Goldacre: 'Argument is about capitalism, not food '

organic food

Ben Goldacre points to the analogies between the 'organic' food argument and the BigPharma vs homeopathy/'alternative medicine' - mainly that all niches will be filled under capitalism.

Ben Goldacre, of Bad Science fame, reports on the Soil Association's response a recent Food Standards Agency (FSA) report on organic food. Goldacre says the FSA's report shows "that organic food is no better than normal food, in terms of composition, or health benefits".

Personally I've never given much of a shit about organic food. Even when I was a moralistic vegan twat, I never much cared whether my food was 'frankenstein food' or whether pesticides had been used, and always assumed a bit of common sense when buying fruit or veg was enough. And hey, I'm still standing and reasonably healthy. And whenever I query people about why they feel organic food is so important, I never get a satisfactory answer and more often get nightmare scenarios not really founded in reality which usually conflate various issues.

The Soil Association, which represents the £2bn organic food industry, has responded to the report, because it has financial interests to protect. Goldacre identifies some common claims of organic advocates:

"Firstly, they say that the important issue with organic food is not personal health benefits, but rather benefit to the environment. This is a popular strategy from losing positions: "Don't talk about that, talk about this."
Secondly, they say that there are positive health benefits of organic food, but they are related to the absence of pesticides, and cannot be measured by the evidence that has been identified and summarised in the FSA paper. This, again, is gamesmanship.
Either you are proposing that there are health benefits which cannot ever be measured. In this case you have faith, which is not a matter of evidence.
Or you are proposing that there are health benefits which could be measured, but have not been yet. In this case, again, you have faith rather than evidence, but you could at least start recruiting researchers now, using your £2bn, to investigate your beliefs with fair tests.
And thirdly, sadly, like many industries in a corner, the Soil Association seeks to undermine the public's understanding of what a "systematic review" is, which itself causes collateral damage to everybody's ability to engage in debates on evidence. They say that the report has deliberately excluded evidence to produce the answer that organic food is no better."

The Soil Association accuses the FSA of systematically ignoring over 100 scientific papers on organic food. Goldacre points out that most of them are irrelevant anyway:
" the overwhelming majority of these are unpublished conference papers, and some of them are just a description of the fact that somebody made an oral presentation at a meeting. The systematic review correctly looked only at good-quality data published in peer-reviewed academic journals.
This raises the issue of transparency: we want the methods and results of scientific research to be formally presented, and accessible by all."

Goldacre's conclusion isn't that organic food is bad, or that you shouldn't eat it, but that the evidence doesn't support the claims advanced by this very profitable industry; namely that it is safer or healthier to eat food labelled 'organic'. Any industry with a profit interest to protect is of course going to defend its assertions about its products, and it's nothing new that 'organic' food is as much a commodity as 'non-organic' and so under capitalism no more 'right-on' to buy, if ethical consumerism is your bag.

"In reality, this is not about organic food. The emotive commentary in favour of organic farming bundles together diverse and legitimate concerns about unchecked capitalism in our food supply: battery farming, corruptible regulators, or reckless destruction of the environment, where the producer's costs do not reflect the true full costs of their activities to society, to name just a few. Each of these problems deserves individual attention.
But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association."

To be honest, I just thinks it's funny, because people who whinge about organic food usually sound like wankers.

Posted By

Aug 3 2009 23:38


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Aug 4 2009 20:00


Pukka that.

Aug 4 2009 20:34

I also loved this report, because I hate organic food twats.

Aug 4 2009 21:14

yeah to be honest, even the capitalism bit wasn't what drew me to it, just the lols that all organic food twats will get all pissy about it

full report by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is at
Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature