The Chicago Tribune’s “Health Club” writer writes about the issue of healthiness relating to organic food. It seems like articles like this are in the news more often than people realize. So why are so many pro-organic advocates that I know – I was just talking to a few friends here about it – so surprised that there is even the possibility that organic foods aren’t healthier than non-organic food? Do they just ignore the articles with headlines that disagree with them?


A French study has challenged the findings of a well-publicized British report that said organic food offers no conclusive health benefits. Maybe organic food is healthier for you, maybe it isn’t. I’d just regard it as inconclusive at best.

While the media might be focusing on the death of Patrick Swayze, we’d like to draw your attention to the death of a man who was a truly influential and positive force in the world. Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” and winner of the 190 nobel peace prize, died Saturday at the age of 95.

Borlaug’s accomplishments involved the tremendous work he did in revolutionizing agriculture. By recognizing that organic farming could not exclusively feed the world’s population, Borlaug developed genetically modified foods. These foods, among other things, could resist disease, had a higher yield with fixed inputs, and utilized “dwarfing”.

The results were higher yields and food being grown in places where it wasn’t before – more people were eating because there was more food. As the Wall Street Journal points out:

Today, famines—whether in Zimbabwe, Darfur or North Korea—are politically induced events, not true natural disasters.

Borlaug’s only obstacle to universally renowned heroism comes from environmentalists. Some environmentalists claimed that growing more food would mean roads would be built over wilderness. I don’t think I need to address the elitism of that argument. But also, because of the unknown consequences of using chemicals like non-organic pesticides and genetically modifying foods, environmentalists saw Borlaug as a figure who introduced dangerous food into every agricultural industry in the world.

It’s true that we don’t know all the consequences of Borlaug’s work – just like we don’t yet know the consequences of society staring at computer screens for 7 hours a day. But we need to weigh the possible risks with the enormous benefits. Borlaug was credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. Not a typo – billion. Those are 1 billion people that would have starved to death. As Borlaug said, it’s easy for people to criticize his work for being possibly dangerous because they all have “full bellies”.

Elizabeth Kolbert chronicles some absurd enviro-stunt books in the most recent New Yorker.  One highlight is from a book by Colin Beavan called No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process:

For a year, [Colin Beavan] and his family would attempt to live, in his words, “as environmentally as possible”…. They would try to live in a ninth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village without producing any environmental impact whatsoever…. [Beavan] insists that the family give up toilet paper and keeps hassling his wife to forswear tampons. He decides that they can eat only seasonal food grown in the Northeast, which eliminates coffee. Michelle, a devotee of Starbucks quadruple shots, develops a debilitating caffeine-withdrawal headache. Beavan spends a lot of time worrying about the family’s—i.e., Michelle’s—lapses. When he finds a Sunday Times lying on the table, he accuses her of betrayal. “Are you taking this project seriously?” he demands. “Are you buying newspapers when I’m not around?”

A huge problem with doomsday progressive environmentalism is that, taken to its logical extreme, it demands an all-consuming devotion to minimizing one’s environmental impact.  As Beavin’s book seems to vividly illustrate, actually following through on this conviction turns people into huge douchebags.

So what if you are somebody (like me) who worries about possible catastrophic consequences of global warming and wants to contribute to keeping the planet healthy and habitable?  It’s frustrating, because it’s really hard to know what to do.  You don’t want to turn into a Beavin, who eschews all other pursuits in life for the sake of minimizing environmental impact.  But it takes a lot of time and energy to figure out what your most environmental damaging activities are and what you should do to reduce your carbon footprint.

A lot of people try to be more environmental by buying local food, but there’s evidence indicating that, despite its appealing simplicity, being a locavore isn’t particularly sensible if you’re trying to reduce your environmental impact.  Same with recycling, or eating organic:  a lot of popular environmentally friendly activities don’t actually do a lot for the environment, and a lot of activities (like not eating red meat) that aren’t widely know as environmentally friendly actually do make meaningful reductions in individuals’ environmental impacts.

