Here’s an interesting article that fleshes out what many of us are intuitively sensing about the industrialization of organic food.
Here’s an interesting article that fleshes out what many of us are intuitively sensing about the industrialization of organic food.
Lots of hype and hyperbole out there in the blogosphere right now surrounding the recent study published by Stanford University regarding the nutritional value of organics vs. conventional produce.
I’ve looked high and low for a copy of the study itself online to share with you, but of course, as usual it’s not easy to find. We have to rely on the media to tell us what’s in it and how to feel about it. Having worked in a job that gave me intimate knowledge of legal decisions that the press regularly reported on, I can tell you that they get it wrong as often as they get it right. I even had one case where the press repeatedly misnamed one of the parties. Repeatedly, and not even close – as in someone else entirely, despite it being a matter of public record.
So I strongly urge you, whenever you can – read the original document and come to your own conclusions.
The best I could find was this summary of the article, you have to pay for the rest, apparently.
Interesting to note that although they state that their study doesn’t have outside funding, the study itself was primarily a review of OTHER studies, and there is no mention in the summary of where THEY got their funding from. Pair that with this quote from the article and you can’t help but get thinking:
Limitation: Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present.
Conclusion: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
(Emphasis my own.)
I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about it.
So of course, I’m out there reading the blowback online. I don’t know why I read the comments on these articles. I end up losing a hour of my life to internet trolls with handles like “urbanredneck2″.
No good can come of it. And yet, there I was yet again today – getting angrier by the minute.
I’m not even going to bother addressing the ridiculous arguments (from both sides). There’s no point. These folks don’t listen (on either side). I resisted the urge to ad my voice to the fray. Barely.
Organic tomatoes grown on a farm someplace far away in a greenhouse using hydroponics and tons of energy or in a huge monoculture are not the same as tomatoes lovingly tended by me in my backyard.
Organic doesn’t mean its free of pesticides or chemicals. Organic doesn’t mean better taste. Organic doesn’t mean better nutrition. Organic doesn’t mean less carbon footprint. Organic doesn’t mean sustainable. Organic doesn’t mean safe. Organic doesn’t mean respect for human rights and worker’s rights.
In contrast, conventional doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
Many non-organic farms practice reasonably ecologically sane practices like Integrated Pest Management, whereby beneficial insects and mindful farming practices are combined with chemicals as a last resort.
Sometimes, a conventionally grown tomato from close to home will be better quality than one trucked in from far away.
There are also amazing organic farms who refuse to get organic certification because they object to the commercialization (and consequent relaxation) of government organic standards, or don’t want the government meddling unnecessarily in their farm, or want the freedom to purchase feed from neighbours who aren’t certified organic, but whose farming methods they respect.
Deep organic food, food like the kind I grow on my urban farm – food that sees no sprays, chemicals or pesticides, “organic” or otherwise, that benefits from a judicious use of homemade compost, cover crops, beneficial insects drawn by complimentary plants, inter-croping, season extenders like row covers and unheated greenhouses, manure from my chickens . . . This is as far away from industrial agriculture as you can get – organic OR conventional.
We can’t take one narrow (and arguably flawed) measure like nutrition and judge the overall worthiness of sustainable farming, which gets undeservedly heaped in under the traditional “organic” banner. The two are not one and the same.
What about run off? What about pesticides in the air and water? What about erosion? What about biodiversity? What about protection of our heirloom varieties? What about protection of wild-lands? Frogs? Insects? Water quality? Salinization? Dropping water tables? Drought? What about super weeds and anti-biotic resistant bugs? The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico? What about carbon sequestering? What about the health of local economies? The future of the family farm?
All of these things are problems that sustainable farms are trying to address. Dismissing organic food as not worth the money or no better than conventional perpetuates the myth that our health is somehow divorced from the health of our soil, air and water.
Unfortunately, the overall impact on all of these things on our health is not easy to quantify. We don’t really know what effects this slow poisoning will have. We probably won’t until it is glaringly obvious – and too late.
