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Aug 20, 2009 04:50 AM

Is Organic a Hoax?

I'm asking this question from several perspectives.
I do believe that the organic movement is a hoax for several reasons. First, organic food is a lot more expensive than non-organic. It also takes more energy and space to produce. If anyone is familiar with Thomas Malthus, he believed a few hundred years ago that eventually the earth's population will come to a point where there would not be enough food to go around. If everyone were to grow organic around the world, due to the space and money needed, that unfortunately would be true and a LOT of people would starve to death. Not to mention, without the use of biotechnology, many organic crops do not withstand all types of weather and are more likely to perish...again leading to more possible hunger, especially in areas of the world who need it most,
From a chowhound perspective, my question is : does organic actually taste better and is it worth the extra money? Personally, my view on this varies. Occasionally at Whole Foods the "organic" section seems more visually appealing somehow. Does this mess with my brain and make me think it tastes better? On Penn and Teller BS, they did an experiment where they cut THE SAME BANANA in 1/2 and told people that one half was organic and the other was not. The majority of people interviewed strongly believed the "organic" half tasted better.
The same show had scientists claiming that there is no difference nutrient wise between organic or non-organic produce. Also, due to the lack of chemical pesticides, they use "natural" ferterlizer (i.e. manure) which can lead to e coli among other health risks.
My questions to you:
Do you think there are real benefits to eating organic? Do you think the economic costs are worth it? How do you feel about the possible negative consequences?
Do you think that organic really does taste better? Do you feel you are eating healthier?
I'm curuous what you think!

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  1. You have various ideas about organic foods.

    You’re right that organic agriculture could not feed the global population - and is a luxury of the rich.

    Better taste, however, is probably not the main reason people buy organic food. Major reasons to buy organic are: a) to reduce the chance of ingesting pesticide residues and b) to (very arguably) buy food whose production is more agro-ecosystemically sustainable. Similarly, biotechnology and "inorganic" are not the same. Biotech is largely and simply genetic identification of key gene sequences and sometimes recombination in the lab vs. traditional cross-breeding. Biotechnology has not been intentionally used to adapt crops for organic production. Biotechnology has been used to help increase the productivity of crops in difficult conditions in terms of their nutrient use efficiency, disease and drought resistance, and many other adaptive characteristics. These crop improvements can be used for both organic and “inorganic” crop production. Organic fertilizer is not limited to manure – all sorts of composts and different uses of non-grain legumes also count. And crop management is key in maintaining soil organic matter (soil carbon), a key to both organic and “inorganic” farming.

    Personally: I try to avoid foods with high pesticide residues. I don’t buy organic when in the US. In other countries where I work, ironically there is both more stuff grown organically and some crops that are way too heavily sprayed. Make sound purchasing choices.

    Like probably 99.9% of agricultural and environmental scientists, I strongly support integrated approaches (including improved crops) that reduce pesticide and fertilizer use; work to find alternatives to inorganic fertilizer use; but recognize that in terms of plant nutrients there is no free lunch; and recognize the importance of agroecosystems health over “organic” vs.“inorganic”.

    And Malthus died in 1834, not really (albeit technically) “100s of years ago”.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      Nicely balanced. I was somewhat amazed in the US and Canada to learn that the same crop might be grown year after year in the same fields. (If you can call something the size of Lichtenstein a field).

      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        Thank you Sam, I was hoping when I saw the thread that we'd hear from you.

      2. <"Also, due to the lack of chemical pesticides, they use "natural" ferterlizer (i.e. manure) which can lead to e coli among other health risks.">

        I can't address the topics that Sam has explained but as a master gardener I know that only manure that has been composted for at least 3 years should be used on a vegetable garden. A proper compost pile reaches such high temperatures as to kill all pathogens. I'm surprised those "scientists" didn't know that only composted manure is used on organic farms and all bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that are capable of producing an infection or disease are killed during the composting process.

        1. When I became a young mother at the age of 20 (in 1988), I had choices that I could make when it came to feeding my 2 daughters. I could buy them baby food that came in jars with a bunch of additives, and sugars, etc. Or I could do what my italian grandparents did for us, and that is, feed us REAL food. Both sets of grandparents cherished their gardens, and each year I was exposed to the healthiest, tastiest vegetables this side of the Atlantic Ocean (Toronto, Canada). Never once did my family depend on pesticides or artficial components to stimulate growth, etc.
          I searched out organics in the late 80's early 90's as a result of all the "scary" realities that existed in conventional fruits and veggies. High-tech farming is my reason for not buying anything but organic. It has nothing to do with taste, nutrition, "status". (that's all BS)
          Study the facts on high-tech farming and you will see that diseases such as asthma and cancer are more prevalent in areas where farmers are spraying their crops. The pesticides do not remain solely on the plants, they appear in our water, and in our air. When it rains hard, the chemicals run off into lakes, rivers and streams killing all the wildlife in those waters. Please read this link for more info:
          The above is a link to a transcript of a show that aired in Canada in 2002 on the realities of our Potato Province (Prince Edward Island).
          So my answer to your question is NO! - Organics are not a hoax.
          Your comment on crops outstanding all types of weather, etc. What type of crop should withstand a typhoon or a tsunami? What extremes are you referring to?
          We are not out to save the world. Let's focus on our own communities first before we go out and preach to the rest of the world how they will be better off with our massive corporations who produce these pesticides. I am sure there is a bettter way.
          Question to all of you: When was the last time you ate a modified conventional tomato that tasted delicious?

