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:
- Genetically modified foods are bad for health.
- 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.