What I do on my urban farm is often dismissed as merely “gardening”, something less than farming. I say that’s bull. What I and others like me are doing challenges our preconceived notions about what farms and farming look like. We are trying to bring into being what we imagine farming could be.
We don’t have to have only one way of doing things. In fact, its better for everyone if we don’t.
We too easily accept what we are told, whether that be from our politicians, our teachers, our media, our religion, on pretty much any topic. This sort of apathy of imagination creates societies that stagnate and rot from the inside out. We have to constantly seek a better way, to keep asking questions, keep moving forward to keep our culture – our agriculture - vibrant, adaptive and vital.
We have a serious lack of critical thought happening when it comes to food and farming. All these nonsensical generalization and sweeping statements and suggestions based entirely on conjecture and propaganda and marketing slogans are not the way to a better food system.
Rather than wasting our time arguing about semantics, we need to be out there working on solutions. Real solutions. Not advocacy for advocacy’s sake, not dissent for dissent’s sake, not hollow gestures rooted in consumerism and the misguided notion that we can buy our way to a better world.
We need to look at the work of farmers like Elliot Coleman of Four Season Farm, who successfully grows gobs of produce YEAR ROUND in MAINE and – wait for it – MAKES A PROFIT. He works a small amount of land, minuscule compared to modern farming standards, and he does it with lots of hand labour, minimal inputs and an abundance of carefully considered planning. If you want to see a vision of a future for better farming in action, watch Elliot on YouTube. Be amazed.
Ironically, but not surprisingly – Elliot says no university has ever asked him to study his practices so that his immense knowledge and success can be shared. Corporations don’t stand to make any money from models like Elliot’s. Farmers do. Go figure.
A man who does not think for himself, does not think at all.
Here’s the thing. When it comes to food, farming – pretty much everything, we can’t rely on labels and what other people tell us.
We have to ask questions, inform ourselves, see with our own eyes and think for ourselves. Seems the powers that be believe that that’s more than we’re capable of these days. But it’s not true.
Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families . . . re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem . . .
What are your thoughts about Stanford’s study? Do you eat organic? Does the article change your thoughts about organic food?
Lots of folks are hatin’ on locovores these days. And lets face it, the locovore movement gives them plenty of fodder for the fire. (I say that from a place of love, really.) The new food movement or whatever you want to call it is susceptible to over-simplification and a serious case of self-back-patting.
I forgive us this, because at the root I believe that more and more people are grasping for anything to make them feel safe in the face of the runaway train that is climate change. It’s scary, it’s bigger than all of us, and most of us have no power to change it in a big way. Focusing on food miles is a concrete way to wrap your arms around your sense of helplessness.
Maybe I overstate our motives, but all I know is I feel afraid for my son. No one can deny the terrifying changes in our weather. I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the potential heap of trouble we’re in. Any attempt to move towards change is a good thing.
Those who criticize focus on one measure alone – the impact of food miles on the carbon footprint of a food product. This is foolish narrow-mindedness and a symptom of the type of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.
Hands down, water is the most important reason you should try to eat close to home whenever you can. It’s easy to not think about the impact on water resources when we buy food from far away, because we’re buying food, not water.
When you purchase fruit from far away, you are exporting water from the region where it was grown. Especially if that produce comes from someplace like California (which produces a huge percentage of the nations food), that represents the loss of an incredibly important, rare and valuable resource to that region. Every drop that leaves reduces their future ability to produce food.
If you live someplace on the coast like I do, chances are that water is going to go straight out to sea when I’m done with it.
Add it up and the result is shrinking water tables and increased salinization of farmer’s fields. Veggies don’t grow so well in salt.
One of the big arguments against locovorism is rooted in our psychopathic economics-based world view. The argument goes like this:
There are too many people on the planet. We are all going to starve. We need cheap food. Food can be grown cheapest where land and labour is cheapest. Land and labour is cheapest in the third world. We should stop growing food in the first world and import cheap food from the third world. This will be better for everybody.
Except for it’s not.
If the third world is using their land to grow cheap food for us fat folks over seas, where do they grow their own food? The economists tell me – Now they will have money to buy food. See, they’re better off! Except for if it is now no longer “economical” for third world farmers to grow traditional foods, whom do they buy them from?
