Organic Food and Red Herrings

I use my editor’s privilege to respond here to Ryan MH’s argument in the piece entitled: “The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange.” I do this for the sake of clarity alone. Ryan has unfettered access to this blog.

Let me begin by stating that I congratulate myself for having elicited a serviceable and seemingly complete definition of “organic” from Ryan. This is the first time someone give me a definition, in my whole life!

Ryan MH is all over the place  to such an extent that I felt like crying in my turn as I read. So, let me specify what I am interested in.

The issue of the high cost of organic food only matters to me because I believe that it is not different from a health standpoint from non-organic food grown in this country. I think it has no merits for the consumer except in his head.

I am focusing on the portion of the organic definition that had to do with the genetic modification of organisms by methods others than the traditional methods of artificial, guided, purposeful selection and hybridization by sex methods and such. This means pretty much methods that existed before World War Two.

Ryan said in my presence that  foods modified by new methods (“genetically modified” except that these terms have no meaning.), that such food have adverse effects on human health.

If Ryan MH did not say this or something identical, for practical purposes, I have no discussion with him. I must have misunderstood him and I apologize for wasting his time and yours.

Everything else is a red herring, something that distracts to no useful purpose.

If he did say this, I would like to see scientific evidence. I take this to mean  a report published in an independent scholarly journal that practices double-blind peer reviewing. “Independent” means that a Jain vegetarian institute journal does not count, for example. This is not a demanding standard but a minimum standard. If I see one such study, I will think there is a debate as Ryan affirms. If there is no (zero) such study, all we have is rumors and ignorant religious passions. (And everyone is entitled to his religious beliefs, however patently absurd, and I have no  quarrel.)

If Ryan, or anyone, will show me one such study, I think it’s a good reason to continue  but only this. An unreplicated study carries little weight unless it’s extraordinarily well done in every respect.

Ryan claims that he gave me a link to such a study and that I did not read it. I think he did not. His declarations in the essay of reference on this blog suggests that he did not. In his own words (or so) people who eat one kind of foods show different physiological something or other than people who eat the other kind of food. If I were a researcher who was also a true believer (a most unfortunate situation) I would find this encouraging.

But I am not; I am a skeptic with no dog in that fight. Differences in no way imply noxiousness (“bad for your health”). If they did, coffee, maybe the most studied food in the history of the world, would be bad for me. Every time I drink a cup, I am certain you can measure shortly several physiological changes in me. That’s why I drink the stuff, after all. But coffee has no adverse effects on the health of ordinary people. Why do I believe this? Because brothers-in-calamity-of Ryan have been trying for a century, with good scientific methods, to show that coffee is the Devil’s brew, that it induces several kinds of cancer, heart attack, and possibly acne. It doesn’t. It just makes you pee. Same for cannabis, smoked, or eaten, or inhaled, or licked. (I don’t mean to say that cannabis makes you pee. It makes you fat, indirectly. You know what I mean.)

There is worse! If physiological changes were automatically equivalent to ill health effects, reducing your intake of animal fat would be bad for you because, in many people, such a diet modification  is followed by measurable changes on important physical  variables. This is not what I think is correct. I don’t think that Ryan means this:

“The more you trim your short-ribs, the worse your health will be overall, on the average.”

Ryan MH was – in all innocence, I am sure – trying to waste my time by inducing me to read something irrelevant to our discussion.

Let me repeat: I would like some evidence that there exists a relationship that might , at least, “might” be causal between the ingestion of genetically modified foods (see above) and any measure of ill health.

I don’t think that’s very demanding. I am setting the bar deliberately low.

Ryan’s assertion regarding such illnesses as diabetes, cancer and heart disease does not deserve much of a response a this point. Just briefly, just to hold you:

There are good reasons to believe that diabetes  type two is statistically much more likely among overweight people than among skinny people. Human beings have not been fat in large numbers until recently. We have not been aware of the possibility of such a relationship for long. The recourse to any explanation based on genetically modified foods is thus superfluous at best. (Don’t be offended by my use of words. I have diabetes type two and I am overweight.)

