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Don’t waste your money on organic fruit and veg

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I don’t much care for the prices, the bad science, or the fruit and veg, but there’s lots of lovely and delicious foods in organic food shops

Overheard middle-class conversation: “I really want to switch to all organic fruit and veg – it’s just so expensive.”

“Sometimes I feel really guilty buying non-organic,” said the other woman. “It’s just so bad for the environment.”

“Can’t be good for your health either. All those toxins.”

They’re both wrong. Organic isn’t better for you. Eating organic food won’t stop imaginary toxins from bypassing your liver and making you sick. Buying organic can potentially cause greater harm to the environment. Eating local is no guarantee of reducing your carbon footprint; choosing seasonal food is more important.

Yesterday, I wrote about where you’ might find good value on fruit and veg. I didn’t mention organic food for a very good reason: with the possible exception of Lidl’s range, it is usually more expensive.

If everybody switched to organic – if they could afford to – the pressures on the land would increase exponentially, as much more space would be required to grow crops. The result? More trees chopped down. That has to be weighed against the harmful effects of a small number of pesticides. We need more efficient agriculture, based on sustainable and scientific methods, says Brian Dunning, an excellent American writer who debunks pseudoscience at Skeptoid.com:

I say we dump the useless paranormal objections to foods freighted with evil corporate hate energy, and instead use our brains to our advantage for once. When we find a better way to grow the same crop faster, stronger, healthier, and on less acreage, let’s do it. We all benefit.

I don’t entirely agree with Dunning; corporate concentration of food has, for instance, led to the very sad demise of diversity in fruit and vegetables, ultimately taking away our choices and limiting competition – Seedsavers does great work here. It’s also clear that some non-organic pesticides, such as one produced by Bayer, are causing major harm to the world’s bees, an insect that is vital for our food supply. We do need to cast a very skeptical eye over corporate agriculture.

But Dunning does have a point. The majority of modern pesticides do not leave harmful residues, and many “organic” or “natural” pesticides – including sewerage or fungicides – are far worse for the environment than safe, synthetic options. “Natural” is not always better: think of snake venom. All in all, there’s a wrong-headed idea that organic food production will lead to environmental utopia. It’s not: it too has costs. Skeptoid has a useful and informative article on the topic.

Something to Chew OnProfessor Mike Gibney,  Director of the UCD Institute of Food and Health and author of a recently published popular science book “Something to chew on: Challenging controversies in food and health”, wrote last year in The Irish Times that organically grown food is nutritionally identical to conventional food (Prof Gibney’s book is available at www.ucdpress.ie).

Blind taste tests have shown that non-organic food actually tends to be tastier. In this video, the always hilarious Penn and Teller have an interesting, albeit extreme view: “Organic food is another f**king religion, and few people can face facts that defy their faith, even when they’ve sucked that fact into their own mouth.”

Then there’s cost: organic is more expensive and when you look at the evidence, the higher price isn’t worth it. Organic food is a costly and unnecessary luxury, and it’s out of many people’s reach.

In spite of all the evidence against organic food, I will admit to being slightly dazzled by its marketing allure, and places like Blackrock’s The Organic Shop do sell a lot of delicious food products. But I’ve developed resistance. I don’t object to eating it at all, it’s just no longer something I’m prepared to waste my money on. You shouldn’t either.

What are your own views on organic food? 



32 Comments

  1. Excellent post Peter! I sign under it.
    I think that one of the problems with modern and future food production to a growing world population is that we eat too much, far more than we actually need. At this pace, corporate agriculture and mass food production is inescapable, and the environment and our health (not to mention our waist) suffers for it…

  2. Thanks for this post as it’s always good to reevaluate our positions. Indeed we fool ourselves if we think there’s any substantive difference between big conventional ag and big organic ag. Also if we think organic pesticide is any less of a poison that non-organic. But, do you not see any worth to organic production at all? Are organic farmers just deluding themselves? Does it really all boil down to “cheaper is better?”

    Also, please elaborate on this statement: “Eating local is no guarantee of reducing your carbon footprint; choosing seasonal food is more important.” There must be a connection between seasonal and local, otherwise one could justify eating anything as any food is seasonal somewhere in the world.