Is this the part where western fast food stands waiting in the wings? Or is it starvation and malnutrition? Which is worse? How do we measure the degradation of local food cultures?
Add to this the fact that rather than the time-honoured agricultural practices that are central to the local culture, these multi-national corporations are more likely to be employing destructive forms of industrial agriculture which enslave local workers to the gerbil wheel of purchased pesticides, herbicides and seeds.
Suddenly our “need” for cheap food is both reducing our ability to produce food, destroying local economies and causing biological contamination of food-crop genetics that are as old as agriculture itself.
Vandana Shiva is the best resource for more information on this topic. Her book Stolen Harvest is a good place to start.
Industrial, globalized agriculture favours uniformity and efficiency. That means standardized breeding stock over diverse breeds with historical value and mile after mile of the same variety over inter-plantings of symbiotic crops.
Under our current system, our diet is comprised of fewer and fewer crops and those crops are drawn from an increasingly shallow gene pool.
This is bad news on a lot of levels.
Most turkeys produced in North America are bred by only three multi-national companies, and most are broad-breasted white turkeys. Funny thing about these guys – they can’t mate. It is physically impossible because they have been bred to have such large breasts (for all of us who love white meat) that the male cannot physically mount the female.
Think about that for a minute.
A living being that is physically incapable of procreation.
Isn’t the nature of life to produce more life? Isn’t that why we’re all here? To keep on keepin’ on?
Now think about the fact that the majority of what we eat is dependant on only three major producers, and that they all are growing essentially the same thing. Say something goes awry? With the breeders or the birds?
Extrapolate that out to nearly every major food product and you start to get an idea of what we’re dealing with.
Just because something is grown close to home, it’s not automatically going to contribute to genetic diversity. However, if in getting to know your foodshed you support farmers who are using sustainable systems that honour and respect the place they’re in, you’re more likely to find plants and animals elegantly suited to their place and time. That, in a nutshell, is what biodiversity is all about.
By the way, I have raised commercial breeds in my backyard, and I can tell you, they kind of suck at living, and they don’t taste near as nice.
Food is more than a commodity, a number on a trading board, fuel for a machine.
Food is a repository of shared memory and experience. It is an expression of who we are and where we are from. It can communicate love, comfort, joy. It is a celebration of life, a coming together, a means to cure a cold or mend a broken heart. It is life-giving and sustaining. It ties us in the beautiful unending cycle of birth, life, death, decay and round again. Without food, there is no life.
It most certainly isn’t just food. (Sorry Mr. McWilliams.)
If we follow the free-trade model to it’s logical (I hesitate to call it logical) conclusion, we will see a further centralization and standardization of our food products. This is necessary if one values current economic views of efficiency (as screwed up as they might be.)
If that happens, what happens to the nuances of our food cultures around the world?
The powers that be in the world of industrial agriculture have one key message: You need us. If you do not accept our toxic, contaminating, life-destroying products, you will all starve.
This, quite frankly, is bullshit.
The world currently produces two times the calories needed to support the population.
Industrial agriculture as they pitch it is currently doing the opposite of what it promises. Instead of ensuring a future of food security for all, it is degrading the soil and water necessary to produce food in the future in the name of short term profit for a chosen few.
Instead of empowering farmers to feed their families first and their community second, they are enforcing an unsustainable culture of indebtedness and reliance on outside inputs rather than a self-sustaining, closed-loop system rooted in nature’s paradigm of plenty.
All of this short-sighted greed masquerading as progress has but one consequence:
We are stealing from our children’s mouths.
We have hunger in the world today because we have injustice. We have huge corporations partnering with international organizations, whom the people of the world did not elect to represent them, bullying the third world into buying their products and allowing the destruction of their local, indigenous food systems.
We have hunger because we have war and poverty. We have hunger because we have greed and waste.
I’m not saying eating close to home is going to solve world hunger. However, if we all took the time to nurture and understand our own foodshed, we might be more inclined to do more to protect the foodsheds belonging to others around the world.
