Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, August 26, 2005

The fault line in the organic debate

Consumption of inferior products has become a growth industry in affluent societies, particularly in the area of food and health where the fetish of "inferior is better, safer and healthier" has deep ideological roots. Terms such as "organic", "biodynamic", "all natural", "alternative therapies", "herbal" and "holistic" have lost any meaning that they may once have had and are to be understood as endowing a commodity with immeasurable, not fully definable, vital properties. The quintessential inferior vitalist product is the homeopathic remedy, whose mystic vitalist potency is derived from having virtually every last molecule of the "medication" diluted away.



The fault line in the organic debate

Organic foods are not better, they are merely the result of our enthusiasm for imperfection, argues Thomas R DeGregori


Saturday October 18, 2003
The Guardian

With the advent of the industrial revolution, one of the qualities that allegedly makes a craft item superior became its demonstrable inferiority. Before that time, increasing precision was one aspect of the way in which artisans sought to refine their craft. Nineteenth and 20th-century technology not only carried this refinement beyond the point that our hands or eyes can detect, it did so with mass production. Today some people will point with pride to the imperfections that indicate handcrafting...

Consumption of inferior products has become a growth industry in affluent societies, particularly in the area of food and health where the fetish of "inferior is better, safer and healthier" has deep ideological roots. Terms such as "organic", "biodynamic", "all natural", "alternative therapies", "herbal" and "holistic" have lost any meaning that they may once have had and are to be understood as endowing a commodity with immeasurable, not fully definable, vital properties. The quintessential inferior vitalist product is the homeopathic remedy, whose mystic vitalist potency is derived from having virtually every last molecule of the "medication" diluted away.

The ongoing vitalist revolt against the emergence of modern chemistry and agricultural science is most evident in food production and consumption. First it was claimed that it was impossible to synthesise an organic compound, and then it was argued that minerals could not be used to help plants grow. When these claims were disproved, the argument was made that the food grown using minerals as fertiliser lacked some vital or living force...

However post-modernists and others may attack modern science, it has permeated our society sufficiently that there is often a felt need to find scientific evidence to justify a belief, even essentially vitalist ideas such as the belief that "natural" is better. Having failed to prove that "organic" produce was superior in any other way, its proponents have now turned to the argument that its superiority results from its being less well protected from competitors, which means that it is being produced in an agronomically inferior way. After all, from the earliest agriculture, farmers have sought to protect their crops from competitors such as other plants, rodents, birds and microorganisms. In the attempt to find nutritional benefit in "organic" food crops on the basis of their being less well protected, the advocates are venturing into a minefield where there is a vast array of unexploded ordinance.

The "organic" enthusiasts never seem to tire of trying to find evidence of the superiority of their product. In March 2002, yet another study was announced that purported to show that "organic" vegetables were more nutritious than those that were conventionally grown. Canned soups made with "organic" vegetables were found to have a higher level of salicylic acid than vegetable soups that were not labelled "organic." These higher levels were the result of the fact that the organic plants were less well protected against various forms of infestations, and they expressed salicytes to protect against the invaders. Since farmers from time immemorial have sought to protect their crop, being less successful at it could be defined as being inferior, but this is an Orwellian inferiority where inferior is really superior.

The inferior-is-superior food fetish is harmless as long as it is the exercise of personal consumption practices of those who can afford it. But it has taken a nasty turn, as these ideas are now lined up in opposition to the use of the latest and best in modern science and technology to contribute to meeting the needs of a growing world population for improved nutrition provided in an environmentally sustainable way. When these ideas galvanise street protests, the burning of crops in the field and buildings, the destruction of research in improved crop production, and other actions that make advances in agriculture more difficult, then these ideas have become dangerous and must be countered vigorously and continuously with better ideas. Freedom of speech and freedom for research must protect the minority but also the majority that may wish to carry forward the enterprise of science/technology. This means that the laws protecting crops in the field, research, and researchers must be enforced. Modern agricultural science has given us much and our task is both to defend it and to find ways to allow access to those who have not fully realised these benefits.

ยท Thomas R DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming book Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate (Iowa State Press)








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