Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Why Organic?

I am constantly unable to decide if I should be buying organic food.

I buy organic milk mainly because here in New York it’s hard to find milk from hormone free cows unless you buy organic. I don’t like the cows who are making my milk to be given hormones mostly because I saw the documentary “The Corporation” and they had this awful scene full of cows with udders ripping off because they had been over producing milk after being given growth hormone and it doesn’t seem fair to do that to a cow just so milk can be a few cents cheaper. I also get a little concerned that those hormones could somehow get into my body and cause some sort of problem but I don’t know if this is scientifically possible so it’s probably not fair to base my decision to spend $2 extra on every half gallon of milk on this idea.

This is my main concern about buying organic: I often feel like I’m being asked to pay a lot more for groceries for dubious reasons. It seems highly possible that organic food is healthier or somehow better but I’ve yet to find any conclusive proof of this and I hate to think that I’m being scammed. I also hate to think that I’m being reduced to superstition and paranoia when making my food choices. So much of what I read in favor of buying organic seems to use scare tactics to sell the products and too often the scary bits don’t seem to have any hard facts supporting them.

I do no doubt that agriculture companies are using way way way too many pesticides. This excess bothers me, I’m not categorically against the idea of pesticides – farmers shouldn’t lose their entire crop to bugs (mom, I totally support your never-ending war against the evil squash bug, go ahead and spray them) but I’d like them to use as little chemical assistance as possible just in case it turns out 20 years down the line that the chemicals cause horrible diseases. It certainly seems likely that some remnant of these pesticides could remain on or get into my food and since no one knows for sure if this is happening and what it might be causing I’d like to see a little restraint.

Part of the problem here is that I don’t know which media source to trust. You’d like to think one could trust the FDA – it is their job to regulate the food supply but given the power of lobbies these days all government agencies seem suspect of bowing down to large corporations. I’ve read conflicting reports in most of the mainstream press (the New York Times, Time Magazine, etc). Media directed at the choir (“Organic Style," Organic Consumer) is obviously totally in support of buying organic. Finding a reliable media source on any “controversial” topic is ridiculously difficult these days (I bemoan this fact every time election season rolls around). I google things like “evidence of pesticides in food” and “evidence that pesticide residue causes harm” and nothing seems both conclusive and trustworthy so I close my browser and walk away no more or less sure of what should go into my mouth.

For me, these are two reasons I might buy organic:

  1. Organic food is healthier/nonorganic food might kill you
  2. Organic food is sold by companies that care about things like the environment and animal rights and workers rights

I’ve spent most of this post unable to come to any conclusion of #1 so let’s discuss #2. I care a lot about #2, probably more than I care about the health issue mostly because I’m pretty damn sure that ConAgra and its ilk are violating #2 on purpose every single day and don’t see any reason to stop. At least when it comes to health I believe that everyone wants to produce healthy food (there’s just genuine disagreement about what healthy is), but it doesn’t seem like most agriculture companies care much about protecting the environment and animals and employees. It is not the job of the organic food movement to police any of these things and I should not count on them to do so. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be anyone’s job. In the past I’ve often figured that since organic companies were smaller and left leaning they would be more likely to care about producing a morally clean product but now that the big food companies have entered the organic market this is no longer a safe bet (if it ever was).

I would like to believe that the food I buy is safe and healthy (ok, except for the Ben and Jerry’s…) and that the people and animals who helped get this food to me were not unnecessarily harmed in the process. This seems like a reasonable request but even as the organic movement gains more traction I do not feel any more confident that the food supply is closer to what I want. Today I read an article on the movement to certify organic fish. The only way to do this is to certify fish farms which are generally bad for the environment and which usually produce inferior tasting fish. Is it progress to formally validate fish farms? The only food I eat these days with total confidence comes from my parent’s garden – they live 3000 miles away so relying on them to feed me is probably not a great plan. I try to do things like join the local CSA hoping that if I meet the farmer he’ll want to do nice things for me like put the least amount of pesticides necessary on my veggies. I also hope that giving my money directly to him allows him to live a comfortable life and pay whatever help he hires a reasonable wage and stay out from under the rule of big unfriendly produce conglomerates. I have no idea if my CSA membership is actually getting me a better product.

I don’t feel like I have the option of an educated choice. Eating should not be this difficult.


Anonymous said...

me, too. especially when they do the mother-paranoia button. (if you *really* loved your child, they'd be on an all-organic, hormone free diet...)

owen, my resident geneticist, tells me that hormones that work on cows don't work on us. i forget why.

Anonymous said...

Yeah scary Walmart is going into Organics. I HATE Walmart.