The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Organic Food: A Healthy Alternative or a Waste of Money?

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Organic food is better for you, right?  Think again.  I listened to the John Batchelor radio show Monday night and was fortunate to hear a former colleague of mine, Henry Miller, MS MD, discuss organic foods.  Dr. Miller is currently a Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution where he focuses on science and technology.  Prior to that, he spent 15 years at the Food and Drug Administration where he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

I often hear Dr. Miller discuss a wide variety of science-based subjects on John Batchlor’s radio show but this discussion was particularly interesting as he talked about the fables and facts concerning organic food.  Most of us know the usual mantra regarding organic food: it is more wholesome, safer and thus, better for you compared to lower-priced non-organic food stuffs.  After all, organic farmers use no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers in organic food production and of course, the food contains no genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  At least, that is what we are told.

Organic farming uses no pesticides:  Au contraire, did you not know farmers can use pesticides to grow organic food?  Organic standards, according to Miller, “arbitrarily define which pesticides are acceptable, but allow ‘deviations’ if based on ‘need.’”  Synthetic chemical pesticides are, in general, prohibited according to Miller, but the Organic Foods Production Act has a long list of accepted “natural” pesticides.  Of course, just because something is natural does not mean it is safe; natural pesticides can be very toxic too.  Furthermore, permitted organic pesticides can present the same risks as synthetic ones and persist in the environment.  Miller says that even “the designation ‘organic’ is itself a synthetic construct of activists and bureaucrats that makes little sense.”  He states that “[o]rganic agriculture is based on agreed, allowed sets of principles and techniques, but it has little to do with the ultimate quality or composition of the final products.  For example, if prohibited chemical pesticides or forbidden pollen from genetically engineered plants wafts onto and ‘contaminates’ an organic field, guess what?  The farmer gets a mulligan: He does not lose his organic certification.”

Organic fertilizers are safer:  Well, not so fast.  Doctor Miller reminds us that organic farming allows “the application of pathogen-laden animal excreta,” or manure from animals such as cows and horses.  Doing a little research on my own, I discovered the manure is supposed to be composted if it is to be used on crops that will be consumed by humans.  However, incorrectly composting manure can cause a host of health and environmental problems.  I also discovered that organic farmers can use synthetic substances in crop and livestock production.

Organic foods are healthier for you:  So sorry to disappoint you.  According to Dr. Miller, studies have not shown that organic foods provide more health benefits as opposed to standard food products.  He cites a study published in the 2012 Annals of Internal Medicine that analyzed data from 237 studies on whether organic foods are better for you than non-organic.  And what was the conclusion?  The study found that fruits and vegetable that met organic standards were no more nutritious than regular food, which is far less expensive.  They also found that non-organic foods were less likely to be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella.  Dr. Miller informs us that Bruce Chassy, a professor of food science at the University of Illinois, found that organic foods are recalled more often than regular food.  Miller also points out that when organic certification was being considered, former-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said the following: "Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality."  Miller also said in his radio interview that organic farms tend to be loaded with pests that eat the crops, leaving holes in the plant’s leaves that can be invaded by toxic fungi.  The contaminated crops, when eaten by livestock, can be extremely harmful or deadly.

Organic agriculture produces the same yields as conventional agriculture:  Hardly.  Dr. Miller points out that many organic food aficionados will cite a side-by-side study by the Rodale Institute that compares organic crop yields per acre to conventional crops.  The study purports that organic and conventional crops produced equal yields.  But Alex Avery, a researcher at the Hudson Institute, used Rodale’s own data and demonstrated that conventional crops beat “organic handily in ‘total system yields’ (by 30%), nitrogen efficiency (60%), and labor (35%).”  Furthermore, Ramez Naam, a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, pointed out the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Production Survey, which looked at more than 14,000 organic farms, demonstrated that “organic farms in the US have lower yields than conventional farms.”  For example, organic corn and wheat fields have 70 percent and 47 percent yields, respectively, of conventional corn and wheat crops.  Therefore, the reason organic food is more expensive is not because it is healthier for you, but because there are smaller crop yields.

Organic farmers are the “Little Guy”: Dr. Miller effectively points out that organic farming is a big industry too, with plenty of lobbyists and CEOs that push their organic/environmental agenda not only in Washington, but in the state legislatures and through campaign donations.  According to Miller, the industry is spending “liberally to promote organic eating and in particular to vilify genetically engineered (also called ‘genetically modified’ or GM) crops, a strategy intended to boost its bottom line by bamboozling the public, policy makers, and the media.  That strategy is critical because they’re promoting an inferior product.”  Miller also states that organic agriculture is kept afloat “by massive subsidies and constant nurturing by a variety of USDA agencies, projects, and programs.”  Miller notes that deceptive advertising plays a role in pushing organic foods.  He states that "Academics Review, a reliable, science-oriented nonprofit organization of academic experts, performed an extensive review of hundreds of published academic, industry and government research reports concerned with consumers’ views of organic products, along with more than 1,500 news reports, marketing materials, advocacy propaganda, speeches, etc., generated between 1988 and 2014.”  What did their analysis find?  That “consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes.”

Bottom line: Organic food is a waste of land, a waste of water, and a waste of money.

 

Dr. Miller has written several pieces on the subject and make an interesting read.  You can find his recent articles here, here, and here.  You can listen to the John Batchelor radio interview here. (@19:00).  Much of what I wrote about can also be found in his September 23 Hoover Institution commentary, “The Dirty Truth About Organic” or in his September 23, 2015 article, “Government Favors And Subsidies To Organic Agriculture: Follow The Money” published in Forbes.

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