Organic Food? What A Load of Bok Choy

'Organic' is touted as being better for the environment and your health, but rarely is any no evidence offered - it's merely a marketing ploy designed to edge up a margin in a volume business.
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'Organic' is touted as being better for the environment and your health, but rarely is any no evidence offered - it's merely a marketing ploy designed to edge up a margin in a volume business.

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An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and I am crunching an unseasonal Pink Lady as I watch an old advert titled: 'More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.' Today, tobacco's dangers are so incontrovertible, the blatant 'health washing' looks somewhere between despicable and laughable. I roll the apple's label into a sticky tube, and wonder: will we ever feel the same way about the promotion of organic food?

The health impact of eating organic over conventional food isn't as radical as smoking. And I am not coming from a hard position; it's just that when the organic lobby starts using the same tactics that tobacco used in the fifties, it's too tempting not to question the unexpected presence of a smokescreen.

The very term 'organic' isn't helpful for starters. Firstly, 'organic' doesn't mean, in the traditional sense, that it is merely a living entity, regardless of the method of production; 'organic' in this case means only what the organic industry says it means. Orwell would raise an eyebrow.

The full definition is too clunky to put on a label, so they've given an old word a new meaning, like 'light' cigarettes or 'friendly fire.' So from here on, 'organic' - and a few other words that have quietly evolved new and loaded meanings - will have to live between quotation marks.

Then there is the aggressive advertising campaign, backed by the European Union to the tune of £1.8million. 'Organic' food sales have slumped as the economy has shrunk, and as shoppers tighten their belts, the EU has funded a PR offensive including a series of posters on the London Underground.

This campaign, in which an 'organic' vegetable talks to a non-'organic' one, is an odd creative decision given the all-too-plausible scenario in these days of genetic modification. 'If your food could talk,' asks the poster, 'what would it tell you?' This apple would tell me to harden my heart or starve to death, if I hadn't run screaming from the room the moment it opened its little apple mouth.

The adverts have a glaring omission on them: they present no compelling reason why given the choice one should buy 'organic'. True, 'organic' food might reduce my exposure to pesticides on the outside of a vegetable, but even if I didn't wash my apples and ate my bananas skin-on, I might still consider myself safe from substances that have been extensively tested in the real world for decades and in any case, are only dangerous to an insect 1/20,000,000th of my size.

I visited the web address (Organic UK Food) given on the poster, seeking answers, and found something strange. For a website giving information about 'organic' food, there was not one single fact, not a solitary piece of scientific evidence. Not a link to Wikipedia, or a research project. There were plenty of opinions masquerading as facts ('Organic food is good food bursting with flavour!') but of hard proof, there was none.

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I was taken aback. Here is a product sold chiefly on its benefits to health. On the website, more attention had been devoted to providing recipes (which you can use whatever the provenance of your veg) than solid reasons for preferring 'organic'. A lot of attention had, however, been devoted to making the reader believe that 'organic' is healthier, without saying so in a way that could be traced back to an official channel. Previously I had no reason to doubt 'organic' was somehow healthier, but saying so without actually saying it only looks slippery. Regardless of how true the claims are, they look like someone trying to pull the wool.

You can check the website for yourself: there is no evidence to say 'organic' means 'healthier'; any statement that says it is, is an unofficial, unsubstantiated opinion.

These opinions run down food containing 'chemicals', and talk up things that are 'natural', two words that are deliberately abused. They mean nothing. For instance, this apple is packed with the chemical C6H12O6, or D-arabino-hexulose, which sounds scary, so let me reassure you that it is beautiful naturally-occurring fruit sugar that you'd readily find in the commonest dew-spotted daisy on a pristine alpine plain. And if you think 'natural' substances can't harm you, try a cup of hemlock, or petting a tiger.

'Organic' is touted as being better for the environment. But again, no evidence is offered. And by evidence, I mean something like Hanna Tuomisto et al, who conducted a macro study of 109 papers and found that although 'organic' farms were less polluting for a given area of land, they were often more polluting per unit of food produced (Journal of Environmental Management, quoted in New Scientist, September 2012).

If the organic movement has any traction at all, it is because we are separated from the food we eat. 'Organic' is just a sticker to put on an apple that offers a completely false sense of reassurance to the customer. Eating 'organic' doesn't make us more in touch with our food, not when its proponents deal with low-level scaremongering to shift units; such actions only add another layer of separation and misinformation.

It is a marketing ploy, pure and simple: a way of edging up a margin in a volume business.

Good husbandry of the environment is something we should care about, and our present use of natural resources is rapacious, short-sighted and embarrassing. But are the benefits of 'organic' all that they claim to be? The short answer is 'probably not', and without more evidence, honestly presented, I won't worry about where my next apple's coming from.