          17 Replies
          1. re: zen_ca68

            To answer your question about extreme weather, during the green revolution new crops were bioengineered to better withstand drought. They were meant for 3rd world countries, particularly in Africa. Unfortunately, due to numerous protests due to fear of bioengineered food, these better strains of rice and other such foods have not been fully utilized...and they could help feed people who need it the most. Personally, I agree with you that I do not want to eat a lot of pesticides because the gov is not always right. The FDA has gone on record to say that the amount of pesticides on non-organic food in the US is perfectly stll have to make your own judgements. However, I have no problem with bio-engineered food because technically people have been doing it for 1000s of years; though not always in a lab. For ex, corn used to have a very few # of kernerls when people in Mexico began farming it. They engineered it over time to become the corn that we eat today. Also, I love the engineered watermelon without seeds- I love it! :} I don't know if I've eaten any modified tomatoes, but I've had many non-organic ones that are delicious. As long as they're bright red and juicy I'm happy- it's simple to just wash them off.

            1. re: NicoleFriedman

              Plenty of bioengineering is now being used to create crops that don't need as much pesticide. A few months ago, we had a thread going on here about how Montsanto was teaming up with Dole to create tastier fruits and vegetables that required less pesticide than what's currently available. I have read a lot about how the industrial organic farms aren't really that much better than many of the conventional farms.

              As for when I buy organic, in many cases it's because it has a longer shelf life, and in other cases it's because it's what my supermarket typically carries for that fruit/veggie. I have read a few articles that weighed the benefits of organic with conventional produce, and many cases the pesticides used are so minimal with the conventionals that there is no real benefit to buying organic.

              1. re: queencru

                Longer shelf life? How so? Seems like everything organic I buy goes bad in half the time due to the fact that it isn't (supposedly) Frankenfood™

                1. re: biscuit

                  Exactly. I was thinking of posting a thread about a recent scary experience with some Frankengrapes (but didn't get to).

                  I happen to discover a forgotten Tupperware container full of grapes I packed away for my toddler, in the travel bag. In addition to having been forgotten for about four or five days and left at room temperature, they were washed before packing so they must have been somewhat damp too. I was making a grunting sound to myself as I took the container out of the bag, expecting to have to clean the moldy mess.

                  Guess what the grapes were in immaculate condition. And to satisfy my curiosity, I tasted one of the grapes and it tasted exactly like the rest that are in the fridge. Makes me really wonder what magic they put in the grapes to withstand all this!

                  1. re: biscuit

                    Post-harvest fungicide application is a factor in longer shelf life for some conventional fruits.

                    A big weakness for organics is the limited range of preventive fungicides that are allowed, mostly copper compounds or sulfur. Conventional growers can and do use these as well as other fungicides with different modes of action. Varying fungicides helps prevent resistance from developing.

                  2. re: queencru

                    At this point, I'd need a whole lot of convincing that anything Monsanto did was actually healthier for me.

                    Certainly industrial organic isn't backyard organic, but it's more than just what you're eating, it's also what's going into the soil and rivers and what impact that junk has once it leaves the farm.

                    1. re: Panini Guy

                      "it's also what's going into the soil and rivers and what impact that junk has once it leaves the farm."
                      NYT's front page today! Our government agency is doing a poor job of protecting us from water polluters!

                    2. re: queencru

                      I agree, for reasons I do not fully understand a 1/2 gallon of organic milk has an expiration date at least a month longer than non-organic...anyone know why?

                    3. re: NicoleFriedman

                      The Green Revolution started in the mid 1960s with the development of shorter statured, nitrogen responsive rices, maizes, and wheats. It was based on traditional plant breeding and NOT on "bioengineering" (although I understand that your particular use of the term includes normal crosses). Unfortunately, drought tolerance is something we're still working on with limited but steady successes.

                      You're right about one thing: improvements in pesticide development and use means most modern pesticide risidues - if present - are water soluble.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Sam, is it not true that many products labeled "organic" in the US still use chemical pesticides - those chemicals just aren't YET on the list for what is not allowed?

                        1. re: mojoeater

                          I said nothing of the kind. Was just saying to Nicole that her giving produce a wash makes sense because most modern pesticides are water soluble.

