A Political Hot Potato

Mark Hanson
January 21, 2013
The heart and soul of the organic movement is the non-scientific belief in vitalism. Problem: Vitalism as a belief system has been effectively debunked for decades, if not since the early 19th century. Mark Hanson, from the University of Manitoba, takes on some organic myths and misconceptions.

A Political Hot Potato

Mark Hanson
January 21, 2013
The heart and soul of the organic movement is the non-scientific belief in vitalism. Problem: Vitalism as a belief system has been effectively debunked for decades, if not since the early 19th century. Mark Hanson, from the University of Manitoba, takes on some organic myths and misconceptions.
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It is reasonable to assume that most people would want farmers to grow sufficient quantities of healthy food in a manner that is sustainable for the environment and for humanity. Yet, as we become further removed in our daily lives from farms and the people who grow our food, it is easy for misunderstandings to cloud how best to achieve this end. One option that has grown in popularity is organic food. The misconceptions about its benefits and its means of production are highly problematic. Propelled by a general scientific ignorance, a dogma has developed around organic, and the result is the spread and promotion of irrational fears that actually detract from our ability to achieve the goal of abundant food for all.

The reality about “organic” food

In the fall of 2012, Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler of Stanford University and her colleagues published a systematic review [1] that evaluated the scientific literature around differences in the health effects and nutrition of organic foods as compared with conventionally produced items. This review attracted extensive media and public attention, as the authors concluded that there is no strong evidence supporting the contention that organic food is any more nutritious than conventionally grown food. They did note that eating organic food could result in less exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, though the health benefits in these reductions are not necessarily meaningful.

The reaction of organic proponents to the Stanford study typically fell into two categories: first, those who claimed that the argument that organic food is more nutritious was never a selling point (a disingenuous claim at best) and, therefore, the study is of no concern. The second defense has been that, in fact, the study does show the health benefits of organic versus conventional food due to the reduction in potential exposure to pesticides and potentially harmful bacteria. Therefore, they argue, organic is still the preferred means of food production.

The latter of these arguments, especially around pesticide exposure, has a number of unspoken assumptions that need to be stated clearly. First, there is a general belief that no pesticides are used or allowed in organic production. Second, exposure to pesticides at the concentrations found in conventional food results in adverse health outcomes. Third, conventional agriculture is a monolith that employs a uniform set of practices in stark contrast to those dictated for organic agriculture, and, therefore, the only healthy choice, for us and the environment, is organic.

Each of these assumptions is built on a number of myths and misconceptions about what organic food is and how it is produced. Let me deconstruct all of them.

Reality check: Even organic foods use pesticides

The average person tends to believe that organic food is produced without any pesticides. This is untrue. Under Canadian law [2], to be certified organic, a product must meet strict guidelines

developed under the auspices of the federal government in terms of what can and cannot be used in its production [3, 4]. Pesticides are not banned; only synthetic pesticides are disallowed. Synthetic pesticides are those that have been manufactured using modern organic chemistry techniques.

So, what is the difference between a synthetic pesticide and a non-synthetic pesticide? In reality and in practice, nothing. Both types are employed to control pests, whether insect, fungus or other organism that threatens the productivity of a crop.

Within organic production in Canada, a farmer is allowed to use copper compounds to control fungus outbreaks, and naturally derived chemicals such as pyrethrum, rotenone, spinosad and the toxin-producing microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control damage by insects and other invertebrates.

All the compounds used in organic farming pose a risk to the environment and human health in the same way that synthetic pesticides do. The only true difference is that they are derived from natural sources, such as plants or bacteria, as opposed to being produced by employing synthetic chemistry, or in the case of Bt, expression by genetically modified organisms. Natural chemicals can be just as toxic as synthetic ones. A case in point is the bacteria-produced botulinum toxin (the cause of botulism) which is the most toxic compound currently known.

What are these natural sources of pesticides and how do we access them? In the case of pyrethrum (a collection of similar compounds), it is derived from the flowers of chrysanthemums. These flowers are grown primarily in East Africa, and the resulting pyrethrum is exported from there, with Kenya as the globally dominant producer, followed by Australia as the next leading exporter.

