Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Organic & Natural

Maybe I am biased, but somehow the word "organic" does not inspire me to think wholesome food thoughts. Maybe it is because of those months I spent in organic lab... Anyway, what I really do not understand is why organic has been equated with healthy to the point of all other foods being called unhealthy. I do agree that some of the more widely consumed foods are indeed bad for you - even without watching Super Size Me. I also understand that large quantities of chemicals are indeed used in conventional agriculture as pesticides and herbicides, which might not be very appetizing or healthy. And I will not deny that I am a proponent of genetic engineering as a solution to many agriculture problems. Nevertheless, I feel that this health food movement reminds me of the vegan craze I was exposed to in college. Even though I am not an avid meat-eater, I still favored a more balanced diet.

My main concerns with the organic label are exactly what they are advertising as better. I worry about the shelf-life and after-opened life time because of the lack of preservatives. I know how easily (and fast) my cell culture media gets contaminated - even in the fridge - if my sterile technique is not as careful as it should be. Unfortunately there is no biosafety cabinet in my kitchen... The lack of pesticides spark my suspicions, especially where fungi are concerned. Aflatoxins are the first things that comes to my mind when I see packages of organic nuts or grains. Advertisements for lack of pesticides in produce that do not have the organic label are even more disconcerting, as I know that phosphite fertilizers used in large quantities will have a fungicide effect - because it is toxic! And as it is not a pesticide per se, its use is not regulated as such. However, there are indeed some products that I prefer to buy organic. Yogurt for instance, even though it has nothing to do with the fact that it is organic but because it is the only kind available made with whole milk. I just make sure I pay attention to the sell by dates.

Another major concern I have with organic farming is the "free-ride" factor. Janet D. Stemwedel at Adventures in Science and Ethics has a great post on why by not vaccinating your children you are counting on the protection gained from the vaccinated population - and this only works if only a few cases are exempt. I think the same can be said for organic farming. As long as more than 95% of the farming area is using pesticides, there is a general protection that can be correlated to herd immunity. However, once that threshold is met, we might notice an increase in food poisoning. Then again, considering that only the top 5% of the population can probably afford organic food, we might be far from reaching that point.

The main argument here is not whether there should be an organic option, but that organic farming is not sustainable. It cannot be done in large scale and it depends on the pesticide use of its neighbors. The more I think about this, the more I understand the reluctance towards genetically modified foods. If indeed one can engineer resistance to major pests and pesticide use goes down, then this herd immunity will disappear. The farmers most affected by this will be the ones conforming to organic standards. However, this is not an argument we hear in the media - most of the discussions center on what is natural. As most people do not know where their food comes from or why it tastes the way it does, this argument seems to be valid enough. Yet food is not natural at all. On the other hand, snake poison is natural, but I would not want it in my food.

Modern crops were domesticated for consumption, and most of the preferred varieties are mutants. Corn (maize) does not resemble at all its wild ancestor teosinte, and sweet corn has mutations that prevent it from turning sugar into starch. Conventional breeding has taken advantages of naturally occurring mutations, but has also developed new varieties by crossing established crops with wild relatives. Wild tomato is poisonous, but it has been used to improve the crop by crossing it to edible varieties. As far as I know, the selection of favorable varieties involves looks, shelf-life during transport to consumers and how it tasted to the farmer. I do not think safety concerns are as stringent for new varieties as they are for transgenic crops, where the effect of the inserted gene needs to be assessed with respect to undesired changes to the plant. When you cross two plants their entire genomes are mixed, hence you cannot attribute the phenotype change to a particular gene without extensive analysis.

I do not believe there is much out there that is truly natural, whether it is at the major supermarket or the farmers market. Humankind has imposed its will on food, mainly to grantee its own survival. Maybe I am a skeptic, but the health food craze scares me a bit. I stick with fresh produce and cook from scratch because I believe it is better - but mostly because I can afford it and I take the time to put in the effort. I stay away from artificial flavorings and sweeteners mostly because they make me sick. I try not to be instigated by advertisement; fat-free candy still has way to much sugar, and sugar-free does not mean it is not sweetened. If you favor organic labeled food, go ahead and splurge for them - but I will find it very hypocritical if you pair an organic meal with a diet soda.


  1. Just eat what feels good and stop eating what doesn't, but pay attention to how you feel.

  2. The food companies have wised up - anything that is 'healthier' is lumped together. so if you want less processed foods, you almost have to buy the 'organic' label.

    Have you read "In Defense of Food" and "The End of Overeating". Many 'foods' are more chemical than food.

    Also stuck are the folks who need to avoid allergens.

    And, most of the 'organic' labels have been bought up by the big conglomerates.

  3. A comment not completely related to your post but related to your comments about pesticided and herd immunity. I suspect it is really the other way round. As most of the farming uses pesticides it would be more difficult to grow organic food. Maybe a compute model can provide some insight. A related question, have you read 'The Silent Spring ?'

  4. @ghonada: the reason that I say that pesticides help the organic growers is because they kill pests - decreasing population size. If the population of pests increase, then a larger proportion of organic crop would be lost - it is now ~20%. Now if pesticides/transgenics just make the pests avoid those crops, then you are right it would make organic farming worse.