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Organic food – it's a religion

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Friday, 6 July 2012


No intelligent person would choose organic food over conventional food on objective grounds. Its support is based on a number of false assumptions.

For example, it is assumed that conventional food usually contains pesticide residues. Overall, this is not true. As confirmed by repeated surveys, most food is almost completely free of pesticide residues.

It is also assumed that tiny residues of pesticides are harmful. This is similarly false except for rare individuals with specific allergies. All pesticides are scrutinised in exhaustive detail before they may be sold and there are huge safety margins built into their use rates. Some of them are certainly dangerous straight out of the container, but so is laundry bleach and swimming pool chlorine. Legal pesticide residues do not cause acute or chronic illness.

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It is assumed that organic food is free of pesticides. In fact, certain pesticides are permitted under the various organic codes and many organically grown plants produce endogenous pesticides that are chemically similar to manmade pesticides. And there are also occasional organic farmers who are forced to apply pesticides to save their crops. Not surprisingly, they don't talk about that much.

It is assumed that organic production is better for the environment. That this is false is shown by the approach to controlling weeds. A conventional farmer will use herbicides to kill weeds and avoid disturbing the soil to conserve moisture, minimise erosion and preserve topsoil organic matter. Organic farmers are not permitted to use herbicides, so they have to use cultivation.

The assumption that pesticides wipe out bees and other beneficial insects is also false. Modern insecticides are highly selective and increasingly used in conjunction with beneficial insects in integrated pest management programs. Hypocritically, none of the organic codes recognise genetically-modified crops in spite of their need for little or no pesticides.

And it is assumed that organic production is a viable alternative to conventional agriculture, and the world would be better off it was adopted globally. In fact, organic methods are significantly less productive that conventional agriculture, producing on average 20% lower yields. More land is needed to produce the same amount of food using organic production methods, meaning higher prices or less set aside for conservation. The poor farmers who clear the rainforests in Indonesia and Brazil typically do not use pesticides.

So given facts like these, why do intelligent people cling to the belief that they are doing themselves, their families or the world a favour by purchasing organic food?

Most of them do not reject modern society or the capitalist economy, although there are plenty in the organic movement who do. Nor are most of them even fully committed to organic food; they buy it by exception rather than as a committed policy.

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Ignorance about the falsity of these assumptions explains some of it. There is remarkable reluctance, including in the media, to even consider whether the emperor is wearing clothes. Even among those who do not consume it, it is quite common to hear organic food labelled as harmless and merely a matter of choice, facts notwithstanding.

But another explanation may have been revealed in a recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which discovered that those who consumed organic food were more judgemental and selfish than others.

The authors say the results suggest that "exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic." That apparently leads to a higher level of self-righteousness which is reflected in harsher attitudes towards fellow humans.

Assumptions of moral superiority are not confined to organic food consumers. Those who never exceed the speed limit, refuse to eat meat, or are overtly religious, are probably not a lot different.

But it is a plausible explanation. Support for organic food is based on a belief system in which facts are not particularly relevant. Indeed, if you either ignore or deny the facts, you can allow yourself the self-satisfaction of looking down on those who do not share your beliefs. It explains a lot.

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This article first appeared in Farmonline. David Leyonhjelm is treasurer of the LDP.



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David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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