                      2. re: NicoleFriedman

                        You aren't telling both side of this (the bioengineering) story...

                        3 of Monsanto's biggest black eyes came from bio engineered crops. And the way they deal with them.

                        "Starlink" corn was developed to grow with elevated amounts of bT, a chemical compound toxic to corn moths. In spite of the objections of a neighboring farm, Monsanto planted this experimental (not yet approved for human consumption) crop near an organic farm. Well, insects and birds did what they do. They spread pollen from the starlink corn to the neighboring organic crops. The result was corn deemed unfit for human consumption. Any back yard gardener could see that problem coming.

                        In another instance they sold experimental seed stock to farmers in third world countries, failing to tell them the seeds produced by the resulting plants would be sterile. Sterile seeds don't make positive stride to end world hunger.

                        Meanwhile, back home in the US, they brought lawsuits against farmers that did what farmers do, saving seed for the next years planting. They tried to use shady sales contracts to claim IP rights over soybeans produced, and forbid farmers from saving seeds.

                        I am no fear mongering conspiracy nut. However when something walks, flies, swims, and quacks like a duck, I will call it a duck.

                        When businesses like Monsanto act this way they lose my trust as a consumer and lose my support for most any thing they do. Their "altruistic" attempts to "end world hunger" are for PR, nothing more.

                        1. re: Brandon Nelson

                          I'm no fan of agribusiness in general or Monsanto in particular, but you've got your facts almost completely wrong.

                          Bt corn is routinely grown for human consumption; the brand name is Attribute. Starlink was made by Aventis, not Monsanto. And the Bt protein didn't render corn "unfit for human consumption." Although 28 people complained of mild allergic reactions, the CDC determined that there was no evidence those reactions were associated with hypersensitivity to the Starlink Bt protein. Nevertheless, Starlink corn was pulled from the market shortly thereafter.

                          Your comment about sterile seeds is so vague as to be difficult to refute. Nevertheless, so-called "terminator" technology - the modification of plants so that their seeds will be sterile - was developed in the '90s, not by Monsanto, but by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Company. In 1999, Monsanto pledged not to commercialize the technology. Then, in 2006, Monsanto acquired Delta Pine and Land. So it now owns "terminator" technology, which it has promised not to sell. Sounds to me like the issue is off the table for the time being.

                          But that doesn't mean that Monsanto allows farmers who buy its products to save the (fertile) seeds and replant them at will. Monsanto doesn't "claim IP rights over soybeans produced," it owns those rights. The soybeans are patented, and those patents have been upheld by every court that has considered the issue. To protect its patents, Monsanto will only sell Roundup-ready soybean seed to farmers who promise NOT to save seed for replanting. Every farmer who purchases Roundup-ready soybean seed from Monsanto voluntarily agrees to those provisions. Those who want to save seed and replant it can just buy non-patented seeds.

                          The problems - and the lawsuits - arise when farmers want Roundup-ready seed, but don't want to pay Monsanto for it. The suit that got the most publicity came when a farmer claimed that he hadn't gotten his seed from Monsanto, but that accidental cross-pollination had given his non-Monsanto plants Roundup-ready characteristics. After the press had demonized Monsanto, it turned out that the farmer was a bald-faced liar. He had just gotten some patented Monsanto seed and was growing it in violation of the patent. Shady tactics, yes, but not on Monsanto's part.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            Your google fu is weak

                            The first 3 entries when you google “starlink corn”. All of them support, without question that Starlink corn found it’s way into the human food supply when it was approved only for animal feed. Taco Bell suffered a huge PR hit over this. You are correct it is an Aventis product. I was wrong there. However the my post is about questioning the altruism of agro business. Although I got the producer wrong, the situation is still every bit as relevant.

                            The Monsanto issue is cumbersome in a thread like this. Here is a great videos that spells out some of my points.

                            The Southeast Asia issue occurred when Monsanto “donated” experimental seed to impoverished farmers. The seedstock wouldn’t grow or thrive without proprietary chemicals. They were not told this up front, and had to buy the chemicals. That isn’t a direct violation of the pledge to not market terminator seeds, but I think it violates the spirit of that concept.

                            Dupont is in the middle of a legal battle with Monsanto right now. Both sides have big war chests. We will see where the courts fall on the IP rights of concept vs prototype, they most often go in the direction of protype.

                            The end point is agro business wants the IP rights to every crop on the planet. I don’t see that situation resulting in the end of world hunger. These businesses have always valued dollars more than humanitarian efforts.

                            1. re: Brandon Nelson

                              Yes, Starlink was only approved for animal feed. And yes, it found its way into the human food chain. But it didn't do any damage other than the PR hit Taco Bell took when hysterical morons falsely claimed that they had been harmed by it.

