The Church of the Organic

By Keith Kloor | February 7, 2014 2:45 pm

As I have discovered,  there are numerous ways to get yourself on the outs with groups of people who otherwise share your values and politics. You could, for example, call out screechy climate demagogues or critique the rhetoric of saintly, well-meaning climate activists.

You could also argue that environmentalism needs to be reinvented and make the case that some of the holiest leaders of the green movement are agenda-driven ideologues who spread urban legends. Even better: Take on a beloved, celebrated leader of the food movement or criticize irresponsible fear-mongering of GMOs in the media. One day I’ll write a book called, “How to lose friends and piss off everyone else.”

But there’s one sacred cow even I have mostly avoided skewering: The Church of the Organic. And that’s because I have been a parishioner. (Gasp!) But trust me when I say it’s really out of lazy habit. And I only started worshipping there after I had kids, just to be…you know…on the safe side. I’m like that agnostic who doesn’t want to rule out the existence of god, just in case…

I know, it’s cowardly. But as a cigarette-smoking neighbor told me recently, “everybody has to have at least one vice.”  And mine is paying large sums of money to support my delusion that organic produce and dairy are healthier than conventional foods.

But Melinda Wenner Moyer, who once apparently shared this delusion also out of love for her kids, has recently dared to go where few tread: Behind the Sacral Organic curtain, in search of deeper understanding. What she found wasn’t pretty, yo:

we should stop worrying so much about whether the apples we buy are organic or conventional—we should just start giving our kids more apples.

You need to understand that this is truly heretical, like that Galileo affair.

Even before Moyer looked closely at the science, she tried to cushion her shocking findings with caveats and soothing platitudes. She prostrated herself at the Sacral Organic curtain and all but pleaded, “I come in peace.”

You think it matters? Last I heard, an alarm went off when she tried to enter Whole Foods the other day (and she had a wig on!). There is no going back once you step over to the dark side. Take it from me.

There are new joys that await Melinda, though. She can now share Portlandia clips with other heathens, who in turn will share skits like this with her.

It’s not easy taking on a church, but it is liberating.

UPDATE: Rest assured, I get that the clip above is a clever advertisement for the organic industry. I still find it hilarious. I also think the same exact parody could be made of organic. (Meanwhile, this fun.)

[H/T: Jayson Lusk]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: organic food, science, select
MORE ABOUT: GMOs, organic foods, science
  • J M

    Why do people want to believe all this nonsense about organic food? Especially educated people? Is it a reaction to something?

    Please, educate me. My roots were never green ;)

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      I think you can get a sense of this by watching the Penn & Teller clip I link to in the post–in an update at end.

    • Jim

      Makes people feel like they are doing something when they don’t actually want to do something. In this case buying Organic hits on so many things that they feel they are doing. health, environment, helping the little guy, sticking it to the man.

      • JH

        I know! Isn’t it beautiful? They want to pay more so that they can feel lmore healthy and you can be more wealthy! Go organic!

        • J M

          So it’s basically the same motivation as in being a vegan. You save yourself from perceived evils ethical, biological and chemical – and save the world.
          The fact that I grew up in the country probably explains why these high-flying notions fail to impress me.

          • JH

            Western culture today is driven by high-flying notions of the purported morality of one’s impact on the planet. May as well make a little cash on it.

          • J M

            Living in a capitalist world, it is also nice to know that you can buy yourself a piece of clean conscience, or, dare I say, inkling of moral superiority, by shopping upmarket ;)

          • JH

            Ah, branding is a beautiful thing.

  • mem_somerville

    It’s so cute how the organic industry themselves don’t think their pesticides are toxins, and they have forgotten to tell people about the antibiotics they use.

    But it does make me laugh when they pitch their “natural” processed foods too. I agree with you on that.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Rodney Mangum

      The difference is that Bt toxin used by organic farmers is sprayed on plants, can be washed off and degrades in sunlight. Bt GMO’s have the Bt toxins within the plant cell DNA, cannot be washed off and thus is consumed. The bacteria that produces this toxin is a soil bacteria and is not meant to be ingested. I always soak my vegetables in a vinegar water solution before preparing. Alice Mangum.

      • mem_somerville

        Wow. How do you get the ones out of the plants that occur naturally? http://www.pnas.org/content/87/19/7777.abstract

        Tell me how you extract the caffeine please. I did it once in college but that was a while ago.

      • jschlue2

        And if you knew what you were talking about, you would realize that those “toxins” are only harmful to you if you’re an insect.

    • briarlee

      The farmers my daughter works for don’t use pesticides or antibiotics. They lose some to pests, and work hard to hand pick the bugs off the others.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Rodney Mangum

    I grew up on a farm and I have always had a garden, Nothing beats homegrown tomatoes and growing your own vegetables. That being said you can keep your Bt and herbicide laden GMO’s. These crops are chemical and water intensive and are a danger to biodiversity. These crops were designed to make profit not more food. My roots have always been green. Alice Mangum

    • Buddy199

      Ugh…

  • Buddy199

    First of all, what exactly does “organic” even mean? There’s no precise scientific definition as there is for, say, potassium chloride. It’s a marketing label more than anything else.

    And have there ever been serious studies that demonstrate increased longevity and decreased morbidity by eating over-priced Whole Foods quail eggs and conflict free spinach?