At this point, I believe that there is zero evidence in support of any increase in the incidence of either cancers in general or heart disease, controlling for age, or, in other words the rising longevity of populations. (There might be increases in some narrow sorts of cancer.) My beliefs in these respects are at such great variance with Ryan’s statement and with common belief that it would only be charitable to correct me if I am wrong.

The key to the distorted or fallacious perception of a rise in cancers and in heart disease lies in a failure to understand simple probabilities (much simpler than you need to bet on the outcome of a football game. Here is an illustration:

I am a man past my prime (I guess). If something else does not get me first, the probability that breast cancer will kill me is 100%. I am 100% sure of this.

Here, you got it.

I am only interested in two questions:

  1. Genetically modified foods are bad for health.
  2. There is a general rise in cancers (plural) and/or heart disease even if you control for rising longevity.

That’s all I want to read about and only if it’s a report on a scientific study. Be prepared to affirm forcefully that what you propose for my reading fulfills these conditions. If you do so, I will read and report. If you don’t I will not read. You got to be ready to make such a statement before you make any claim on another person’s time and attention. The Jehovah’s Witnesses  at least promise me eternal life when they come to my door. Please, don’t try to deceive me (anyone). I have to have time to go fishing. That is undoubtedly good for my health, especially if I catch fish and eat it!

PS  Unrelated topic:  If you send me scientific evidence that pesticides on food specifically have hurt anyone in the past thirty years in the US, I probably won’t be able to resist reading it.

PPS  I classify this essay under “cultural studies” rather than under anything having to do with a hard science such as biology because, at this point, I believe that the preference for organic foods in general has no scientific basis at all. It’s purely a cultural phenomenon, like a vogue of sports cars or bicycling.

Updated 6/12/12   This series of two might be coming to an end. It feels like a war where you routed the other guy more than you wished to do.

Ryan MH told me orally that there does not seem to be any scientific evidence to the effect that genetically modified foods (“Frankenfoods”) have any adverse effects on human health. (Contrary to his declaration of a few days ago.)

No one else who saw the two relevant essays has tried to pick up the challenge in his stead. Perhaps, it’s because I don’t attract the right kind of readers although I am surrounded by them where I live. At any rate, I hope Ryan comes back on this blog to reflect on his experienced. Since he is a young man and well-educated, there is a fair chance that he will do so.

My wife is a woman who comes from vegetarian stock of long-standing (in India). She is also a woman who does not care to hide her opinions. She says point-blank that people who believe the whole “organic” tale, however defined, are just “village idiots.”

I don’t think so because there are too many people like Ryan who is definitely not a village idiot and who shows genuine surprise when he finds out that his beliefs are unsubstantiated. I think rather that we are dealing with a religious phenomenon. After all, there are thousands, possibly millions of people who are smarter than I and who believe Lazarus was really, really dead when Jesus rose him.

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16 thoughts on “Organic Food and Red Herrings

  1. I’m confused about your views on organic . . . New to your blog so I’m not aware of your ah – fleshed out? views . . . But confused none-the-less.

    Are you talking about industrial organic food or deep organic food? The book The End of Food by Thomas Pawlick has interesting info on the declining nutritional value of traditionally produced whole foods.

    I’m no scientist and certainly don’t come armed with scientific paper (not having much faith in the system that sees them published) . . . All I have is a gardener’s intuition and basic understanding of biology. Doesn’t it follow that plants grown in vital, living soil rich in nutrients will have increased nutrients themselves?

    Anyway, just curious.

    • Slow Food Mama: In another discussion on this blog that I report on as “The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange,” another guy, one who is willing to spend money on organic food, gives a definition of “organic” that seems to me thorough and sensible. I wish you would look at it and comment on that definition.

      I have not read The End of Food because the reviews tell me it’s a piece of propaganda.( I don’t willingly submit myself to any propaganda.) I am familiar with the idea that food has less nutritional value than it used to. My response: As is practically always the case, the next question is: “By how much”? Thus, there is arsenic in much of the well water in the Santa Cruz area where I live. It does not matter to me because the quantity is so small. And, when I swim in the ocean, I sometimes swallow sea water accidentally with the certitude that millions of fish have urinated in it. See my drift?

      If the response to my question above is 50% or 40% less nutritional, I think we have a real problem that should be solved fairly quickly. If the answer if 3%, I don’t care, or I don’t care right now. If the answer is something like 10%, you have some of my attention, at least for a while.

      I seem to remember that the correct answer is closer to 3% than to the other figures above. Please, correct me if I am wrong. And, if you don’t know, I have to ask why you mention the book at all. Right?

      Your question at the end of your comment: I think that plants grown in soil that is not in vital, living soil rich in nutrients will grow poorly. (My gardeners’ observation.) I think that would be a bad business practice that would be quickly abandoned or remedied unless someone or something stopped the farmer from doing so.

      I am guessing you are not confused, as you say, but disturbed. More below .

      Why do you not trust the processes of science? I am not stating that there are nor reasons, I am just curious about what reasons you invoke. I also wonder – excuse me, that question is impossible to avoid – how much familiarity you have with those processes.

      And finally (finally, for me, feel free to continue; I will respond) the big question: If you don’t trust scientific processes, how do you make decisions about what to eat (and what to drink, etc)?

      PS I like the “fleshed out” views. Can I use it?

      • “Slow Food Mama” does not have the stomach for an open discussion. I am not surprised although I don’t know why. Organic food advocates usually can’t stand contradiction. This feeds my suspicion that they are totalitarians not that deep down. I answered at length on this blog some of her queries. She took one of my answers out of context and chose to answer it on her own blog. It’s here below. My response follows.

        Slow Food Mama affirms on her blog:

        How do you know what to eat or drink if you don’t trust science???

        First of all, I never said I didn’t trust science in and of itself, I said I don’t trust the system that sees scientific papers published.

        Since when does a mother need to read scientific journals to make sane decisions about what to feed or not feed her family? Have we fallen that far????

        If we have, things are even worse than I thought.

        Maybe we should just all give up now.

        First things first: The system that “sees scientific papers published” is science. There is nothing else. What would she prefer?

        No one said, I did not say, that she has to read scientific papers in order to decide what to feed her children. However, if anyone makes alarming noises I would wish she would seek advice from those who do read scientific papers rather than, say, from an acupuncturist, or a dog groomer. Same thing as with a car that makes alarming noises. You don’t need to be an expert on how a car engine works, you ought to know how to select a mechanic though. And you shouldn’t go to a holistic healer for help with your car.

        I know I am often a little brusque. This happens when I suspect the other guy of being in bad faith. Organicists often are, not always. Ryan, the guy with whom I started this exchange is not in bad faith.

        By the way, I like slow food. I am a practitioner myself. What I dislike is the mindless spreading of panicky sentiments. IN the meantime, life expectancy keeps growing.

        And, as I write, there is still no sign of Monsanto wishing to send me a fat check. Even a slim one would help.

  2. Your argument is sound, indeed. So much so I will use it to defend the opposing side.
    Can you point to any independent scientific study (i.e., not funded by agriculture-related businesses and their trade associations) that can prove the safety of GMO’s? Any long-term studies? Furthermore, as you may well know, the point of most GMO crops is to make them resistant to pesticides. The point of of this is to apply either large amounts or very potent poisons to those crops. Would you say that there are no studies saying that ingestion or exposure to those pesticides is harmful to humans. (I work in the field, and I suggest you read the safety labels and related information on glyphosate, aka Roundup, to mention but the most well-known of the pesticides used in GMO crops. It is readily available at Monsanto’s website.)
    So, I would say that your choice of eating conventional food is as much a matter of faith as is the choice of those who eat organic (and there is much to debate about the meaning of the organic label itself) ones. And your religion is no better than theirs. If anything, your faith seems to be on the side of the harmlessness of poisons as opposed to the faith in the harmful effects of poisons. Sorry, but even being an atheist who usually does not thinks any religion is better than other, I would think you faith loses this one.
    In addition, I would like to point to an issue I assume is dear to your libertarian heart, although unrelated to health matters. What is your opinion about the fact that GMO crops can and do cross over to fields of those who invest capital and effort in growing non-GMO crops? Not only they lose their investment – their crop can no longer be sold as organic, and is completely banned in some markets – but they can be and are sued, by the patent holders of the GMO that contaminated their crop.
    For instance, take corn, one of the leading GMO crops. Corn is, if one could use this term in the botanical word, a very promiscuous plant. A field of corn can be pollinated by pollen from a field relatively far away. This is one of the strengths of corn. But, in the case of two fields planted next to each other – one GMO, one non-GMO – they will almost surely cross-pollinate. The farmer who planted with Roundup Ready corn will end up with some genetic material of the non-GMO corn in his crop. His crop will not lose any market or value, not will it be infringing any patents. The non-GMO farmer, on the other hand, will lose money and, if found out, is likely to be sued by Monsanto.
    I really would like to know your thoughts on this one.
    Yours,
    Juan (not an organics fanatic!)

    • Juan: Too much for me. much of it in the form of a sermon. I deal with what I think are your main points.

      First, I think there are no studies that show that any pesticide used in the US in the past thirty years is harmful to health when ingested as a by-product of ordinary eating. To the extent that there is a small risk, it can be reduced to next to nothing by washing the produce. (It should always be washed any way because of dangerous bacteria.) I have no trouble accepting the idea that massive exposure to the same products by manufacturing workers or field workers poses serious dangers to them. Unfortunately, that is never the argument organic evangelists make because it does not serve their religious purposes to spread a total faith.

      If am wrong on the dangers, please, correct me. Please, don’t change he subject or give me responses outside the framework above.

      I understand that invasion by non-organic, or anti-organic compounds can undermined the value of crops grown buy organic growers. American legal tradition is well equipped to handle loss of value even if it is completely imaginary value. Our courts – with their quasi universal jury systems – are the right place to deal with such issues. The alternative is to use the armed power of the state to prohibit private parties from growing affordable food. Is this what you advocate? It’s areal question, not a trick from debate class. It’s a simple question, please, answer it simply.

      Incidentally, I would be grateful for any information regarding lawsuits anywhere in this country whereas organic growers prevailed against their non-organic polluters. Of course, I would post the evidence or links to it right here on Facts Matter. I am sure, the same evidence would appear on NotesONliberty.

      You raise the broader question of the safety of non-organically grown food. Given the utter absence of any evidence that it’s noxious, you might just as well ask me to prove that Perrier water does not cause cancer. I have assumed all along that the combination of federal, state authorities and private initiative, as in universities, have done a reasonably good job of testing the new foods, including genetically modified food products. Is my assumption wrong? If you think it is, what do you propose as substitute for the combined research powers of federal, 50 states and hundreds of university?

      I think you have no right to ignore this question. It has to do with the intersection of morality and politics. To be blindingly clear, I suspect the organic movement to be totalitarian at heart.

      One more thing, and you are forcing me to repeat myself. Reading between the lines, I suspect you have no familiarity with the general picture of research in this country. It’s done largely or mostly in universities. Whatever massive amounts Monsanto (to name one at random) spends on showing how wonderful its products are, there are hundreds of young upstart academics itching to show that it ain’t so. One can become an academic hero for all times by showing that genetically modified products are linked to small headaches, or to slightly liquid feces. One published paper is often enough. Research demonstrating ill effects is not difficult or expensive if the ill-effects really exist. It become fiendish if the ill effects don’t exist.

      Given what we know (not just I, anyone who cares to look) of the reward structures of academic career and what we now of the prevailing ideologies in academia, the inability to point to research results is strong evidence that there aren’t any or that they are not persuasive. Strong evidence is mostly what we have to go by. “Proof” is elusive , for anyone.

      You say you work in the field. Is it really your mission to contribute to panic?