  3. I understand the concept of a misplaced idea with organic food in terms of it leading to an environmental utopia but the essence of what we are striving toward with organic production food I believe, in essence, is valid.

    ‘When we find a better way to grow the same crop faster, stronger, healthier, and on less acreage, let’s do it. We all benefit’

    I disagree: More intensive/ greater yield Agri when based on ‘scientific and sustainable’ methods does not ensure the outcome of these innovations is sound or safe or moral; both for the people producing these foods and those eating them.
    There is a connection between seasonal and local and perhaps it is this we should be championing over organic. But I am glad the organic debate exists: we can be a nation happily chomping away on intensively farmed, pesticide rich GMM food grown artificially out of season for next to nothing by a budget supermarket (look how cheap this is! and it tastes great!) without once questioning provenance or the cost to the lives of the people that produce the food or the long-term risk because we falsely believe that science has managed to provide for us.

  4. Bill, there is a connection between seasonal and local – it’s just not a guarantee. If apples are flown all the way from New Zealand because they are seasonal, it has a carbon footprint, but less of a carbon footprint than local Irish apples that have been in refridgeration for several months. Consumers can’t always take it for granted.

  5. Organic carrots and eggs taste infinitely better than non-organic and for that reason alone, I will continue to buy them.

  6. Peter, oh, so you did mean seasonal anywhere in the world. Seasonal and local are more connected in my mind. When apples aren’t in season here I just tend not to eat apples.

  7. Great topic,
    The reason I try to buy organic is to avoid GM food, and support local producers. I don’t subscribe to the big companies hijacking the organic name and not adhering to the same practices as the dedicated smaller producer, ie organic eggs, they may feed their chickens with organic feed but have they access to roam and behave like chickens? Free range in this instance would trump organic. Free range organic Irish chicken, yay!
    I would not dismiss the idea of eating organically as an idealistic utopia, I truly believe it is better for the environment and the workers if the earth is trated with respect.
    Just my 2 cents worth ;)

  8. Nikki, EU regulations on organics require at least the same conditions as free-range. So, chickens labeled organic must also be free-range. Of course, all free-range means is that the animals must have access to the outside, not they ever actually go outside. Still better conditions than intensively-reared chickens.

    Peter, you said nothing about eggs, meat and dairy. Is that for another post?

  9. Oh thanks Bill, was not aware of that!

  10. Peter,

    Interesting points but you’re being misled by sceptic propaganda, which is pernickety and zealous but misses the bigger picture. Of course, there are individuals and corporations who will take advantage of the organic trend but on the whole, the ethos of the organic movement has way more to offer our health and our environment.
    There is no way organic food has less nutritional benefits than monoculture, where only 3 minerals are replaced in the soil rather than a whole array of trace minerals. Nor I am I in any way convinced that pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers that kill insects and plants are harmless to my system.
    There are some great comments above and I’d agree there is no comparison between the taste of organic and non-organic animal products. It’s also true I’ve never bought eggs as beautifully coloured and as tasty as my own but those hens have an amazing selection of scraps! And as an animal lover, I cannot stomach non-organic meat or eggs. You can’t compare Lidl/Aldi/Dunnes organic with farmers market produce either, the taste difference is huge!
    As Leona says, more and faster is not necessarily better, in fact the opposite is true. We consume far too much food in general without any respect for the process that gets cheap food to our plates. Obviously your ‘thing’ is cheap food and yeah, we’re all struggling, but I will pay a good price for good good any day.
    The central tenet of the organic movement is consideration for the people and environment involved in feeding our ever-growing appetite.

  11. Paula, famers’ markets offer no organic guarantee, just freshness.

  12. Thanks Claire, I’m aware of that :)

  13. I agree with Claire, organic apples, carrots and eggs just taste better.
    My worry is not so much about fruits and vegs and pesticides (although I would want to see some long term studies that span about 70 years and see the real effects a lifelong exposure to pesticides has on individuals). It’s meat and fish and dairy products. Surely, the antibiotics and hormones given to the animals can’t be good for people who consume them, can they?

