Organic food - it’s a religion

NO INTELLIGENT person would choose organic food over conventional food on objective grounds. Its support is based on a number of false assumptions.

For example, it is assumed that conventional food usually contains pesticide residues. Overall, this is not true. As confirmed by repeated surveys, most food is almost completely free of pesticide residues.

It is also assumed that tiny residues of pesticides are harmful. This is similarly false except for rare individuals with specific allergies. All pesticides are scrutinised in exhaustive detail before they may be sold and there are huge safety margins built into their use rates. Some of them are certainly dangerous straight out of the container, but so is laundry bleach and swimming pool chlorine. Legal pesticide residues do not cause acute or chronic illness.

It is assumed that organic food is free of pesticides. In fact, certain pesticides are permitted under the various organic codes and many organically grown plants produce endogenous pesticides that are chemically similar to man-made pesticides. And there are also occasional organic farmers who are forced to apply pesticides to save their crops. Not surprisingly, they don’t talk about that much.

It is assumed that organic production is better for the environment. That this is false is shown by the approach to controlling weeds. A conventional farmer will use herbicides to kill weeds and avoid disturbing the soil to conserve moisture, minimise erosion and preserve topsoil organic matter. Organic farmers are not permitted to use herbicides, so they have to use cultivation.

The assumption that pesticides wipe out bees and other beneficial insects is also false. Modern insecticides are highly selective and increasingly used in conjunction with beneficial insects in integrated pest management programs. Hypocritically, none of the organic codes recognise genetically-modified crops in spite of their need for little or no pesticides.

And it is assumed that organic production is a viable alternative to conventional agriculture, and the world would be better off it was adopted globally. In fact, organic methods are significantly less productive than conventional agriculture, with much lower yields. More land is needed to produce the same amount of food using organic production methods, meaning less can be set aside for conservation. The poor farmers who clear the rainforests in Indonesia and Brazil typically do not use pesticides.

So given facts like these, why do intelligent people cling to the belief that they are doing themselves, their families or the world a favour by purchasing organic food?

Most of them do not reject modern society or the capitalist system, although there are certainly plenty in the organic movement who do. Nor are most of them even fully committed to organic food; they buy it by exception rather than as a full-on policy.

Ignorance about the falsity of these assumptions explains some of it. There is remarkable reluctance, including in the media, to even consider whether the emperor is wearing clothes. Even among those who do not consume it, it is quite common to hear organic food labelled as harmless and merely a matter of choice, facts notwithstanding.

But another explanation may have been revealed in a recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which discovered that those who consumed organic food were more judgemental and selfish than others.

The authors say the results suggest that “exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.” That apparently leads to a higher level of self-righteousness which is reflected in harsher attitudes towards fellow humans.

Assumptions of moral superiority are not confined to organic food consumers. Those who never exceed the speed limit, refuse to eat meat, or are devoutly religious, are probably not a lot different.

But it is a plausible explanation. Support for organic food is based on a belief system in which facts are not particularly relevant. Indeed, if you either ignore or deny the facts, you can allow yourself the self-satisfaction of looking down on those who do not share your beliefs. It explains a lot.

David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at

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practical farmer
3/07/2012 6:50:22 AM

The very label "Organic" is trying to suggest that only organic food is safe, and that the rest is suspect. There is no evidence to support this assumption. However, non-organic wears the implication that it is somehow inferior, which is clearly untrue. We could not feed ourselves, let alone the world, if we had to rely on organic production. It is simply a feel-good exercise for consumers wealthy enough to afford the price. Congratulation David.
Clark Kent
3/07/2012 6:52:34 AM

Dear Oh me David, the herbicide and pesticide manufacturers will soon sponsor anything you wish for after that 'Gillard-type' lecture piece. I have only read your piece once, and that it would be sufficient, to describe it as petulent and obviously self-serving. Why do you find it necessary to 'scold' and ridicule others who choose differently to youself? Are you and your 'masters' worried or something? We, hopefully, still live in a democracy where choice is still a discretionary bonus for such a system. David, don't get intergestion over others and their choices - chill mate!
Frank Ekin
3/07/2012 6:57:39 AM

We take great care to protect the beneficial insects which we buy in each year. If we are not careful we can kill them with the recommended pesticides. It is nonsense to claim that pesticides are so specific one need not be concerned about killing non targeted insects, if it was so we would not have any problems with fruit spotting bug nor yellow peach moth. I am surprised this article was published since it is inaccurate and overstated.
3/07/2012 7:55:10 AM

This is an argument about beliefs and consequently facts and logic have little input. If peoplewish to grow or consume organic produce ,let them.It is their choice. I just want safe,wholesome,good quality produce available when I want it at a cheap price. The market has spoken and that is what they appear to want also. The issue is that the organic movement is evangelistic and sees the need to convert those non believers even if they do not wish to be converted. Just leave them alone and let farmers get on with farming. The market will decide.There is room for both.
3/07/2012 8:14:27 AM

Sorry David, it is time you better check for pesticidal rsidue in your own brain. Looks like it is blocking certain vital spots from working. We should be bit more sensible while comparing the farm economy around the world. No Brazilian/ Indonesian farmer tills for Negative gearing remember! SOIL is a living entity and a continual herbicidal therapy leads to its Death,while tillage always helps in rebuilding the genuine living tillers ! Remember, exceptions can't be examples and Organic world can't be an exceptions to this rule. You can find few corrupts in there too. Eat healthy,think healthy
the Quiet Farmer
3/07/2012 9:22:44 AM

As someone who depends on a healthy soil for a living I would suggest those who think tillage is kinder to soil than herbicides to have a good look at what they are doing. From the work and studies I've seen, one tillage operation can REMOVE 1% organic matter; tillage reduces microbial and invertebrate numbers in the soil when compared to no-till; there is significantly less water stored when tillage is used and so the list goes on. If you really want to look after the lifeblood of your farm you use chemicals to control weeds and you don't drive all over it.
3/07/2012 9:26:41 AM

@Clark Kent - What is wrong with debate? Everyone should be free to say the world is flat but others should be able to say it isn't also. That is how science chances but religion doesn't. @Frank Ekin - If chemicals are not used correctly (like anything) they will cause harm to the non-target. Contact the APVMA if it isn't acceptable and the product will be banned. @downtoearth - Its all about balance not extremism. Good science will win in the end for healthy food. Lies don't help anyone long term. The organic industry needs to mature. I has heaps of offer but too many scams currently.
X Ag Socialist
3/07/2012 9:35:37 AM

" tillage always helps in rebuilding the genuine living tillers" Nothing could be further from the truth . Down to Earth , I recommend you check your facts and reassess your belief system.
Acerbic Observer
3/07/2012 9:41:09 AM

Finally a decent well balanced article about the misnomers of Organic Production. Organics in Australia and other first world countries is a niche, driven by idealism at best or igonrance at worst. David has nailled all the major issues. organic doesn't equal no pesticides use. Often the organically certfified ones are products like sulfur that cause more harm to the consumer. Is not more nutrious than conventional production, and often has more harmful bacteria than products treated with pesticides. Like aspergillus, a know carcinogen, which can be controlled with pesticides.
Will from Bordertown
3/07/2012 1:18:08 PM

Organic? A lot of getting sweaty and excited, feeling pretty pleased with yourself, good and self satisfied but at the end of the day not a lot of work getting done. Good sense in David's article. Some people feel better on an organic diet but its probably as much to do with cutting down on junk food, cutting down the fatty red meat and laying off the coffee and chocolate cake as eating food grown without pesticides. Driving through city traffic probably exposes you to more carcogens than eating non-vegeterrorist or non-organic food.
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Agribuzz with David LeyonhjelmCommentary, news and analysis with agribusiness consultant David Leyonhjelm. Email David at


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