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The Organic Shuffle

Why is organic so important? Ask its adherents, and you'll get anyone of half a dozen or so answers: Organic farming is more sustainable. It is smaller scale. The produce is more nutritious. It has a smaller carbon footprint. It tastes better.

Having a scattershot of moral justifications for what amounts to yuppie salad is helpful, because it means that when one argument fails, you can always point to one of the other ones as the one you really care about. And so when it came out last year that organic produce had no significant nutritional benefits over conventional, the response was, "well, it's more sustainable, that's what matters."

But is it? The evidence for the superior sustainablity of organic farming has never been strong, and it got even weaker today with the release of a study from researchers at Guelph University who found that organic pesticides are frequently worse than their convention equivalents because they require higher doses, and aren't as effective because they are less selective in their targetting of pests.

Guelph prof Rebecca Hallet nails it with this remark: “There is a general assumption among the public that if a compound is natural it’s going to be safer than something that’s synthetic,” Prof. Hallett said. “This research shows that’s not necessarily the case.”

Of course, the organic fetishists aren't fazed. After all, organic farming was never about carbon emissions, or farming techniques, or nutrition. Nope, it's about culture:

The culture and approach of organic farming is what distinguishes it from conventional farming, organic farmer David Cohlmeyer said. He runs Cookstown Greens, which supplies organic produce to restaurants and hotels in Ontario. Organic pesticides are “irrelevant” to his business, he said.

“When you’re doing it right, you don’t have pest problems,” Mr. Cohlmeyer said. “We don’t use any pesticides because we don’t need to.”

Related: Rob Horning's post on Freegan Identity