  14. I’ve yet to see any evidence that organic fruit and vegetables are better for human health, or the environment. Of course, there are huge variations in standard of fruit and veg, but blind taste tests suggest that this can’t be put down to whether or not they are organic. Of course, if new evidence emerges which paints a different picture, I’m sure I would feel different.
    I very specifically spoke of organic fruit and vegetables because there are more solid arguments for choosing organic meat if you can afford it, particularly from an animal welfare point of view. It’s not quite that cheap food is my “thing” – I am conscious of good value and appreciate the hugely important contribution of locally grown food sold outside of supermarkets, particularly farmer’s markets. There are very solid ethical reasons for supporting them, not least the benefit to your own community. if it is within your means, and you’re able to buy local, it can make a real difference to local communities – not just from an economic point of view. I just don’t blindly accept that organic food does constitute good value.

  15. “you’re being misled by sceptic propaganda” – wow, taht’s a bit patronising. Just cause people have a different opinion than you, doesn’t make them stupid.

  16. there’s also the fact that GM and other non-organic methods have reduced biodiversity, have not actually led to any reduction in world hunger and in many cases these intensive methods of farming have led to soil degradation,making the world’s food supply more uncertain. which ultimately leads to higher food prices whether organic or not

  17. Really?

    Organic isn’t better for you?
    Organic is a waste of money.

    Little bit strong on the blanket statements?

    I’m usually a fan of cheapeats
    not one of your better articles.

  18. Those of you wishing to avoid genetically modified food will find yourself very hungry very quickly. As a race we have been genetically modifying food for as long as we have farmed food.

    Selective breeding has produced the vast majority of the current strains of food crops and animals. People have been crossing strains of crops with favourable traits for thousands of years, producing crops that are not always safe.

    Those of you who object to the modern form of genetic modification might want to take a second look at the process. In modern GM one specific gene is introduced into a plant without any others, all changes to the plant are known and the food is extensively tested. Compare that to modern breeding methods where countless unknown genes are added and this crop can now be sold without any testing or licensing. It is remarkably easy to breed highly toxic potatoes by cross breeding stains.

  19. Lots of misinformation you’re putting out there. Actually studies show organic has as much as 60% more nutrients, crop yields are higher over the long term, and is a sustainable form of agriculture and conventional methods deplete the soil. These are not “opinions” as one commenter put it. These are well established research results. You should actually read some of the studies before you write articles.

  20. Sorry BB, but yes, really. The evidence points that way.
    55555: I’m completely open to seeing those studies and changing my mind if the evidence points that way, I’m not dogmatically attached to this viewpoint in the same way that many proponents of organic food seem to be. Could you send me a link to those studies? I haven’t been able to find any.
    There is a good case to be made for organic meat, which is why I’ve focused here on fruit and vegetables.

  21. “I’m not dogmatically attached to this viewpoint in the same way that many proponents of organic food seem to be. ”

    Very condescending attitude right there. As it is in the original post.

  22. There are so many ways that you can decide to measure what is better for you. Have you really thought of them all, and can refute them beyond doubt? How can you seriously support a claim like yours that “organic is a waste of money”.

    I’d like to politely suggest one such way you might not have considered. Dr Ollie Moore talks about bio-diversity and the effects of farming techniques can have on bio-diversity.

    http://olivermoore.blogspot.ie/2012/07/where-have-all-farm-birds-gone.html

    I for one would consider bio-diversity to be a not inconsiderable part of the bigger picture of what is better for me.

    Have you become the arbiter of what is better for me? Can you still really say that organic is a waste of money? Blanket statement. No room for judgement?

    This is not a soccer match, or a profit and loss statement where the facts are black and white and completely self evident. 2-0. The winner is clear. Sorry Peter, it isn’t so simple. It cannot be trivialised into a 5 paragraph article with blanket claims you’re putting forward.

  23. Very interesting piece BB, and certainly bio-diversity is worth considering as part of the overall picture. Organic food is perhaps a little more likely to be bio-diverse on a local level, but not necessarily. A small, local farmer at a market may be equally as bio-diverse, while still using pesticides. And some of those pesticides may be a lot better for you than the large volumes of organic manure applied to certain crops, such as lettuce, which has been associated with severe food poisoning and deaths throughout Europe and beyond. Meanwhile, on a macro-level, organic farming produces less food, and requires more acreage.
    Just look at the organic fruit and veg section in major supermarkets. They’re often from major food producers and farmers and there is no compunction on them to be biodiverse: they’re simply producing as many organic bananas, potatoes, carrots etc per acre as they possibly can.
    Surely it’s worth questioning whether we are, in fact, getting what we think we are getting, rather than assuming that we are being told the truth about organic produce because it appears, on the face of it, to answer the ethical problems that concern us. I’m not anti-organic or pro-corporate, and I don’t blithely dismiss the impact of consumer decisions on the long-term health of the planet. I’m in favour of looking objectively at the evidence. If conventionally grown food can be ethical or environmentally friendly while delivering better results, I don’t see the objection.

