Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Inorganic Lies

Innumerable labors brought us this food; we should know how it comes to us.

So begins a familiar "grace" spoken by some Zen Buddhists before eating. It is a beautiful prayer, beginning with a reminder of our inter-connection with the entire web of life. It is a beautiful thing to thank God for the food, but it also good to remember how God puts it on our plate. Our food is produced in soil and cultivated by the labor of human beings. Consuming our food with mindfulness and appreciation also means consuming the way food is produced with mindfulness and appreciation.

Here in our area, New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission are inviting local farmers to a series of tours of successful organic farms. The goal is to promote organic farming. It is not only a matter of teaching techniques to enrich the soil and deal with pests, which many of them know already, but showing the economic feasibility of these techniques. This is especially important for smaller producers, the "family" farms that are being eradicated to make way for more large, corporate-owned industrial farms.

Last month, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a paper concluding: "
From a total of 52,471 articles, we identified 162 studies (137 crops and 25 livestock products); 55 were of satisfactory quality. In an analysis that included only satisfactory quality studies, conventionally produced crops had a significantly higher content of nitrogen, and organically produced crops had a significantly higher content of phosphorus and higher titratable acidity. No evidence of a difference was detected for the remaining 8 of 11 crop nutrient categories analyzed. Analysis of the more limited database on livestock products found no evidence of a difference in nutrient content between organically and conventionally produced livestock products."

In other words, if you look only at nutritional content, organic food does not appear to be significantly more nutritious than food produced by industrial farming. Certain news media seized on this and made up a false conclusion: look! they said, organic food isn't better for us after all!

Um. That's not what this report means. Read it again. To my knowledge, no one ever said an organic tomato was somehow "super food" magically endowed with more nutrition than a strip-mined factory tomato from Texas. If they did, they were not only wrong, they were missing the point of organic food production. [UPDATE: My statement in this paragraph is not correct. There have been studies finding that organic foods have higher nutritional content, which the AJCN report presumably contests. The case for higher nutrition in organics is here.]

What has happened, once again, is that our news media is being used to fulminate lies in order to confuse and deceive American citizens. In this instance, to sew doubts about organic products and reduce enthusiasm for the organic movement.

The tendency of industrial food production is to rely on chemical fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, and more, which leach their way into our foods. The AJCN report does not deal with issues of contamination because it was addressing a different research topic.

Further: another problem presented by large-scale industrial farming is the depletion of soil. We lose an inch of topsoil every 28 years, directly attributable to our farming practices. The USDA studied the nutritional content of our soil between 1950 and 1999, tracking 13 vital nutrients, and reported dramatic declines in 6 of them. Lack of nutrients in our soil affect the quality and quantity of the foods produced, issues that are addressed with chemicals instead of by enriching our soils. The AJCN report does not deal with this either, as it is outside the scope of this particular research paper.

Organic farming conserves and enriches topsoil, which is key to a sustainable agriculture.

Innumerable labors bring us our food, we must know how it comes to us. Eco-systems work pretty well as designed (praise the Lord, anybody?). If we are what we eat, as the saying goes, we "are" also our soil, we "are" the livelihood of the farmer, and we "are" the unjust distribution of food in a world where billions of human beings feel hunger or have insecure access to food.

Interfering with the natural quality and production of our eco-systems, in the first place, degrades us and all sentient beings; it does not honor what we have received. Interfering with the distribution of quality food, in the second place, is an injustice. How are these terrible mistakes possible?

It is ignorance. Not knowing, deeply, how our food comes to us.


Pam said...

In truth, there is room for both organic and industrial food growth in our country.

There are those in my family who farm. I had an interesting talk with one of them recently that talked about the so-called "horrible" farm subsidies.

Many farmers are part of a co-ops and don't get the so-called HUGE subsidies.

The reason I don't usually buy organic is price. I do love farmers markets, but, I can't justify paying the prices in stores for the organic products.

Algernon said...

I pay more for organic food products because the cheaper products aren't really cheaper. Some of the hidden costs you are paying for include higher pollution, higher contamination of foods, soil erosion degrading the quality of your food, and the long-term costs of compensating for these and other complications.

The old and wise conservatives I used to know understand this. If you pay a little more for higher quality, you save in the long run. Smaller-scale organic farming, and marketing for the shortest distance between the farm and the plate, are authentically conservative and sensible.

