Washington Post story doesn’t do organic vs. non-organic question justice

04/19/2014 1:00 PM

04/19/2014 7:50 PM

As a big “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” fan, I enjoyed a recent Washington Post story

comparing organic and conventional foods in a different way than the author probably intended.

The piece was masterfully ludicrous in its premise, methodology and “bottom line” findings.

The second paragraph was a journalistic version of John Cleese’s patented silly walk:

“Leave aside for the moment whether organic agriculture is better for the planet and whether organic livestock have better lives, although there’s a strong case for both of those arguments. Leave aside flavor, too, because it’s subjective and variable.” Wait, what?

So right out of the gate, organic should be up three to zero over conventional. Everyone I know who buys organic food does so precisely because it is better for the planet, better for animals and tastes better. But the author wipes out those compelling reasons to buy organic because — well, just because.

Then we learn that “(w)hat motivates many organic buyers, particularly the parents of small children, is health benefits, and there are two questions: Do organics do us more good (in the form of better nutrition), and do they do us less harm (in the form of fewer contaminants and pathogens)?”

Yes, health benefits are also a reason for buying organic, on top of the three the author dismissed. But the health question doesn’t require a lot of heavy thinking: Is it better to eat foods that have been treated with chemical pesticides and hormones or ones that haven’t?

Breaking the question in two (more good/less harm) seems silly: If they do us less harm, they automatically do us more good.

And even when there is evidence organics do contain more nutrition, such as higher contents of heart-healthy, cancer-fighting omega-3 fats in organic milk, meat and eggs, the author writes, without citing a source, that the amounts are “probably too small to be very meaningful.” Probably?

In other instances, the author uses statements and reports by the USDA, FDA and EPA to say pesticide and hormone residues in conventional foods are “not significant.” That hardly meets the standard for objective scientific review.

The whole article read like satire. In four categories — milk, produce, meat and eggs — the author swats away evidence of higher nutritional content in organics and higher levels of pesticides and hormones in conventional food, concluding again and again that there are “probably” no “significant” differences.

For the fifth category — fish — we learn the U.S. has no organic standards, but Canada and the European Union do, so we just don’t know enough to know anything. Why include it?

The author doesn’t address potential longtime cumulative effects of consuming supposedly “tolerable” levels of a boatload of different chemicals and hormones. Nor does she mention food ingredients that were approved by the FDA and later withdrawn, such as Red Dye No. 2.

To me, the question is not, “Is it worth it to buy organic food?” The question is, “Is it worth it to put pesticides and hormones in your body to save money?”

And let’s not leave aside that organic agriculture is better for the planet and that organic livestock lead better lives and that organic food is more flavorful. Or forget how bias has crept into the language: One hundred years ago “conventional” agriculture was organic.

We all have to find our own answer when it comes to organic or non-organic. Let’s just be sure we are asking the right questions.

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