Ethics of Organic Farming

My blog entry saying nice things about Wal-Mart last week didn’t draw too much fire, so maybe this is a good time to say some things about organic food. (Not coincidentally, I also blogged last week about Wal-Mart’s foray into the world of organics.)

Organic farming is a business. Indeed, it’s a big one. And for many, it is the epitome of an ethical business.

Organic foods enjoy a reputation among consumers that may not be substantiated by anything like real evidence. Consumers tend to think organic foods are healthier (either because they believe non-organic foods have dangerous levels of agrochemicals, or because they believe organic foods have superior nutritional value). Those beliefs are not fully justified, based on my reading of the available evidence. (Note that to say that a belief is “not justified” is different from saying it is “false.”)

And producers of organic foods undeniably benefit from the public perception that organic foods are healthier. Farmers and retailers benefit from that perception, because it means that a certain percentage of consumers are willing to pay a significant premium for organic foods. But are organic foods really any better? Organizations representing the organic agriculture industry are careful not to make health claims for organic foods (and indeed, in some juristictions such claims are forbidden by law.) But it’s hard to find a pro-organic website that doesn’t have some sort of claim — however vague — about the health benefits of organic food. Look, for example, at the 10 Top Reasons to Go Organic, from the organic lifestyles magazine (Note that the article does not cite sources; and many of its implied causal claims are highly suspect.)

So, here’s the qestion: what ethical concerns should we have about those selling organic food — a boutique product with only uncertain benefits? Is there more to be said for organic foods than there is for such dubious (and expensive) products as Qray bracelets and other pseudo-scientific products? And is organic food more than the bourgeois status symbol that some people say it is? Why don’t advocates for organic foods welcome the idea of Wal-Mart bringing organic foods to the masses? Is it because that would reduce the symbolic value of organics, the way the caché of Starbucks coffee would be diminished if they sold that at Wal-Mart? Do the claimed environmental benefits of organic farming stand up to the argument that intensive agriculture is more productive, and hence more sustainable?

As always, this blog is not the place to wrestle an issue to the ground. Whatever else this blog is for, it ought to get people to question their assumptions about what business practices are ethical, and why. Here are just a few links.

Footnote: From the category of debunked criticisms — there have in the past been claims that organic foods carry higher levels of E. Coli (a deadly bacteria) than other foods, because of the greater use of manure as a fertilizer on organic farms. This has pretty much been debunked (or is at least unsubstantiated, for now.) Also debunked have been claims about higher levels of mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi) in organic foods. The scientists may still be wrangling over these issues, but for now it looks like these are not serious concerns (i.e., there is no reason to think that organic foods are, in general, less safe than other foods.)

3 comments so far

  1. […] to food regulation based on a study of six issues: food additives, genetically modified foods, health benefit claims, country-of-origin labeling, inspection, and international trade. [hyperlinks […]

  2. Mariko on

    A major benefit to organic agriculture is that it does far less damage to the environment. Further, pesticides are tested by the pesticide companies NOT the FDA or unbiased organization. They are developed at a rapid rate which means there can be no outside test to determine whether or not they are harmful. Eating organic eliminates that risk.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      What about the risks of the pesticides that are used by the organic industry? (sulfur, nicotine, etc.) Are they known to be safer? My understanding is that some of them pose considerable risk.


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