Nathan said...

I think the tricky thing with all of this is seeing it not in terms of cost solely, but more so in terms of how you live as a whole. I have a middle class education, but a lower class salary (which just got cut 9% last month.) And yet, I not only buy a fair amount of organic food, but also grow my own. You only get one body, and there's only one earth, so we better use both wisely.

The question though is how to address these kinds of issue without much financial resources. It's easy enough for those who have decent salaries to tack on purchasing organics, and then pat themselves on the back for being "green." But did they really change the way they view the world in the process?

What's been interesting for me, living off the low wages I do, is how in order to do things like buy organic produce, I actually have had to shift my ways in the world. For example, I just don't spend as much money on entertainment anymore. The longer I've been on the path, the less important those live ballgames and indie rock concerts have become. Not that I have cut them out completely, but when you stop and check the math, it's amazing how much money people spend on entertainment (and I only mentioned events since I don't really buy game systems and other toys.) Partly, my point is about what we determine is "a need." Food is a need; can't live without it. A lot of other things, including a car if you live in a big city (like I do), are really not needs. We have overinflated needs in our society, to the point where, for example, people decide it's better to buy food that will make them sick in the long run because today it's cheaper.

I think the reality is that some people on the very bottom end of the economic scale really will continue to have a hard time buying healthy food because of a variety of reasons (costs, food deserts in big cities and rural areas, etc.) But even these folks can and do benefit from things like farmer's markets and growing their own produce. And some even buy some organic food as well, despite the higher price tag.

I think there is a double need to help find ways to lower the sticker cost for people on the bottom, and also to promote a shift in consciousness as a whole when it comes to habits of consumption.

Pam said...

I see your point, Alg, however, money for food is tighter for us these days and I can get waaaaaay more bang for my food buck when I shop inorganic.

Places like Whole Foods are way out of my league, and, at my grocery or even Wal-Mart, there's quite a difference in the prices of organic vs. inorganic.

So, hidden or not, I just can't go the organic route even if I preferred to.

Pam said...

I also understand your point about need vs. want. Not having a car where I live is not an option. I don't live in a big city. Mass transit is sparse in my area.

We've virtually cut out movies and other entertainment options. Perhaps Cable TV isn't a "need" , but, for my sanity, it is.

With 2 little boys on lots of meds with lots of needs, medical care is a necessity. My daughter hasn't found another job and my sub jobs, even when school is in session, makes cutting whenever and whereever I can a necessity.

I try to do my part in every way I can when it comes to recycling and such. I actually have 2 huge bins that are picked up twice monthly. Almost every light bulb in my house is energy efficient. I watch water and electricity use.

I clip coupons and always shop with a list. Wal-Mart gets the brunt of my shopping $$$. One trip can get me most of whatever we need and at lower prices.

I applaud what you're doing with organic food choices. it's just not a choice that makes sense for my family or my budget. Sure, it might be better for us, but so would growing our own food. That's not an option.

Algernon said...

Nathan, fantastic comment on this, thanks. It is not simply a matter of getting everyone to buy organic brands, but a cultural shift and a policy shift. On the policy level, it's about addressing the injustice of distribution. Money should not be a barrier to eating nutritious food. That should not be a revolutionary statement, yet it is!

On the cultural level, there is the change of perception that inevitably results when we have to alter our consumer habits. There is going to be quite a bit of that by century's end. May this be an opportunity for us to awaken to a deeper understanding and wisdom.

Algernon said...

Pammy, I hear ya. Sometimes our money is tight and occasionally I have had to compromise on the "shop organic" policy myself.

Those of us who have to budget to the dollar (if not the dime!) sometimes have to make choices we should not have to make. The notion that eating nutritious food must be linked to our supply of cash is actually unjust, but that's how things are and we have to deal with it.

Doesn't make it right, though. It's worth getting active about this stuff. This is something our legislators need to address.

Moreover, the actions and policies that lead you to Wal-Mart for cheaper prices, or compel you to buy the strip-mined tomatoes that aren't as good, or the broccoli that was carried to your supermarket in a gas-burning truck from the west coast even if someone in your state is growing it -- this overall setup is actually very wasteful and degrading to us.

Beware of hidden costs, because soon enough they aren't going to be hidden anymore.