The majority of Americans believe that organic foods are healthier than food grown using conventional methods. The majority of Americans are wrong. Two systematic reviews, one from Stanford University and the other by a team of researchers based out of the United Kingdom, turned up no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or lead to better health-related outcomes for consumers.
But the idea that organic foods are healthier isn't even the largest myth out there. That title belongs to the widely held belief that organic farming does not use pesticides. A 2010 poll found that 69% of consumers believe that to be true. Among those who regularly purchase organic food, the notion is even more prevalent. A survey from the Soil Association found that as many as 95% of organic consumers in the UK buy organic to "avoid pesticides."
In fact, organic farmers do use pesticides. The only difference is that they're "natural" instead of "synthetic." At face value, the labels make it sound like the products they describe are worlds apart, but they aren't. A pesticide, whether it's natural or not, is a chemical with the purpose of killing insects (or warding off animals, or destroying weeds, or mitigating any other kind of pest, as our watchful commenters have correctly pointed out). Sadly, however, "natural" pesticides aren't as effective, so organic farmers actually end up using more of them!*
Moreover, we actually know less about the effects of "natural" pesticides. Conventional "synthetic" pesticides are highly regulated and have been for some time. We know that any remaining pesticide residues on both conventional and organic produce aren't harmful to consumers. But, writes agricultural technologist Steve Savage, "we still have no real data about the most likely pesticide residues that occur on organic crops and we are unlikely to get any."
Scientists can examine pesticides before they are sprayed on fields, however. And what do these analyses show?
"Organic pesticides that are studied have been found to be as toxic as synthetic pesticides," Steven Novella, president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, recently wrote.
Organic foods are no safer than conventional foods. Even Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), recognizes this as fact. An “organic label does not promise a necessarily safer product," she once remarked (PDF).
So why are the misconceptions so pervasive? According to an in-depth report by Academics Review, a group founded by University of Illinois nutritional scientist Bruce M. Chassy and University of Melbourne food scientist David Tribe, the organic and natural-products industry -- which is worth an estimated $63 billion worldwide -- has engaged in a "pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal." Like their succulent fruits and scrumptious vegetables that we eat, the organic industry has given consumers a nibble of untruth and a taste of fear, and have allowed misunderstanding to sow and spread while they reap the benefits.
Commenting on the extensive report on his popular podcast, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Novella had some blunt words for the organic industry.
"People buy organic because they think it's better for the environment; it's not. It's safer; it's not. It tastes better; it doesn't. It's more nutritious; it isn't. And these are all misconceptions that have been deliberately promoted -- according to these authors -- by organic farmers and organic proponents despite the fact that scientific evidence doesn't support any of these claims."
*Section updated 6/6