Why one scientist refuses to buy organic foods

I don’t buy organic foods. In fact I specifically avoid doing so. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what to do, but I’d like to lay out three, seriously considered factors that have shaped my personal stance on organic:

  1. Informed confidence that we are safe buying “conventional” foods
  2. Recognizing that some of the best farming practices from an environmental perspective are not always allowed or practical under the organic rules
  3. An ethical problem with the tactics that some organic advocates and marketers employ which seriously misrepresents their “conventional” competition

For the last 40 years my wife and I have shared the shopping and cooking for our mostly home-based meals. We have always gardened, but also buy much of our fruit- and vegetable-rich diet from stores. When I say I don’t buy organic, that involves frequent decisions.

Some delicious conventional Asian Pears
Some delicious conventional Asian Pears

By all rights I should be an enthusiastic advocate and consumer of organic. I was a child of the generation influenced by “Silent Spring.” I was a dues-paying member of the Wilderness Society in high school. I grew up helping my beloved grandfather in his organic garden in the 1960s. Some of our best friends in the late 1970s were pioneers in the development of the commercial organic industry. I’ve spent a significant proportion of my career developing biological and natural product-based pesticides which are applicable to organic. I fully appreciate the contribution that the organic movement made in the early 20th century when it highlighted the importance of fostering soil health. My problems with institutional organic are not at all about its founding ideals or about organic farmers, but rather about organic’s self-imposed limitations and about the ethics of a sub-set of its promoters.

Confidence in the conventional food supply

The USDA, which oversees the foods labeled as “Certified Organic,” states quite clearly on its website about its role in organic: “Our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.”  Foods labeled “Certified Organic” must adhere to certain rules and regulations but aren’t endowed with any particular nutritional or safety features. However, many consumers believe that the Organic label means the food has superior nutrition and is safer, especially in regard to pesticide residues. This is not true. Studies have shown no appreciable difference in nutrition between crops grown either organically or conventionally.

My granddaughter enjoying “conventional” raspberries (yes, she did then eat them)
My granddaughter enjoying “conventional” raspberries (yes, she did then eat them)

As for the safety issue. When most people hear the word “pesticide,” they imagine something scary in terms of toxicity to humans and the environment. The reality is that modern agriculture employs an integrated suite of non-pesticidal control measures, and the actual pesticides used today are mostly relatively non-toxic to humans. Organic farmers also use pesticides, and the products they are allowed to use are constrained with few exceptions by whether they can be considered “natural.” That is not a safety standard since many of the most toxic chemicals known are “natural.” Like all pesticides, these natural options are subject to EPA scrutiny, and so the pesticides that organic farmers are allowed to use are “safe when used according to the label requirements” which is the same standard for synthetic pesticides allowed on conventional crops. When it comes to pesticide residues on our food, there is a USDA testing program that demonstrates year after year that the pesticide residues on both organic and conventional foods are at such low levels that we need not worry about them. I confidently buy non-organic foods based on this public data that demonstrates that our system is working and that we consumers are well-protected.

What the USDA data demonstrates is that the environmental movement was not a failure – it effected real change over the past 5 decades! We don’t have a two-tiered food supply in terms of safety in which only those who can afford the premiums get safe food. I also believe the global scientific consensus that “GMO” foods are safe, and so I don’t need to buy organic to avoid those.

Environmental idealism

I have always been concerned about the human impact on the environment, and particularly about the impact of farming since that industry has the largest “footprint” in terms of land area. I spend a lot of time reading the scientific literature concerning agriculture and the environment. Some of the farming practices that are commonly employed on organic farms are very positive from an environmental perspective, but those practices are also used by progressive “conventional” growers. There are also quite a few farming practices with excellent environmental profiles which are difficult to implement under the organic farming rules (e.g. no-till farming, spoon-feeding of nutrients via irrigation). Compost, which is a major input for organic farms, has a shockingly high “carbon footprint” because of methane emissions. The carbon footprint of “synthetic” fertilizer is much smaller.

