Green Expo peddles pseudoscience

I spent a couple of hours last weekend browsing the stands at the Go Green Expo which filled the TSB Arena with vendors promoting “sustainability, organics and green living”.

For me the expo represents the best and worst of the green movement.

On one hand we had companies displaying photovoltaic panel kits to allow you to generate your own clean solar power, convenient composting systems to take care of organic waste and a range of tasty and naturally-grown foods and organic wines. Outside the venue, Sustainable Coastlines had a shipping container featuring displays about the huge amount of plastic we are dumping into the ocean, which is killing bird and marine life and cluttering up our shores. All of that was worthy, largely scientifically backed and fairly, well, green.

On the other hand we had companies pushing Bio Dynamic farming, magnetised and ionized water and all types of health remedies making dubious claims backed by pseudoscience.

I’m sure the people I met at the Green Expo genuinely care about the planet and want humans to have as little an impact as possible on the natural environment. But green goods and services are big business and the marketing efforts at the Green Expo were in overdrive. Are people likely to receive the benefits extolled by the salespeople?

I want to mention a few companies and goods that caught my attention – and raised alarm bells for the dubious claims made.

Magnetised and energised mineral water

Brendan from Health Products New Zealand held a seminar about the benefits of magnetised and energised water and his company’s mineral pots, which remove “dangerous contaminants” from tap water and add the type of minerals beneficial to the body.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 4.03.24 PMBut his pitch quickly went off the rails into pseudoscientific territory. Among his claims:

– Fluoride is linked to cancer, brittle bones and mottled teeth and should be filtered out of drinking water (a number of people in the audience expressed their agreement with him over this). Ironically, the previous day, Hamilton residents had voted overwhelmingly to resume fluoridation of the water supply. At the correct dose, fluoride is perfectly safe and reduces tooth decay.

– Chlorine causes heart disease and should be removed from water. An unverified claim. Yes, chlorine is dangerous in a significant dose and doesn’t taste all that great. But its addition to water is aimed at killing potentially harmful bacteria. Again, at the right dose, it is safe. Billions of people drink chlorinated water – and for good reason.

Fine, it you want to filter those things out, that’s your call, but it doesn’t end there. Brendan’s water filters also do other things –  like magnetise the water.

According to Waters Co. Ltd, who make the filters Brendan sells, magnetised water:

“restructures water molecules, creating smaller, denser, hexagonal structures enabling the water to easily penetrate our cells, blood and tissues, giving far superior hydration.

This very short paper explains why the science doesn’t stack up in terms of the claimed benefits of “magnetised water”.

Then there’s “far infrared rays” which Brendan claims that when emitted into purified water:

“activate cellular tissues using unique mineral materials, providing water that is effective in the prevention of various geriatric diseases”.

Again – totally unfounded. Find out why here.

I could go on about Brendan’s filters and mineral posts, the most expensive of which sell for around $1,000. But I didn’t need to hear much to come to the conclusion he didn’t know what he was talking about and was just repeating the sales pitch he’d been taught.

Still, he should be careful – spreading FUD about the safety of tap water has got other water filter dealers into trouble in the past.

Aqua metals, titanium tape and necklaces

Next up was an extremely irritating salesman for Phiten, who boasted that his compression socks, titanium tape bandages and energy necklaces can ease the aches and pains of humans and horses alike.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 4.04.10 PMPhiten has been slammed for its pseudoscientific claims before. As Ars Technica points out:

“Having metal near or in contact with your skin isn’t going to change the flow of any energy unless there happens to be electrified wires hooked up to that metal. It isn’t going to work through magnetism, either (although very similar claims were made about magnetic bracelets). Titanium and gold aren’t magnetic. And, even if they were, they’d be too weak.

“Even if any of that made sense, there’s no indication that the human body has any sort of “energy flow.”

