Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Organic Shmorganic"

I'm listening to the presidential debate. Ugh. What better way to dispel the disgust than by blogging about something very closely related entirely unrelated -- organic food.

A study by researchers from Stanford University of "organic" food was unable to find any health benefits, prompting a rant from NYT's Roger Cohen against organic food.  Finally, finally, finally!  Cohen on track, rather than off the rails!

Many years ago I heard Bruce Ames, a cancer researcher and head of College of Public Health at Stanford give a lecture in which he discredited the health claims of the "organic" movement and warned that it would raise costs without returning corresponding benefits.  His main fear was that this would lead people to eat fewer vegetables rather than more.  The second most important thing people can do to avoid cancer is eat more vegetables, he explained (stopping smoking is  number 1).  He based this in part on his own research with with carcinogenic properties of manmade pesticides and naturally occurring ones; the naturally occurring ones were every bit as bad and as prevalent in vegetables, and neither posed a meaningful risk in his research.  (Obviously misuse of pesticide could be a different matter.)  The new Stanford study was unable to find the superior health benefits attributed to "organic" foods, corroborating Ames' argument.

I've also heard agriculture experts discuss the alleged environmental harmfulness of "non-organic" agriculture, something not covered in the Stanford study.  Again, the alleged environmental benefits of "organic" are mostly hype, and in some cases it can be worse.  Chemical fertilizers in particular deserve none of the slander that's directed at them.  (Again, use them incorrectly and you can poison things... but that's also true with "organic")

I've been putting "organic" in quotation marks, because the word itself always meant something different: it refers to carbon-based compounds.  That is, that's what it meant until the word was grabbed by -- let's be honest -- hippie food faddists.  "Organic" was changed to mean "simple, healthful, close to 'nature,'" (another doubtful word), all utterly unsubstantiated claims.  Next yuppies and similar types jumped on the bandwagon, because it made them feel good about themselves "saving the planet and eating healthier and sidestepping 'corporate agriculture' blah blah blah."

This is a great example of the fundamental role of subjective utility in economic value.  Belief in "organic" is essentially religious faith, unfounded in evidence.  What makes "organic" more valuable is consumer demand, based on perceived, imagined characteristics, not some physical measurable properties.  That's why big food corporations got into the act -- they were slow to enter, and when they did, they were entirely responding to demand.  They'd prefer NOT to produce this way, because it is costlier, but so long as consumers demand it, you give 'em what they want or you lose market share.  There's quite an irony here -- anti-capitalists frequently accuse "big business" of manufacturing consumer preferences in order to manipulate people and reap profits, yet the whole "organic" movement was manufactured by a motley collection of  anticapitalist  mystics from both left and right.

I heard NPR cover this story, and the idiotic reporter concluded that the whole "organic" thing must have been a conspiracy by "big agriculture" (another dubious concept) to hoodwink us and get our money... a completely backwards argument as most farmers, big or little, would prefer less costly, easier, more productive modern agricultural methods.  It's quite common to be producing "organic" crops, meat, etc. and have some small step go wrong and have the "organic" label be lost -- and even though the stuff is perfectly good, it now can't be sold for enough to cover costs.  I've had farmers tell me about this, and have read of many more examples.

"Organic shmorganic" indeed!
Note: The Post-libertarian blog features a nice rant on this subject (scooping Unforeseen Contingencies).  Also worth noting that author PL is a cancer researcher by profession.
Debate update -- ugh.  But note this, as Lehrer tries cutting off Romney around 22:11...

CNN clock shows BO with about 3 mins more than MR. RT @steven_ritchey:@kairyssdal It seems like Leher gives Obama much time than Romney.

Interestingly, my rant was actuated by this rant. You see, the study is flawed because it didn't make us feel better about ourselves.

I thank you for the intro, but I'm actually no longer a cancer researcher. You can only do that crap for so log before you realize that what you do doesn't make any difference.
So is this what Menger would call an "imaginary" good?
Dr. Steele,

Another excellent post. I have republished the core of it (the remarks on organic food, with just a few minor non-substantive edits) here.
Great catch on Menger's imaginary good. The ironic thing is that Menger assumed that as civilization developed, "imaginary goods" (goods with entirely illusory benefits) would be displaced. Instead pseudo-science seems to thrive, and crank nostrums and scams with them.

Thanks for the comments.
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