TCS Daily

Meet the Organiks

By C. C. Kraemer - June 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Never challenge organiks about the virtues of their food. Their fanatical faith in the imaginary benefits of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat free of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics and hormones will result in contemptuous looks, moralizing lectures and a general condescension toward anyone dim enough to think that perhaps conventionally grown foods are not inferior.

Southern California, with its year-round growing season, is filled with farmers markets that meet every week in blocked-off city streets and parking lots. Most of these markets have vendors who sell conventional produce. But what really sends a large segment of customers -- whether they're at a large, almost legendary market in Santa Monica, or a smaller one in Culver City -- into a rapturous state are the farmers who sell organically grown produce.

The strong attraction of organic food also suspends logic among the faithful. Don't worry about brushing the crusty grime off those sample tomatoes, they'll say, because they're organic -- as if it's OK to ingest dirt just as long as it doesn't have any chemicals in it.

Some of the over-the-edge customers might be worse, though. Suggest to a vendor that maybe $1 is too much to pay for a small bunch of green onions simply because they're organic and be prepared for the sermons from true believers standing nearby who will say with an unqualified certainty that anyone who cares about their health will always choose organic over conventionally grown food. Expect the obligatory lecture about the scourge that fertilizers and pesticides inflict on the environment to follow.

With a customer mix that includes new-agey corporation haters, society dropouts, health-conscious trendy professionals and various eccentrics obsessive over their food purchases, it's no surprise that organic growers have been battling the Bush administration over how "organic" food is to be defined. Organic growers want to keep the standards that were set in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The administration wanted to allow exceptions.

The dispute is a big deal to the $13 billion industry and its dedicated customer base. But the dispute is all about marketing -- not health. Science tells us that conventionally grown foods are no less healthy than foods grown without synthetic substances.

"There are no palpable benefits to organically grown foods," says Dr. Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former Food and Drug Administration official.

Miller isn't a lone voice out there babbling nonsense. There are dozens of independent analyses -- those from health and cancer institutions included -- that have said the same thing.

Yet an unshakable belief persists, which allows the industry to exploit those who cling to it so fiercely. What's surprising is that the industry sometimes slips instead of consistently perpetuating a myth that protects its bankroll. While at an industry forum last year, for instances, Chuck Marcy, CEO of Horizon Organic Dairy, acknowledged that consumers buy organic "because they think it's healthier, safer or more nutritious."

"It doesn't matter what's true," Marcy said, "it matters what consumers think."

The Soil Association, the organic farming authority in Great Britain, has admitted just what Marcy let slide. It issued a report that says the "perception that organic food 'is better for you' appears to have been largely based on intuition rather than conclusive evidence."

Even worse for the organic story is the fact that conventionally grown foods can actually be healthier than organic foods. Because they are treated are chemical pesticides, conventional produce, Miller says, is not as susceptible to the dangerous toxins that can get into organic foods, which can be riddled with punctures from insect activity that allow the toxins to penetrate the food.

The use of manure as a fertilizer in organic growing also poses a mortal danger. Sometimes the nasty bacteria present in the manure have led to sickness and death. This happened a few years ago when a Colorado toddler died from drinking organic apple juice that contained E. coli. Several others in the multistate outbreak fared better -- they only got sick.

Even natural pesticides that growers are allowed to use and still maintain the organic status of their food can be harmful. Pyrethrum, a widely employed natural pesticide, has been reclassified as a "likely human carcinogen" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That was in the late 1990s. A year or so later, it was determined that rotenone, a natural insecticide, causes symptoms of Parkinson's disease in rats.

As bleak as this seems for organic food, things might actually be worse, notes Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute.

"Bruce Ames, noted cancer expert and recent winner of the National Medal of Science," Avery once wrote in the New York Post, "notes that more than half of the natural food chemicals he tests come up carcinogenic -- the same proportion as synthetic chemicals."

Not that a single organik would believe it. Or care. Their scorn for man and blind trust in nature are too deeply ingrained.


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