If nothing else it will help us to remember : First do no harm.
Eating food from far away and making our food choices based on price alone, implicates us in human rights abuses of food workers around the world.
It is easy to turn a blind eye when the abuse is happening thousands of miles away from home. Most of us don’t have a clue about the working conditions and poor pay many farmworkers around the world experience.
This ties back into the false promise of the economic benefits of trade. If we are not paying a worker a fair wage AND we are taking away their ability to grow food for themselves, how on earth do we expect them to feed their families?
At the end of the day it comes down to this:
If we eat close to home whenever we can, we are more likely to see how our food is produced. We may get a chance to actually meet the people who put the food on our tables. We might drive by the fields where it was grown.
Eating close to home engenders a sense of transparency and a level of accountability that the global, free-trade food system does not.
That said, we cannot simply sit idly by.
We have to understand that we are co-producers in all of this, and with that comes responsibility.
Responsibility to ask questions, be informed, demand better. To call for bans on GMO’s in our fields. To educate ourselves on sustainable farming methods. To ensure that worker’s rights are being respected. To demand that animals are raised humanely and with respect.
Most importantly, it is all of our responsibility to find a way for EVERYONE, not just the yuppies at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, have access to food that is good, clean and fair.
I got a ping-back on my blog yesterday on a post about the Agricultural Land Reserve that reminded me just how important it is for folks like me to buy into the ALR if we can.
Most folks on both sides of the fence would say overall, it’s not working.
Ok so, basic premise of the ALR is to reserve prime farmland for – gasp – FARMING!!! What a novel idea.
Seems simple enough, right?
Not so much.
So here we are, a young couple in our early 30s with a family. We’re lucky enough to have bought into the ridiculously expensive Vancouver housing market in our mid-20′s. Since then, housing values in the city have continued to soar.
You’d think we’d have enough equity to easily purchase a nice little farm out of town on the ALR. Surely prices for land reserved for farming would be reasonable.
The last point is probably the most pivotal of them all, and one where I have some weird shared values with those who hold opposite points of view on the matter.
I believe that overall, when it comes to farming, government is a hinderance, not a help to small farmers.
Regulations and legislation are shaped by industry lobbyists and well (or not so) well-meaning bureaucrats. When applied equally across the board, from huge agro-industry giants to tiny Mom and Pop shops, the result is the big boys get away with murder, and Mom and Pop lose the farm.
I exaggerate a little, but not really.
To put my views in context, my political views lean to the left. (No kidding, you say.)
BUT – I’ve also worked in both provincial and federal levels of government. I know how inefficient and nonsensical it is from first hand experience. The longer I worked for government, the more I was convinced we could do with a lot less government in many areas in our lives.
Unfortunately, it seems we’re getting more government in areas we don’t need and, and less government in areas where we do.
As I write this our Parliament is involved in a marathon vote for one of the most undemocratic documents in Canadian history, the ridiculous C-38 Omnibus Budget Bill. A perfect example of too much government with too much power.
(For my non-Canadian readers – the ironic note here is our government currently has a Conservative majority. They’re our (slightly) toned-down version of the Republicans. Surprising, yes, being that most Canadians still cling to our semi-socialist identity. Go figure.)
This is one area where more government would do us all some good.
When it comes to curbing individual freedoms, I think I’d rather see the freedom to make money off of the sale and destruction of prime farmland curbed before the freedom to EAT is curbed.
Just as we all value freedom of speech (ok, maybe not the Harper Government, but most Canadians do) we also agree that there must be limits to that speech. We agree that it is better for everyone if that fundamental right is curbed to prevent the spread of hate.
I think about that Mark Twain quote often :
Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.
I would argue access to good, clean and fair food is equally important as free speech.
A strong statement, yes.
However, in a world where the law has declared that we do not have a fundamental right to grow and consume food of our choice, I think it’s necessary to say so.
To demand so.
We only have the rights we exercise.
Fantastic article. Seriously. Fantastic.
This is the most comprehensive, intelligent discussion of the challenges facing the new food movement I’ve read yet.