Organic Food Placebo: Three Take Issue

The issues surrounding conventional versus organic farming are many and complex, encompassing environmental protection and biodiversity, animal welfare, sustainable development in poorer countries, and the avoidance of risks to human health such as those presented by antibiotic resistance.Each of these questions has both scientific and political dimensions, and all of them are areas of incomplete knowledge and ongoing debate and research.In an ideal world, we could pick and choose the properties

The Scientist Staff
Nov 7, 2004

The issues surrounding conventional versus organic farming are many and complex, encompassing environmental protection and biodiversity, animal welfare, sustainable development in poorer countries, and the avoidance of risks to human health such as those presented by antibiotic resistance.

Each of these questions has both scientific and political dimensions, and all of them are areas of incomplete knowledge and ongoing debate and research.

In an ideal world, we could pick and choose the properties of our food. But at the supermarket checkout the choice is cruder: to accept the status quo of conventionally produced food, in which many people perceive ruthless price competition to be driving standards down to the minimum permitted by (often inadequately enforced) regulations, or to buy food produced in a way that seeks to address some of the problems mentioned above. Right now, in practice, that generally means picking up the bag of apples or the [package]...

As a biologist, I have no delusions that, for example, the organically grown bananas that I purchase have any inherent nutritional superiority over similar fruit grown with the assistance of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to promote improved yields. To slaughter Gertrude Stein's saying: "A banana is a banana is a banana." What I do hope is that the burgeoning market for organic produce creates financial incentives for growers to escape heavy dependence on such pesticides, which are frequently misused or overused (especially in the developing nations of Southeast Asia) with concomitant effects on ecosystems and the financial and physical health of farmers and their families. Perhaps the hope of influencing global market decisions on the basis of my meager purchasing habits does constitute "silliness on the grandest scale."

Julie FischerBangkok, Thailand entropy_wins@yahoo.com

The editorial asks, "Should we tell them?" By all means do. But don't forget to mention ... that: 1) The placebo effect is not per se a problem, as a conscious use of the placebo effect such as in meditative yoga could hardly be called silly; 2) A feeling of well-being (by whatever cause, as long as it's not detrimental to your health) is definitely not silly. 3) Don't forget the sustainability argument for organic foods.

C. de Jonge shadowfax@zeelandnet.nl

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