelled ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ by sceptics, though philosophers might quibble about that – as would I, having struggled over many years with that particular concept, introduced by philosopher George Moore more than a century ago. Probably better to label this way of thinking as ‘the appeal to nature’. In any case, it’s certainly an example of fallacious reasoning, as the insightful Francis Bacon was one of the first to point out.

My many qualms about the ‘organic’ food movement have been reinforced by a listen to the ever-reliable Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid piece on the subject, and I’ll use that as the basis, or at least the starting point, for this post. In fact, you might well be better off listening to Dunning’s analysis, which will doubtless be more comprehensive and concise than mine. I’m mainly writing this to get the information and the understanding of the issues more clearly lodged in my head.

The generally understood scientific term for an organic compound is one that’s produced by living entities. Chemically, it’s a carbon-based molecule with a carbon-hydrogen bond. Coal is an organic compound, and so, interestingly, is plastic. If the term ‘organic’ is used in any other way, you should be sceptical.  My scepticism compels me to use the term ‘organic’ food, with scare quotes, to highlight this dubious use.

In order to be certified ‘organic’, food and agricultural products must be produced under a set of guidelines which vary from country to country, and which are regulated in different ways in different places. This Wikipedia article provides some of the guidelines common to most western countries:

  • no human sewage sludge fertilizer used in cultivation of plants or feed of animals[1]
  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
  • use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
  • maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
  • undergoing periodic on-site inspections.

So let’s look at the first three of these, which, presumably, are key to producing goods superior to, or healthier (and tastier) than goods that don’t earn the ‘organic’ label.

The issue of sludge fertiliser and its potential dangers isn’t really an ‘organic’ food issue, it’s one for any agricultural product. If you use sludge fertiliser, and it causes contamination to humans or animals, obviously there will be consequences for your business and yourself, whether you’re trying to produce ‘organic’ food or not. The ‘freedom from sewage sludge’ label that ‘organic’ foods are presumably entitled to display appears to be meaningless unless non-‘organic’ producers are all using the stuff. And even if they were, the issue is one of contaminants, not sewage sludge per se. I don’t know if this is an issue in Australia, but there is no evidence, out of the USA, that anyone is being contaminated by non-‘organic’ foods. No matter what the complexities of applying sludge in farming – organic or inorganic, treatment methods, etc – it is irrelevant to the ‘organic’ food issue. It appears to be used for ideological reasons, to hint that, somehow, somewhere, the use of untreated or improperly treated sludge is slowly killing us.

The second guideline, which for some reason incorporates the first guideline, rendering that guideline superfluous, is the key guideline to understanding the psychology of ‘organic’ food, and the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy upon which it’s based. ‘Organic’ food producers must not use ‘synthetic’ fertilisers or pesticides ‘not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances’, in other words nothing synthetic of any kind.

‘Organic’ producers and marketers like to promote their products as fertilizer and pesticide free. This is complete bullshit. Virtually all agricultural products are subject to pest infestation and this needs to be dealt with, one way or another. Methods also need to be employed to enrich the soil, to render it more fertile. The only difference between ‘organic’ producers and the rest is that ‘organic’ producers are constrained by their anti-science ideology. Synthetic fertilizer, for example, involves the production of the key nutrients for plant growth – nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus – on a commercial scale. ‘Organic’ farming involves the same nutrients, but delivered the hard way, through fish and bone meal, earthworm castings and the like. The only difference is that these materials are more costly and less efficient, as they deliver a much lesser and more variable load of the nutrient per volume, and are thus less straightforward to use accurately and systematically, and are far costlier to transport. The use of synthetic fertilisers, as I’ve pointed out many times, has, with the improvement through hybridisation of particular grains and fruits, increased crop yields by ten times and more, and has saved the lives of millions since their introduction in the sixties.

But the real point here is the duplicity of labelling synthetic fertilizer, which is able to isolate and concentrate the required nutrients in the most efficient way, as ‘chemical’ (with the implication that it just might be toxic), as if the fertilizers used in ‘organic’ farming are somehow free from chemistry.

The third guideline mentioned above really shows how committed the ‘organic’ marketers are to scaring people about conventional farming. There is no need to keep conventional farmland free from ‘prohibited synthetical chemicals’ in order to use it for ‘organic’ farming. I wonder what is meant by ‘prohibited’ here? If they’re prohibited by government authorities, then of course you shouldn’t use the land – but then why would any farmer use such substances, thus poisoning her own produce? If they’re prohibited solely by ‘organic’ regulations, then they’re simply ideologically driven, arbitrary, and a product of the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy.

