Skepticism and “Organic” foods



Are “Organic” foods better for you? On the surface, it feels like one of those “everybody knows” or gut feeling type questions, that should be easy to answer. That we can just assume that those foods marked as “organic,” for having been grown with specific farming methods, are better than those sprayed with insecticides/herbicides.

But is it true?

Stanford University doctors dug through reams of research to find out – and concluded there’s little evidence that going organic is much healthier, citing only a few differences involving pesticides and antibiotics.


Skepticism and adherence to the scientific methods means we follow the data. In this study, the researchers found that there did not seem to be any specific benefit from eating “organic” foods over the non-organic variety.

Organic foods tend to cost more, so challenging the assumption that they provide benefits is important

Eating organic fruits and vegetables can lower exposure to pesticides – often a concern when feeding children – but the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was within safety limits, the researchers reported Monday.

Nor did the organic foods prove more nutritious.



However, it’s important to note a few things the study does NOT claim:

-That non-organic foods are better

-That pesticides have no risk; the data only suggests that the amount of pesticides on non-organic foods did not appear to pose any harm.


Is the higher cost of organic foods worth it? The study casts some doubt on that, suggesting it’s always a good idea to use skepticism on “what everybody knows.”


You can find me on twitter, @DrDavidBurger

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  • David Formosa

    Though this only adresses one of the reasons someone may wish to eat organic food. Environmental impact, taste and not wishing to contribute money to perticular companies are also factors.

    • Jeremy

      If you look closely at organic production, it is in many ways worse for the environment. It takes much more of the “organic” fertilizers and pesticides to make the same amount of food, and it takes more land to produce the same yield. The fertilizers and and pesticides used typically carry the same chemical load, but in an unrefined package that contains other things that aren’t needed and still go into the environment.

      Most organic food is produced by exactly the same companies as non-organic food. It’s not about the philosophy for them, they just follow the money, and organic is a big money maker right now.

      As for taste, show me a double-blind taste test comparison that says that organic tastes better.

  • invivoMark

    Hey, it’s one of my favorite topics!

    The organic label doesn’t mean it’s pesticide free (or, FSM forbid, “chemical free”! whatever that even means). There are several pesticides (and herbicides, and fungicides, etc.) that are approved for use on organic crops, and these “-cides” are not necessarily less harmful (to both the environment and the consumer) than traditional practices.

    It should also be noted that organic crops tend to produce substantially less food per area of land, which drastically increases the amount of land that would be needed to make food. That in itself can be a serious harm to the environment.

    There are other various problems with the organic label, but as a graduate of a molecular biology program, the fact that crops with the organic label cannot use genetic engineering is what burns my butt the most. Genetic engineering (and no, not the Roundup-Ready kind) is the solution to so many of our food supply problems, and I refuse to support the suppression of that technology.

    • John Horstman

      This can certainly be true, though GMO or fertilizer-based crops tend to require heavy irrigation and (petrol-based) fertilization in order to grow the additional food per acre. (The more food per acre presupposes we can in any way sustainably support the present population of Earth, something of which I’m not altogether convinced, or that at least we should attempt to unsustainably support the present and expanding population for as long as possible, arguably making the crash when we run out of oil all the more drastic and injurious.) They use less land per bushel, but more oil and water, which both tend to be scarce in regions where food security is a major issue. GMO crops (Roundup-Ready or not) also tend to be patented and more expensive to grow over time. Further, GMO crops lack the in-species genetic diversity of unmodified crops, meaning a single crop can be less resistant to unexpected threats in the form of novel pests or unfavorable environmental conditions, potentially threatening food security. There are certainly people prone to the naturalistic fallacy that think organic foods are healthier or intrinsically ‘better’, but that doesn’t mean these are the only (or most reasonable) objections to agribusiness and monoculture.

      • invivoMark

        I don’t see how organic crops could use less water per amount of crop produced. Did you mean less water per unit of farmed land? That might make sense, but I don’t think that’s a fair way to compare organic vs. non-organic methods.

