Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Organic" Food--Are You "Myth-taken?"

Being trained as an organic chemist I suppose is the reason that I am offended by the term "organic" food because, of course, all food is organic. Nonetheless, over the years the term in the dictionary has come to mean, in addition to its original meaning, "of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides."
Purportedly, the individual responsible for the term "organic food" was Jerome Rodale who started the myth that "organically" raised food was the key to health rather than that raised using other means. Even though Rodale had no scientific training (originally he was a federal tax auditor and then co-owner of an electrical equipment business), he was very successful in perpetuating his ideas and was the founder of Rodale Press and Prevention magazine. Consider some of the other beliefs of Rodale as documented by Dr. Edward H. Rynearson's article in the July 1974 edition of Nutrition Reviews in an article entitled, "Americans Love Hogwash":
  • He believed that people do not get enough electricity from the atmosphere, owing to the presence of steel girders, and he would sit for 10-20 minutes a day under a machine that gave off short wave radio waves, which he believed beneficially boosted his body's supply of electricity.
  • He took 70 food-supplement tablets a day as "extra protection" against pollution and to "restore nutrients lost in the kitchen processing of food."
  • He believed that the cure for prostatic disease was to eat pumpkin seeds and stated that if he were to get prostate cancer he would have chiropractic adjustments.
  • Reportedly he believed that "wheat is terrible for people, can make them overly aggressive or daffy, and that sugar is worse," and that he would live to 100 "unless I'm run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." (Actually at age 72, while taping a talk show with Dick Cavett he died suddenly--of natural causes, no doubt!).
  • He believed that milk was bad for people, except for babies and he denounced vegetarianism because he believed that "people need the zest of a good piece of meat."
  • When asked why "organic" fertilizer was preferable to "chemical" fertilizer he responded, "We feel that in organically grown food you have things you don't even know exist."
Indeed, that idea that "organic" food has some mystical powers and that it is preferable nutritionally to conventionally grown food is commonly believed. However, studies have shown that there is little evidence to support this assertion. Not only is it doubtful that organically grown food is significantly superior, importantly, is the use of so-called "organic" farming economically practical and sustainable particularly in feeding a burgeoning world population?

Consider for a moment the contributions to agriculture of the late Dr. Norman Borlaug  and his view of the organic food movement. Borlaug is one of only five people in history (and the only scientist) to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The others were Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel.

It has been estimated that Borlaug's contribution to agriculture though gene manipulation (a no-no to the high priests of organic agriculture) and use of inorganic fertilizer have improved crop yields, resulting in saving the lives of one billion human beings. Consider the following from Jonathan Alter's column in the 7/30/07 issue of Newsweek:

"Borlaug scoffs at the mania for organic food, which he proves with calm logic is unsuited to fight global hunger. (Dung, for instance, is an inefficient source of nitrogen.) And while he encourages energy-conscious people to 'use all the organic you can, especially on high-end crops like vegetables,' he's convinced that paying more for organic is 'a lot of nonsense.' There's 'no evidence the food is any different than that produced by chemical fertilizer.'"

When it comes down to whether or not consumers wish to pay more for organic food, ultimately they should consider whom do they wish to believe, Jerome Rodale or Norman Borlaug.

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