  3. I am sorry you felt I was delivering a sermon. It was not meant to be.
    I do not wish to sermonize anyone. I do think that your opinions are representative of a set of firmly held beliefs and as such they are no better than any other opinions based on a different set of beliefs.
    So, no, I don’t want to contribute to any panic. I don’t think that the debate about food, how it is produced and distributed is necessary. The opposite would to be to accept without questioning that our diet, our farming practices, the way food is processed, how it is distributed and sold is the best it can possibly be and that is it. But to affirm that things could be better than they are, and that some of our current practices are harmful to our health, our economy and our environment, is hardly contributing to any panic.
    Regarding your simple question, you are presenting a fallacy under the guise of a question. There are more than one alternative to the problem, so the choice is not between letting the courts decide or using the armed power of the state to prevent farmers from growing affordable food. The simple answer is to the falsely simple question is no, I am not advocating for using the armed powers of the state to do anything. In fact, I would like to dismantle the armed power of the state to do anything at all. Among other things because the armed powers of the state are more likely to side with Monsanto than with the organic farmer.

    Your faith in the fairness of the courts and America’s outdated political institutions is touching, though.

    I am familiar with how research is done in the US. I am familiar with how an upstart researcher may be inclined to poke holes into the existing scientific consensus. I am also familiar with how such an upstart will quickly abandon that healthy attitude as soon as they recognize there are some very clear limits to what research is or is not funded. If no research is done, no conclusions can be reached. That is why I pointed to the fact that no serious research has been done about the matter that was not funded by someone with an interest in upholding the status quo. Hundreds of upstart researchers with no labs and no funds are useless. And, no, one paper is not enough. Your affirmation to the contrary makes me think that you are the one who is not familiar with how research works. One paper leads to further research. So if one research points at something that might contradict the interests of those who largely fund every single one of the research departments of every single one of the hundreds of universities, then it is unlikely any further research will happen, or that will have the resources and scope needed to actually prove anything. Unfortunately, independent academic research has become as much an oxymoron as independent politicians.

    Lastly, comparing pesticides to mineral water is a bit of a stretch, isn’ it?

    • BP: You assure us you have no wish to sermonize and quickly begin patronizing me:

      “Your faith in the fairness of the courts and America’s outdated political institutions is touching, though.”

      You sound as if you knew something I did not know about courts and other institutions. How would that be? What reasons would there be to believe that you do? What extraordinary credentials do you have ? And why would you be “touched” rather than, say, “perplexed,” “puzzled.” or “enraged” ?

      You credit me with destructive intentions I don’t have, never have had. Of course, it’s good to question the way things are done, including in food distribution and in food production. It’s not good however to spread falsehoods.

      I began with a simple question: What reasons are there to pay the high cost of “organic” foods? That was several blogging cycles ago. I still don’t have an answer. Of course, I suspect that this is because there is no rational answer that is also true to facts. This assumption gives me room publicly to turn on a dime should I receive a single response backed up by decent research. I am encouraging you to do this. You could try or you could simply say that you have better use for your time. Of, you could use your courage to admit: There is no such evidence (as Ryan did at the beginning of this discussion on my blog.) Instead, you drag me far from my simple and socially meaningful question.

      Your discussion of academia and of the research within it, and of its influence, is so much at variance with my experience that it intrigues me. I would like to know more about how and where you acquired or developed these views. To save readers a trip to my vita on-line: I spent about thirty years in universities where I had a good conventional career that included normal tenure at a normal time. My publishing record is slightly better than good because I was an early contributor to two major new fields in my discipline. One might say that academia treated me quite well until it did not. (And then, I won the fight hands down.)

      Here is a final question related to the previous question about your knowledge of academia. You say,

      “…your opinions are representative of a set of firmly held beliefs and as such they are no better than any other opinions based on a different set of beliefs.”

      I am not sure exactly what you mean, not because the statement is not clear, it is, but it’s unfinished. My “sets of beliefs” are conventional and anchored in conventional science. Are you saying that conventional science is “no better” than…? If that is what is implied in your statement, no wonder we don’t agree much.

      If that’s the case, it seems to me you owe it to readers to say so clearly.

      Comparing pesticides and mineral water is not far-fetched if we are talking about toxicity, like this: I assume that people assume that the ingestion of mineral water (in moderate quantities, always) is not toxic for humans. The ingestion of pesticides in the normal course of eating is either toxic to humans or it’s not. If it is toxic, one needs to know further: How much pesticide does how much harm? The last question is essential. I think I could get you to agree that a drop of the worst pesticide diluted in three Olympic-size swimming pools and giving someone somewhere a single burp should not command much attention.