You don’t have to read through much of Phiten’s literature to begin cacking with laughter. Check this out from the badly photocopied brochure the salesman gave me:

“All Phiten products contain the unique and patented Aqua-metal technology, microscopic particles of titanium or gold suspended in water and then processed so they help support the smooth transmission of the nerve impulses that control the body. By supporting the smooth transition of nerve impulses, Phiten products have been shown to help optimise muscle and tendon function.”

Yeah right. There’s also a picture in the brochure of a horse wearing one of Phiten’s energy necklaces, which apparently “ease muscle, tendon or joint pain”. I wonder how they tested that?

Biodynamic farming

After a couple of very nice organic wines from Central Otago-based Carrick Wines (I recommend the Unravelled Pinot Noir) I wandered over to the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association stand.

The people there were very nice and friendly and took themselves very seriously – after all, they are the Demeter Certification body in New Zealand, so they hold a lot of sway (for farmers opting for biodynamics).

So what is biodynamics? This paper by Dr Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor, Washington State University gives a decent rundown on the backstory to biodynamics:

Biological dynamic agriculture, a.k.a. biodynamics, is a system of agricultural management based on a series of lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Over his lifetime, Dr. Steiner became concerned with the degradation of food produced through farming practices that increasingly relied on additions of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. Reputed to be the first alternative approach to agriculture, biodynamics has evolved over the last century to include many organic farming practices that have demonstrable benefits on land use and crop production. In fact, biodynamic is often used synonymously with organic in both scientific and popular literature. Biodynamic agriculture has more recognition in Europe, but North American proponents of this system are increasing. Is the biodynamic approach one that should be encouraged?

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 4.05.23 PMGood question. The Bio Dynamic and Gardening Association certainly seems to think so, but again, the literature left me in stitches. Take this statement on “biodynamic preparations” from their brochure:

Horn manure is made by putting cow manure in a cow’s horn, and overwintering it below ground. That short sentence introduces a task that takes as much skill, organisation and good farming practice as any other part of agriculture. There are those who can do it well, and those who can’t. When the horns are dug up in the spring, the cow dung has changed into a pleasant smelling, highly colloidal material which has a slippery feeling when run through the fingers. Its respiration rate – the amount of oxygen it consumes can be very high, showing that it has a high level of biological activity.

Annual inspection and licensing to be biodynamic certified is $512 and a 1 – 1.5% levy on all certified Demeter produce.

The literature is fairly thin on biodynamics – certainly nothing substantial to suggest the horns full of shit make the slightest bit of difference. In fact, stealing the best bits of organics seems to give the biodynamics crew the veneer of credibility. As Dr Chalker-Scott explains:

Combining beneficial organic practices with the mysticism of biodynamics lends the latter a patina of scientific credibility that is not deserved. Many of the research articles that compare biodynamic with conventional agriculture do not separate the biodynamic preparations from the organic practices – and of course obtain positive results for the reasons mentioned earlier. However, when researchers have compared biodynamic, conventional, and organic farms (where again “biodynamic” incorporates organic practices), by and large there are no differences between the biodynamic and the organic farms (though both are different from conventional farms). It would be an interesting experiment to compare conventional farms to conventional farms with biodynamic preparations without the organic practices to see if a difference exists.

Interestingly, there’s a bit of a rift between the organics movement and proponents of biodynamics – the above statement sort of explains why.

Greenwashing Expo?

I think the green movement would do well by consumers and the planet to keep the pseudoscience out of their expos and showcases. As I said, there was a lot to like about the Go Green Expo, but the kookier elements tended to undermine the movement’s cause. 


  1. Bruce Hamilton

    I think MAF may have, however here’s an article from an obviously shonky pseudoscience journal….

    SCIENCE. 16 April 1993, Volume 260, pp. 344-349
    Soil Quality and Financial Performance of
    Biodynamic and Conventional Farms in New Zealand.
    John P. Reganold,* Alan S. Palmer, James C. Lockhart, and A. Neil Macgregor.

  2. ross

    I recall Massey University doing a farming exxperiment on biodynamics…years ago…80s??. Anyone out there know any of the results???

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