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The Naturalistic Fallacy

One of the most common errors people make when reaching conclusions about the truth or otherwise of various claims involves the naturalistic fallacy. This states that natural things are good and artificial things are bad. For example, organic food is assumed to be better than “normal” food produced using standard farming techniques.

This idea isn’t totally ridiculous because many modern farming processes exist to increase the yield of crops, or to make them more resistant to disease, or to make them last better. Sometimes these aims might result in loss of flavour or even nutritional content. But is all of this – no matter how reasonable it seems – actually true?

Apparently not.

Recent evidence seems to indicate that organic food is unlikely to be much better and is often actually worse than conventional forms in almost every way imaginable. Every claim the organic proponents make is almost the exact opposite of the truth.

So let’s look at some of these claims…

First, organic food is produced by smaller operators and the whole process is more open and honest. Well no, organic food is often produced on small farms but these are controlled by the same big corporations who deal with conventional food. They use deliberately misleading advertising and cynically manipulate the rules to gain greater profit. The have also engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to influence public opinion.

Second, organic food is free of the dangerous chemicals found on conventional food, so it is both safer and better for the natural world. Actually, probably not. Organic food can be produced using pesticides and other chemicals but these must be “natural”. There are numerous problems with natural pesticides: they usually have to be used in greater amounts or concentrations, they are not regulated to the same extent as “artificial” chemicals, and because they are assumed to be safe (usually with no good evidence) less stringent safety precautions are taken.

Some studies show organic food has less pesticide residue but this is likely because only artificial chemicals are tested for. If all types were tested the organic food would probably have far greater amounts. And any small residue on conventional foods is far below safe minimum levels and can easily be washed off anyway.

So the number one reason people buy organic food is to avoid chemicals, yet the exact opposite is probably the truth. Note that there are some organic foods which really are grown without any chemicals – artificial or natural – but these are the vast minority and are likely to suffer from other problems.

The next claim is that organic food is better for the environment. Well there’s no real evidence that this is the case. When higher rates of organic chemicals are used it might mean the environment is more affected. And the lower yields from some organic food means greater areas need to be in production.

Next is the claim that organic food tastes better or is more nutritious. There is no consistent evidence supporting this claim either, except that some organic food has slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients, but this might be just because organic food tends to be smaller which naturally increases concentrations of everything.

So it’s far from clear that organic is better in any way. At the very best the results are mixed and both methods of production have their benefits. Maybe the biggest problem is that what might have been at one time a genuine attempt to grow better produce in a more sustainable way has now been hijacked by big business (this is based on US data and it might not be as bad in other countries).

In the US organic food costs about three times more than conventional. For that you get something which is probably less safe, often worse for the environment, is unlikely to have any health or taste benefits, and just makes big corporations even richer. If that’s what you want then go ahead, buy organic. But just be aware that things aren’t always what they seem!

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