The problem is, because so much information is necessary, it’s hard to make environmentally responsible decisions, which is a huge impediment to more people making them (since fortunately, most people don’t want to be like Beavan).  If only there was a way to compile and synthesize all this information, and convert it into one, easy-to-understand number that would inform you of the overall costs of your purchasing decisions.  Fortunately, there is: prices!  This is why it’s so important to have a carbon tax, and why progressives who care about the environment should be much more passionate in their support for one.  If carbon were priced, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not eating local, or organic, or recycling, or taking the bus instead of the metro instead of driving actually reduces carbon output.  Prices would make all those decisions for me, and I could go about my day with one less thing to worry about.

Several calls for boycotts over Whole Foods have emerged in the last couple weeks. Why?

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is an Ayn Rand admirer, anti-union business leader, FA Hayek-influenced libertarian against the Employee Free Choice Act who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing Obama’s plans for healthcare reform:

The last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment.

He proceeded to give eight suggestions on how to lower costs and make healthcare more affordable. Essentially, he is aiming for similar ends to supporters of the public option. But because he wants to use market forces to do it, he’s tarred and feathered. Facebook groups have sprung up and exploded with members. Whole Foods’ website has thousands of angry comments. The progressive blogosphere blew up. This is the same guy who took a $1 annual salary because he “reached a place in [his] life where [he] no longer want[s] to work for money.” Sounds like a progressive’s dream.

I don’t shop at Whole Foods because their food is very expensive and I am generally skeptical of the supposed benefits of organic foods. But the customers of Whole Foods – I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here – are in general agreement with most of what the corporation does. As Radley Balko writes:

Let me see if I have the logic correct here: Whole Foods is consistently ranked among the most employee-friendly places to work in the service industry. In fact, Whole Foods treats employees a hell of a lot better than most liberal activist groups do.

The company has strict environmental and humane animal treatment standards about how its food is grown and raised. The company buys local. The store near me is hosting a local tasting event for its regional vendors. Last I saw, the company’s lowest wage earners make $13.15 per hour. They also get to vote on what type of health insurance they want. And they all get health insurance.

The company is also constantly raising money for various philanthropic causes. When I was there today, they were taking donations for a school lunch program. In short, Whole Foods is everything leftists talk about when they talk about “corporate responsibility.”

Supposed “tolerant” and “open minded” progressives seem to care about diversity of thought and corporate responsibility – just as long as there are no opinions that deviate from theirs.

Read Mackey’s entire Op-ed here.

So, reports say that organic food isn’t healthier for you than other food. We hate to break it to the birkenstock crowd, but organic food is also, more often than not, owned by big huge evil corporations. Even if you’re pretty sure that’s not true for some products, guess again:

“The large companies go to great lengths to hide that they’re the owners,” Potter said from his company’s headquarters in Clinton, Mich. “There’s a great deal of effort that goes into shielding that from the public. There’s smoke and mirrors in the marketing of organic foods.

Even when it’s not General Mills or Kellog’s owning it,  huge companies like Horizon usually control the market. 20% of organic food even comes from China, so the whole “local” argument doesn’t always stand up either.

People buy organic for many other reasons, though. But the idea that it’s better for the environment, promotes better employment practices, or tastes better are all wrong too. We’ll get to that later, though. In the meantime, check out a pretty good overview of some arguments against organic food here.

It was published last week, but I might as well post about it anyways. A recent comprehensive study showed that organic food is no more healthy than non-organic food. The Times article, summarized in one sentence, reads:

Shoppers pay more for organic fruit, vegetables, chicken, beef and milk but the food gives no nutritional enhancement to people’s diet.

Coincidentally, Penn and Teller had an episode last Thursday about what they see as the plethora of B.S. behind the organic food industry. P&T aren’t always completely insightful or exclusively instructive, in my opinion. But the episode nonetheless makes some good arguments in an ever-so-lighthearted fashion.