        Non-organic farming doesn’t typically use petrol-based fertilizers. They are largely produced using the Haber-Bosch process, which uses natural gas. Still a depletable resource, but an important difference nonetheless.

        The patents issue on GM crops is a red herring, for several reasons. If patents were a serious barrier to the use of GM crops, then GM crops wouldn’t be grown. Farms are businesses, and the most profitable farming method will be used. If a patent made a GM crop more expensive to grow, then a non-GM crop would be grown instead. In addition, patents expire, making GM crops cheaper over time, not more expensive; and there is significant public sector research that isn’t profit-driven, working to develop more sustainable and healthy crops.

        Your final point about the dangers of a monoculture is a very good one, but it’s important to realize that it isn’t one that is specific to GM crops. Any crop, GM or not, can become a monoculture. Even organic farms run this risk. It is a problem that needs to be addressed separately from the discussion of genetic engineering.

        Finally, don’t confuse an objection to genetic engineering with an objection to big agribusiness. The two are not equivalent. Small farms have just as much to gain with GM crops, and being an organic farm doesn’t exempt it from also being owned by big agribusiness.

  • Jon Voisey

    If you’re concerned about environmental impact, non-organic tends to be far better since it is mass produced and as such, has systems in place to make it more efficient.

    • Dave Pearce

      It is simplistic to say that non-organic methods cause less environmental impact because they are more efficient. Many non-organic farming operations result in significant run off of nitrogen into waterways, causing abnormal growth rates in algae. There was a recent report identifying this as one of the major factors contributing to die-off of the Caribbean coral reefs – the reefs away from run off plumes are in much better condition as the coral organisms is not crowded out by algae. Coral reefs are the nurseries for many commercial fish species, so killing off the reefs will reduce the fish available to catch, a major source of protein for many populations. And this is just a fairly simplistic, linear chain of effects from commercial non-organic farming.

      I’m not an outright fan of organic farming, but I think it is important not to play down the eco-system wide effects of intensive, industrialised farming techniques.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I dislike the label ‘organic’ because it is misleading. ‘Organic’ doesn’t mean organic, because regular bread and eggs are organic. Rather, ‘organic’ refers to agricultural processing techniques that are less efficient but (proponents would argue) result in a higher quality product. The claim of higher quality has never been established well enough to satisfy my skepticism regarding the higher price, but it’s plausible enough that it might be true.

    That said, one argument against ‘organic’ food that I find persuasive, but don’t have the expertise to analyse with authority:

    Organic growing methods are less efficient than traditional methods, meaning less produce per square meter per season. This reduces the overall food supply – which in turn contributes to the rise in food prices.

    • John Horstman

      As for ‘quality’, I’ve noticed the biggest difference in taste with respect to tomatoes, though that’s due less to organic growing practices and more due to the fact that organic tomatoes cannot use ethylene ripening (locally-grown, non-organic tomatoes could also not be picked green, which many mass-farmed tomatoes are as they can be combine-harvested and shipped with far less risk of damage before they are ripe, and ethylene-ripened, and some may not be, but organic tomatoes are not, by definition). Anyone touting food ‘quality’ as the reason to get organic produce (animal-based foods are a whole different story) is falling to the naturalistic fallacy and not making a good argument in favor of it, which is sad, because there are actual good reasons to oppose factory farming of produce, especially GMO produce.

