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. They line up a group of experts who argue pro or con about the issue.
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. 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 greatly respect, wrongly implied that organic food is grown without pesticides. 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. They summarize 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, is that vegetable variety NEVER comes up in studies or debates. 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.
The experts love to talk about yields, and nutrition, and the oh-so-subjective topic of flavor. (Organic proponents LOVE to go off about how much better organic broccoli tastes than conventional broccoli.) However, 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. Conventional farmers may all be growing ‘Imperial’ or ‘Marathon’ broccoli. However, the organic farmers are growing ‘Belstar’ because it is available as a certified organic seed. And OF COURSE, it is going to taste different, look different, yield different, and have a different nutritional value. Note that the taste will vary based on 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. On the other hand, it can possibly account for many qualities that experts on both sides argue for and against. I’ve never seen it addressed in any studies. It surprises me that experts like scientists, nutritionists, and farmers, don’t address how this might factor into their study conclusions. They also don’t include it in their 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. This is regardless of whether a farm is using conventional or organic practices. Both methods involve enormous, expensive, gas-guzzling equipment, thousands of gallons of pesticides and water. They can also potentially result in massive volumes of fertilizer run-off polluting the soil and waterways.
In small scale, local (or local-ish) agriculture, you reduce the potential for damage by pests and disease. When the pests 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. When it comes to buying and applying pesticides, the farmers think such things through. Furthermore, they are more likely to invent unique solutions to each problem rather than simply spray.
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 the thousands of employees working for a big company.