      I think that the pesticides used in the US in the past thirty years pose no risk to consumers when they are used normally.

      I would be glad to post here prominently any scientific refutation of this statement. I would also consider reforming my eating habits although I already wash all my veggies because I am smart! (Because my mother raised me right.)

      At this point, I believe there is no justification except superstition to bear the high costs of organic foods.

      At this point, I also suspect some of the organicist faithful of being totalitarians in their hearts. I would not be surprised if some of those suspects were already preparing the faggots for me. (Not a slur on homosexuals; look it up.)

  4. My apologies. Even though I a have a decent command of the English language, I do sometimes say or write the wrong thing. I did not mean “touching” to be patronizing. The meaning I tried to convey was that I am sympathetic to people that are honestly convinced of certain principles, beliefs or views, even if I do not share them or thing they are completely wrong – as long as they are not harmful, of course: I have no sympathy for honest nazis or religious zealots. It was a compliment, poorly expressed, I guess.

    To summarize my point. There is no conclusive proof or evidence regarding the organics vs. conventional debate. Not for one side nor the other. You can’t point to it either. I do think the scientific world is not neutral, and academic research is skewed by the source of funding and the economic rewards that come from working for one of the parties in the dispute. No, I can’t prove that. You can’t prove the contrary either.

    There is no reason to pay more for organics other than choice. I guess we can agree on that. No one is forced to buy them: they choose to. I agree that the organics-only crowd can be very annoying, especially the ones that manifest it with quasi-religious fervor. You seem to think they are silly and have been fooled by some kind of clever panic-inducing propaganda scheme. I disagree. I won’t spend time looking for the academic evidence you request, as much as you won’t spend time looking for the one I asked either.

    Lastly, yes some organicist faithfuls are totalitarians. (And don’t get me started on vegans!) The problem is not with their choice of foods, though: they would be totalitarians regardless of their diets. Both things are not related. And relax, even if they prepared the faggots for you, it wouldn’t be that bad, unless you think organic meatballs would harm you.

    • Hi, BP Accepted.

      I have only one quarrel left with you: It’s about your continued insistence that there is no proof either way. There is an important burden of proof issue in your argument. Fairly suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, what is obviously a vogue (could be a well justified vogue and still be a vogue) ordinary food is presented as nearly poisonous. That is the same food historically associated (not necessarily causally associated) with:

      1 Unprecedented lengthening of the average human life span, including in most poor countries.
      2 Finally a situation where the world grow enough food for the world.

      Of course, it’s worth scrutinizing the organicist claims. If we don’t they will win (they may already have won) through the technique of the Big Lie, dear to Josephs Goebbels: Say it often enough and it starts sounding true.

      Using the same logic that there is no proof of the safety of conventionally grown food, why not ask for proof that water from a high-altitude mountain spring is usually not deadly? That’s what you are doing, I think. But we have been there before with Perrier, haven’t we?

      You seem to be under the impression that research on food safety is done mostly or even exclusively by Monsanto and its accomplices. If you are not under such an impression, I don’t know what you are saying about the partiality of scientific research. If that is what you mean, I am afraid I will have to sound as if I were patronizing you in my turn (at least, my credentials are out there for everyone to see). Which of the following statement (s) you think is (are) not true:

      1 There are public, neutral, above-board sources such as the National Institute of Health (and many others) that are a) able and, b) willing to finance research comparing the toxicity of organic vs non-organic food.

      2 There are researchers with appropriate credentials who would be eager to conduct such research.

      3 The normal scientific channels for the dissemination of such research, about one hundred respected scientific, peer reviewed journals in all, are willing to consider such research and to deal with it fairly.

      4 There is a ready audience for the scientifically supported view that non-organic food are in some ways dangerous to health.

      If all the above are true, it seems to me the research in question has been done and not reached organicists’ ears, or their hearts, because it demonstrates the innocence of conventional food. Yes, I think I am dealing with superstition here.

      I notice, you did not pick up on my assertion in the previous comment about the non-toxicity of pesticides. Is it because you have finally seen the light and you agree with me? Or is it because you judge me hopeless? Or something else.?

