Correlation v Causation

BBC: 'No proof' organic food is better

There is no evidence organic food is better for you than conventional food, minister David Miliband has said.

Mr Miliband is probably right. But while there may be no causational link between organic food and nutritious, tasty food, there definitely appears to be a correlation between the two.

It's like vegetarianism. Vegetarians often claim that they are, on average, healthier than us omnivores. That may well be true—they're also a lot more miserable and pasty-faced on average, if you ask me—but that doesn't necessarily mean that vegetarianism is the cause of their better health. People who are keen to have healthy lifestyles are more likely than those who aren't to exercise more, drink less, smoke less, eat more sensibly and, in extreme cases, go veggie "because it's good for you". So people who are more likely to be healthy anyway are more likely to turn vegetarian. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's also a nice example of sampling bias.

It's the same, I suspect, with organic food. Organic food is not necessarily better for you, but producers of organic food tend to treat their products (and customers) with respect, so they end up with a better, tastier product. Take bacon, for example. Organic, dry-cured, free range bacon knocks the water-filled, globby, mass-produced shite they sell on the cheap shelves into a cocked hat. Next time you're in a butcher's, ask them for proper bacon—they'll know what you mean.

The reason, I suspect, that Mr Miliband made his comment is that he is the food minister—the man responsible for feeding the country. Intensive farming might yield less tasty food, but it's certainly a more efficient and economical way of feeding the masses.

Other correlation v causation pieces:

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.


  1. Great column - great observations - love taglines (I will use some of those myself, to whom do I send royalties?).

    Anyway - to the Organic Food issue: If organic food is food 'au naturelle', then what is 'Conventional Food'? Is it not scary that a food minister believes that intensively farmed, routinely antibiotic inoculated, genetically engineered stuff is conventional?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *