Some Chemicals With Your Lettuce Sir?

30 07 2009
Organic Pig...or is it?

Organic Pig...or is it?

Here in the UK organic food has become quite a major money spinner, with most large supermarket chains offering organic options. For example if I pop into my local Sainsburys I can buy the standard issue tomato for say £1.78 per kg, or buy the organic range ones for quite a bit more. There are also shops that specialise in organic produce where I could, if was substantially richer or insane, buy a single avocado for £1.80 ($4.50).

Today the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) released a report , which took the form of a ‘systematic review of literature’, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). LSHTM’s team of researchers, reviewed all papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food. This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date (according to the FSA). The conclusion it reached was that “organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food “.

This set off something of a firestorm in the newspapers comments section which brought up some very good points.

1)Just exactly what is organic food anyway?
To me the term has always been very woolly, conjuring up visions of hardy smock-wearing individuals toiling in the fields whilst chewing on barley stalks. I assumed it meant that no ‘artificial’ pesticides or fertiliser had been used on crops and no hormones, antibiotics, moisturising cream etc administered to animals. But what is an artificial fertiliser? I can use crop rotation and plant lupins or some other nitrogen fixing plant one year to fertilise the soil, but why not just bung on some nitrogen fertiliser and grow more food crops instead? Does that make me non-organic? Which brings me onto the next point…
2)Who defines what organic food is?
Here in the UK it is in fact the European Union which has set down a Compendium of UK Organic Standards. Farmers who want to label their produce must adhere to the standards and be certified by a Government approved body such as the Soil Association. The UK Soil Association does have an attempt at defining organic on their website saying that ‘artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited’ (so nitrogen fertiliser is out) in preference of clover crop rotation. However they also say that pesticides are ‘severely restricted’ (ie not banned) although it seems OK to use copper sulphate as a fungicide.

It was interesting to see the polarising effect of this study, which divided people mainly into two camps. One side was more or less along the lines of ‘I don’t want to put chemicals into my body so therefore organic is better’ while the others were put off by the expense and lack of clarity over exactly what the supposed benefits were, assuming nutrition is not one of them. Clearly modern farming practise has greatly increased food production, which presumably is a good thing.

Unfortunately the effects of fertiliser/pesticide or agricultural practises on the environment were outside the remit of this report. I think a most people do take the overall environmental impact into consideration when buying organic and although I haven’t seen any studies it seems to me quite obvious that they can have an impact – look at the problems with the Rotorua Lakes or Mad Cow disease (BSE) for example. Certainly when it comes to animal welfare and to an extent GMO crops I would tend to be on the side of ‘organic’.
However I think the study is useful in order to show those who run a mile at the word ‘chemical’ that in fact their $2 carrot and my 20c one aren’t actually as different as they may think.


Evidence Based Faith

16 01 2009

In Thursday’s letter to the editor section of the Dominion Post, there was a response to the proposed guidelines to allow students to opt out of religious activities in New Zealand’s public schools. A letter written by Jeff Tallon of Muritai says:

The Human Rights Commission’s draft guidelines on religious education state that everyone’s beliefs should be treated respectfully and all views are equally valid (Jan 10-11).

Though I don’t support compulsory religious education, the commission’s position is questionable. All views are not equally valid – we must apply rational tests to beliefs.

The commission has painted itself into an empty corner. It is really asserting that no religious system is true or can be taken to be true and so none should take precedence.

But this ignores the rational basis for faith. One hundred and fifty years ago, Christian/Jewish faith was essentially a blind belief in ancient stories. But that has changed. Archaeology, epigraphy, ancient history, astronomy and even modern cosmology and molecular biology present a powerful body of evidence for traditional Christian faith. And if a religious system is true in the historical, scientific sense, then perhaps it deserves precedence.

Our national position on religious education comes from our commitment to secular government, not because faith has not rational basis, and definitely not because of tacit assumptions that all religious faiths are untrue.

While I appreciate that the short word length expected of a letter to the editor means that it is difficult for all the evidence to be laid out, the writer of the letter appears to be believe that a rational basis for Judeo-Christian beliefs can be found throughout the sciences. The initial question that comes to mind is what particular brand of belief is he referring to, as many different denominations accept or reject (or as a middle-ground, accept as metaphor) a wide variety of Biblical passages. They also have different concepts of God and other supernatural beliefs. Is he referring to the ‘evidence’ that shows that the Earth was created 6000 years ago according to the Book of Genesis or the scientific evidence that it was created 4.5 billion years ago?

Such a sweeping scientific claims are hollow as there is no scientific consensus across all of the disciplines mentioned that anything supernatural could account for observations or discoveries that have been made. One could employ the logical fallacy of final consequences and say that the Christian faith must be true as the perfect nature of the universe is a testament to God’s ability for creation. Perhaps it is the argument from personal incredulity, in that the writer believes that due to the complex nature of the world that no other explanation apart from God is possible. Such arguments are implied through the use of such a broad range of scientific disciplines to support the rational basis of the Christian faith. Of course such arguments are invalid and therefore have no rational basis.

What is clear from the scientific evidence through the application of cosmological, geological, and biological observation and theory is that supernatural forces are not required for the existence of the universe, the Earth, or people. The current scientific thinking across all disciplines does not provide support for the proposition that omnipotent Gods, demons, or angels have previously (or currently) impacted upon the lives of people.

Many claims made within the Bible, while theoretically possible to test, are now impossible to test due to the passage of time and all that remains is faith on the part of the particular religions followers. The few things that have been amenable to testing, such as the shroud of Turin, have proven to be at best controversial and at worst shown to be medieval forgery.

Furthermore, apologists from a variety of other religions as varied as Islam, Mormonism, and Scientology would make similar claims about the validity of the scientific underpinnings of their religions.

Mr Tallon has made an assumption that the underlying rationale for the guidelines is that all religious faiths are equally untrue. The employment of such guidelines does not say anything about the veracity of a religious position. Rather it reinforces the secular nature of our Government and our country, while allowing those minority groups with different belief structures freedom from pressure to conform to the religious beliefs of another group.