      As for ‘efficiency’, that’s only using food per acre as the metric, and fails to account for things like water use, oil use, and even dollar cost. It completely ignores the value of genetic diversity (clone seeds or those produced by the biolistic method lack any diversity and can lead to entire crops being susceptible to novel pests or environmental changes) or sustainability, positing efficiency (by whichever metric) as the only important consideration. I’d say I’m sorry to go on about these points, but I see extremely problematic support for heavily oil-based (also consider that burning fossil fuels in order to produce and rear GMO crops contributes to global warming which causes desertification of arable land leading to further stress on food supplies leading to increased necessity to use more fertilizers and irrigation to feed the present – and expanding – population leading to more fossil fuel use leading to more global warming etc.) farming practices like mass-farming and GMO crops all across atheist communities, far more than in other spaces. This is really, really bad; I think it’s frequently a result of tunnel vision on the part of people who thing genetic engineering is really fucking cool (as do I, actually), combined with a lack of awareness of other relevant social and environmental factors. Organic food is more expensive because food is heavily subsidized (both directly and indirectly through things like oil subsidies) and organic food costs what food actually costs to sustainably produce, as it doesn’t tend to externalize its costs by virtue of most organic farming being sustainable. The issue is REALLY that non-organic food is too cheap, and wages are far too low. Also, we may well have passed the population that we can actually sustain long-term (we’ve been burning oil like mad to sustain the population so far – the diesel engine is only about 120 years old, and we’ve already passed peak oil production in 2005), so feeding everyone – let alone an ever-increasing population – isn’t necessarily a good idea. Sadly, most people seem entirely unwilling to self-regulate their reproduction to responsible levels, which just sets us up for a far worse transition away from an oil economy, barring a deus ex technica in the form of a much more energy-dense AND more-plentiful energy source (of course, if we actually burn all of the oil on the planet, we may already have created a global environment far less capable of sustaining human life thanks to global warming).

      • invivoMark

        Actually, I’ve seen a study (and I can’t remember where – it was presented in a class I took many years ago) that predicted that the oil consumption of GM crops was significantly less than that of non-GM. The reason is that natural resistance to pests and fungi meant less spraying was needed.

        Certainly I’ll grant you that that isn’t going to be the case for every crop, in every situation. But I really don’t see where you’re getting that GM crops cause so much higher oil consumption.

      • Daniel Schealler

        Really good food for thought there John. I likes it.

        It’s an interesting distinction to consider sustainable foods – foods that are produced using sustainable practices.

        That’s something that I could get behind far more easily than the notion of ‘organic’.

        But as usual, truth resists simplicity.

        • Daniel Schealler

          “Really good food for thought there John. I likes it.”

          Looks like I win the horrible unintentional pun award for today. ^_^

  • Alex

    So I have seen evidence, but do not remember where at the moment, that even though organic can use pesticides and fertilizers on average they still use less harmful chemicals, and generally still have less impact on the environment. Modern farming practices often cause a lot of harm to the environment and sometimes truly despicable treatment of animals. What I would like to see is a mixing of lower impact techniques with genetic engineering. The only way we can to minimize environmental impact with maximizing yields, is to use genetics to improve the crops while learning to lower our chemical input.

    • John Horstman

      Larger yields per acre necessarily deplete soil nutrients faster and require more extensive fertilization and more water – while solar energy is used to drive the reaction forming hydrocarbon chains from CO2 and H2O, more stored hydrocarbons (calories) needs a greater input of water, and the increased necessity for amino acids require more soil nitrates (typically petrol-based fertilizers). Entirely synthetic foods COULD be more efficient because they wouldn’t require the supporting structures of the non-edible parts of plants, but generally GMO crops are only more efficient per acre, when they’re more efficient at all. They require substantially more petrol (to produce the modified seeds, the fertilizers, the irrigation), and mass-farming practices rely on mechanical harvesting instead of human or work-animal labor, which also requires petrol. The problem with GMO crops (versus the genetic engineering that is selective breeding – I don’t think gene selection through generational methods is somehow more ‘natural’ than direct modification and therefore better) is that the direct modifications are not necessarily well-adapted to the growing environment, as cultivars developed through selective breeding necessarily are. One KNOWS the more bountiful plant is well-adapted to the specific growing conditions because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been bountiful, while GMO crops are designed with a specific, static environment in mind such that the growing environment must necessarily be altered to accommodate the crops instead of the reverse. Overall, this is inevitably less efficient (adapting the environment to an abstracted ideal needed for the crop, especially as environments change due to global warming, instead of adapting the crop to the environment), especially considering the limited supply of oil on the planet.

