Tag: Organic

Woo-meisters overrun Westport Farmer’s Market

Woo-meisters overrun Westport Farmer’s Market

It finally happened. The sincere vendors of local produce at Westport Farmer’s Market have been joined or outnumbered by the crazy peddlers of pseudoscience and other woo. Starting out with organic. Organic farming is a marketing technique. It does not produce healthier or more nutritious foods, just more expensive ones. If you don’t think so, compare the prices of strawberries.

You can buy a pint of organic strawberries for $6.50 or you can buy a quart  of conventional strawberries for $7.00. Is this a scam? Yes, it is. These are both local strawberries grown nearby. You are being diddled! As we have noted many times, there is no good reason to buy organic produce. Organic farming has lower yields (sometimes only 60% as much) and is not as environmentally sustainable.

If you don’t believe me, the Washington Post recently wrote up an article on strawberry farming, noting that the best strawberries by far are grown in California where the season is longer and the climate perfect. You can buy a pound of California strawberries at Stop and Shop for $2.99 and a pound of organic California strawberries for $3.99. You probably won’t find much difference in flavor. Because of packing differences (pints versus pounds) the price differential may not really be double, but the hit is substantial for no good reason. But remember, we aren’t just comparing California and Connecticut, we are comparing two Connecticut farms a few miles apart.

And it’s GMO Free, too!

Sport Hill Farm in Easton, CT is a substantial business with a good reputation for their organic produce. They even supply a number of local restaurants. But since they are “organic” why go on and say they are non-GMO?  (“Organic” is by definition “non-GMO”)

In fact, as far as I could see, the only produce they had that even had a GMO version was their summer squash. Nothing else in their extensive crop list has a GMO version. These are very capable farmers, and they surely know this. They are just doing fear mongering marketing. As the National Academies of Science has stated, along with every other major scientific organization in the world, GMO crops pose no more harm than conventional crops.

gmo free eggsBut it gets worse. How about the vendor(Beaver Brook Farm) with these eggs? The chickens are fed GMO free grain? Wow! Do you think that a chicken eating grain bred by one technique over another is going to be any different? It’s ridiculous! Remember chicken growers, GM is not an ingredient. It is a crop breeding technique! I quote my colleague Layla Katiraee who jokes about a boa constrictor eating a rat and because of this hypothetical (and ridiculous) gene transfer argument, he creates a rat-strictor. You don’t believe that do you?

And as far as free range chickens go, the Journal of Poultry Science published a substantial series of studies showing the caged chickens did the best and the cage free the worst.

And it’s gluten free!

There is any number of very good bakeries in or near Westport that exhibit regularly at the Farmer’s Market. However, it is really disappointing to discover that they are all flogging their Gluten Free products as if those are products in great demand. Gluten occurs in wheat and in a few other grains, but is for most of us a very valuable nutrient. Only about 1% of the population suffers from the autoimmune disorder that leads to celiac disease. These people cannot eat gluten: it not only can cause severe discomfort, it can eventually damage your digestive system. However, far too many people somehow believe that not eating gluten is somehow “healthier,” when just the opposite is true. Gluten free products are less nutritious, and for the most part, don’t taste that great.

Now some people claim to have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), but whether this is even an actual disorder and whether it has much to do with gluten is very much in doubt. You can read a lot about the status of research into NCGS here. And low carbohydrate diets are not very healthy.

Oh, and then there’s Paleo, a fad diet hatched to sell books and allegedly (and inaccurately) presented as the “healthy diet our ancestors ate.” Well it isn’t. Plants and animals have evolved since those times, and so have we. We can’t eat the plants they ate, because they no longer exist. And we have evolved to tolerate lactose and (most of us) can have dairy products. The idea that our ancestors didn’t eat gluten is silly. It depends on where they lived. If there were edible grains nearby, you can be sure they ate them. Scientific American explains this here. As David Gorski explains, Paleo is part of the “naturalistic fallacy.” It provides no benefits.

Juices and the Cleanse

the standOf course, there had to be a representative from The Stand (not Steven King’s novel, but a juice stand). They make a lot of blended juices, some good, and some at best an acquired taste and loaded with kale. And some interesting sandwiches as well. But smack dab on the back cover of their leaflet is an advertisement for The Cleanse, a crazy regime of bizarre juices that is supposed to detoxify your body (at $60 a day). It doesn’t. There is no such thing as a cleanse: it is pure hooey. Your liver detoxifies your body every day, and juices do nothing to help. Don’t waste your money!

Nutty Ice Cream

We can’t let Nutty Bunny ice cream go unmentioned. The owner, Westporter Pamela Aflalo claims to have cured her daughter’s allergies by created a non dairy diet, and then created this imitation ice cream. It’s billed as vegan, organic, non-dairy, non-GMO and 100% gluten free, touching nearly all the woo bases. It also has no artificial sweeteners. It’s made primarily from cashews, almonds and coconut milk. It costs $10 a pint, and has a kind of grainy texture. We didn’t like it at all and her claim of curing her daughter’s allergies is at best anecdotal.

