Organic vs Conventional: An Emotional Issue

organicJudging by the hate mail directed his way, you would think that Dr. Alan Dangour had suggested banning baby kissing. In fact, all the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine nutritionist did was search the scientific literature for studies comparing the nutritional value of organic and conventional foods. The venomous attacks on his work, and in many instances his character, were triggered by his conclusion, that at least as far as the nutrients he examined were concerned, there was no appreciable difference.

Dr. Dangour did not claim that organic agriculture had no merit. He just presented data implying that choosing organic on the basis of expectation of superior nutrition was not scientifically justified. In no way did he suggest that there were no other valid reasons to choose organic, and in no way is he part of any “cancerous conspiracy to poison your faith in organic food.”

That ludicrous allegation comes from Joanna Blythman, a British “investigative journalist,” who in her newspaper columns, books and frequent media appearances pontificates on the horrors of modern industrial agriculture and on the “toxins” in our food supply. She urges everyone to eat only organic fruits and vegetables, but only as long as they don’t come from Israel. It seems her knowledge of Middle East history is on par with her knowledge of toxicology.

I know a little bit about this woman because in the course of writing my book “An Apple a Day,” I came across one of her newspaper articles with the spine-tingling headline, “Could an apple a day damage your health?” Better check this one out, I thought. I didn’t have to go beyond the first line to figure out what Blythman was all about. “The Government wants school pupils to eat more fruit. But what’s on offer may be polluted with toxic chemicals.” This was followed by the usual alarmist prattle about fruits being contaminated with pesticides, of course without any reference to amounts. Then came a universal condemnation of organophosphate pesticides which were “originally invented by the Nazis as nerve gas.” What does that have to do with trace amounts that may be found on produce? Absolutely nothing.

Blythman ridicules the prevailing scientific opinion that the benefits of eating fruit outweigh any risks that may be attributed to trace pesticide residues, and she advocates for a “health warning” on fruits and vegetables that are conventionally grown. She believes this would drive people towards organic produce, when the much greater likelihood is that such a warning would decrease fruit and vegetable consumption. “The future has to be organic,” is her motto. Grandiose mottos sound very seductive, but how about a dose of reality? Does Blythman really think that seven billion people, or in fact, even just fifty million Britons, can be fed organically? Good luck on that one.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-organic agriculture. What I am is pro-science. Organic agriculture certainly has environmental benefits. There is less environmental contamination from pesticides, although contrary to popular belief, a variety of pesticides are used in organic agriculture. Copper sulphate, lime sulphur, pyrethrins, rotenone and Bt bacteria are all allowed, and are not environmentally benign. Manure is certainly less energy intensive to produce than synthetic fertilizers, and crop rotation as practiced by organic farmers leads to less erosion of soil. On the other hand, frequent tilling to tackle weeds enhances erosion. In spite of these issues, it is safe to say that scientific evidence supports the superiority of organic agriculture when it comes to environmental friendliness.

But Joanna Blythman and her luddite ilk do not restrict themselves to environmental issues, they viciously attack anyone who challenges their claim that organic foods have “obvious health benefits.” Obvious to whom? To people with preconceived ideas. Manure used as fertilizer is a source of various bacteria, including the notorious E. coli 0157:H7, and organic certification does not guarantee cleanliness. The largest food recall in history was of peanut products produced at plants in Texas and Georgia, which along with federal organic certification featured an assortment of moulds, rodents and bird droppings.

As far as pesticides go, there is no evidence linking residues to cancer in humans. Yes, feeding high doses of some pesticides to animals can cause cancer, but the doses are much higher than human exposure, and the mechanisms by which pesticides kill insects are very different from the mechanisms that induce cancer.

And how about the possibility of organic foods unprotected by pesticides being more susceptible to attack by fungi? When the corn borer, for example, bites into a kernel of corn, it leaves a hole that can be infected by a mold known as Fusarium. This mould in turn produces fumonisin, a natural carcinogen. This is not only a theoretical possibility. Last year, in England, two organic corn meal products were recalled because testing showed that they had unacceptably high levels of fumonisin! The press hardly reported on the story. But just imagine the headlines if some food had been recalled because of high levels of a synthetic pesticide! Things are not always as they seem.

Blythman is out to lunch, undoubtedly organic, with her accusations that anyone who does not buy into her foodie diatribe is part of some conspiracy to undermine organic food production. There is no such conspiracy. What matters is the overall composition of the diet, not whether it is organic or not. There is as much reason to limit organic potato chips as conventional ones. And emphasis should be on the number of servings of fruits and vegetables consumed, not on their origin. Finally, the answer to guru Blythman’s question of whether a conventionally grown apple a day can damage your health, is an emphatic “no.” But one wonders how much damage to health she has caused by scaring people away from eating that apple with her harrowing and unrealistic indictment of modern agriculture. Hate mail can be sent to me here.

Joe Schwarcz


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