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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Is organic food really no better than conventional?

Every so often an article appears informing us all, in a very superior tone, that organic food is a big sham which can't feed the world and isn't really any better than conventional food. This article from the Telegraph is the most recent one to make the rounds.

Certainly just "buying organic" isn't a panacea. Most people I know in the sustainable food movement are quite aware of this already. For one thing, most of us are less concerned with whether food meets official "organic" criteria than with whether it is grown in an environmentally sustainable manner, with a minimal use of pesticides of any kind (including "organic" ones), and produced and consumed in a way that strengthens local economies and builds rather than destroying communities. Health is certainly part of it, because if you grow the food yourself or know your supplier you have a lot more control over quality. But I don't know anyone actually involved in the organic/sustainable movement who is so naive as to think that just walking into a store and buying something labeled "organic" automatically makes the food you are eating healthy or environmentally sustainable.

The assumption behind the article is that people in the organic movement want to replace a massive commercial "conventional" system with a massive commercial "organic" system. But we don't. Ideally we'd like to see more people around the world growing their own food and a preservation of traditional foodways. I at least am realistic about the fact that this isn't going to be feasible for many people, and non-judgmental about the food choices people in the developing world (and poor people here) have to make. As I see it, the sustainable food movement has two prongs:

1. Persuade prosperous people (i.e., people living above the poverty line as defined in the "developed" world) to make more sustainable choices, which includes eating local, eating less meat, and being willing to pay relatively more for food compared to other expenses; and then

2. Make sustainable and healthy food options available to less prosperous people as much as possible, without in any way laying a guilt trip on them for not being able to make sustainable choices.

In other words, of course it would be a bad thing to "switch to organic" on some massive centralized scale. But the more firmly sustainable options are established as culturally preferable, the more likely it is that people will make sustainable choices when they can.

I don't understand the kind of economic reasoning involved in saying things like "200 million in lower productivity" that then "can't be spent on health care." That seems to imply that all the GNP goes either to food or to health care, which is patently ridiculous. I'm also not sure how organic food is going to make people other than farmers "less productive." Granted the article's premise that organic food will have much lower yields (which I'm not convinced of, but which may be true), that doesn't necessarily mean less food. Think, for instance, of the massive amount of land in North America that goes to raise corn which is then used to feed animals for meat. If people ate considerably less meat (and most people in the developed world eat _far_ more meat than they need) then all that land could be used to grow vegetable crops instead. I drive through the Midwest and look at the massive cornfields and think, "what if each of those fields was devoted to growing a variety of organic vegetables instead?" 

The flawed logic behind the article is illustrated by the little sidebar discouraging people from eating kale and drinking green tea, because these things can be harmful _in massive quantities_.

Whatever happened to moderation?

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