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04 May 2010


There are a few words that make me tense as soon as I hear them. When these words are uttered, the hair on the back of my neck stirs, my nostrils flare, and that vein on my right temple starts to pulse in rhythm with my irritation. These words can spark that dangerous gleam in my eye that causes my wife to grab my arm and try to drag me away from the conversation.

One of those words? Organic.

The conversation will often go something like this:

Other: Would you like some chips?
Me: No thanks.
Other: Come on, you should try them.
Me: Why?
Other: They're organic.
Me: Organic?
Other: Yeah!
Me: You mean, like paraffin wax?
Other: What?
Me: Paraffin wax. You know, good ol' C25H52. You make candles out of it.
Other: Uh...
Me: Or soda bottles. They're mostly made out of polyethylene terephthalate. That's organic!
Other: I don't think so...
Me: Sure! Didn't you pay attention in high school chemistry?
Other: No, I mean like vegetables and stuff.
Me: Oh! You mean organic in the scientifically meaningless, "chemical free", "all natural", "genetically unmodified" way.
Other: Er, yes.
Me: Sigh.

Whenever I hear the words "all natural", I cringe. It reminds me of the time that I entered one of those all natural beauty product stores to buy some interesting soaps for a family member a few years back. I made the mistake of asking about one of the products, to which the clerk replied, "Oh, all of our products are all natural. We don't use any chemicals at all!" "Really?" I responded, feigning astonishment, "No chemicals at all? That's amazing! I would have thought you'd at least need to put in some water!"

And for the last time*, everything (or near enough) is genetically modified! That's what agriculture is all about! It's why a chihuahua looks different from a wolf. It's where we got canola, for crying out loud! It's called artificial selection, folks. We've just recently stumbled upon an alternate (and, in many ways, more efficient) way to do it.

But let's get back on track.

The term "organic" as it's used in agriculture annoys me for several reasons. It's scientifically meaningless, it's steeped from stem to stern in the naturalistic fallacy [edit: appeal to nature], and it reeks of ingratitude for everything that genetic modification, direct and indirect, has done for us so far. I agree with Penn and Teller when they label Norman Borlaug the greatest human being who ever lived. And so I was so pleased when this news item was brought to my attention.

According to a recent report from the National Research Council in the United States:

Many U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits—such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields... [Emphasis mine.]

Surprised? You shouldn't be. That's what they're supposed to do.

Improvements in water quality could prove to be the largest single benefit of GE crops, the report says. Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.

Wait a second... Farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides...? Doesn't that imply that farmers who grow organic crops are using such harmful chemicals? Why, yes, it does! It's a common myth that organic food is healthier not only because it's "natural" (whatever that means) but also because it's free of harmful chemical pesticides. As Brian Dunning explains, this isn't true:

Some supporters of organic growing claim that the danger of non-organic food lies in the residues of chemical pesticides. This claim is even more ridiculous: Since the organic pesticides and fungicides are less efficient than their modern synthetic counterparts, up to seven times as much of it must be used. Organic pesticides include rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don't want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not.

The NRC article does go on to caution farmers that if they rely too heavily on glysophate for weed control (as this is an herbicide to which many GE crops are resistant) this could lead to selective pressure that may result in weeds that are also resistant to glysophate. But this problem is hardly constrained to GE crops: it is, in fact, the heart of that never-ending arms race that we call evolution. In fairness, however, the problem could be exacerbated by an over-reliance by farmers on an herbicide to which the GE crops are unusually resilient. Vigilance is in order.

It also bears reminding the interested parties that the reason crops are designed to be resilient to glysophate is because it "has fewer adverse environmental effects compared with most other herbicides used to control weeds", thus making it a safer and more environmentally friendly solution. These aren't "frankenfoods", these are hard-won advantages that give us the edge over starvation and help to prevent environmental degradation from modern farming efforts—and although it's lovely and romantic to think of how nice it would be if all of our food came from an organic family farm, I'm reasonably convinced that this is not only economically infeasible for the farmers, it's impossible from a landmass point of view.

And so: "Farmers need to adopt better management practices to ensure that beneficial environmental effects of GE crops continue." I highly recommend reading the full article (it's relatively short and very readable), or even purchasing a copy of the study itself.

Science isn't the enemy.

Tip of the straw hat to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

*Should not be construed as any sort of guarantee.


  1. I used to be fully on board with the position that you've taken in this post (thanks to Bullshit!), but then I watched this video: and changed my mind.

    Please watch it and respond with your thoughts.

  2. Hi, Rob.

    Thanks for your input. You'll find my reply here.