Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Organic Manifesto

[Update:  I've done some research on rBGH and some of the concerns about hormone/antibiotics exposure in dairy products in a more recent post.  Refer to that if you're looking for more information about some of the topics mentioned here.]

No, I haven't "gone organic."  Over the holidays, I found out that my sister-in-law had read Organic Manifesto by Maria Rodale, and now she's been buying organic milk and other food products (peanut butter, fruits and vegetables, etc.).  She's an intelligent person, but she doesn't have a science or medical background.  She works as an accountant, but I'm not sure how well she knows statistics.  This can make it difficult to find, sort through, and understand the wealth of research on a topic such as organic food.

I thought it might be helpful to try to understand what specifically led her to make the switch. A lot of this is familiar to what I've read and heard elsewhere, but I'll list some of her main reasons here anyway:
  • Preservatives.  She doesn't like all the preservatives in many foods today.  I told her that while we do use a lot of preservatives, many organic foods use them too (they're just "organic preservatives" that have a chemical formula observed in nature).  I also reminded her that preservatives are somewhat necessary if we want to avoid food-borne illnesses and live in societies like we do (food shipped across the country, available year-round, not have to grow your own food, etc.).
  • Pesticides.  She doesn't like the idea of pesticides being used on her produce.  I told her that organic produce are grown using pesticides too, but that they are "organic" pesticides.  These are newer pesticides, and thus have a smaller body of evidence in support of their safety and efficacy.  Also, just because you ingest trace amounts of any pesticide does not mean you'll actually experience any health consequences from it.  Lastly, the best thing she can do is to wash her produce before she cooks/eats it if she wants to reduce pesticide exposure/ingestion.
  • Antibiotics and hormones.  Cows are "pumped full" of antibiotics and hormones, and she doesn't want milk from these cows.  I told her I'd seen some research showing reduced rates of eczema in infants from pregnant mothers who consumed organic dairy products, but that I wasn't sure how large that decrease actually was -- i.e. if it's a 50% reduction, but only from .02% of infants to .01% of infants, it's really not that huge of an effect.
  • Nutrition.  She didn't list this as a specific reason, but I reminded her that nutritionally speaking, organic and conventional foods are essentially identical.  One isn't healthier or richer in vitamins/antioxidants/joojoo than the other.
  • "The Dirty Dozen."  These are 12 fruits and vegetables that supposedly have the highest rates of contamination by pesticides.  She said she specifically tries to buy these as organic products.
Overall, I got the sense that most of her complaints had come from this book and what others (I remember her mentioning Jillian Michaels specifically) had said about eating a healthier, more natural diet.  Let me be clear, there is a lot to be said about the benefits of eating a healthy diet that includes more fruits and vegetables than most Americans eat.  But "organic" does not mean "healthier" and "synthetic chemicals" do not automatically equal "toxic."  I wouldn't rely on Jillian Michaels to give me advice on medical science, and I wouldn't trust an organic farmer or salesperson to tell me why organic food is the greatest thing since sliced [organic] bread.  In the same way, don't come looking to me for advice on sculpting, playing in the NBA, or starting a KISS tribute band.

I decided to read the first several pages of Organic Manifesto, via Amazon's sample sent to my Kindle.  I'd prefer not to support Maria Rodale financially by buying the book, but hopefully I can find some time to read the entire book in the next week at the library or some such.  I'd like to see some of the research she's citing (I'm hoping she provides sources in her book) when she speaks of "the research" that supports all the benefits of organic farming.  I've seen too many occasions where even the cited research does not support the claims to take people at their word!

Until then, I would like to present you with this little gem from the foreword by Eric Schlosser:

Pesticides are poisons. They are manufactured to kill insects, rodents, fungi, and weeds. But they can also kill people. Organophosphates—one of the most common types of pesticide—were developed in Nazi Germany to be used as chemical weapons.

Wow, straight to a Nazi reference in the 3rd sentence!  That's impressive -- Godwin's Law at its finest!  I won't judge the entire book by this beginning, of course.  However, I will say that the origins of many useful substances aren't always comforting, but that doesn't mean anything about how they're used today.  Warfarin/Coumadin is one of the most widely used anticoagulants out there today, and guess what it started off as -- rat poison!  Listerine started off as a surgical antiseptic.  Both of these very useful products could be labeled "poisons", if not to us then certainly to other animals (especially obvious in the case of Warfarin).  But that doesn't mean they haven't saved lives and/or improved human health!

I found quite a few other logical fallacies in the sample I have on my Kindle, but I'll wait till I can read the whole book before I write more about it.  My plan is to look at some of her sources so I can approach my sister-in-law about the validity of what Maria Rodale said, and hopefully get her to read Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.  That book in particular had a lot of good information regarding organic foods, vaccines, and other subjects.  Worth a read if you haven't done so already.  It's what got me interested in skepticism in the first place!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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- David