Beginning on my June 8th 2012 blog “Organic Food and Red Herrings (Vigorously Revised and Updated)”, I had exchanges with Ryan MH whom I know, and with several strangers, about the merits of of various organicists’ beliefs. I stated repeatedly, among other things, that there was no difference between organically grown food and conventionally grown food. I also explained what it would take to convince me otherwise. I did it in connection with a topic not directly related to organicity but the standards would be the same.
“… I would like to see scientific evidence. I take this to mean a report published in an independent scholarly journal that practices double-blind peer reviewing. “Independent” means that a Jain vegetarian institute journal does not count, for example. This is not a demanding standard but a minimum standard. If I see one such study, I will think there is a debate as Ryan affirms that there is. If there is no (zero) such study, all we have is rumors and ignorant religious passions. (And everyone is entitled to his religious beliefs, however patently absurd, and I have no quarrel with you then, but then, I will treat you the way I treat Seventh Day Adventist who ring my bell.)
If Ryan, or anyone else, will show me one such study, I think it’s a good reason to continue but only this. An un-replicated study carries little weight unless it’s extraordinarily well done in every respect.”
Neither Ryan nor the other organicists who read us- ever offered any of the evidence I was thus actively seeking except one. I need to make a digression to explain how this happened.
It’s difficult for conservative thinkers like me not to become smug. We are surrounded by loud and persistent expressions of liberal opinion. This fact leads us to believe we know all about the other side. And, the liberals we know personally and who agree to talk to us just rarely have what it takes to challenge us. They tend to appear like babes in the woods because they are unused to contradiction. I am not bragging, just stating what I think are facts. One remedy to this smugness is that every conservative commentator should endeavor to have his own liberal adviser. I mean an intellectually honest liberal adviser, something that does not grow on trees, obviously. I have my own such, a younger man to whom I sometimes refer on this blog. I call him my “HoLiGG,” “Honest Liberal Green Guy.” My HoliGG is one of the few people who has the privilege to give me reading assignments. To make a long story short, mine ordered me to read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006).
I read the book while I was in Mexico for two weeks in July-August 2012. I will have to write a critique of the whole book some day soon. Briefly: It’s a good book that does not do what it says it does but accomplishes a lot of thing nevertheless. Among other claims, Pollan asserts squarely (p. 181) that organically grown food a have quantifiably superior nutritional properties. A rare thing for an advocate, he gives scientific references though in a disorderly, hard-to-follow manner. I performed for you the task of following through those references. The best evidence I found via Pollan’s references in support of the common assertion that organic food is better for your health is explicated below.
“Elevating Antioxidant Levels in Food Through Organic Farming and Food Processing: An Organic Center State of Science Review.” Penbrook, Charles, Organic Center, published in 2005 and therefore reviewing articles that are now dated.
Although this is published by something called “The Organic Center,” it’s a clear, competent, and principled- looking review of the literature. I recommend it to organic believers so they will sound less like religious fanatics. I also recommend the book to skeptics like me because skepticism should be just that, skepticism, not a closed mind.
There is a section in the report reviewing the findings and the quality of the methods associated with them regarding the possibly superior content of organically grown foods in those compounds. The record is mixed but several of the studies reviewed demonstrate a superiority of organic products in some putative (supposed) nutrients. I judge some of these differences to be non-negligible (NON). The weight of the evidence in the report inclines me to believe – provisionally- that it may be factually correct that organic is better for you. I mean, in connection with one category of nutrients announced in the title of the report: antioxidants.
The Penbrook report was published in 2005 and therefore, it reviews the scientific literature published earlier, that is, rather old research by 2012. As I write, I have no idea about sequels. For all I know, there are now ten times more competent, serious papers showing superior nutritional quality of organically grown food. Whether this is the case or not is an intrinsically interesting question, of course. Note: (In the six months following this posting, no one gave me a single reference to a better study.) If the quantity of serious research showing superior nutritional content for organic food has not (NOT) increased much since 2005, I will take this as a sign that the findings reviewed in Penbrook were just a flash in the pan. But I keep an open mind. (I still keep an open mind on January 28th 2013.)
Where is the state of my initial skepticism about organics at this point? It’s been eroded but, three comments:
One, I am not convinced that anti-oxidants are important nutrients just because there exists a widespread folk belief among the semi-educated that they are. But, of course, the existence of this folk belief is not enough in itself to disprove that they matter! Here again, I could be turned around by appropriate scientific research findings.
Second, there might be a superiority of organic food that is real but trivial for many purposes. Some of the research reviewed by Penbrook shows superior ascorbic acid (vitamin C) content in organically grown food. But, vitamin C is abundant in the ordinary American diet. Where it’s lacking, this defect is easy and cheap to remedy. That particular finding may matter somewhere, sometimes. It’s not obvious to me that it matters in the US or in Europe totay except for the megavitamin cultists, people who have done more harm than good by and large.
These two observations may be connected with a lack of basic knowledge on my part about the interesting topic of micro-nutrients. The fact that I hear about them mostly but not only from sweetly insane people may have caused me instinctively to stay away from the topic. That may have been to my own detriment.
Here is my third comment: The great foofoo-literate masses in such locales as Santa Cruz, California, no doubt greatly exaggerate in their own minds the superior healthiness of organic food. I doubt that this superiority is commensurate with the high price premium extracted from them in return for affirmations of product organicity. Organicists commonly imply that the premium is modest, of the order of 10%, perhaps. I have observed it to be 50% to 500%. Thus organicists still have to shoulder a big burden of proof: If you propose to improve my health by 1/10 of 1% at the cost of decreasing my overall happiness by 10%, (by taking a lot of my money) we have a problem. (Yes, Mary, money does buy happiness! It buys older Cognac, for example and that makes me happy.)
I should ask my HoLiGG about all three of those issues. I hope you will ask yours and communicate the responses to me. Update on 1/28/13: My HoLiGG had nothing to say. I am not sure he or Ryan are interested in showing me the error of my ways. They believe what they believe and that’s it and don’t bother them with evidence. (OK, that was bitchy.)
The sparse other citations that Polan offers in the Omnivore’s Dilemma are not worth hunting down, in my opinion. They are well reviewed in Penbrock or they don’t report anything new or interesting about the putative nutritional superiority of organics.
Update 9/4/12 What do you know? I was too quick to assent, me, of all people! There is not difference or not much difference between organic food and conventional food except price. Big Stanford study: