Dear Organic Food

Dear Organic Food,

You've become quite the rock star over the last two decades. Despite an embarrassing dearth of evidence to support your claims to superior heath outcomes in humans, you've got a lot of people convinced that $4 is an acceptable price for a carton of eggs. Even more impressive is whom you've got convinced. There will always be those moon-eyed simpletons among us who read horoscopes, handle rattlesnakes whilst talking to invisible entities, and audit their thetans on the Bridge to Total Freedom. But there seem to be legions of smart, otherwise skeptical people who shell out hundreds or thousands of extra dollars every year for organic foods whose health benefits are dubious.

Organic food makes sense to people on a visceral level. Pesticides kill bugs. If they kill bugs they must be a kind of poison. Poison is bad to eat. Chemical fertilizers are artificial. Artificial things are bad for eating. GMOs are designed in labs by scientists. Things designed in labs by scientists are unnatural. Unnatural things are bad to eat. Sound reasoning that stubbornly refuses to garner significant, real-world evidence or be supported by those pesky facts.

And it's not like the scientific community isn't doing their best to confirm the conclusion they would like to be true. Christine M. Williams from the University of Reading provides just one example of the scientific method being stringently applied to organic food with the utmost academic rigor.

"If consumer perceptions regarding potential health benefits of organic foods are to be supported, more research of better quality is needed than that which is currently available." - Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutritional Society (2002)

I hope you were taking notes because that's how science is done, ladies and gentleman. You decide in advance what result you'd like to have and then selectively track down the necessary evidence to support those "consumer perceptions." Or how about the 2005 paper, Need for research to support consumer confidence in the growing organic food market, found in Trends in Food Science & Technology. I find that most unbiased quests after truth start by assuming popular conceptions as an unexamined starting point.

Millions of people can't be wrong. 

But at least irrational exuberance over organic food can't do any harm.

Or can it? In the face of an expanding world population, organic, per-acre yields underperform their conventional counterparts in almost all categories, and in most cases dramatically so. If anything, organic yields will only decline as more land is brought under organic till. As of 2008, only about half of one percent of all agriculture was organic, meaning that what little organic crops exist do so like tiny islands in a vast ocean of crops which are genetically modified and sprayed with chemicals to resist bugs, fungi, viruses, etc. This means that organic crops are enjoying the protection of herd immunity provided to them by their non-organic brethren, in the same way that the children of anti-vaccine wackos are protected from mumps by the other 95% that get vaccinated. Of course just like vaccination, if a high enough number of crops lose their genetic and chemical protection, then these pests will once again be free to spread like raging wildfire across the nation's farmlands, ravaging the organic crops and dropping yields even lower than they are now. Ironically, it is the GMOs and chemical pesticides which are allowing organics to have even the limited success that they are. This herd immunity effect isn't just theoretical; it's been observed and documented out in the wild.

If the evidence for organic health benefits is shaky, the "evidence" against GMOs is even worse. Nonexistent would be the most accurate choice of words. But it still sounds horrible, doesn't it? Splicing jellyfish DNA into corn. Frankenfruit, complete with bolts, stitches, and the tortured soul of a mutant, steps towards you out of the darkness, arms held out stiffly, moaning wordlessly, "I am an abomination in the eyes of God and man! Someone... please... kill me." 

Somehow that word, "unnatural," trumps the mountain of evidence which points to conventionally grown and genetically modified crops being... safe. Nutritious. Perfectly harmless.

Of course that designation, "unnatural" implies a categorical division between man and the rest of the natural order. This distinction is a solipsism, and it exists only in the minds of (wo)men. Man is not the only species that constructs or arranges things to suit his needs, yet somehow no one calls bird nests unnatural, or considers termite mounds to be artificial. Humans may be better at rearranging the environment than other species, but if a natural bee using its naturally-evolved glands to produce honey and wax is natural, then a natural man using his naturally-evolved brain to produce polyethylene terephthalate is equally as natural, it's simply a difference in complexity and number of ingredients- a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference. We are not apart from nature. There is no such thing as "unnatural," but there are new things, and new is by definition untested and in that respect dangerous. Let us proceed carefully with the new, natural things we create.

The New York Times rightly points out that the same liberals who shake their heads in smug condescension at those religious, mouth-breathing, creationist global-warming deniers, are themselves guilty of being equally as blind to the facts when it comes to vaccinations, GMOs, organic food, homeopathic medicine, etc. I guess we all have our sacred cows.

The only place there should ever be disagreement is when data is lacking or when the evidence is open to a wide number of interpretations. If people only ever disagreed under those conditions, there would still be a trillion things to argue about- just look at the scientific communities. As if that isn't confusing enough on its own, we then have an additional layer of stupidity and superstition on top of that- ignoramuses blustering about with all the willful obtuseness of a five-year-old, only without the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex to serve as an extenuating circumstance.

I'm not a religious man, but the closest thing to God I know of is the Truth. If anything is prioritized over the truth, even motivated by the best of intentions, it will always lead to bad places. Every negative emotion, from jealousy to bitterness to anxiety stems on some level from a refusal to accept and embrace what is, and clinging instead to what we would like to be true.

The Truth is God, and the Scientific Method is His prophet.

God alone is good. Repent oh ye sinners. Renounce thy false idols and wicked ways.

Sebastian Braff


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