There has always been a lot of arguing over “organic” and “natural” foods. Recently, the brunt of this arguing came after a Stanford study that questioned the advantages of organic meat and produce. The study brought up a number of points, concluding that although organic foods are no more nutritious, they have less contamination from pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This critique of organic foods was compounded by another study that concluded, “Organic farms were less polluting for a given area of land, but were often more polluting per unit of food produced.”
Of course, these findings were met with heavy resistance. A counterpoint, and a worthy one, is that “conventional” food was found to have more pesticide residue. However, as Steven Novella notes on Science-Based Medicine, this finding is largely a red herring:
Even if we take the most pro-organic assumption – that there are more pesticides on conventional produce and that those pesticides have greater negative health effects than organic pesticides, it must still be recognized that simply washing fruits and vegetables effectively reduces pesticide residue. If minimized exposure to pesticide residue is your goal, thoroughly washing your produce is probably the easiest and cheapest way to achieve that end.
Furthermore, as Novella also notes, it is not that organic farming practices do not use pesticides altogether, they use “natural” ones (not synthetically manufactured). These natural pesticides have largely not been tested to see if they are any less harmful to the consumer or the environment. This lack of scrutiny is part of romanticized view of nature that can cloud our discussion of risk.
Another valid criticism of the organic-does-not-equal-better argument is that people don’t just buy organic for the nutrition, but for the differences in farming and animal processing practices. This at least goes against a 2003 survey [PDF], which found that 68.9% of people who purchase organic food said they did so because they believed it to be healthier. Say what you will about potentially unethical ways of processing food, it appears as though the public primarily values the supposed nutritional and health benefits of going organic.
Considering that many people have strong feelings about organic versus conventional approaches to everything from food to medicine brings me to the larger issue that I would like to explore: that the “organic” and “natural” movement is based almost entirely on a logical fallacy.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
No doubt, nature is a bounty of potential health benefits. We synthesize most of our pharmaceuticals from compounds in plants and animals, and some of the most nutritious foods come right off the vine. However, organic proponents of various kinds go far beyond this to assume that all of nature is all good, or good for us. We could call this the Naturalistic Fallacy, or the idea that anything deemed natural is better and or safer for us.
Do humans need to return to their prehistoric ways of health and nutrition, before machines and artificiality? Is natural always better? We can quickly point out that inorganic arsenic is natural, as is chlorine gas and mercury, all unmistakably deadly in the right concentrations. A bear attack is natural, as is snake venom. As facetious as these examples seem, it should be clear that being natural, that is, of Mother Nature, is not a reliable indicator of human health or safety. We can never eat a natural cashew, for example, as they are covered with a similar resin as its relative poison ivy.
Don’t be mistaken; much of evolution is driven by an arms race of defenses and offenses. Ensuring the propagation of genes is often not pretty, and many evolutionary resources are spent either fending off or killing predators or killing prey. Where the assumption that everything natural is better or safer for humans fits in, is anyone’s guess.
Regulation and Dividing Terminology
According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board, “organic agriculture” is defined as follows:
Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
Under the Organic Foods Production Act, there are many guidelines that must be met for a product to achieve an “organic” label from the USDA. However, many of these too are predicated on an assumed beneficence of nature. For example, the guideline that states, “The use of genetic engineering (included in excluded methods), ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited” appeals to our favorable inclinations towards the natural, but does not necessarily mean that this regulation produces more nutritious or healthier crops. The studies mentioned above bear this out.
The colloquial definition of “organic” is broad enough to be an umbrella for many dubiously “natural” products, foods, and services. As a result, “greenwashing,” or the undue application of “green” labeling to products and services, has become rampant. A report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, for example, found that out of 1018 tested products, 26% of them had no proof for their “green” claims [PDF]. Though the Federal Trade Commission also has a set of guidelines that defines various aspects of green claims like “biodegradable,” for example, it seems as though their regulations cannot keep up with the consumer demand for green products. Given this discrepancy, skepticism is warranted.