    Of course I haven’t thought of everything! There is little, if anything, that I would claim to be able to refute beyond all doubt. I don’t have the scientific training for that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put forward some information and viewpoints: if that was the case, then nobody could comment on any aspect of food, science, or, well, anything.

    There’s many aspects to this issue and I’ve only touched on a few of them. In no way do I purport to be the definitive voice, nor am I trying to becoming the arbiter of what is better for you, or anyone. I’m just outlining *some*, and only *some* of the facts as they are currently known, and putting forward a personal opinion based on those facts. It is a complex issue, and I’m very open to persuasion based on evidence. You’d need a book length treatment to really get into all these issues (if anyone would care to fund such a research project, please get in touch!)

  24. You can’t be serious….. pesticides are killing bee’s!!!! if we keep use it very soon there will be NOTHING to eat…. expensive or cheap!
    Since i switch to organic i only get flu once a year not 4-5 like before… less poison that week my immune system.
    Why are wrote this if you have no knowledge about this?

  25. Your reduced incidence of illness may be related to an increased intake of fruit and veg. Or maybe not. But anecdotes prove… well, nothing.

    • you are right. there is no point to argue. just keep eating yours tasty pesticides, drink diet coke with aspartame, brush yours teeth with fluoride, take a flu shoot to obey……
      Think is, you wrote this article like some expert who make a statement without any doubt. You should ask more questions and dig to the bottom of that subject. but just simple question: since when any chemicals is good for you and harmless?? There is no safety limits… they stay in your body and accumulate in yours cell’s in result of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes….
      You can do little test to check how many chemical is in yours body attach to yours cell’s . Take some wheat grass, barley grass, chlorella and you are going to feel very very sick when they all start to remove all toxins form cell’s thru your blood. But trust me and millions of others… after you are going to feel so good, full of energy with clear head. Then you understand what is real in cheap food.
      People can reverse diabetes with raw organic diet. watch a movie: simple raw, reversing diabetes in 30 days!!!. Last year some guy in Ireland try this and a “miracle”… its cure.
      And about me i eat the exactly same amount of veg like before.
      organic food its cheaper then non-organic because you have to spend a fortune for a medications after….

  26. You said that we need to use pesticides because there will be not enough food for every one… only Tesco in UK throw away in last 6 months 30 tons of food!!!! We produce more than we can eat! We can switch all food production in organic and still there will be more then enough.

  27. every year in UK 15 millions ton of food is wasted…

  28. sorry. tesco last 6 month….30 thousand tons…

  29. What a load of twaddle. You wont waste your money on organic food?
    If you consider looking after your health a waste of money then maybe the NHS should ban you from using it.

  30. What a great article..it made me consider my leaning towards organic goods! Thanks..
    One point though, go into Aldi and buy a bag of hazelnuts (€9/kg); go across to Tesco & buy a bag of organic hazelnuts (€30+ /kg!!!)…go home and compare the two!! The proof is in the pudding (or nuts).

    In short, Mr Tesco has big, round, solid, juicy organic nuts but a sack full will cost you dearly, (the gay-community are going to love this post) …but I eat a lots of nuts. I know. “Think less, feel more.”

    Peace

  31. also this is relevant here, maybe shopping for fruits & veg needs to be a meditational experience…

    No-Thought for the Day ®

    Mind functions in ´either/or´ way:
    either this can be right or its opposite can be right.
    Both together cannot be right — as far as mind,
    its logic, its rationality is concerned.
    If mind is ´either/or´ then the heart is ´both/and.´
    The heart has no logic, but a sensitivity, a perceptivity.
    It can see that they both can not only be together, in fact they are not two.
    It is just one phenomenon seen from two different aspects.

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