                              Speaking of hysterical morons, who made those videos you linked to? Long on breathless, short on information.

                              You seem to have shifted your developing-world argument from vague complaints about "terminator" technology to vague complaints about proprietary chemicals. But you still haven't provided much in the way of information, let alone substantiation.

                              I agree that there's a potential problem with agribusiness dominating the world seed markets with their patented products. But if you're going to attack them on that front, you'll be much more credible if you get your facts straight.

                        2. re: NicoleFriedman

                          I didn't say bT corn harmed anyone. I correctly pointed out that genetic plant material migrates. There lies the problem. The folks who claim to have"control" over such things don't. I find that point to be pretty straightforward.

                          Monsanto doesn't "produce or market" terminator crops. They do however produce seedstock that will go sterile if you don't use their IP protected ammendments on it. I find that be hypocrisy. The is a defacto version of a terminator crop be design, if not by name.

                          That hysterical morons (the indian woman) is Vandana Shiva. Right Lively award winning writer, ecologist, and political activist. The other is Marie-Monique Robin awrd winning French journalist and film maker.

                          On point, the OP thinks that agrobusiness is about "feeding the world". I disagree. You (Alan) seem to agree with that point. We have different opinions of Monsanto. You extend them far more trust than I do. Your perogative. I can agree to disagree there.

                        3. re: zen_ca68

                          Hydroponic hothouse tomatoes from Maine are pretty good in the winter, as are some newer varieties from Florida. (No, they're not free.) Also: Big Beef hydrids are fabulous in season. In season does not have to mean organic, and there nothing wrong with having certain produce in season if you want the best flavor. However, I am extremely grateful that I could get cantalope in the winter in NE for my toddler!
                          Kudos to the OP for even putting her hand in this buzz saw!

                        4. "does organic actually taste better and is it worth the extra money?... Do you think there are real benefits to eating organic? Do you think the economic costs are worth it? How do you feel about the possible negative consequences?"

                          I don't eat organic food as a matter of taste, but to avoid pesticides and because they tend to be grown more sustainably. I don't exclusively eat organic, but do whenever possible and where it makes sense. I also avoid some organics because there is no benefit with some foods.

                          1. Oh, well, you've asked a question that will defy genuine rational discussion on the part of many because it implicates nearly religious beliefs and assumptions that are beyond arguing but that people will reverse-engineer selected facts to reinforce and create a Potemkin village of argument.

                            I just say to keep dogma in religion and out of food.

                            10 Replies
                            1. re: Karl S

                              Please be more specific. Are you insinsuating that the "green" or "organic" movement has become a religion? (I've heard many people say something akin to this) or do you mean something else?

                              1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                My comment is directed towards ideologies about food in general, be they pro-industrial or anti-industrial in nature. Ideologies tend to become a-rational because they tend to be ruddered by dogmatic assumptions and beliefs and plastered over by cherry-picked facts. If one is constantly looking for facts that support one's position and trying to downplay their limitations or the saliency of mitigating counter-facts, then one is likely falling into this trap.

                                1. re: Karl S

                                  Pro-industrial and anti-industrial is not congruent with non-organic and organic. Organic is about as industrial as you can get; while small, poor farmers the world over practice non-organic.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    Agreed. It was just one example of many possible pertinant examples. Substitute terms as you will, the argument still stands.

                              2. re: Karl S

                                It would be one thing if your post were the first one here. But there's plenty of rational discussion above, with very little cherry-picking of the facts. Although there are fanatics on both sides of the issue, there's also plenty of room for intelligent, mutually respectful debate. Give your fellow Chowhounds some credit.

                                As for me, I definitely lean "anti-industrial" most of the time. But big agriculture is growing plenty of organic crops these days. I'd rather eat a chicken that was raised humanely on conventional feed than one that got organic food in a huge poultry mill. YMMV.

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Indeed. Just wait. I am basing my caution on years of observing these discussions here and elsewhere.

                                  1. re: Karl S

                                    By definition, being CHers, we are mainly idealists; most of us are somewhat idealogues. Idealism and Realism are rarely bedmates from conception to consumption. I suspect your tendentious remark is accurate. "Let loose the chows of war."

                                  2. re: alanbarnes

                                    Yes, I totally agree with you regarding the humanely raised chicken. Alas, there isn't yet a certification in my area for "humanely raised". Hope it happens, though. Meanwhile, I do my best by asking questions...

                                    1. re: Full tummy

                                      If you have local humanely raised chickens, visit the farm. Any legitimate producer will welcome you with open arms. If you're given a long list of reasons why you can't visit, move on.

                                  3. re: Karl S

                                    Doesn't it defy rational discussion with the OP, when the first thing out of the OP's mouth is "I do believe that the organic movement is a hoax"? Isn't that like starting a discussion about space travel with "I don't think we walked on the moon."?