Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How Would Inorganic Food Look?

Being someone who lives in the SF Bay Area, where there is some sort of rule that everybody has to be some sort of activist, it is no surprise that the organic food movement is very big out here.  I find it almost sad to say that organic nuts are probably in the majority in certain regions.  Along with those who argue that marijuana should be legalized, all cars should be electric, beer should always be microbrew, and Pat Robertson needs to die.  Well, let's focus on one brand of activism at a time.

I do find a number of the movements more or less agreeable.  Gay marriage support, for instance, is among those worthy of mention.  But there are certain ones which I can't completely get behind, and that's basically because they're built on foundational falsehoods.  The love affair with organic food is one of them.  It is, unfortunately, a house of cards with very little going for it, and much of what people believe about it is actually just plain untrue.  I'm just going to deal here with a few myths and misconceptions -- if I tried to attack all of them that I could find in detail, it would amount to a volume of books rather than a mere blog post.

If you're looking for the Cliff Notes version without bothering to read past the jump, the summary of it is basically this -- just about everything you normally associate with organic food is simply not true.

So what falls under "just about everything"?  Well, let me go through a short and highly abridged list.

Organic foods are grown without pesticides, chemicals, hormones, etc. -- FALSE.  In fact, organic foods are very often grown using pesticides, albeit generally not consisting of synthetic chemical pesticides, but merely natural ones.  It's unrealistic to think that farmers can even manage to produce a reasonable yield without the use of pesticides and fertilizers and mineral treatments.  As it so happens, there are a number of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers which are demonstrably safer than natural ones, but people really just have an irrational fear response to anything labeled as "synthetic" because it just sounds too mysterious and shady like something coming out of a lab without any real connection to its origin.  At least natural makes it sound like something that came from nature, and nature is always good, right?  Yeah...  just remember that belladonna, oleander, hemlock, and strychnine are technically all-natural.  The thing about natural pesticides and fertilizers is that they are generally going to not just contain the substances that serve a useful purpose, but a whole bunch of other things -- some good, some bad, some neutral.  Synthetic counterparts isolate only the few components which have been identified to be of value.  It is in the best interests of the chemical processing companies who sell these products to test, retest, and ensure that what they sell is not only effective, but safe and minimizes collateral damage.  Also, remember that natural fertilizers have the risk of carrying a variety of pathogens as well.  Nearly all recorded cases of food-borne illness outbreaks related to vegetable produce have been traced to organic produce contaminated by pathogens in organic fertilizer and manure.  Also, regarding hormone and/or antibiotic treatments, while organic food is not permitted to have such additions for purposes such as growth, it is permitted for the purpose of disease prevention and recovery.  To be fair, though, this rule is not so lenient with organic fruits and vegetables as opposed to organic meats, where the USDA is far more loose with the requirements.

A large part of this misconception actually comes from a very early definition of organic food dating back to the early 1970s.  If indeed, all organic produce adhered strictly to that definition, this belief would not be a falsehood.  However, the real landscape of organic food is a fairly broad spectrum since the certifications only require that adherence to organic principles be applied "wherever possible."  You do have purists who stick to the philosophy rather dogmatically, while there are farmers who take looser approaches and allow a little bending of the rules or making exceptions in extreme situations.  The USDA Certified Organic label on the package indicates only that the practices fall anywhere within that spectrum.

Organic food is healthier than food grown using more industrialized farming practices -- FALSE.  This one is largely borne out of the idea that using things like natural compost and organic fertilizers and natural mineral sources and so on all amount to soil that is more rich in nutrients and therefore a food product that is more rich in nutrients.  The fallacy of this is that all these nutrients are added to the soil in more "industrial" farming practices as well -- just by way of different additives.  Depletion of soil is a real problem that does make fruits and vegetables today less nutritionally rich than their counterparts of several decades ago, but this is a direct effect not of organic vs. non-organic, but of simply growing in large-scale monoculture and trying to force the availability of produce year-round which is not really possible without major inundation of nutrient value into the soil.  This is a completely independent issue of with what you feed the soil, and it affects organically farmed food just as much as it does non-organic produce.  Furthermore, although organic farming practices require specific ranges of things like fertilizer, pesticides, etc...  there is nothing about non-organic farming which precludes the use of such substances.

It should also be noted that there are some minerals and specific compounds which are simply impossible to attain in any way through organic farming techniques.  This is usually not so much of a problem for food produced for human consumption, but it is a problem for food produced for livestock feed.  This is why certified organic meats can allow up to 20% of the animals' feed to be non-organic sources since the availability of some nutrients demands that as a necessity (otherwise, the animals simply become debilitatingly diseased due to certain deficiencies).

NOTE : A small part of this is the belief that there are residues of all sorts of toxic chemicals that could be detrimental to your health aside from the otherwise significant health value of the food on its own.  There's really no evidence to suggest that this is at all valid, but there is also not sufficient evidence to refute it either.  As it so happens, while this is demonstrably false in the short term, there are no real longitudinal studies that show the kinds of effects it might have on the global population.  That said, it is still presumptuous to say a priori that it is dangerous because it seems like it ought to be.  Remember that the dose makes the poison.