This no-till field in Illinois is good for the environment and food supply
This no-till field in Illinois is good for the environment and food supply

From an environmental perspective, the biggest issue for organic is that it requires significantly more land to achieve the same level of production. Were organic to become more than a niche category, this yield gap would be highly problematic from an environmental point of view. I would much rather buy food from “land-sparing” farming systems.

Organic yields are substantially lower for many major crops
Organic yields are substantially lower for many major crops

Ethical Issues

My third reason for not buying organic has to do with ethics. Organic exists as a sort of “super brand” that transcends anyone marketing under that banner. Unfortunately, within the organic realm there are certain major marketers (and advocacy groups they fund) who employ fear-based and falsehood-based messages to demonize “conventional” foods.  They use these methods as a means to promote organic. One of the most egregious examples is the “Old McDonald/New McDonald” video funded by Only Organic – a consortium of very large organic marketers. This bizarre publicity piece exploits children to depict a completely distorted view of mainstream farming.  I consider it to be “hate speech for profit.” Another example is the organic-industry-funded Environmental Working Group which grossly distorts that transparent, USDA, public database documenting the safety of the food supply and turns it into a “dirty dozen list” designed to drive organic sales. These are extreme examples, but the organic marketing community as a whole quietly benefits from this sort of propaganda and does nothing to correct the “convenient fiction” that organic means no pesticides. I realize that only part of the organic industry funds and promotes the most vicious sort of disinformation, but I rarely see organic representatives standing up and objecting to the sort of fear-mongering that ultimately benefits the sales for the entire super-brand.

The fear-based messaging drives the intense social pressure, that parents in particular feel, about whether they need to buy organic. I don’t want any part in rewarding this sort of fear/shame based marketing. In the absence of a significant objection from more of the organic community, I don’t want to support the “super brand.”

So, these are my reasons for not buying organic products. I feel perfectly comfortable buying the alternatives that align with my practical, idealistic and ethical standards.

Steve Savage – you are welcome to comment here and/or to send me an email ([email protected] ).

This article originally appeared in Forbes here and was reposted with permission from the author.

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 14 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc.

75 thoughts on “Why one scientist refuses to buy organic foods”

  1. Excellent article, Steve, and you reflect my own personal perspectives 100%. I avoid organic food for the same reasons, and ask my local supermarket to stock non-organic varieties of vegetables all the time. The sanctimony and hype, in addition to the less sustainable cropping systems used by organic, drive my own decision.

  2. Its well established that consuming glyphosate residues are actually good for the liver, kidneys, and neurological function. Hopefully the EPA will continue to expand the edible limits of glyphosate residues so that GM crops can continue to save the planet. Lets all have an extra teaspoon of glyphosate in our cereal in the morning, as a show of solitary! I for one am really pumped up to know that glyphosate residues are in all of our beers and feminine hygiene products. Can’t wait for the next great revelation of how we can add more glyphosate residue into the human environment. Great article, Steve, keep up the wonderful work!

    • Jim, Ha. Ha. Ha. Slow clap.
      For you, and your made-up mindset, your very best option is to eat organic. Or eat non-GMO certified. Yup, that’s your best bet. Have a great lunch at Chipotle on me.

    • Interesting. I’m not sure where in the article “adding more glyphosate residue” was ever discussed. Are you perhaps attempting to use sarcasm to demonize one pesticide because you don’t understand pesticides or toxicology?

    • I think Jimmy prefers his organic food with a natural mycotoxin sauce and a fresh feces e-coli garnish. Great work Jimmy, keep eating that stuff!

      ps. Have you been to Chipotle’s lately?

    • I’ve used roundup since it was a available. It is a miracle product and I am still alive. Science has shown it to be safe and effective. I prefer to trust the science rather than the anti vax, anti GMO and the ignorant pro organic crew. Those people are the ones that only read articles from places like natural news and believe anything that already confirms their biases. I have cut back dramatically on the amount I drive in fossil fuel propelled vehicles, because once again, I believe the almost total majority of scientists that concede to the fact that fossil fuels drive global warming. Some people (A huge amount in society) need to read the studies, peer reviews and more importantly, gain a basic understanding of scientific method.

