Passionate advocates of organic farming and foods resemble members of a religious cult, one founded on a “back to Nature” mentality. They are not so fundamentalist, however, that they do not make concessions to reality. For example, organic standards arbitrarily define which pesticides are acceptable, but allow “deviations” if based on “need.” Synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, although there is a lengthy list of exceptions in the Organic Foods Production Act, while most “natural” ones are permitted (and the application of pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer is allowed). The decisions are made in a murky process that combines agronomy, lobbying, and fundamentalism.
The permitted “organic” pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article: “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones. No matter what anyone tells you, organic pesticides don’t just disappear.”
Ironically, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic construct of activists and bureaucrats that makes little sense. That brings us to another anomaly: Organic agriculture is based on agreed, allowed sets of principlesand techniques, but it has little to do with the ultimate quality or composition of the final products. For example, if prohibited chemical pesticides or forbidden pollen from genetically engineered plants wafts onto and “contaminates” an organic field, guess what? The farmer gets a mulligan: He does not lose his organic certification.
Are organic foods healthier? They have never been shown to have health (or, for that matter, environmental) benefits; some studies have shown higher levels of certain anti-oxidants, but the significance of that, if any, is unknown. It may even be undesirable; recent medical research has shown that the administration of anti-oxidants blunts the strength-enhancing effects of exercise. In any case, the finding may be a statistical anomaly, because the science of statistics tell us that if you measure a large number of parameters in, say, two plants or other organisms that are identical (or even if you perform blood tests repeatedly on the same individual), purely by chance some differences will appear to be present if we define a statistically significant difference the way that scientists commonly do.