      • invivoMark

        Ah crud, with our posts going all over this forum, this is going to be a mess to keep track of. Ah well, you’ve made some more points I disagree with and I’ll be damned if I let someone be wrong on the internet at this hour of night. :-)

        Saying that larger yields per acre deplete soils faster isn’t a very meaningful statement. Larger yields (period) deplete soils faster (period). Being as organic crops have a lower per-acre yield, the nutrient depletion is perhaps roughly the same per amount of crop produced. And isn’t that a more important metric? We don’t grow food on land because we have land to grow food on, we grow food to sell the food.

        And I definitely reject your claim that GM crops aren’t adapted to their environment. First of all, I thought we had already established that GM crops produce higher yields (that is, after all, the point of most GM crops). Isn’t that the very definition of being adapted to the environment? But even if you reject that notion, let’s look at it in more detail. GM crops are usually modified with the addition of one or two genes. It isn’t a complete restructuring of the whole organism, it’s a modification of less than 0.01% of the entire genome. You can take your best-adapted plant, throw in an extra gene, and the resulting plant will look and behave exactly the same.

        It occurs to me that your argument may be specific to terminator seed plants – something which I can’t defend, and which is becoming illegal in some major countries in the world, including India. Terminator seeds have their own problems, but these are not problems inherent to genetic engineering technology.

      • Alex

        First to Invivo. Numerous studies have shown that GM crops are some of the worst at surviving in the wild. They produce higher yields but require some of the most work to do so.
        Now to john.

        My first post was admittedly too short and I largely agree with many of your points. Part of my point is that using GM crops we could hopefully find a point between organic and current farming practices. That allows for higher yields then organic with lower chemical inputs. There will be limits because as you said larger yields do require more nutrients but hopefully we can find a way to maximize the efficiency of the plants.

        I am very interested in the development of synthetic and especially hydroponically grown foods and think that those are interesting alternatives. As to the issues of using more petrol there is a problem both ways. Currently modern farming practices use lots of petrol which produce greenhouse gasses. However natural fertilizer require livestock, often cows but other animals are used, most of which produce large amounts of methane. I can try and look up the source if you want me to but I remember some studies that looked into how much more animal fertilizer we would need to switch and the resulting amount of increased methane would be dramatic.

        Now their are ways around both of these problems. We can lower petrol use for farm equipment by switching renewable power and electric systems, but that is at least a decade from being practical if not longer. Their is also interesting work looking at ways to make cows not produce methane. Even if that is possible It would still require methods of dramatically increasing naturally produce fertilizer, which would probably require increased pasture land, and demand for pasture land is one of the driving causes of the destruction of the rain forest.

        As to the criticism of GMO crops in the second half, I agree that overall you are mostly correct for the current state of GMO’s. However Genetics is the fastest advancing field of study currently. I think very quickly It will become far more efficient and effective to genetically modify the plants rather then breed them but admittedly genetics needs to get their first.

        Overall my view on GMO’s is that they hold great promise but have yet to deliver. This is true of most technologies in their early years. I agree that we need to figure out better farming practices but I hope that research and study on GMO’s is still encouraged so that the potential can be reached.

        • invivoMark

          All crops are bad at surviving in the wild, GM or not. Regardless, GM crops require fewer (monetary) resources than non-GM crops per unit of food produced, and that’s certainly an important factor.

          I think we can all agree that the GM crops we see today are not representative of the potential of GM technology. To be sure, Bt crops have caused a boom in several developing countries. But we can do a lot better. Or, if we let the folks at Monsanto get their way, we can also do a lot worse. Careful, considered regulation by informed people is absolutely vital.

          Incidentally, you mention reducing the methane that cows produce – that is something that genetic engineering can certainly help with! And there are projects underway to do just that. Another interesting one I’ve seen is a project to reduce the phosphate content of pig poop, which is apparently a major environmental pollutant. It could be pretty exciting to see the kind of stuff we can do in the future with this technology, but first we have to get people to accept it as viable and safe, and hopefully drop the vile Frankenfoods moniker.