    • Jim, I’ve spent a lot of time at Steve’s Applied Mythology page and have no doubt at all of his credentials, expertise or sincerity. If you are a regular visitor to this site you must know about the shikimate pathway and thus why glyphosate poses no risks to humans. As a businessman I have no objections to someone creating a unique brand image that promotes wide adoption of a product and higher sales margins, but I don’t see why that should be allowed via false advertising and demonizing the competition.

    • You seem very practiced at glibly rolling out lies and misinformation. Must be all that practice as a blind proponent of organic big business. I have no issue with people who want to grow and eat “organic”. Understand that the only truly “organic” food you have access to comes out of your own garden. As for the rest, you are entitled to your opinion. Your comment above is just an extreme example of how you seem to feel you are entitled to your own set of facts as well.

      • You are much more likely to die from eating food grown at home. Homeowners generally do not even have a 1st grade understanding of Agronomy or crop production. They routinely over fertilize and over apply pesticides.

  3. Excellent article, Steve. The day that the “organic” industry adopts biotechnology (including transgenics and gene editing) for their cropping systems is the day that I will willingly buy their products. By demonizing GMOs the organic industry has missed out on a great opportunity to alleviate its own dependence upon chemical pesticides to produce the meager amounts of food that they do manage to put out for their customers to consume.

  4. “Compost, which is a major input for organic farms, has a shockingly high “carbon footprint” because of methane emissions.”

    Did you really just say that? LOL. So we should eat less food then, because it is making too much compost? Or we should scatter our food waste around rather than gathering it up, because that will cause it to make less methane? It seems obvious to me that utulizing compost, rather than discarding it, thus causing more plants to grow more vigorously in improved soils, would contribute towards more carbon being pulled from the atmosphere, rather than the other way round.

    A climax ecosystem pulls the most carbon from the atmosphere; yet of course all this biomass must decay, releasing the carbon again. There is an interdependent relationship between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the biomass. It’s really not fanciful thinking to simplify this and state that an ideal system is one in which everything is at its most alive. Applying killing substances to any part of the system weakens the system. It’s really very simple. I’m probably wasting my time, though.

    I think also that despite your assurances to the contrary, you are conflating “organic food” with the USDA’s (questionable) organic standards. There’s no doubt that properly grown organic food has a superior nutritional profile, before we even get to the issues of soil health. It was demonstrated before the organic movement even began that disrupting the soil’s natural balance and microorganisms with chemical additives was an absolute disaster.

    Perhaps you should retitle it “Why a certain scientist chooses conventional over USDA organic foods”? That would be more accurate, would it not?

  5. Another great article from Steve. I avoid buying organic foods, for reason #3 (ethical) and because they are usually far more expensive. I know the science and I know the products – it’s a simple decision to make.

  6. Ive been doing that for awhile now and boycott products that claim they are non GMO. Like ben and jerrys. While they were my favorite at one time, giving them my money to push their ignorance makes me feel just as bad as they are.

    • Same here. I’ll buy organic whatevers if I have no other choice (eg the conventional stuff at my local Save-On has been picked through already), but I actively refuse to buy anything with the “Non-GMO Certified” label on it.

  7. It may surprise most people to read and see for yourself the rules for organic compliance. There are allowable practices, but the question of ethics is reliant upon each player in the game. There will be no system here which is 100% reliable. I don’t buy organic personally because the same reasons stated here: actual risk versus significantly higher cost. Take a look at retail organic spice cost at an organic store. Highway robbery. That turmeric may cost you $60, but what you’re eating is not safer. Food safety is not even mentioned here, and isn’t that highest priority?

    • Almost all spices in the USA are irradiated – usually with nuclear, toxic krap. What do we know about radiation?

