Scarecrows and Straw Men

Fall is just around the corner, and during this traditional harvest “crunch time”, birds have historically become pests in farm fields around the world — taking advantage of the concentrated abundance to help fatten up for their long migrations.  With so much work to do, farmers are not able to post sentries at every field to scare off the marauding flocks of crows, bluejays, and starlings.  So was born the Scarecrow — a pile of old clothes stuffed with hay or straw and propped on a wooden stake in the field.

A scarecrow is a flimsy defense, hastily erected, but can be quite effective at frightening or confusing some birds — known for their nervousness and group behavior.  The rhetorical version of a scarecrow is a Straw Man, defined by Wikipedia as “an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponents position”.   And with the election of 2012 just a few months away, this fall is chock full of straw men.  The recent party conventions were virtual straw man massacres.

Last week another straw man was erected, by Stanford University:  an academically generated attack on organic agriculture whose central premise was the following argument:

“Organically grown food claims to be more nutritious than conventionally grown food”.

The report proceeded to thrash that straw man with a statistical stick.  The media quickly joined the bash-a-thon, accepting at face value the straw man premise and reporting the results as if they were devastating for organic food and its supporters.

Setting aside that there appear to be serious questions about the data and methodology of this academic report, the fundamental problem remains:  the organic movement makes no official claims about the nutritional value of our products.

Organic Agriculture has a very specific definition set by the United States Department of Agriculture and certified organic producers must follow the rules established.  Nowhere in the law that established the National Organic Program or the regulations that govern it will you find any references to nutrition.

Certified Organic foods are defined by a series of rules governing how they are grown and processed, most specifically excluding the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, preservatives and food ingredients.  Organic livestock is produced without antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic crops can be used to make nutritionally deficient ingredients such as corn syrup, for example.  But the corn syrup cannot be processed using the same chemicals that are used to make conventional corn syrup.  To put it another way, organic soda is not more nutritious than conventional soda, but it has fewer chemicals in it.  I don’t buy organic soda — I don’t drink soda at all — but I have no problem with giving people a choice to buy organic soda if they want it.

One might wonder why a study that claims to be neutral on organic agriculture might have created a dishonest premise as its starting point.  But then one might also wonder why no American university or government agency has done a study on the long-term effects of cumulative lifetime consumption of multiple pesticides on human health.  After all, the EPA rules for pesticide residues on conventional produce are based on single products and short-term exposures in rats.

I could go on and on about this topic for pages.   But in my experience, it comes down to a simple idea:  People, eaters, “consumers” have two options.  If they don’t care how their food was grown, they can buy conventional and have faith that existing government regulation is adequate.  But if they — you — believe that how your food was grown is important, and you want to know the details, your only option is organic.  Organic farmers have voluntarily agreed to complete transparency in how they produce their products — our farms and facilities are inspected every year by a third-party agency that is audited continuously by the USDA.  There is no such transparency for conventional farmers.

In the week following the release of the Stanford “study” there has been lots of media coverage — most of it shockingly ill-informed about organic agriculture and food.  (One exception is this editorial from the Los Angeles Times).  The most accurate and informed rebuttals that I have seen have been from consumers, in the comments sections of websites and news outlets.  This doesn’t surprise me in the least, because I know that people who buy organic are smart enough to know a straw man when they see one.

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Pablito

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