Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bipartisan cultism

In the geography of politics, there is a strange and shadowy place far, far down the narrowing alleys of the left, where one turns a final corner and is suddenly face to face with like-minded wanderers who arrived at the same spot from exactly the opposite direction, via equally tortuous passageways.

The health and nature cults of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided one venerable meeting ground for the loony right and the loony left; the most famous example being Hitler's vegetarianism and the Third Reich's more general enthusiasm for anti-vivisectionism, animal protection, food and health fadism, and back-to-the-soil nature worship.
(I discuss this in my book Nature's Keepers, available from discerning purveyors of used and remaindered books everywhere).

Lately, though, we've been seeing some like meetings of the minds between health-and-food-nut lefties and paranoid-antigovernment-conspiracy-theory rightists in our very own United States of America. The tea partyniks in Iowa managed to get a plank inserted in their state Republican platform demanding the right to buy and sell unpasteurized milk; a variety of "organic" and "natural" farmers have been regularly spouting tea partyesque slogans about a tyrannical Food and Drug Administration seeking to take away their rights (by insisting they not, for example, sell bacteria-laden food).

And then there was the remarkable coalition of "the evil corporations are poisoning us" left with the "big brother is invading our privacy" right who joined together in the Bay Area in impassioned opposition to the local utility company's attempt to install new electric meters in homes. (The electric meters not only record energy use in real-time — thereby presumably allowing the evil government to know when you're making toast — but also send their data by radio, thereby endangering the health of those sensitive souls who suffer from "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," which causes headaches, fatigue, heart palpitations, and all of the other tiresomely familiar symptoms of anxiety neurosis.)

The anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-intellectual populism that underlies such spirit of bipartisan looniness actually has deep roots in America, but it's been nurtured in latter years by both hucksterism on the right (e.g., Utah senator Orrin Hatch's championing of the quack health supplement industry as a matter of individual freedom, an argument he used to weaken FDA regulation) and academic balderdash on the left (especially the anti-science relativism and the elevation of popular culture that was fashionable amid all of the blather about "meta-narratives" and "interrogating the text" from the social historians of the '80s and '90s).

What's really coming home to roost, however, is the USDA's decision to give official sanction to the scientific nonsense of "organic" farming.

The problem, I should hasten to add, is not that there are not admirable goals of practitioners of organic agriculture; the problem is that the very concept of "organic" food is based upon pure, unadulterated pseudoscientific malarkey.

Or perhaps more accurately, it's pre-scientific malarkey, a cultist set of beliefs that by their very nature defy scientific rationality. Organic boosters have always made sweeping, dogmatic claims for the virtues of rejecting modern agricultural technologies in favor of "natural" farming methods; the very word "organic" reflects the belief of founders of the movement in the idea that their methods would nurture the intangible "vital force" found in living things, but not in inanimate products synthesized by man.

This is, of course, to use the technical term, kaka. Thanks to about a century of modern biochemistry we know there is not any difference between a vitamin A molecule made in the lab or one made in a carrot. Nor is there any difference between a nitrogen atom in a bag of synthetic 10-10-10 fertilizer and a nitrogen atom in a pile of horse manure. Nor is there any difference between a listeria bacterium in a cheese produced by a multi-national conglomerate's industrial dairy plant and a listeria bacterium in a cheese produced by an organic, artisanal, spiritually in tune with the rhythms of the earth cheesemaker in Washington State. The vitamin A molecule will provide you a needed a nutrient, the nitrogen atom will make a plant grow, and the listeria bacterium will make you sick or if you are young, old, in utero, or immunocompromised, possibly kill you — regardless of how "natural" or "artificial" the process was that produced each one.

The point is actually so ridiculously simple I hesitate to say it, but . . . some things made in labs are good! Some things made in nature are very, very bad!

(The FDA's surveillance data suggests that hundreds of people are killed each year by foodborne listeria in the United States, for example, and the FDA's standards set a zero tolerance level. Small farmstead operations are in fact more likely than industrial operations to be affected, since the cheesemaking is taking place near animals and plant matter than can carry the bacetria. Yet when the FDA asked one small cheese-maker to recall her listeria-contaminated products, the organic and small-and-local-food partisans rushed to her defense, asserting that because the bacteria got there in a way that obviously was so good and natural it must be just fine: “The F.D.A. comes from an industrial, zero-defect, highly processed, repeatable perspective, and she comes from a more ancient time of creating with what she gets,” explained one supporter; the maker herself, in true left-meets-right spirit, asserted for her part that the real enemy was Big Government: “I don’t think this issue is about bacteria and it’s not about cheese,” she said. “I think that we’re losing our freedom.”)