That should raise this question: are they using organic techniques to grow a crop that provides organic farmers halfway across the globe with a natural, non-synthetic pesticide?

In some instances, yes, but in many cases, the answer is no. Similar to any plant crop, chrysanthemums are subject to damage by pests and can require synthetic pesticides (in addition to synthetic fertilizers) to maintain productivity and to protect yields. They also require modern chemical methods to extract the compounds of interest in a useable form.

Are there other options besides growing chrysanthemums for pyrethrum? Yes! An entire class of synthetic pesticides based on the chemistry and biological activity of the pyrethrums exists – the pyrethroids. These chemicals are similar in terms of their environmental fate, toxicity and human health risk to those compounds that constitute pyrethrum. The pyrethroids are inherently less wasteful to produce in terms of resources. In addition, they come with the same benefits and without the mental gymnastics of trying to reconcile using conventional agricultural techniques to produce a “natural” pesticide for use in organic farming.

These arguments alone should make them the more obvious choice when trying to develop a sustainable agricultural practice to feed the people on this planet. The only reason pyrethroids are not allowed in organic agriculture is that they are synthetic. The take-home message from this policy is that items that are synthetic are inherently bad, and items from nature are inherently good. This “natural” fallacy permeates much of the thinking around organic production.

Reality check: Pesticides are not killing you

The assumption that the reduction in pesticide exposure from eating organic versus conventional fruits and vegetables will result in any health benefit is completely unproven.

Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is in charge of approving pesticides. The scientists’ and regulators’ job is to protect health in relation to our exposure to all pesticides.

Can exposure to pesticides result in adverse health outcomes? Yes, because at the right concentrations, all chemicals can result in toxicity. Insecticides that act on the nervous system (like pyrethrum) can be especially hazardous to the environment and us if used improperly, which should not surprise anyone.

Yet, when we look at mortality and morbidity statistics, lifespans in Canada (and pretty much everywhere else) are still increasing, and the risk of a person developing or dying from cancer (a common refrain from those fearing synthetic chemicals) has not changed in any meaningful way for decades.

If pesticides are truly affecting health, it is not obvious how. In the end, simple actions, such as washing your produce prior to eating or cooking, can reduce the pesticide residue significantly, making the exposure differences between organic and conventional next to meaningless. The benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables to our overall health are unambiguous. One of the single largest barriers to people eating more fruits and vegetables can be the cost. Ironically, “organic” food is much more expensive than the conventional variety.

Reality check: There is no such thing as conventional agriculture

An interesting comment by the lead author of the Stanford study was her surprise at the diversity of non-organic agricultural practices and techniques employed by farmers [5].

Outside the organic envelope, no single set of rules or approaches exists for farming. Are some conventional farmers better than others in terms of protecting and enhancing soil and crops and the surrounding ecosystems as well as avoiding wasteful application of pesticides?

Absolutely. Yet, we forget that in many cases, the fields and areas where the farmers work and earn a living are the places where they were born, and it is where they raise their families.

They have a clear vested interested in maintaining the productivity of their fields and the cleanliness of the water they drink and the air they breathe. They can employ evidence-based practices to improve crop yields and reduce environmental impact. If something does not work, they can discard it, and when it does, they can employ it.

Farming approaches not typically allowed in organic include integrated pest management with synthetic pesticides and the application of nutrient-rich biosolids from human and animal waste, as they can contain synthetic compounds.  (Note:  while biosolids can appear off-putting at first, they have been employed in some way for millennia.) In conventional agriculture, there are no ideologically driven rules, only attempts to improve best management practices for sustainable production.  Organic farming creates the false premise of choice between only it, and ‘bad’ conventional methods. In fact, only organic farming has a single set of dogmatic rules. Conventional farming contains an entire spectrum of practices.  This false dichotomy between the two misrepresents the diversity of modern agricultural practices.

The junk science at the heart of the organic food movement: vitalism

Whether the modern organic farmer realizes it or not, at the heart and soul of the organic movement is the non-scientific belief in vitalism. The tie to vitalism in organic pre-dates the advent of synthetic pesticides [6]. The Canadian guidelines make a subtle nod to this legacy, where they state that organic production “maintain[s] the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products” [3]. Vitalism is essentially the notion that life can only come from life.

