Organic produce: healthful snack or POISON FOR HIPPIES???

I am not an organic food believer. Like the inimitable farmer in Omnivore’s Dilemma, I think eating locally is much more important than buying mass-produced organic produce grown in a different hemisphere with (for example) ecologically-toxic pyrethrins. So I’m quite open – even eager – for intelligent criticism of organic food, particularly of the “everything organic is healthy and happy” marketing. But this Slate article by James E. McWilliams wasn’t it.

Essentially, McWilliams claims that heavy metals from organic fertilizers (manure, bird guano, and so on) lead to a greater amount of metals in organic produce, and thus to a greater risk of health problems But it is written in a misleading way. For example:

George Kuepper, an agriculture specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, observed in a 2003 report that composting manure actually concentrates the fertilizer’s metal content, which could lead to greater levels of the contaminants in organic soil.

Composting manure concentrates the metal content relative to raw manure, certainly. But the Kuepper report doesn’t say anything about the concentration of heavy metals in organically-farmed soils compared to that of conventionally-farmed soils. It just notes that contaminated source materials lead to contaminated compost, and suggests that farmers “inquire about the feeding practices at the source or have the material tested.” This is a problem of sloppy farmers, not organic farming.

But it gets worse. McWilliams does not seem to understand that twice as much of very little is still very little.

Recent studies have lent Kuepper’s concern tentative support. For example, in 2007, researchers conducted an analysis of wheat grown on various farms in Belgium; based on the results, they estimate that consumers of organically grown wheat take in more than twice as much lead, slightly more cadmium, and nearly equivalent levels of mercury as consumers of wheat grown on conventional farms.

When I went to the source, I found that “twice as much lead” was 0.28 ug lead per kg body weight for organic consumers, and 0.12 ug lead per kg body weight for conventional consumers. 0.28 is indeed more than twice as much as 0.12. However, according to that very same study, this is less than 10% of the Belgian tolerable daily intake (TDI) and is very unlikely to lead to health problems.

McWilliams also mentions a Greek study that found that:

As it turned out, “certified” organic cereals, leafy greens, pulses, and alcoholic beverages had slightly less heavy-metal contamination than conventional products, but “uncertified” organic products had “far larger concentrations” than conventional ones.

This probably has more to do with farms that are uncertified and unregulated than with organic farming methods. McWilliams’s very own source, the Kuepper report, explains why. In the United States, certified organic produce cannot be fertilized with, for example, arsenic-contaminated chicken bedding. Uncertified products are not similarly restricted.

I think it’s good to be reminded that organic agriculture is not the end-all be-all solution to perfect human and environmental health. But I think the McWilliams piece comes dangerously close to OMG POISON IN UR FOOD!!!! There is nothing inherent about organic farming that makes it more metal-filled than conventional farming, and no data to suggest that there is enough metal in organic food to harm your health.

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4 Responses to Organic produce: healthful snack or POISON FOR HIPPIES???

  1. Hisly says:

    Huzzah local foods! Read labels. We always try to buy the “local-est” brand of whatever from the store, which is fairly easy in Farmland Wisconsin. Most labels state where the item was made and bottled. This is also an excellent case for Community Farm Shares (which Wisconsin is also full of) as you can go to ‘your’ farm and help work the land, or just check things out to make sure they aren’t putting lead in your beans.

    Although the FDA and others are getting much much better about forcing manufacturers to really declare exactly what is in ones food, things aren’t perfect yet. You still need to be an informed consumer, if you want/need to avoid certain things. Many a product claims to be Dairy Free, and yet lists Calcium Caseinate on the ingredients list. Sigh.

  2. Karen says:

    Miriam, I am in complete agreement! My first choice is local AND certified organic, but if I have to choose between the two, I always choose local over organic. Fortunately organic certification in the UK is a bit more sensible than the new(ish) USDA certification process, but still.

    Last year certain livestock manure composts contained enough herbicide residues (because the silage the livestock was fed had been cut from meadows treated with the herbicide) to actually kill and/or cause morphological deformities in the food plants fertilized with the manure. A lot of local, small-scale organic allotments were affected.

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    Organic produce: healthful snack or POISON FOR HIPPIES??? | The Oyster’s Garter

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    Organic produce: healthful snack or POISON FOR HIPPIES??? | The Oyster’s Garter

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