Organic food is tastier -- FALSE.  This is just a fallacious assumption based on the preconceived notions of organic food simply being a better thing for people, and therefore it must taste better.  100% of this belief is based on faulty expectations.  In all blind trials which have ever been done, the results as to whether organic or non-organic tastes better always come out even with random chance.  When people are told before tasting that one is organic and the other not, the majority lean to prefer the taste of the organic...  and the result here is the same even if the subjects were lied to and merely led to believe that one is organically grown.  In other words, it is not a fact, but merely a prejudice.

The most significant barometer of taste is generally freshness, and that applies regardless of how the food was produced or processed prior to service.  When you buy a tomato at the supermarket, you've got one that was probably picked off the vine while it was still quite green and underdeveloped and still very hard, shipped cross-country, and it was later put in an ethylene-rich environment to redden it before its final delivery to the store.  This makes for a rather inferior-tasting and nutritionally inferior product...  but it at least gets tomatoes to you year-round, and that's all that matters.  This is the same for organic tomatoes.  By contrast, if you go to a farmer's market, you're likely going to get one which was picked when quite ripe, did not have to travel very far, and is ultimately a superior product on all counts since it had the time to mature properly.  Again, this is something that would apply to both organic and not.

One thing we have to remember is that farmers do not make money by growing fruits and vegetables which are particularly tasty or particularly nutritious.  If they were, then we'd have an abundance of extraordinarily tasty and nutritious superfood.  In reality, the only thing a farmer is paid for is weight.  They need to be able to produce x tonnage of produce, and that's all that matters.  The bottom line is measured in quantity, not quality.  That is basically how companies are able to maintain throughput throughout the year, and that is exactly what we, the customers, ultimately really want.  We put less value on the sweetness of a plum than on the luxury of being able to get a plum in the middle of winter.

Buying organic helps support local growers and small farmers -- FALSE.  There's simply no connection here in this day and age.  We tend to think so because the organic movement started small, so we think small farms.  It's the little guys who tend to be that much more strict about adhering to the principles than farmers who are selling to megacorporations and giant processed food producers (or for that matter, farms owned by those megacorporations).  We often find that the largest concentration of organic produce (at least insofar as fraction of goods sold) is from a farmer's market, which does indeed support local growers.

At one point in time, this assertion was probably true.  Times have changed, and organic food is now big business.  About 20 years ago, organic food was a $1 billion business...  now, it's worth somewhere around $27 billion, with companies like Walmart, General Mills, Dean Foods, Kraft, et al. all getting into the act.  At this point in time, the big megacorps are the dominant force in the organic market, not the little guy.  Now if this is starting to sound like some sort of evil corporate takeover of one more bastion of anti-establishment thinking, it's nothing of the sort.  The movement grew, and that meant there was money to be made, and companies go where the money is, and so do the farmers who sell to them.  Those of you who buy exclusively "Certified Organic" created this outcome, so it's delusional to presume that you're still serving small local farmers in everything you do.

Also, let's remember that "organically grown", even for a grower who strictly adheres to the fundamental principles only refers to the practices used in growing the crops.  It does not have anything whatsoever to do with the source of those crops or the varieties of the seeds.  This means that there is just as much room in organic for genetically modified crops as there is for heirloom crops.  Highly distrusted bodies like Monsanto can just as easily sell their seeds to organic growers, and often do since its value is intrinsic in the genes of the product and not how it is raised.

Organic growing practices are better for the environment -- FALSE.  Do I really have to explain this?  I mean, the falsity of this is at least partly derived from facts I've already brought up in relation to other points.  A lot of the environmental impact due to modern agriculture is related to the quantity and rate at which it is done, and the fact that it is typically a single species at a time filling up huge tracts of land.  These are follies that organic crop growers also commit just as much as any other grower.

The other thing is that the more strict you are on what can and cannot be used, the more you end up blocking the farmers from being able to use the most effective tools at their disposal, meaning you get a great deal more waste.  While that waste does go back into compost, it also means that in order to meet demand, organic farmers need significantly more acreage to produce similar yields.  That in turn amounts to more resources used.  More energy, more water, more fertilizer, more pesticides, etc.  Granted, resource usage per acre is far more affected by region and soil and weather conditions and so on than anything else, but organic methods still eat up more resources per acre simply because the methods make the crops more vulnerable and that demands more vigilance.  Even a small percentage difference adds up to huge absolute quantities.

To top it all off, organic farming methods don't even have the theoretical capacity to meet worldwide demand if we were to go all organic all the time.  You'd have to ask 3 billion people to go off and die.  Well...  if all 3 billion were religious fundamentalists, then that certainly would be better for the whole world, I guess.

All said, though, organic food is not guaranteed to be 100% fraud, but it is a basic fact that there's all but zero added value for your dollar...  and boy, does it cost many more dollars than the typical stuff.  You're paying extra dollar for very little if not nothing more.  There are indeed ways of getting all those benefits of extra nutrition, better taste, etc. that you might think are true of organic food -- it's just that checking specifically for "organic" is not one of them.