    What a crock of sh*t; honest to God (deference to KK’s preference for small g). Eat a reasonable amount of fresh vegetables, meat, fish, bread from the bakery, NYC (or other healthy) tap water and stay away from the garbage you know you shouldn’t over do it with and you’ll be just as healthy as your smug, insufferable neighbor whose sermons you try to avoid like the plague.

    • JH

      “It’s a marketing label more than anything else.”

      Oh, stop. Just be a capitalist and buy some WFM stock already! Shoppers are happy because even if they’re not doing the exact right thing, they’re doing it for the right reasons. And you’re happy because you know your making the right money. Right?

      • Buddy199

        The same buy-sell dynamic for any type of snake oil.

        • JH

          Well, I guess I see a difference. In one sense, they’re the same: a product that provides no benefit for the cost. In another sense, they’re different. People are selling themselves on organic. They don’t need a label advertising health benefits. That’s the whole point that keith is making.

          I for one am willing to let them think what they want – and buy what they want. I’ll just buy the stock.

  • curiositykeeper

    I used to get the same reaction from my friends in the 1990s when I mentioned overpopulation. The thing about the term “organic” is that it used to have meaning. Thirty years ago, twenty years ago, it meant something. Now, it’s become a marketing term. An “organic” apple might not have as many pesticides, but it was grown by a huge corporation; the mom and pop down the road isn’t organic, so the hipsters pass it by.

  • JH

    I believe in WFM and UNFI. Please, Keith, don’t ruin my retirement.

  • J M

    So, the dilemma with organic food is that there is no scientific basis on claims of the superior healthiness or environmental benefits of organic food/ organic agriculture.

    However, as I understand it, these claims are the raison d’etre of organic food and organic food movement.

    I guess many people think there is no “harm” in this… letting people indulge in pseudoscience in order to feel better about themselves.

    The problem, as I understand it, is that you cannot be selective in promoting pseudoscience and rejecting science. If you tolerate bullshit about vaccinations, nuclear, GMOs and organic food, what right do you have to reject other people’s bullshit about AGW or AIDS?

    • Buddy199

      The common thread is whether the science or pseudoscience supports your ideology; that’s the litmus test.

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  • http://LivingOrganic.org/ Amy Pearson

    Organic food is definitely growing as an industry.

  • DukeACB

    I’ve worked in agriculture for years, mostly on organic farms. I don’t eat exclusively organically-certified food. And I certainly don’t chastise people for eating things that aren’t organically produced. It’s a personal
    choice and I frankly don’t care what someone else decides to put in
    their body. But when I read the comments here it makes me
    disappointed, because I’m seeing a lot of uninformed people who
    haven’t taken the time to properly research this topic. Clearly, many
    of you have no agricultural knowledge and really don’t understand how
    these systems work.

    Like this comment: “First of all, what exactly does “organic” even mean? There’s no precise scientific definition as there is for, say, potassium chloride. It’s a marketing label more than anything else.”

    No precise scientific definition? Uh yeah, that’s because “organic agriculture” isn’t a chemical compound.

    Which brings me to the second part of the above comment: “It’s a marketing label more than anything else.” That comment is just lazy. Of course the organic label is a marketing tool. It’s a USDA-regulated certification with a strict set of rules that certain farmers follow because they believe it is a better way to manage our agricultural lands. If they go to the trouble of putting in this extra effort to farm organically and pay the fees for organic inspections and certifications, of course they are going to label and market their products as such.

    Finally, the discussion cannot simply be about whether organic foods are healthier for a person’s body. There are many commenters that wonder aloud about that question as if it is the only purported benefit of organic farming. That is such a simplistic view of this debate. One must look at the agricultural system as a whole and think about all of the ways that our agricultural land management affects our society.

    • Loren Eaton

      ‘….they believe it is a better way to manage our agricultural lands.’ And there’s the problem…THEY BELIEVE!!! And the USDA makes policy based on a belief system rather than hard data. Shame on them, then. And the growers who genuflect at this altar certainly don’t hesitate to demand hard science for GMO, pesticides and herbicides. Never mind the sense of entitlement that comes with the idea that neighboring conventional and GM growers must toe the mark so the organic marketing agreements can be maintained.

  • StanChaz

    We need regulation, not repression

  • StanChaz

    Personally, I prefer SUPER-natural food products.
    Truly magical.
    BELIEVE.

  • MediaOps

    The whole idea of organic food (and environmental protection in general) is to err on the side of caution, since no one can predict how the hundreds of food additives, pesticides, etc. will react with each other in the body. Just as no one can predict the full effects of environmental degradation (which usually turns out to be worse than predictions anyway).

    Even if a chemical is reasonably safe by itself, it can react in unpredictable ways with the hundreds of other chemicals in food, or even with the chlorine in drinking water, which, though safe by itself, can act as a potent catalyst even at low levels.

    Chemical interactions in the body are unpredictable because private companies seldom if ever do the necessary research. And as science & educational funding falls, universities do less and less research.

    Without the necessary research, knowing what is safe & what isn’t is like shooting craps.

    In the absence of knowledge, erring on the side of caution is really the only sane approach. Especially if you have a family.

    • Loren Eaton

      In the absence of knowledge? In the absence of knowledge about where cow manure is composted, why would you eat food fertilized with it? In the absence of knowledge, why would you assume that organic grain doesn’t have a higher level of fungal toxins?

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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