  5. Starting from the end, I do think you are hopeless. (Please don’t take it as an insult, those are your own words.) I never had the intention to make you believe in the superior quality of organic food, but I did hope I could make you have a different perspective on the reasoning behind the pro-organics camp. They are not just a bunch of mystic quacks, which is the impression one gets from your perspective. It seems that I won’t achieve even this modest goal. So, I will after this last response, end my participation in this debate. I think we have made our points and to continue would be, from my side, disrespectful -I won’t keep an endless argument before your readers in your blog, it is like invading someone’s home and arguing with them in front of their family, so to speak. My political positions might fall on the (libertarian) left* of the spectrum, but as most Latin Americans I am somewhat old fashioned regarding things such as respecting your elders and other people’s values and beliefs.

    So, I do respect your opinions and I accept you have reached them from the best information you could gather. I am disappointed in that it seems the reciprocate is not true, i.e., those who advocate for moving towards a “organic” ( I never got into this, by I have problems with this label, for a different set of reasons) agricultural system are simply a bunch of ignorant totalitarian crackpots. That is fine, but I think one should measure oneself by debating people one considers smart and well informed. The contrary is to poke fun at the village’s idiot. Not really worth much, in my view.

    I can’t understand your fixation on presenting clean water as somewhat supporting your point, due to the lack of evidence to the contrary. I mean, really? Here is a bit of non-academic scientific evidence: a study done over the last million years or so with a sample that equals the universe of the target the population (the entire human species) has conclusively proved that in the entire duration of the study no one has ever died of drinking clean water in the appropriate amounts. In fact, the study seems to point at the puzzling idea that the lack of such a nutrient-devoid liquid is somewhat fatal for humans.

    Regarding the non-toxicity of pesticides, well, no, I have seen no light at all. They are toxic. I think you are again being hyperbolic, as you are jumping from no harm done by consumption of conventionally grown food to the non-toxicity of pesticides. I will make one last argument on this matter. Even though the scientific evidence is not there to conclusive proof the consumption of food grown with pesticides causes serious health problems, I would point out to other factors:
    1 – The studies that do exist are, as far as I know, done on the effects of pesticide A alone, over relatively short periods of time. Please show me one study on the aggregate effects of pesticides and other chemical compounds, or on truly long-term effects (following the subjects over their life time, as is done with many other public health studies).
    2 – You have not take into account the effects on the health of those who handle the pesticides – plenty of studies on the effects of those on farm workers. You may say (no proof, though) that those are due to the lack of protective measures. Well, those would have to be enforced by the armed force of the state, OSHA-style. The same goes for environmental costs – such as pesticide drift, poisoning of water supplies through runoff of excess pesticides/fertilizers, etc. None of those have been properly measured, let alone any study of their combined impact on public health, or are the costs of dealing with them borne by the producers. Furthermore, please take a look at the recent study regarding the impact of neonicotinoids (a class of pesticides used on virtually all conventionally grown corn) on bees. The study is inconclusive, but strong evidence suggests it might be the main factor behind Colony Collapse Disorder. Of course, bees are not humans, but only a very misinformed person would dismiss the importance of bees for agriculture.
    (Incidentally, following on the previous point, part of the low cost of conventionally grown food is due to the fact that many of its costs are not born by the producers – for instance, properly equipping the workers at the strawberry fields of Watsonville, to put an example near you, would make the growers go out of business, or so claim their industry associations. Therefore, the only way you can have cheap strawberries, or lettuce, or oranges, is by poisoning those who work in the fields.)
    3- My claim is that is too early to say pesticides are safe. Modern petrochemical-based agriculture is only 60 years old. We have let go of all cautionary principles regarding the long term results of this model, to embrace the short terms benefits of increased production. (But then, that is one of the problems of late capitalism – all is well if it looks good in the quarterly report, long term planning be damned.)

    One last question (and I won’t debate it, as promised). It is my impression that the public health consensus is that the increase in longevity is due mostly to things such as access to sanitation, preventative medicine and early diagnosis, and the eradication of infectious diseases through vaccines. Hunger and famine, although devastating when they happened, have always been very limited in time and place. They are not a factor in the overall longevity of the human species. Do you disagree? How come?

