Why I changed my mind about organics
Light-bulb moment conversions are rare. More often than not, we change our minds gradually, sometimes so slowly that we don’t even notice that they have changed and may believe we have consistently believe the same thing all along.
I’ve only just realised how I’ve gradually changed my mind about organic farming. But at the same time, many of the beliefs I have about it are exactly the same as they were a decade or so ago. This strange blend of change and consistency tells us something important about critical thinking.
Take the list of my views that haven’t changed first. These all concern grounds for scepticism about the virtues of organics. The number one reason consumers cite for buying organic is that it is better for their health, However, there is no compelling evidence that this is true. Some organic foods are richer in some micronutrients, but not enough to have a significant impact on health. Nor is there any good evidence that the widely used pesticides and herbicides pose any serious risk to human health.
Not only that but organic food is not risk-free. A study in the Journal of Food Protection linked 18 reported outbreaks of foodborne disease in the United States from 1992 to 2014 to organic food, resulting in 779 illnesses, 258 hospitalisations and three deaths. Both Salmonella and E. coli are more likely to be found on organic vegetables because they are more likely to be fertilised with animal manure.
It’s also the case that health is matter of diets, not foods. I would certainly be healthier if I cooked from fresh, non-organic ingredients than if I lived on organic ready-meals. To be fair the organic movement is aware of the risks of ultra-processed food, but that has not historically stopped the organic label being put on some of it.
Another reason for choosing organics is that is supposed to better for the environment. But the credibility of this claim depends on what you’re comparing it to. I can believe that an organic dairy herd is better for the planet than a huge conventional herd, kept in sheds and fed soy from deforested land. But we know yields in organic farming tend to be lower, so it just isn’t obvious that an organic farm will be greener than a neighbouring one which uses non-organic inputs judiciously to improve productivity, getting more out of less land.
This last point illustrates the core of my organic scepticism. “Organics” is not a term which has a natural meaning. It is a specific form of certification, regulated by bodies with a certain ideological commitments. We have no reason to believe that these groups have any monopoly on good farming practice. Indeed, in some areas they are clearly wanting. For instance, organic animal farmers must try alternative remedies on sick animals before conventional ones, which does not strike me as being in the best interest of the livestock.
Overall, my view was that many of the perceived benefits of organics were illusory, it had no monopoly on good practice and in fact had a few bad practices of its own. I personally favoured organics only when it served as a decent proxy for higher animal welfare.
Many of the perceived benefits of organics are illusory, it has no monopoly on good practice and in fact has a few bad practices of its own.
Now, however, I do find myself buying organic when possible, although I also buy other foods that I have grounds to believe were produced sustainably and humanely. Why?
The short answer is that while all my reasons to be sceptical still hold, most of the time we do not know the precise details of how our food is produced. In the absence of any specific information, we have to assume it is the product of industrial agriculture, which relies on monocultures which reduce biodiversity, synthetic fertilisers that are not sustainable for the planet, and animal welfare standards that are pitifully low. Knowing it is organic means it is at least not these things.
Organics is imperfect but it belongs to a family of farming practices that I think it is right it support. Organics understands that sustainable farming require sustainable soil, and this means replenishing it mainly with the byproducts of farming such as compost and manure, not synthetic fertilisers. If I buy organic almonds they may not be produced in the optimal way, but they certainly won’t be grown like the nuts in California that are sprayed so heavily the land is sometimes covered in a eye-stinging fog and which requires so much irrigation that it threatens water supplies. Organic may not always be best practice but it is never the worst.
I can see now that my critical thinking skills had let me down. I hate to say it, but a standard philosophical training makes you much better error-spotter than a truth-finder. In the case of organics, it doesn’t matter if all the most common reasons given in its support don’t stand up if there is one good reason to favour it over alternatives. I was too fixated on what was irritatingly fallacious in the organic food debate and wasn’t keeping my eye on what really matters.
A philosophical training makes you much better error-spotter than a truth-finder
Worse, it is not as though I haven’t been aware of this danger for decades. My PhD was on Dereek Parfit’s work on personal identity. What I loved about Parfit was that he didn’t get caught up in scholastic debates about the logic of identity but focused on the question of “what matters in survival”. I applauded the approach but failed to apply it to my own thinking about organic food.
There’s an important moral here. Deciding what to support and what to oppose requires seeing beyond the many bad arguments that are foregrounded in the public debate. What is of critical importance may not be that which is treated as such. It takes a keen critical eye to see through the thick of often fractious debate and home in on what matters.
Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)