This means that “dead” things, such as synthesized molecules, lack this “vital” property (usually an unnamed “energy”), and, therefore, they cannot sustain life. The resulting conclusion then is that synthesized molecules are inherently harmful to our health and the health of the ecosystem.

This belief gained steam in organic circles a century ago when the ability to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers from atmospheric nitrogen was discovered. No longer were farmers required to apply only animal manure or compost (both living sources) to a field to supplement nutrients; they could use material acquired from the air (something not alive). Of course, this totally ignores the well-understood global cycles of nutrients and elements such as nitrogen.

Vitalism as a belief system has been effectively debunked for decades, if not since the early 19th century, starting with the first syntheses of organic molecules by chemists. Despite this, the belief in vitalism, sometimes in the form of our innate connection to soil and land [6], persists in organic circles and elsewhere, regardless of whether the land knows we are there or not.

Vitalism is also indicative of superstitious thinking where conscious purpose is attributed to something despite the fact that no conscious purpose exists. For example, the soil is there to provide nourishment to the plant, and the plant exists to provide nourishment to us. This is a child-like belief in how the world works [7]. Ironically, if anything can be argued as having “purpose,” it is the things we create with a function in mind.

The lack of any evidence for “vital” forces or any physical, chemical or biological distinction between naturally derived and synthesized molecules (ask yourself where your vitamin C pill comes from, and the answer is not from oranges) does not convince organic proponents that there is nothing inherently wrong with a synthetic pesticide.

People fear synthetics even though there is no evidence they do any harm. This lack of evidence should lead organic proponents to consider this scenario: Imagine a synthetic pesticide that controls an important crop pest in a way that results in no harm whatsoever to the environment and no risk to human health. Would this synthetic pesticide be allowed in organic production?

The answer, at least from proponents of “organic” food, would be a simple “no.” And the reason would be that organic food proponents rely on pseudoscientific appeals to the innate, unmeasurable differences in those molecules that are produced by living and non-living things. The result, insofar as the anti-science organic movement continues to grow, is that the world will have one less valuable tool available to feed the planet.


Dr. Mark Hanson completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in zoology and chemistry in 1997, followed by a Ph.D. at the University of Guelph (Ontario Agricultural College) in 2002. He held a post-doctoral fellowship at the Insitut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Rennes, France, after which he started a faculty position at the University of Manitoba (Department of Environment and Geography) in 2004 and where he is currently an associate professor.

Dr. Hanson’s research program focuses on characterizing the impacts of stressors in freshwater ecosystems, with an emphasis on macrophytes and invertebrates. He has published extensively on the impacts of pesticides, metals, nutrients and emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and halogenated compounds. A core focus (and a recognized global expertise) in his research program has been in the use of model ecosystems such as mesocosms. Mark teaches extensively in the areas of water quality, toxicology, critical and scientific thinking, and ecological and human health risk assessment. In addition, he is an associate editor for the journal Science of the Total Environment and the book review editor for the journal Ecotoxicology.


[1] Smith-Spangler C., Brandeau M., Hunter G., Bavinger J. C., Pearson M., Eschbach P., Sundaram V., Liu H., Schirmer P., Stave C., Olkin I., Bravata D. 2012. “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 157(5):348-366.

[2] Organic Products Regulations. 2009. SOR/2009-176. Available online at http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/SOR-2009-176/.

[3] Organic Production Systems General Principles and Management Standards. 2011. CAN/CGSB-32.310-2006. Available online at http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/ongc-cgsb/programme-program/normes-standards/internet/bio-org/principes-principles-eng.html.

[4] Organic Production Systems Permitted Substances Lists. 2011. CAN/CGSB-32.311-2006. Available online at http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/ongc-cgsb/programme-program/normes-standards/internet/bio-org/permises-permitted-eng.html.

[5] Available online at http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html.

[6] DeGregori T. R. 2003. “Muck and Magic or Change and Progress: Vitalism versus Hamiltonian Matter-of-fact Knowledge.” Journal of Economic Issues. 37(1):17-33.

[7] Lindeman M., Saher M. 2007. “Vitalism, Purpose and Superstition.” British Journal of Psychology. 98:33-44.



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