Arogya iced teas

arogyaArogya has some nice teas, but it only takes a minute before you discover that many are “healing blends,” for colon cleanses and detox (neither of which exist), kidney cleanses, liver cleanses, female vitality and other unbelievable malarkey. They also practice quackery such as cupping, acupuncture and qigong, and other Traditional Chinese Medicine, none of which has ever been show to be effective, or it would just be called “medicine.” In fact most of it was codified by Chairman Mao.

 

kombuchaAnd just for completeness, we’ll show you the absolutely crazy claims made by the Om Champagne Kombucha vendor. They speak for themselves.

And we cure autism, too

Probably the scariest and most irresponsible products come from Healing Home Foods, owned by Shelley Schulz of Pound Ridge, NY. At first, their products look rather nice, with granola, cookies and (raw?) crackers on display, with some nut butters as well. They are, of course full of the usual horse feathers: organic, non-gmo, gluten free and vegan.

healing granola

But it is only when you read their label or web site that you discover their bizarre ideology. Schulz claimed to improve her autistic son’s condition by removing “dairy, gluten, grains, sugar, starches and preservatives,” and developed even more raw/vegan dietary nonsense when her husband developed cancer. None of this can actually work, of course, and you should be aware of anyone making such claims.

Antibiotics

acadia beefAnd look, Aradia Farm, there are no antibiotics in your meat. None. Not allowed. See Amanda Zaluckyj’s explanation. And all beef contains some hormones whether growth implants are used or not, but the estrogenic activity in been is far less than in other common foods.

 

 

Fair trade again

fair tradeAnd finally, vendors like to make claims about Fair Trade, especially in coffee products. It turns out not to be such a great idea as we reported. We don’t know what the quality of Fair Trade coffee beans is: farmers are likely to be selling their lowest grade beans to fair trade brokers, since the floor price is guaranteed. Growers are paid very little more for such beans, but the Fair Trade organization makes a nice profit on it. It is essentially a marketing organization, not one that benefits poor farmers.

Westport Farmer’s Market is a sincere operation, but not all the vendors are in any way sincere. Some vendor debunking or cleaning might be in order.

Is there any good reason to buy organic?

DSC_0034Now that Farmer’s market season has begun, you will find organic crops for sale all over the place. We love browsing through these markets, smelling the fresh crops and talking with the actual farmers that grew them.

There is no question that organic farmers are sincere and hardworking people who want to produce the very best food they can. From the supermarket manager’s view, the markups on organic produce may well be quite a bit more, making them significantly more profitable. You can find a nice discussion of organic markups here in Whole Foods Markup.

But why buy organic foods? Are there any good reasons? The original idea was to avoid pesticides that may be harmful, and enrich the soil with compost instead of synthetic fertilizers.

Pesticide residues

But in fact, the amount of pesticides found on conventional crops (even on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen”) is orders of magnitude lower than the established safety levels.

In a 2011 peer-reviewed paper by Winter and Katz, they analyzed  the same USDA data used by the EWG and compared it to the “chronic reference threshold,” the estimate of the amount of a chemical a person could be exposed to on a daily basis throughout a person’s lifetime without any appreciable risk.

All of the vegetables in this dirty dozen had residues thousands of times lower than this threshold, as we noted in our article Pesticide Residues and Organic Crops.

And furthermore, this same USDA data shows the 23% of organic vegetables had detectable, but equally low residues of these same pesticides.

Botanical pesticides

But these numbers do not even measure the botanical pesticides used on organic crops, which are allowed because they are of “natural” origin, not because they are safer. In fact some of the pesticides sprayed on organic crops are worse for you and the environment.

Rotenone is one of the worst, is toxic to fish and can induce Parkinson’s disease. Not all organic farmers spray these toxic, but approved pesticides, but neither do all conventional farmers. Christie Wilcox discusses this in Scientific American’s Mythbusting 101 blog.

But the most persuasive reasons not to choose organic crops are found in plant pathologist Steve Savage’s article Six Reasons why Organic is not the most Environmentally Friendly Way to Farm.

Organic foods are nutritionally identical

Studies by scientists at Stanford and earlier by Dangour, et. al. have concluded that there is no significant nutritional difference between organic and conventional production methods. There are significant variations in nutrition depending on climate and soil conditions much more than on the farming techniques used.

Prescientific standards

Savage notes that much of what became our Organic Standards were codified years ago before we knew as much as we do now about toxicology, the environment and climate studies. He terms some of these regulations “pre-scientific.” And even when there was an opportunity to update them the organic businesses resisted it.

