Stop saying organic food is less safe, unless you can provide evidence

IMG_20140713_165628406A recent article from Western Producer titled “Canada has a world-class food system” was recently re-posted by the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP). GLP, whose stated mission is to “explore the intersection of DNA research, media and policy to disentangle science from ideology”, commonly aggregates news stories. But when they re-posted this particular article, the headline was changed pretty dramatically, to “WHO study finds thousands of illnesses linked annually to organic foods.” After some criticism in the comments, it was later changed to remove reference to a WHO study. There are a few things that really annoy me about this Western Producer article and the GLP headline. I initially expressed my annoyance with the headline on twitter, but I wanted to expand a little on this topic, because I fear this is becoming an all-to-regular occurrence.

Ignoring the question of whether food borne illness from organic food is relevant to “the intersection of DNA research, media and policy”, the headline written by GLP was extremely misleading. Many people in my ‘tribe’ (people who support appropriate use of GMOs and pesticides in agriculture), get really upset when unsupported claims are made about modern conventional agriculture. For example, there was outrage when the New MacDonald ad was released by an organic marketing group because it implied that modern food production technology was somehow unsafe. I think this outrage was justified. If misleading your customers about alternative products is necessary, you apparently don’t have a very strong belief in your own product. But the headline at the GLP seemed to be doing the exact same thing here; trying to manufacture fear of a market segment without any credible evidence in support.

Although it seems that this type of tactic is common, this case is particularly concerning to me. For one thing, as Adam Merberg said on twitter, this disinformation is being provided “in the name of literacy.” But even more troubling is the fact that the World Health Organization report that was referenced in the Western Producer article has absolutely nothing to do with organic farming. Search the press release yourself, it does not use the word organic. The WHO is trying to bring attention to food safety, and I think that is a laudable goal. It is misleading, perhaps even dishonest, to try and use this effort to cast doubt on organic food safety.

The original article at Western producer is mostly about how safe food is in Canada, in large part due to the well-funded regulatory system in place there. The link between the WHO report and organic food (from which the GLP headline was derived) is a quote in the Western Producer article by Stuart Smyth, Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food at the University of Saskatchewan:

“Thousands of cases a year of food illness are triggered from organic products. It’s largely due to the process of them using manure slurry as fertilizer and coming down to improper household food preparations in terms of making sure that they’re properly washing organic food.”

And this gets at the bigger reason why the GLP headline frustrated me. It isn’t so much that the headline was misleading, it is that the claim made by Stuart Smyth was not supported by evidence; at least not the implication that organic food is less safe than other production methods. I’ve seen several implications over the last couple years that organic food is riskier due to food borne illness. To my knowledge, though, nobody has provided sufficient data to actually support this claim. Improper use of manure can certainly increase the risk of contamination with problematic microorganisms. And organic farming is generally more reliant on the use of animal waste for fertility, since synthetic fertilizers are not allowed. But it is quite a stretch to claim that organic food is unsafe for this reason, as Rob Wallbridge explains here. An analogous argument would be that conventional food is riskier because of reliance on pesticides. Synthetic pesticides are commonly used in conventional agriculture, and if they’re used improperly, synthetic pesticides can be unsafe. It is hypocritical to bash organic food as unsafe because of manure while defending the safety of synthetic pesticides in conventional agriculture. At least until someone can provide solid data in support of this position.

A while back, Andy MacGuire wrote a piece for where he argued that crediting “organic practices” for building soil-health was misleading because:

…the researchers ignore the fact that manure application and diverse crop rotation, practices that improve soils, are not exclusive to organic production. There are plenty of conventional farmers here where I work, in the Columbia Basin of Washington, that use manure and have diverse crop rotations (just like the 3- and 4- year rotations in this study). Even in the Midwest, there are many conventional farmers who stray away from a corn-soybean rotation, and many of them use manure too. So, while manure and crop rotation might be more common in organic production, it is not organic production per se that improves soils.

I think Andy has a point here. But if we’re willing to dismiss the benefits of organic farming because they are not exclusive to organic farming, then we also shouldn’t be blaming organic farming for risks that aren’t exclusive to organic food. Rather than continually focusing on the counter-productive “organic vs conventional” argument, let’s focus on the benefits and risks of individual practices. And then reward the farmers that use the best practices, regardless of their label.

Post updated April 20, 2015 to clarify that the source of the organic food claim was not the GLP, but a quote in the Western Producer article.


  1. I avoid organic food simply because I am not willing to support deceptive marketing of their alleged nutritional and toxicological superiority. By the same token, I truly appreciate this article – as scientists and supporters of science, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard and be sure not to resort to the same fearmongering tactics of the anti-science, anti-GMO, anti-conventional farming zealots. Great job!!

  2. Organic farming is not less safe because it is more reliant on the use of animal waste for fertility. It’s less safe because there is no field testing to ensure manure is fully composted before being applied to a crop for human consumption.

    Organic standards require only that organic farmers keep records of their fertility management. There is no testing to ensure their records are accurate. None.

    The same goes for synthetic pesticides; there is no field testing to ensure organic farmers don’t cheat on their weed and pest control. The result is that a whopping 43% of all organic food sold in America tests positive for prohibited pesticides.

    1. Mischa Popoff is a shill for Big Ag, nothing more. These people will discredit organic farmers any chance they get, because they receive money from Monsanto and many other chemical corporations. Why not tell us that tobacco is healthy now, like most of your contemporaries do? All you people do is lie and collect money. You’re a fraud.

      1. I have followed commenters on blogger sites back to Monsanto employees especially on blogger sites like this and Disqus I find it strange that a company would encourage employees to do spread lies unless they do it themselves in light of Monsanto’s problems with people who shun their products especially EU (smiles).
        By the way, I read that oats grown in Canada and drenched in glyphosate prior to harvest during frost make changes that has resulted in this horrid practice coming to an end. I do not eat wheat because of this practice and my gut is vastly improved… my proof to myself.
        We buy organics when food involves corn, soy, canola, sugar especially with meats and fowl. Yes, Seralini’s rats made me watchful, while Monsanto’s burying his study solidified my disgust.
        Monsanto has made a lot of activists.

  3. New Scientist magazine had an article saying that vegetables/fruits that were tested in 1970 and retested in 2009 had nutrient levels that had dropped by 12 to 18% during that time.

  4. But can you prove organic food is 100% safe? Where are the long term human feeding studies proving the absolute safety of each organic food? Certified organic foods have only been on the market since 1996 and they are produced according to arbitrary regulations unlike any seen before. Where is your proof any of this is safe?

  5. Oh, wow, this is flabbergasting! How can anyone demand proof that food grown without chemicals is safe?!? I grew up on my grandparents’ farm and ate their chemicals-free grown food until I left for college, and never even had a stomach ache or any of these mysterious stomach bugs, which so many people seem to suffer from nowadays. Additionally, the tomatoes, apples, potatoes, etc. I ate there actually tasted like tomatoes, apples, and potatoes – which is more than I can say about the disgusting cardboard stuff people buy in the supermarkets everywhere. To ask for reassurance as to the safety of organic food is to demand proof that your there really are two hydrogen atoms in water, which, you know … pretty elementary.

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