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Organic Shmorganic – Article by Charles N. Steele

Organic Shmorganic – Article by Charles N. Steele

The New Renaissance Hat
Charles N. Steele
October 6, 2012
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A study by researchers from Stanford University of “organic” food was unable to find any health benefits, prompting a rant from NYT’s Roger Cohen against organic food.  Finally, finally, finally!  Cohen on track, rather than off the rails!Many years ago I heard Bruce Ames, a cancer researcher and head of College of Public Health at Stanford give a lecture in which he discredited the health claims of the “organic” movement and warned that it would raise costs without returning corresponding benefits.  His main fear was that this would lead people to eat fewer vegetables rather than more.  The second most important thing people can do to avoid cancer is eat more vegetables, he explained (stopping smoking is  number 1).  He based this in part on his own research with with carcinogenic properties of manmade pesticides and naturally occurring ones; the naturally occurring ones were every bit as bad and as prevalent in vegetables, and neither posed a meaningful risk in his research.  (Obviously misuse of pesticides could be a different matter.)  The new Stanford study was unable to find the superior health benefits attributed to “organic” foods, corroborating Ames’ argument.

I’ve also heard agriculture experts discuss the alleged environmental harmfulness of “non-organic” agriculture, something not covered in the Stanford study.  Again, the alleged environmental benefits of “organic” are mostly hype, and in some cases it can be worse.  Chemical fertilizers in particular deserve none of the slander that’s directed at them.  (Again, use them incorrectly and you can poison things… but that’s also true with “organic”.)

I’ve been putting “organic” in quotation marks, because the word itself always meant something different: it refers to carbon-based compounds.  That is, that’s what it meant until the word was grabbed by – let’s be honest – hippie food faddists.  “Organic” was changed to mean “simple, healthful, close to ‘nature,'” (another doubtful word), all utterly unsubstantiated claims.  Next yuppies and similar types jumped on the bandwagon, because it made them feel good about themselves “saving the planet and eating healthier and sidestepping ‘corporate agriculture,’ etc.”

This is a great example of the fundamental role of subjective utility in economic value.  Belief in “organic” is essentially religious faith, unfounded in evidence.  What makes “organic” more valuable is consumer demand, based on perceived, imagined characteristics, not some physical measurable properties.  That’s why big food corporations got into the act. They were slow to enter, and when they did, they were entirely responding to demand.  They would prefer not to produce this way, because it is costlier, but so long as consumers demand it, you give them what they want, or you lose market share.  There’s quite an irony here. Anti-capitalists frequently accuse “big business” of manufacturing consumer preferences in order to manipulate people and reap profits, yet the whole “organic” movement was manufactured by a motley collection of  anticapitalist  mystics from both left and right.

I heard NPR cover this story, and the  reporter concluded that the whole “organic” thing must have been a conspiracy by “big agriculture” (another dubious concept) to hoodwink us and get our money… a completely backwards argument, as most farmers, big or little, would prefer less costly, easier, more productive modern agricultural methods.  It’s quite common to be producing “organic” crops, meat, etc. and have some small step go wrong and have the “organic” label be lost – and even though the stuff is perfectly good, it now can’t be sold for enough to cover costs.  I’ve had farmers tell me about this, and have read of many more examples.

“Organic shmorganic” indeed!

Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics.  He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States.  He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.

Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.