By Craig F Nelson, MS, DC
The Food We Choose: A Self-Interview
Several months ago I introduced a post by listing all of the different dimensions along which one could make choices about the food that one eats. I labeled these different elements “Food Production Factors,” or FPFs for short. That list:
- Hormone-free/hormones used
- Antibiotic-free/antibiotics used
- Free range/confined
- Locally produced/not locally produced
- Vegetarian-Vegan/animal products used
- Family farm/factory farm
- Fair trade/free trade
- Grass fed/feed lot fed
- Not irradiated/Irradiated
I also identified the various benefits that may or may not accrue from these FPFs. Those are:
- Improved human health through increase in beneficial nutrients (e.g., vitamins, anti-oxidants)
- Improved human health through reduction in harmful compounds or contaminants (e.g., pesticides, artificial flavors or colors)
- Environmental benefits
- Improved animal well-being
- Positive effect on human rights and social justice
- Effects on world food supply
- Better taste
Thus there are 120 permutations of factors and outcomes and no sane person is going to evaluate all of those possibilities. Yet most of us will make food choices based on some of those factors and we are passively choosing through inaction and indifference those factors that we ignore. And as I noted at the time, science can provide us with answers to only a few of these questions. Mostly we will decide these questions based on our preferences, values and beliefs. And so I’ll share with you my preferences, values and beliefs on these issues.
Q: So, science isn’t going to provide us with many answers to these questions?
A: It will provide answers to some of the questions, most importantly the health questions. The question is, do any of the FPFs produce health effects, either positive or negative? Do some ways of producing food result in more good stuff (e.g., vitamins) being in the food and do some ways of producing food result in less bad stuff (e.g., pesticides) being in the food? And this answer is simple—none of these FPS have any effects on human health.
Q: No effects at all?
A: Correct, no effects at all. Let’s look at the two factors most commonly invoked in this context, organic food and GMOs. First, organics. There have been many, many studies which have examined the nutritional content of organic vs. conventional produce and meat. And none of these studies have found any meaningful differences. There are always some differences but none that show in any systematic way that organic food is of greater nutritional value.
Q: What about contaminants like pesticides and herbicides?
A: Again, there are no meaningful differences to be found. I emphasize the word “meaningful.” Toxicologists have a saying, “The poison is in the dose.” What this means is that every compound is poisonous in sufficient quantities and every presumed poison is harmless in very small quantities. Daily we consume lead and arsenic and mercury and countless other noxious compounds but we are unaffected by them because of their very low concentrations. It is sometimes possible to detect traces of residual chemicals in non-organic produce but there is no evidence that it poses any kind of health risk. And anyway, if you are actually concerned all you need do is wash the produce and you will have transformed it to organic levels of “contamination.” And much more cheaply.
Q: You seem rather dismissive of organic food.
A: Yes, mostly I am. If you take a sample of organic produce and a sample of conventional produce these two samples cannot be differentiated from each other by any analytic methods. They are the same. We should not be surprised. If you look at the standards that are applied to organic certification there is nothing in these standards that would suggest that they would produce any different or better food. They are mostly meaningless.
For example, I think it’s commonly understood that organic farming does not use pesticides. Not true. They don’t use synthetic pesticides but use a wide range of “natural” pesticides and herbicides. The scare quotes around the word natural are intended to indicate that this is a meaningless distinction.
Not that I care that they use pesticides, but it is something of a fraud to represent organic farming as being chemical-free farming. If you’re interested in a more extensive analysis, and take-down, of organic farming check out this Scientific American article: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
Q: Hold on. When I’m shopping for produce I can compare organics and conventional produce and they are different. They look different and I think they taste different as well. And so sometimes I buy organic.
A: As do I. But this is a different question. Let’s get back to that later.
Q: OK. But look, these are different products. For one thing, organics cost a lot more. Why do they cost so much?
A: Yes they are different products. And yes, overall organics use fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers than conventional produce. And that’s why they cost more. The yields are much lower. You just can’t produce a comparable amount of produce on an acre of land without such chemicals. Which raises the central question about organic produce: Is the net effects of organics positive or negative relative to their environmental impact?
Q: This is in doubt?
A: Yes, very much in doubt. But let’s table that question as well. I’d like to get back to the health issues and the second FPF of interest, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Q: You mean Frankenfood.
A: That’s right, food created in the lab by mad scientists. And on this topic I must drop my temperate and moderate tone. GMOs are fine. They’re better than fine, they’re fantastic. And depending upon where in the world you live, they might save your life or prevent you from going blind.
Q: That’s pretty strong stuff.
A: Look, the science on this is absolutely unambiguous—there is no possibility that GMO products pose any human health risk. None. The anti-GMO activists have correctly been compared to climate change deniers. In either case you must willfully blind yourself to very hard facts to hold these positions. And in both cases this denial of hard facts will cause substantial harm.
Q: For example…
A: I mentioned blindness. There is a GMO product called “golden rice.” This is a variety of rice that has been modified to create large quantities of beta-carotene—vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. Simply put, people can grow and consume golden rice in place of their usual varieties and not go blind. That seems pretty compelling. I could on, and on, and on about his, but I’ll just get angrier. The science in favor of GMOs is broad and deep. Again, it you’d like to read a more extensive analysis in the popular press here’s a good recent piece: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/07/are_gmos_safe_yes_the_case_against_them_is_full_of_fraud_lies_and_errors.html
Q: OK, I don’t want to provoke you and further…you look like you might blow an aneurism. But just one last question on the topic. Why not at least label products as being GMOs?
A: Because to do so would be to suggest that there is something meaningful about the designation. We might as well require that food products be labeled to reflect the astrological sign of the person who grew it. Simply nonsense.
To those who feel aggrieved over the presence of GMOs in their life, all I can say is, get over it. The world can’t afford to accommodate your delicate sensibilities.
Q: All right then. Let’s end on a more positive note. Would you briefly summarize the main points.
A: In both cases, organics and non-GMOs, if you are buying these products with the expectation that they will improve your health, you are mistaken. With respect to organics, it’s been a brilliant marketing campaign, hasn’t it? Even I can’t help myself…if I hear the words “organic produce” it contours up mental images of wholesome, nutritious, life-giving food. But it’s just not true. It’s just food. As I said, there may be other valid reasons to buy organic produce and we’ll explore that in the future.
More next time on the Food We Choose.