Let’s discuss organic food.
I just read through “Is organic food worth the expense?” in today’s New York Times. It was one of their Room for Debate columns, in which they line up a group of experts who argue pro or con about the issue from the standpoint of their professional specialty. It’s a good format, but this was a somewhat ridiculous topic to debate: if it’s a question of eating organic or not eating, then there’s your answer. We all have our own circumstances that play into this decision, and all the convincing arguments in the world won’t matter if someone simply doesn’t have the luxury of making that decision in the first place.
Nothing especially interesting or revolutionary was revealed in this “debate”. Each expert’s argument was predictable in its points and inaccuracies. Marion Nestle, the NYU nutritionist who I respect like crazy, wrongly implied that organic food is grown without pesticides, when, of course, it IS grown with pesticides – they’re just organic pesticides. The experts arguing against the point (that organic food is not worth the expense) trotted out their usual arguments: lower yields, can’t feed the world, more expensive, etc. And predictably, the comments on the article were impassioned and mostly idiotic, summarizing everything that is wrong on both sides of the debate (i.e., “Eat organic or get cancer! Your choice!” versus “Organic is a sham for fools and you’re a sucker for even considering buying this crap!”).
It surprises me that, after all of these years, a factor that NEVER comes up in studies or debates is that of vegetable variety. Any gardener can tell you that different varieties of vegetables perform differently. They look different, they taste different, they grow differently, their nutritional content differs. So for all this talk about yields, and nutrition, and the oh-so-subjective topic of flavor (because organic proponents LOVE to go off about how much better organic broccoli tastes than conventional broccoli), I believe the answer lies, at least partly, in different varieties being grown in the two systems. Organic vegetables start with organic seed, and not every vegetable variety is available in an organic form. So, while conventional farmers may all be growing ‘Imperial’ or ‘Marathon’ broccoli, the organic farmers are growing ‘Belstar’ because it is available as certified organic seed. And OF COURSE it is going to taste different, look different, yield different, and have a different nutritional value (which will also vary based on the soil chemistry and fertilizer inputs).
Obviously, a difference in variety doesn’t make organic food any more realistic for someone who can’t afford it, but it can possibly account for a lot of the qualities that experts on both sides argue for an against. I’ve never seen it addressed in any studies (not that I read a ton of scientific literature) and it surprises me that experts like scientists, nutritionists, and farmers, don’t address how this might factor in to the conclusions in the studies – and in their own personal opinions.
Speaking of personal opinions, here’s mine: I believe that the key to safe, environmentally friendly food lies in scale. I don’t think that industrial farming is ever good for the environment, regardless of whether conventional or organic practices are in effect. Both involve enormous, expensive, gas-guzzling equipment, thousands of gallons of pesticides and water, and potentially massive volumes of fertilizer run-off polluting the soil and water ways.
In small scale, local (or local-ish) agriculture, you reduce the potential for damage by pests and disease, and when they do occur, solutions are more likely to be applied carefully, by hand, instead of with a giant spray truck and high pressure hose. I believe that small scale farmers make more economically driven decisions, so that when it comes to buying and applying pesticides, they think such things through and come up with unique solutions to each problem rather than simply spray as a matter of course. I realize, yes, I am generalizing a bit, and that this pertains primarily to vegetable farmers, not those who grow corn or soybeans. But I believe that a pesticide – any pesticide, whether organic or synthetic – in the hands of the farmer, or one who works directly with him or her, is safer than in the hands of someone who is just one of thousands employees working for a big company.