  • Eileen

    I don’t like the idea of organic. I know some places that grow organic use manure or manure based fertilizers, and honestly I don’t like the idea of eating things grown that way. And I don’t just mean composted manure, but the raw stuff, which you are allowed to use. I’d rather the farmer use safe amounts of chemicals that have been widely tested and approved, than manure which may or may not contain any number of contaminants that I would be horrifically grossed out by.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Improbable Joe

    Well, what’s important is that upper-class hipsters can feel better about themselves, since the whole “being upper-class” thing doesn’t seem to do enough for their self-esteem.

  • Lucy Mayne

    For many people, environmental factors are as or more important than the health aspects. Organic farming is not automatically better for the environment than conventional farming methods, but in general it is, and for consumers, purchasing organic is one way, and the easiest way, of using their purchaisng power to encourage environmental responsibility.

    If you’re concerned about environmental impact, non-organic tends to be far better since it is mass produced and as such, has systems in place to make it more efficient.

    Non-organic is mass produced and therefore more efficient, but you simply cannot go from stating that to asserting that this results in a lower environmental impact. It may be the case that your conculsion is true, but what you have said completely fails to support that conclusion.

    Organic growing methods are less efficient than traditional methods, meaning less produce per square meter per season. This reduces the overall food supply – which in turn contributes to the rise in food prices.

    This is questionable – studies have shown that there are initial gains to productivity upon introduction of artificial fertilizers, but while organically managed land tends to maintain or improve soil quality with time, while “traditional” (can you call a method traditional if it’s only existed for a few decades? Organic really is the tradition) farming practices tend to degrade soil quality, and can lead to land being abandoned as increasing levels of fertilization are required to produce a crop.

    My in-laws farm organically, and they regularly get better quality and a greater harvest per acre than their non-organic neighbours. Is this because they farm organically? Obviously, there are a number of factors involved, but it shows that organic doesn’t automatically mean a lesser yeild. They also fare better in times of drought, because their soil has a better capacity to hold water.

    The below points are summarised from Peter Singer’s “The Ethics of What We Eat”, Chapter 14.
    Organic farming:
    * Maintains soil quality – “traditional” farming methods lead to a 50-65% depletion of soil nitrogen and carbon levels over 50 years – often leading to land abandonment when it is no longer profitable.
    * Fosters biodiversity rather than killing off anything that might interfere with crop production.
    * Reduces pollution from nitrogen run-off.
    * Reduces pesticide use (and forbids herbicide use) – herbicides and pesticides contribute significantly to water contamination and impacts upon aquatic life.
    * Uses less energy because of the lack of use of synthetic fertilisers – According to a study by the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, organic crops used 35% less energy per unit of production, and organic dary used 74% less.
    * Stores more carbon in the soil, offsetting carbon emissions

    Is organic farming perfect for the environment? Absolutely not – but it is generally accepted as being more environmentally friendly. At a workshop of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, hosted by the US Department of Agriculture in Washington DC in 2002, concluded after 4 days of discussions involving 140 experts from 22 different countries that “the strong balance of evidence from research, field trials and farm experience is that organic agricultural practices are generally more environmentally friendly that conventional agriculture, particularly with regard to lower pesticide residues, a richer biodiversity, and greater resillience to drought. Organic farming systems also hold the potential to lower nutrient run-off and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.” (Singer, The Ethics of What We Eat, pp. 201-202).

    As for GM (which is forbidden by organics), I think it has potential to improve our lives, but I don’t consider that using GM to improve pesticide resistance is responsible. A balance needs to be struck, and unfortunately corporate interests don’t always align with environmental considerations.

  • Allison

    I have to explain this to my mother in law, who sometimes care for my two children regularly. Yes, I like my kids to eat organic foods, but it’s not because I think they somehow provide more nutrition than non-organics. I don’t buy everything organic, because it’s way too expensive. Instead, I buy some produce that is typically priced only slightly more expensive than the non-organic. This usually turns out to be carrots, celery, broccoli, lettuce, bananas; foods my family eats on a weekly basis. I buy them because I think it’s good to reduce our use of pesticides when possible. I understand that the average family could never afford to eat all organic foods all the time and that if organics were our only option many people around the world would simply starve because food production could never keep up otherwise.

  • John Horstman

    Check out Vandana Shiva’s work. She has a background in physics (higher-level academic work in philosophy) and may be able to appeal more readily to the ‘hard’ science crowd that seems to fail to understand that efficiency per acre or per plant isn’t necessarily the only important, most important, or even an important metric with respect to farming practices.

  • Ibis3

    Another factor: non “organic” farming encourages corporate control of the food supply, for example in the patenting of GMOs, and forcing farmers to buy seeds every time they sow instead of reserving some of their crop for seed purposes. I don’t like the idea of Monsanto or whichever multinational being the big food bully, ready to screw the environment and the food growers to make a buck for shareholders.

    • invivoMark

      Whereas, no organic farm has ever been under the control of a big corporation?

      I don’t like Monsanto any more than you do, but that doesn’t mean that defending organic foods is equivalent to attacking Monsanto.

      • Ibis3

        Whereas, no organic farm has ever been under the control of a big corporation?

        Didn’t say that. Didn’t imply that. Read my comment again.

        • invivoMark

          Yes, I read it, you said that non-organic farming encourages corporate control of the food supply. It does no such thing, and organic farming does nothing to subvert corporate control.

    • Buzz Saw

      I grew up on a farm, and I’ll admit what I am about to present is anecdotal, but we didn’t grow GMOs and we still bought seeds every year. But then we didn’t use herbicides on our crops, so our harvested seeds had quite a few weed seeds in the mix that we didn’t want to be planting.
      How about this — do you have some statistics on how many farmers would even keep seeds? Or is this just a red herring argument?

      • Lucy Mayne

        According to this BBC Article 80% of crops planted in the developing world are from saved seed, and they are the next big market from GM.

        • Ibis3

          Thanks, Lucy.

          I first read about this back in the 90s in a book focusing on the developing world (India especially, if I’m recalling correctly).

  • Baal

    I’m shocked and pleased that the comments here are showing nuance and some understanding of the trade offs involved for different forms of agriculture. Too often it’s just talking points from anti-science activists and agribusiness.

  • ButchKitties

    The only organic product that I regularly choose over non-organic is milk because organic milk has a much longer shelf life. I’d rather pay more for milk that will last long enough to get used up than get cheaper milk that will spoil before I’m halfway through the carton.

    I also know that the longer shelf life isn’t because its organic, but because the longer transit times mean the milk must go through ultrahigh temperature processing instead of lower temp pasteurization. It’s the same process that makes the shelf stable milk commonly sold in Europe. UHT caramelizes more of the milk sugars than pasteurization so the milk tends to be a little sweeter, which I also like. If non-organic UHT milk was an option, I’d probably get that instead, but I’ve never seen a grocery that carries it.

  • Patrick Harrington

    I feel like I’ve been saying this for years now, but yes, organic food is largely stupid fad with no basis in reality. It uses some very weird, luddite assumptions about industry, chemistry, agriculture and business that together paints corporate producers of food as cartoonishly evil. Of course corporate leaders are thoroughly greedy, but a food business has nothing to gain from poisining its customers.

    The reality is that organic food is more expensive not just for the end consumer, but for the environment and the operating “organic” business, too. But the thing that makes me grind my teeth the most is that the most dedicated advocates of the organic movement argue persistently with “it’s all natural, man! Chemical-free!” Sometimes, to fuck with these particular idiots, I suggest that they try an organic Atropa Belladonna salad, and watch as irony goes directly over their heads.