      Well, University of Calcutta took people that were malnourished. Control group, microwave irradiated meal group, nuclear irradiated food group.

      NEITHER of the irradiated food groups got better. When they ate healthy foods, that brought them health. Think of it this way – buy $1,000 worth of food. If you put that food in the microwave – you just threw away $700 of that food. Not to mention the increased carcinogenicity, the increased endocrine damage to you….proteins folded wrong, etc.

      I get my spices in bulk at the coop and they are WAY CHEAPER than the grocery store- organic or not. Fresher, not irradiated, (so the health benefits are still there) etc.

      • baboon, take a deep breath and try to get this: The rays don’t stay in the food. The food is sterilized. What’s “krap” (your term) is what you posted.

  8. Well, Rodale Institute has grown conventional vs organic field and row crops right next to each other – literally – for 30 years, and the production is just SLIGHTLY below conventional. EXCEPT.

    If your year is dry? Organic is more productive. If the spring is very wet? Organic is much more productive.

    You mention HUMAN safety. Your definition is no doubt lacking. When you use biocides you NEVER take into account the toxic synergy btwn chemicals. There are actually studies (non-industry funded probably) which prove that using ammonium nitrate, the common commercial fertilizer (studies prove that over time it reduces nitrogen in your fields – just like the studies from the 1930s.) and use a family of fungicides – the endocrine disruption is about a thousand times greater than the fungicide alone. It has been known to change the sex of frogs.

    Don’t give me that corporate story line about how some african frogs do that naturally – we’re talking USA, we’re talking leopard and bullfrogs, we’re talking massive endocrine disruption as the cause – NOT nature.

    i’m (ironically) NOT a huge fan of organic because it’s primarily a less toxic and more nutritious food – although this is true DESPITE this scientist’s claims. When ground is tilled and when biocides are used the soil life dies off to degree – and new studies prove that about 30% of our messenger molecules in our bodies are SOIL PROBIOTICS which are disturbed or killed from tilling and poisons.

    As for the nutrition and lower poison levels – in 1977 Duke U published the first comparison btwn organic and conventional food trace mineral levels. Organic foods had up to 200% more of many of them. At the time, conventional farmers laughed at those fools putting minerals on their plants – but now THEY do it routinely – and think that they invented the process! Toxicity. There is very little testing, roundup is difficult/expensive to test for, but every human and animal in the US tested for roundup contamination has proven to be roundup contaminated. (Sidebar to nutrition – roundup GUARANTEES decreased nutrition since it binds/chelates over 20 minerals you NEED to be healthy…) There are over 800 poisons used on US crops. There are only tests for about 60 of them the last time i’d heard. Unless you have had your head up a dark smell place lately, you know that atrazine is all over the everywhere. Roundup is in almost all acquifers. When any of these petro-poisons is treated in a system treating with chlorine (bad idea) you make trihalomethanes – which are carcinogenic. So you have these in every city’s water supply, courtesy of your farm poison maker and application.

    What nutrients do these studies look for when they pretend that organic is no more nutritious? Obviously, since conventional decided to JOIN in the application of trace minerals that aspect should for the most part become closer to organic levels, but are they measuring antioxidant levels? Terpenes? Plant messenger molecules to deter insects? Lipid production to make a protective waxy coating? All of these metabolic steps are reduced when you apply pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to plants and soil.

    i don’t care if the author is a scientist, and i think as far as he goes he is reasoning pretty well, but he forgets other aspects – as do virtually all the GMO supporters.

    One: Your current “conventional ag system” is totally and impossibly unsustainable. You use ten to twelve calories of energy to get one calorie of food to the table. With peak oil past, you CANNOT SUSTAIN THIS level of energy usage – and the costs of that are borne by the taxpayer in multiple ways and subsidies to farmers, energy producing corporations and every step in between. So your conventional food costs MORE than organic foods – who don’t get subsidies.

