February 19, 2016


Forget What You've Heard: Organic Food Is Not Food Grown Without Pesticides : On the paradox of unanimity and how, if nothing else, it could be saving you money on your grocery bill. (JAMES MCWILLIAMS, 2/19/16, Pacific Standard)

In a paper about to be published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society, a team of researchers identifies something they call the "paradox of unanimity." If you've ever smelled a rat when everyone else is celebrating an idea then this paradox is for you. While unanimous agreement (or something close to it) might suggest that a particular claim is right, the researchers, led by Lachlan J. Gunn, an engineer at the University of Adelaide in Australia, found the opposite to be true. Rather than confirming truth, unanimity indicates that something went wrong, that a "systemic failure" undermined popular judgment, that the confidence of the crowd has been skewed by bias.

As it's currently framed, the paradox applies primarily to criminal justice concerns--police line-ups and the like. But it also has implications for food and agriculture. Few fields of popular interest have cultivated a wider array of glib axioms of empowerment than food: genetically modified organisms are bad, local is better, you shouldn't eat food your grandmother wouldn't eat, and so on. In the context of Main Street foodie wisdom, these claims enjoy something close to unanimity. But, for all their support, none comes closer to the unanimity quotient than the gilded assertion that organic food is food grown without pesticides. [...]

Enter into this conventional belief the paradox of unanimity. This time the buzz kill comes from the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) recently released annual summary for pesticide data program. According to this survey, 21 percent of the 409 organic samples of produce tested by the USDA showed evidence of synthetic pesticide residues. What's notable about this already high percentage is that the residue detection test doesn't even measure commonly used organic pesticides like copper and sulfur compounds, mineral oil, and bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). According to Steve Savage, who wrote about the report for Forbes, if organic pesticide residues were measured, "the detection percentage for organic would be much higher." So, score one for the unanimity paradox, one that, this time, may save you money at Whole Foods.

Posted by at February 19, 2016 10:01 AM