Not only are many services and products taking advantage of the naturalistic fallacy, using terms like “natural” and “organic” also creates a divide between practices and products that are not as different as this divide suggests. Using the term “natural” to describe a product, medicine, or food implicitly suggests that other products, medicines, or foods are not natural. Indeed, these are often negatively characterized as “synthetic” or “harsh.” Who are we to disregard the inviting bosom of Mother Nature?
Marketing agencies all over the world have now capitalized on this divide, “greenwashing” almost every corner of the market. In the TerraChoice report, only one product out of 1018 did not commit one of their “six sins of greenwashing.” With such a vague definition of what “natural” actually means, for most products and services “natural” is just a word on a sticker (even given the fact that this practice can net a fine from the USDA of 11,000 dollars per violation).
A logical extension of the naturalistic fallacy is to the philosophies of “natural” or “alternative” medicine. The widespread misconception that alternative medicine must be safer or more beneficial because it is natural masks many possible dangers. For example, some herbal supplements, such as Saint John’s Wort, that are sold over the counter in pharmacies can interact fatally with other pharmaceuticals. “Natural” herbs do in fact contain chemicals; often it is from them that we synthesize our pharmaceuticals. However, natural and organic labeling has let them slip under the radar of regulation: a risky state of affairs. Today’s most popular alternative medicine treatments are cashing in on the naturalistic fallacy. Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, reflexology, and reiki all explicitly state their natural credentials as something to be lorded over conventional medicine. This focus on an assumption of efficacy, conferred by alternative medicine’s “natural” qualities, has created a field of research that is so far based mainly on anecdote, rather than on data1.
To be clear, organic and natural foods, services, and medicines can indeed be better or safer. The point is that we cannot assume that they are without proper scrutiny. We need to look to the evidence to sort the science from the pseudoscience, the healthy from the assumed-to-be-healthy. And, on the whole, the evidence has shown the error of assuming that nature knows what’s best2.
Shamanistic healers, “quantum” gurus, balance bracelets purveyors, and anti-EMF proponents all sell products that monetize an apparently critical return to nature. Wi-Fi is unnatural, therefore you need a Wi-Fi blocker; you are bombarded with other people’s “negative energy,” therefore you need your natural “qi” realigned by a reflexologist; you have low energy and stamina, therefore you need a “quantum” bracelet; you get the idea.
Exploiting our seemingly default assumption about nature, pseudoscience can and does do real harm. Anti-vaccine proponents, for example, make the “unnatural” claim against crucial childhood immunizations, ensuring an increased likelihood of disease resurgence. Anti-fluoridation advocates think that the fluoridation of our water supply, ranked as one of the ten greatest public health achievements in the last 100 years (along with vaccines), is an unnatural and therefore untenable proposition. The science on these issues is clear, fluoridation saves millions in dental care costs and vaccines save millions of lives. To ignore this in favor of pseudoscience built upon a fallacious foundation retards social progress.
Surely, if we have learned anything about our advances in other areas like medicine, agriculture, and public health measures, the way forward is with science, not backwards with an assumed beneficence of Mother Nature. The “unnatural” advances of humanity are some of its greatest achievements. Surgery, vaccination, conventional agriculture, electronics, and engineering (genetic or otherwise) have us living longer, healthier lives. If organic foods really aren’t as nutritious, if natural can also mean dangerous, if genetically modified foods have no scientific reason to be labeled differently, we simply cannot afford to continue making the naturalistic fallacy. What is best for us, what is healthier or safer or more nutritious, is something that falls out of proper research, not common sense.
“National Organic Program” logo by the United States Department of Agriculture
1. Fontanarosa, P. B., & Lundberg, G. D. (1998). Alternative medicine meets science. Journal of the American Medical Association, 280 (18), 1618-1619.
2. Ernst, E. (2000). The role of complementary and alternative medicine. British Medical Journal, 321, 1133-1135.