    If we were really “man the wise” (homo sapiens) we’d switch over to permaculture within 20 years, heal the deserts, heal the waters, place our planet’s oxygen production levels back to normal from the current missing 33% + that poisons, bad ag practices, petro toxicity, and plastics are causing. With permaculture, we could grow MORE food than we currently do, with more nutrition, no poisons, improve the land and environment AND do so with 6% to 10% of the energy that we use right now. We could grow this in our yards, in the cities and ‘burbs, small farms and some of the larger ones – and let the “wildlands” (wilderness is a bullshit concept that needs to get shot down for good) be managed for increased life/production/recreation.

      • When you switch to organic farming – it takes at LEAST three years to clean out the poisons from the soil and then have your production start to increase from that point on. Depends on your land and prior usage.

        http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/farming-systems-trial-30-year-report/

        As for the mycorrhizal connections – read the book “Mycorrhizal Planet” from Chelsea Green publishers that came out this Feb.

        Anything i said about GMOs can probably be found in the “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth” book by Steven Druker. He has a bet with Monsanto – if they find any bad science or anything taken out of context – he will pay Monsanto one million dollars.

        He still has his money, because his book is heavily researched truth.

  9. I am a scientist, and have been boycotting organic food in my personal shopping for >10 years now. Great article, but perhaps one more important reason Steve missed: organic farming requires up to 40% more input of resources (acreage, water, fuel etc) to produce the same amount of food as conventional. It is therefore an obnoxious privilege of the first-world inhabitants to chose organic, given the quickly diminishing global resources and increasing population. It is environmentally irresponsible to eat organic!

    • Not true. Conventional agriculture externalizes its costs making its products appear cheaper than they are. It never includes energy costs of fertilizer manufacturing and mining. It never includes remediation costs of pollution to water ways, depletion of aquifers, loss of topsoil etc. loss of biodiversity, GMO-pesticide resistance forcing, and scores of other environmental harms. It never includes the staggering healthcare costs of cancer, antibiotic resistance, and other health issues that conventionally produced food causes. All of these costs have yet to be added to the price of so called cheap conventionally produced food. Organic food is therefore cheaper, healthier and better for the environment.

      • And organic agriculture “externalizes” all of its negative factors such as increased exposure to mycotoxins and other naturally produced toxins with staggering effects in terms of hidden healthcare costs due to preventable chronic disease. Organic promoters willfully, religiously ignore the deleterious environmental costs from moldboard plowing and other energy intensive tillage systems that have been eclipsed by modern conventional agriculture. Organic agriculture, espoused and advocated by armchair farmers who have zero experience or education in how to grow anything, is propounding a staggering dependence on fossil fuels and animal wastes for crop nutrition, all to the expense of environmental integrity. You will pay, someday, for your retrograde advocacy that unnecessarily degrades human and environmental health. The court of public and scientific opinion weighs extremely unfavorably against your recalcitrance in terms of protecting the ecosystem on which humans and other inhabitants of the earth depend. The history books of the future will portray organic farming advocates much the same as whale butchers and slave traders of the 19th century.

  10. It’s amazing how the Anti-GMO trolls used to laugh at Genetic literacy links, and now they are regularly trolling here. Do they really think they can convince science literate individuals that GMO are not safe and organic is worth the extra money/better for the environment/healthier? My guess is they love to argue, and there is now to argue with on anti-GMO sites (as their movement continues to die).

  11. I completely agree with all of this, but my only concern, as an entomologist, is the effect some of these pesticides have on bees. Studies conducted at UC-Davis showed a statistically significant difference in native bee populations around organic farms compared to conventional farms. I’ve taken courses in insecticide toxicology, so I’m aware that there are different chemical classes of insecticides and that some (certain organophosphates) break down in sunlight very rapidly and can be used pre-harvest when the crop plant is long past flowering, so not hosting bee visitors. But the neonics are problematic, particularly for bumble bees, which pollinate many crops that honey bees are not as well morphologically “designed” to do. So I’m hoping we can become more discriminating in our use of those particular pesticides.

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