Sunday, February 7, 2016

Organic Nonsense: Natural Versus Artificial

One of the underlying premises of the "organic" food movement is that somehow "natural" is better than artificial. For example, while they would never call organic a food treated with pyrethrins made in a lab, they are perfectly fine with plants treated with pyrethrin insecticides made using dried plants. Similarly, they are opposed to the use of chemically derived nitrogen or ammonia,  but fine with same chemicals from animal waste. In short, it is not the chemicals that matter in terms of"organic" farming, only whether the source is "natural".

This is a problem in a number of ways.

First, the word "natural" itself is wholly meaningless. Everything comes from nature at some point. Where else could it originate? A hole from another dimension? Brought into existence from nothing by sorcerers at Monsanto? Everything comes, at some point, from natural plants and rocks and soil and gasses. There is nothing that did not come from nature. In fact, many evil "artificial" chemicals would probably be closer to their animal origins than the supposed "organic" substitutes, they simply don't bother to advertise it as such. For example, many fertilizers are little more than sterilized bone meal, or else the guano of bats, birds and other creatures. If only the manufacturers decided not to sterilize the substances, and perhaps processed them a little less so they looked more "natural" they could probably be called organic. But, according to organic principles, because they ground it fine, and removed toxic organisms, suddenly these fertilizers are evil and harmful and provide no real value. Because they are processed, somehow they no longer come from nature, but... uh... fell to Earth from space, or ... um... something. Something BAD.

But even if we choose to use the bizarre impressionistic definition of "nature" implicit in the organics movement, we still run into some serious problems. For example, the entire idea that "chemicals" are bad and "nature" is good.

Don't tell Socrates. After all, he drank a nice cup of pure, all natural, organic hemlock and it did his body no good at all.

There are numerous poisons that exist in nature. In fact, the organics movement relies on it. After all, they know that without pesticides, they would not be able to grow much of a crop, and the ideas of using aphids and spiders and plates of beer to kill off insects is a bit far fetched, especially in a commercial context*. Thus, they end up relying on pesticides, but "organic" ones. In other words, toxic chemical that come from nature.

But, wait! I thought nature was harmless and only chemicals were bad? If there are poisons in nature that can kill insects, then won't they harm us just like the bad chemicals?

And there is our biggest problem. There is no such thing as natural. If you get pyrethrins from a lab, and pyrethrins from ground up chrysanthemums, take them to a lab and ask for an analysis, there is NO difference**. They are the same chemical. Hydrogen cyanide from a factory synthesis and from various fruit pits, seeds and stone is the same chemical. Your body reacts to both the same. There is no magic in "nature" that makes "organic" pesticides or fertilizers somehow harmless. So, if an "organic' farmer uses organic fertilizers and insecticides, the result is the same, the only difference is the food costs a lot more, yields less and makes hippies and over educated middle aged do gooders feel better about themselves.

Wait again! If the chemicals are the same, then why would organic cost more and yield less? Well, there is the difference, and it is not magic, it is the one way "natural" differs from "artificial." You see, when we get fertilizers and insecticides from a lab, they process them, purify them,. measure them and generally ensure we get a consistent, quality product. When it is made from dried dung and leaves and so on, with little or no processing or testing, the quantities of various chemicals are less certain, and so we get inconsistent quantities***, meaning the fertilizers and insecticides are sometimes present in much higher doses and sometimes much lower. Also, because this form is less immediately available to plants than chemicals designed to be easily applied, it takes more work, and is less consistent. Again, the prices get higher and yields lower. And, worse still, because the chemicals are of inconsistent quality, organic farmers must usually apply more to ensure they get the required amount, meaning in many cases they probably apply more of the chemical in question than a non-organic farm. Either that, or they risk having bad outbreaks of insects. Neither one is very good for consumers.

So, let me sum this up. Organic food is no different from non-organic, except that it costs more, is either more likely to be infested with insects or is covered in more pesticide chemicals (though "natural" ones), and -- because they can't find an "organic" growth regulator -- spoils more quickly. In all other ways, nutrients, taste, and so on, it is the same as any ordinary farm grown produce.

So, why exactly does the government -- at least in some states -- support a separate label for this nonsensical movement? Is there any reason to encourage this nutty food fad?

And don't get me started on "gluten free" and the even more absurd idea that we are all secretly suffering from gluten sensitivity, or that processed sugar is killing us.... Or that one about everyone having low level Lyme disease... Or, well, there are too many to name, aren't there? Guess I need to write a few more posts.

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* The beer supposedly attracts slugs and snails, which then crawl up and drown in it. I have never tried it myself, but have heard mixed tales of its success. But, obviously, this is not a viable solution for commercial scale farms. (A great parody of organic farming is found on an episode of "King of the Hill", where the teacher who once ran the organic farm at the junior high reveals his secret, nightly sprayings with chemical insecticides.)

** The mystical belief that natural substances are somehow safer, or that maybe your body reacts differently to them reminds me of the equally nonsensical mysticism in homeopathy, the idea that once water has been in contact with a chemical, even if diluted out of existence,  it somehow retains the virtues of that chemical, and so gives benefits, the more dilute the greater the effect. (The counter question is, well, what if the same water was once in a bathtub or toilet, doesn't it retain those "vibrations" as well? Or does it somehow mystically know which attributes we want it to keep?)

*** This is the problem with herbal medicines. I agree some herbs contain the same active ingredients -- or similar ones -- to commercial medications. Valerian is a good sedative, for example. However, plants do not grow in consistent ways, and so the dose from an herbal source is never reliable. In addition, unlike commercial medicines, plants contain a number of additional compounds, and can more easily be tainted by other substances, or even unwanted plants accidentally harvested with them. Thus, while herbal medicines may work, they are less reliable than chemically produced medicines.

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POSTSCRIPT

If you doubt my argument, look up rotenone, an acceptably "organic" insecticide, much worse than many "artificial" chemicals. Mostly because it seem it may induce Parkinson's disease in farm workers, even if it does come from jicama root. (Thanks to this essay by Christie Wilcox, who makes a point much like mine about "nature" not meaning inherently better.)


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