As Dunning points out, ‘organic’ products are perfectly healthy and safe, but there’s no reason to believe they’re healthier and safer than non-‘organic’ products. I personally prefer to avoid eating too many processed food products because I think it’s better for our bodies to expend energy on the process of digestion, and because many processed foods have added sugar which our bodies don’t need and which can cause problems. I think there’s a fair amount of good scientific evidence for this approach to diet. I’ve not as yet encountered any scientific evidence for the benefits of ‘organic’ foods, except that they’re generally unprocessed and vegetarian, which is mostly good (don’t forget, though that a diet of potato chips is also vegetarian).

A perhaps more subtle, and superficially more cogent argument for ‘organic’ foods is the environmental argument. Okay, so conventional food isn’t poisoning us or giving us cancer or heart disease, but you gotta admit that it’s unsustainable. ‘Organic’ food really cares for the soil, it’s based on a deep connection with nature, a respect for the land, it gives as good as it takes, it’s about long-term sustainability. Conventional farming is, by contrast, instrumentalist, exploitative, impersonal, short-term, destructive etc etc.

This is a simplistic and ideological claim, not evidence-based. Firstly, let’s look at how conventional farming obtains its three key nutrients for enriching the soil. Nitrogen is, of course, freely available from the atmosphere and infinitely sustainable. Phosphorus is mined from phosphate rock, of which we have reserves to last centuries. Potassium comes from ancient ocean deposits, of which we have millenia of reserves. Of course these reserves are finite, so seawater extraction is considered a viable alternative, for both potassium and phosphorus. As Dunning points out, this creates a sustainable cycle as plant matter and farm runoff returns to the oceans, but ‘organic’ certification, at least in the US, doesn’t allow sustainable atmospheric and seawater extraction. ‘Organic’ chemical fertiliser can only be sourced from animal waste and other recycled resources, using criteria which are ideological rather than scientific, and so more or less arbitrary. Further, these resources can’t be marshalled in sufficiently commercial quantities to feed large populations, especially in developing countries where there just isn’t the infrastructure to make fertilisation under ‘organic’ guidelines viable on a commercial scale. ‘Organic’ farming is a distinctly western, middle class ideology.

It’s also insulting to conventional farmers to suggest that they’re more exploitative and short-term in their use of their own land. This goes as much for multinational agricultural concerns as for individual farmers. Both groups are interested in long-term viability, for obvious reasons. Crop rotation and other forms of long-term soil management have long been practised by conventional farmers, who must naturally balance these with other production concerns. This is surely grist for the mill for all agriculturalists, as they would wish to reduce the cost of applying fertiliser or herbicides wherever possible.

Returning to the pesticide/herbicide issue, it’s often harder, and more expensive, for ‘organic’ farmers to find ‘natural’ or plant-based chemicals to use instead of synthetic products, and these costs must needs be passed on to consumers. The synthetic products have, of course, been passing health and safety checks for decades. One such chemical, rotenone, a colourless, odourless ketone found in the seeds and stems of a number of plants including the jicama vine, has in recent years been all but abandoned, due to connections found between its use and the incidence of Parkinson’s Disease among farm workers.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture. I’ll end, as I began, with the use of language. There are plenty of organic entities, to use the word in its right way, that are poisonous to humans – be they berries or bugs, frogs or sea creatures. A fine example is the fugu fish, with its deadly poison, tetrododoxin, of which quantities are found in the skin, the skeleton, the intestines, the ovaries, and above all the liver. Eaten usually as sashimi (ie raw), it must be prepared by rigorously trained chefs, and even then you can never be sure – which seems to be essential to its charm as a delicacy. To quote from this travel advisor:

Tetrododoxin does not cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victims remain fully conscious while their central nervous system gradually shuts down, first producing dizziness and incoherent speech, then paralysing the muscles. This can lead to asphyxia, and possibly death. (There is no antidote for fugu poisoning).

Here’s one example, among many others, in which awareness of the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy can be more than a bit useful. Bon appetit.

Written by stewart henderson

July 29, 2013 at 1:36 pm