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An ongoing argument that I’ve had with almost every “clean eater” that I’ve ever met is about organic food. Virtually every person who tries to eat healthy, at one point or another, decides to go organic. It’s better for the environment, and getting rid of all those nasty chemicals has to be good for your health.
You see this everywhere. The first thing that every paleo proponent will earnestly tell you is that conventional farming causes everything from cancer to autoimmune disease, and pretty much everything in between. A quick glance online shows you people demonizing GMOs and pesticides left right and centre, with organics apparently the only safe choice in a sea of disease-causing nasties.
But alarmist fearmongering about nasty chemicals is all the rage, and despite these claims we all seem to be getting stubbornly healthier every year.
So what does the evidence say about organic food?
What Is Organic?
The first thing to iron out is what organic food actually is. This is not such an easy question to answer, surprisingly. Not only does it differ from country to country, but the regulation and monitoring of organics can be so bad that in some places it’s hard to see any difference between conventional farming and organics at all.
However, a pretty useful definition can be found on the website “Healthy Holistic Living”, because it provides a window into the complete nonsense that makes up the health claims for organic foods:
“ Organic foods are produced according to certain production standards. For crops, it means they were grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers, human waste, or sewage sludge and that they were processed without ionizing radiation or food additives. For animals, it means they were reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones. In most countries, organic produce must not be genetically modified”
Basically, the idea is that organic food should be farmed like we did in medieval times: no ‘artificial’ chemicals, no raw sewage, and animals that are at constant risk of nasty infection and death.
There are obvious issues with this. No farmer puts raw sewage on their crops, because that kills them. Banning artificial fertilizers and conventional pesticides means that actually you can use fertilizers and pesticides as long as they are natural and/or unconventional. Processing using ionizing radiation is both a) safe and b) kills nasty things like viruses and bacteria in your food.
I could go on. Actually, I will.
Genetic modification is neither a problem for human health nor actually forbidden in organic farming: the only thing that’s forbidden is genetic modification in a lab. Humans have been genetically modifying food for centuries through a practice known as hybridization, which is basically breeding plants to have the desired qualities. It’s how we eliminated seeds from the banana, for example.
Overall, it sounds as if the major factors of organic farming — pesticide use, non-GMO etc — might not have the health impact that so many people say organics provide.
Whether organics are good for your health has been the subject of a lot of research. From tiny studies looking at animals and cells in a lab, to large, well-controlled human interventional studies, we’ve looked into the question quite a bit.
There have been a number of systematic reviews looking at the potential health benefits of organics. Systematic reviews are studies where scientists look at the entire body of literature, searching through hundreds of thousands of studies, to see what the evidence for and against a position is.
Organic food is no healthier for you than anything else.
This is no surprise. As I mentioned, the things organic food protects against may sound terrifying, but actually turn out not to be bad for you at all. Yes, pesticides can be dangerous if you chug down bottles of them, but the amount you get in the average tomato is in the order of nanograms. For reference, you have more formaldehyde in your body right now than pesticides.
Not so scary after all when you look at it that way, is it?
Organic food is popular for a number of reasons. There’s certainly evidence that it is better for the environment than conventional options, and if you want to spend a little extra to make an impact protecting biodiversity then I say good for you.
But the fear of conventional farming is simply irrational. There is good evidence that pesticides in the amounts that you’ll find in most supermarket food has no impact on human health whatsoever. Conventional farming has revolutionized the world by allowing easy access to fresh food all year round — if anything, conventional farming has been responsible for saving many millions of lives worldwide.
The promotion of organic food is yet another example of the naturalistic fallacy: that things are healthy because they are natural. This is boring nonsense, as anyone who has been bitten by a natural viper or had natural tapeworms could tell you. Organic food is just another way for con artists to sell health because people are afraid of what they don’t understand.
Ultimately, there is one good reason to eat organic: the environment.
The evidence shows that organics are no better for your health at all.