But anyway . . . the point is that rather than asking whether it's natural or artificial, the rather more important question is, Is it good or bad?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that some "organic" dogmas happen to have good consequences. It also turns out that some have bad consequences. (Some have very bad consequences.)

Others are neither particularly good or bad in themselves, but are simply foolish and wasteful, or impractical on anything approaching a global scale.

For example:

Slightly good. 
Reducing the use of chemical pesticides is good mainly because indiscriminate spraying can harm populations of beneficial insects such as bees and natural predators that help to keep pests in check.

The health benefits to humans of eating food grown without pesticides, however, are literally non-existent: surveillance by FDA of tens of thousands of samples of fruits and vegetables  found no detectable pesticides at all in 70 percent; only in 1 percent did residues exceed even the extremely conservative margin of safety established for pesticide residues in food (basically 100 times less than a dose one could consume regularly over an entire lifetime with no observable effects on health). Studies even of occupational exposures to pesticides — thousands of times greater than what consumers are exposed to in food — have found no causal link between pesticides and overall cancer incidence.

And as Bruce Ames pointed out decades ago, naturally occurring carcinogens, mutagens, and toxins in food and drink (toxic alkaloids in many herbs, aflatoxin in peanuts, hydrazines in mushrooms, tannins in grapes, complex organic molecules created in high-temperature cooking and found in browned meats and bread crusts, and — a biggie — alcohol in alcoholic beverages) are found in concentrations thousands of times greater than synthetic pesticide residues, and many have a potential carcinogenic potency thousands of times greater per molecule as well. If synthetic pesticide residues in food are causing cancers, then natural carcinogens in food ought to be causing cancer epidemics.

Slightly silly.
The claim that organic produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, one would think, would be regarded by sane people as absurd on its face; what possible mechanism could there be to explain why a fruit tree fertilized with composted cow dung produces fruits in any substantive way different from a tree fertilized with chemical fertilizer. (When pressed to explain this magical difference, J. I. Rodale, the venerable prophet-cum-huckster of the organic movement who launched the huge publishing empire that still bears his name, invoked, well, magic: "We feel that in organically grown food, you have things you don't even know exist," he explained.)

This claim is still frequently made, and extraordinarily trivial (and perhaps random) for-instances are adduced to support it. A major revew of all published studies comparing organic and conventional produce, however, found essentially no significant differences in nutritional content — though inevitably, of course, organic boosters furiously denounced the study, citing trivial (and perhaps random) for-instances in which they claimed organic produce was marginally superior. Such is faith.

Sightly bad.
Copper sulfate is hardly "natural," but apparently under the theory that it's been used since great-great-grandpa's day, it rates as an "organic"-approved method to control fungal infections of plants, such as early blight in tomatoes. A synthetic chemical fungicide like daconil, by contrast, is verboten.

But in terms of what organic farming is supposed to be about — protecting the environment or human health — this is absurd: copper compounds are crude and indiscriminate poisons; they kill earthworms and other beneficial organisms; they accumulate in soil and in animal tissue. By contrast, daconil breaks down rapidly in soil, is highly selective, is minimally toxic to non-target species, and does not bioaccumulate in mammals. I am always uncomfortably reminded of Talmudic investigations of what is kosher when I start trying to understand why certain pesticides qualify as "organic."

Really bad.
The organic prohibition on genetically modified crops is perhaps the prime instance of "natural"-vs- artificial trumping good-vs.-bad.

For example: Spraying Bt, a bacterial toxin that organic farmers use to control corn borers and similar pests, is blessed by the organic movement because it is natural; genetically modified corn or cotton containing the gene to produce its own Bt — and thus targeting only those insects attacking the crop and sparing collateral environmental damage — is verboten because it is artificial.

(Even more absurdly, organic advocates are willing to embrace varieties of plants produced through radioactive mutation — a genetic blunderbus compared to the precision surgery of genetic modification which inserts a single well defined and well understood gene.)

So irrational is anti-GM hysteria that Greenpeace even for example has worked to block the cultivation of GM rice modified to carry a gene to produce vitamin A — an innovation with the potential to save millions a year from blindness or death in the developing world. (Unlike the trivial nutritive differences organic supporters claim to be able to find between organic and conventionally grown produce, this is truly a life-and-death difference.)


It's always been difficult for government regulators to push for scientific standards in the face of economic and political interests who don't like standards, and giving the seal of approval to a dogma based on magical thinking fundamentally at odds with the objectivity and pragmatism of the scientific method certainly has not made it any easier.

There is a heavy air of ritual and a concomitant zest for punishing heresy that imbues the whole "organic" movement. But it was ever thus with faith; when was the last time you heard of a scientific or even a pragmatic, religion.

And of course like all good old American religion, there is a heavy dose of hucksterism as well.