For example, the only approved organic fungicides are copper-based, are quite toxic to aquatic invertebrates, and have to be reapplied frequently. But today there are modern, synthetic fungicides that are considerably less toxic and break down into more innocuous materials. Unfortunately these safer fungicides are not allowed by these pre-scientific organic standards.

On composting

One of Savage’s major objections is to the use of manure for fertilization, because it has to be composted to do away with toxic microbes, and this composting process produces a very high level of greenhouse gases. In fact, more greenhouses gases are generated by composting than by manufacturing fertilizer from methane and atmospheric nitrogen. This is discussed in this Applied Mythology article.

Let’s consider one acre of farm land. Farmers typically apply about 5 tons of composted manure per acre. The greenhouse gases generated during composting are equivalent to the carbon footprint of manufacturing urea fertilizer for 12.9 acres, or counting all inputs the equivalent of the carbon footprint for producing 5.7 acres of corn. Clearly this is not scalable.

It is possible to prevent these greenhouse gases during compost fermentation by using an anaerobic digester, but these are quite expensive and not in general use, although some very large farms have begun using them.

Another interesting issue regarding compost is highlighted in the article No, Cows Don’t Make Fertilizer. Cows, of course, do not produce nitrogen. The nitrogen comes from the plants they eat, and these may well have been produced by conventional fertilization. This is permitted by organic standards, as explained in this U Conn Extension article.

In other words, cows are being used to “launder” conventionally fertilized grasses and their manure used to reclaim this nitrogen and call it organic! In the process, not only are substantial greenhouse gases generated, but more phosphorus is generated than the plants can absorb, leading to phosphate runoff.

Plants, of course, absorb the same molecules of nutrients regardless of whether they come from compost or from nitrogen fertilizers, but it is not so easy to distribute fertilizer in drip irrigation to exactly where it is needed if the fertilizer source is compost as opposed to soluble fertilizers. And the irony is that work is going on to develop ways to use wind power to create the nitrate fertilizers in a completely green way, but these more efficient fertilizers are not permitted on organic crops. (See Moving Towards Fossil-Energy-Independent Fertilizer.)

No-till farming

One of the most promising farming innovations in recent years is no-till farming, where the soil is not disturbed while the crops are growing and weeds are removed using low-impact herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate). Not only does no-till limit erosion and nutrient movement into water, it saves energy and reduces farming’s carbon footprint.

However, no-till is difficult for organic farmers to implement because there really are no effective organic herbicides that can be used. And while cover crops are used by organic farmers, they have greater weed control problems than conventional farmers do and use tilling instead.

Productivity of organic farms

Organic farms do not have the efficiency of conventional farms because they are limited in their choice of fertilizers and herbicides as well as in pest control. The chart shown in the slide show (Figure 1)  is reproduced from the article Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields, with the data drawn from USDA 2008 crop yield data. In general, the data show that organic farms have yields no better than 80% of those of conventional farms, and as low as 40% for organic carrots.

This, of course, makes them much more expensive to grow, and this cost is passed on to the consumer with no actual benefit. A similar conclusion is drawn in this 2011 paper in Nature: Comparing the Yields in Organic and Conventional Agriculture.

While the organic advocate publisher Rodale has created a report suggesting that organic farming techniques have higher yields, they admit that they have never published this work in any peer-reviewed journal.

Organic food is a niche market

The total US organic acreage is only about 0.5% of the current US cropland, and growth has slowed. Even if it continued at the rate before 2008, Savage projects that organic cropland would only be about 3% by 2050, and in fact in recent years there has been no real growth in organic croplands. This is shown in Figure 2 of the slide show.

Organic foods do not contain GMOs

This is true, but this is actually backwards, in that the entire disinformation campaign against GMO crops is led and financed by the organic food industry, who wants to keep this distinction in order to maintain their high price point. As we have noted time and time again, GMO crops are nutritionally identical and have never been shown to cause any harm. Every major scientific organization worldwide has come to the conclusion that they are identical to conventional crops and harmless.

Conclusions

Much as it may disappoint organic partisans and idealists, there just aren’t any good reasons to buy organic crops over conventional ones.

  • They are nutritionally identical.
  • Conventional crops have pesticide levels well below any possible danger level even if you ate them daily, and the pesticides used on organic crops are actually more dangerous.
  • Organic fungicides are considerably more dangerous.
  • Organic crops have a more than 5 times larger carbon footprint because of greenhouse gases released by composting and because of the need to till organic crops.
  • Organic crops are more expensive both because of lower productivity and supermarket price gouging.

Organic foods are not exactly a “scam,” but they have no real benefits to justify their high price. We recommend buying fresh foods from local farmers when you can, because you can at least ask how they were grown. And they will probably taste better, too.

relative yields

This article was originally published on Examiner.com in May, 2013.