    I look forward to further debates, on other subjects.

    • BP: I will be damned! This is the most original kiss-off I have experienced or observed anywhere on the blogosphere: You are going to stop arguing with me because you respect your elders, and as a Latino-American no less! The other reason you give is that my blog is like my living-room. That’s patently absurd. It’s a public space. I invite debate. It goes without saying that debate involves the possibility that I will end up with caca on my face (as you say in Latin America). And my visitors to my blog are mostly strangers, many from the other side of the world, who are not likely to take offense at any such caca on my face. And some, would probably enjoy it. Brandon, of NotesOnLiberty would be one, for sure.

      Juan, you are not paying attention; you spend much energy fighting windmills. (Get the subtle inter-cultural reference?) Early on in this discussion, I explicitly took into account the ill effects of pesticides on those who handle them in large quantities. I said that pesticides are dangerous. I have no quarrel with what you write at length about the consequences of handling pesticides in large quantities We need not spend time arguing about that on which we agree. In effect, you changed the subject.

      You state that “The public health consensus is that the increase in longevity is due mostly to things such as access to sanitation, preventative medicine and early diagnosis, and the eradication of infectious diseases through vaccines.” I never said or suggested otherwise, not even begun to. Again, you are not paying my views the attention they deserve from you as a Latin-American (according to yourself). My point is that if pesticides were very dangerous, their increased use would be difficult to conciliate with growing longevity corresponding well in time. It would not be impossible to do so, just difficult. I just wanted you to deal with the improbability of your prejudice against pesticides given undeniably increasing human longevity. You couldn’t even say: There was increased longevity; it happened in spite of increasing use of pesticides. Why not be clear?

      You go onto more interesting ground when you allude to the non-conclusive study of the effects of neonicotinoids on bees. I could easily be lured into reading such a study between watching soaps. But of course, I never said a damn thing about bees. And, am squarely for bees and in favor of having bees around. You changed the subject. Have I seen people do that before? And what kinds of people change the subject? And why, for what purpose, would people change the subject?

      In the end, you did help me understand something better than I did before (because, I am lazy and because I exploit others to shake me out of my laziness). You state in connection with my view of organicists that you were hoping to show me that: “They are not just a bunch of mystic quacks, which is the impression one gets from your perspective.”

      I can be more specific now. I thing that organicism is a global ploy to make people in general spend more of their resources on food. I said it’s a ploy not a conspiracy. There is no need for the beneficiaries and for those who promote organicist ideas to organize their actions at all. It’s enough that they severally take over advantage of a strong cultural movement that is both irrational and millenarian. The “green” movement, is based in the cities and in the suburbs of America. It thrives among people who are completely detached from agriculture. I am referring to people who, unlike their close ancestors, did not even have a chance to observe Grandma in her garden. The originators of the green movement were die-hard collectivists who had to go to ground when the international communist movement suffered its ignominous defeat in the 1990s. They failed with the green too. The religion they created from nothing is being captured by large retailers as we speak.

      I fear that soon, all food will be organic and, again, very expensive as it was in my childhood.

      Many of those who produce organic products are patently quacks. Many more, and all the followers of organicism are not “mystics” but poorly educated and quick to panic about the unfamiliar, such as agriculture. In fact, they panic about one frigging thing and another. (See my blog.) I know the followers well. They are my former university students. I feel horrible about the poor job universities have done about teaching the ABC of the scientific method in particular and criticality in general. (Your own, Juan, discussion and refutation show me that you don’t understand the logic of scientific inquiry. I don’t say this to make you feel bad but to try to be clear to our readers.)

      If I were more of man, I would undertake a new career teaching basic science on this blog. I am too old, and too lazy, and too attracted to other things so, I wont. I will just denounce irrationality on a piece-meal basis, as I have been doing.

      Snake oil anyone? $29.99 for the regular, $34.99 for the concentrated oil.

  6. PS to the previous post.
    I do not expect to have the last word on this. As I said, out of respect, I hope you do take time to respond to my last points and provide closure, the last word, if you will, to this interesting discussion.

Please keep it civil

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