Organic: You’re Thinking it Wrong

mystery banana

Can you tell it’s an organic banana? I can’t.

 

As I woke up today and lumbered my way through making a pot of Wild Harvest Organic Decaf coffee (second best I’ve found; first best is Peace Coffee, which I’ve only been able to find at a faraway Byerly’s), I looked around the kitchen and considered my breakfast options:

  1. My standard fried eggs, fried bacon, and fried corn tortillas, excellently high in protein (and delicious!) but with the inevitable stove top splatter and dishes to clean;
  2. a hot bowl of Red Mill Scottish oatmeal topped with milk and brown sugar, with (*sigh*) the inevitable bowl and spoon to clean (I’m feeling especially anti-dish this morning); OR
  3. a quick snack, so I can hurry up and take my vitamins and get on with my day.

I remembered, then, that my father-in-love (I heard recently a inspirational speaker refer to her mother-in-law as her “mother-in-love”; I’ve decided to adopt the phrase for all my married-into family members), who is an avid bicyclist, spoke about how bananas are a great source of quick energy. Having just picked up a bunch of organic Dole’s the other day, perfect in their semi-greenness, I ripped one from the bunch and opened it, the right way, as I flipped on my laptop and relocated my coffee and body to my stand-up, window-side workstation.

Organic Shmore-ganic

As I devoured my prey, I started contemplating the debate I’ve had with people about the virtue of organic produce versus the affordability of inorganic. I’ve easily conceded in the past to some arguments about organic produce, not because the arguments were better, but because they’re simply true. (Now, most of these are addressed in Penn & Teller’s famed Bullshit episode, which I’ve known some individuals to reference as a reliable source for a menagerie of conversations, but I’ll not get into the fallacy on that thought process!)

Those points are:

  • Yes, organic produce is usually at least two times pricier, if not more.
  • Yes, there’s usually less variety to choose from.
  • Yes, some grocers don’t even bother carrying organic foods.
  • Yes, eating organic definitely reduces your snacking options.
  • Yes, organic generally tastes the same as inorganic.
  • Yes, organic produce generally contain the same nutrients as inorganic.

It’s those last two points that I’d like to dwell upon today, because I believe they’re moot. Anyone using those as excuses not to eat organically are thinking incorrectly about the whole issue and, with respect, aren’t worth arguing with.

Look Beyond the Surface

Top contenders in the organic/inorganic debate are these issues of flavor and nutrition. They’re two of the most common reasons I hear (aside from pesticides, which I’ll talk about, or cost, which can’t be argued) about why the organic business is a huge scam.

In regard to flavor, I totally agree with Penn and Teller: I couldn’t tell the difference in flavor between an organically grown banana and an inorganically grown one. Not gonna lie about it to make myself feel better. But, who buys food just for its flavor? There are other things considered when choosing our next meal, like cost value, nutritional content, fiber, variety, how long said foodstuff will keep me full, and accessibility. So arguing that one thing doesn’t taste better than another is an (excuse me) idiotic argument.

Bloody Mary's have vitamins, too.

Bloody Mary’s have vitamins, too.

If I were concerned only with how something tasted, I’d eat Snicker’s bars every day for lunch and wash them down with a hefty Bloody Mary. Logically, I could say the candy would provide me ample protein (peanuts), sugars, and fats to energize me, and the Bloody Mary would provide vitamins via the vegetable juice (not to mention a solid stick of raw celery!), salt, and fluids.

In regard to nutrition, a tomato is a tomato, a cabbage is a cabbage. Organic produce contains the same vitamins and minerals as their non-organic counterparts. This study has been done so many times it’s almost not worth mentioning.

But, it’s not about the taste OR even the nutritional value of an organic [insert produce here] versus an inorganic [insert produce here] that keeps me trying my best* to eat organically.

Why?

Because it’s not about what organic has; it’s about what it doesn’t haveIt’s about chemicals and their residues. And, when I say chemicals, I’m talking man-made chemicals, specifically chlorinated hydrocarbons (generally petroleum-based) and organochlorines (water insoluble and attracted to fats, the importance of which I’ll talk on in a bit), synthesized in a laboratory, of which their long-term effect on human health and environmental health is still largely unknown.

That’s it.

In this article, I’m going to address two of my main pro-organic points: pesticides and long-term responsibility.

#1: Pesticides.

(Note: Herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers are other categories of chemicals used in agricultural practice. However, I’m going to speak specifically to chemical pesticides because, for me, it is the chemical use most immediately thought of when the concepts of chemicals and agriculture come together.)

pesticide warning

You’re not supposed to touch pesticides. What makes it okay to eat them?

Before you jump on me about how organic farming still uses pesticides, calm down. I’ve read a lot of information on the subject and I completely understand that naturally derived chemicals are not always better/safer than man made ones; in fact, sometimes they’re worse. Pages four and six in a report by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources in Hawai’i show tables listing both non-synthetic (naturally occurring) and synthetic (manufactured and/or mined) materials ALLOWED to be used in organic farming. That same report says this: “the statement ‘Organic farmers cannot use commercial pesticides’ is incorrect.” And, I agree. Any person who thinks organic farming is pesticide-free either (1) doesn’t know what organic really means, (2) is following the organic “fad”, or (3) both.

Still, while I agree with much of what the other side has to say about the use of pesticides (even naturally derived ones!) in farming altogether, there’s something that pricks me emotionally and spiritually when I hear/read the word “chemical” used in the same sentence as “farming” or “food”.

I mentioned chlorinated hydrocarbons (CHC’s) and organochlorines (OC’s). What are those things? Well, in short, chlorinated hydrocarbons are largely petroleum-derived (do you like the thought of eating gasoline-laced food? I don’t) and the infamous and now “banned” DDT is one of many organochlorines. Both substances are stored in body fat upon ingestion and don’t readily leave the body through normal “detoxifying” functions, like pooping, peeing, and sweating, for instance.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a moment to chew on these excerpts from a couple of US government entities (emphases mine):

Chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides are stored in body fat reserves… They bioaccumulate or are readily accumulated by animals through many exposure routes or repeated exposure and they tend to biomagnify or accumulate in higher concentrations in animals that are higher in the food chain.” — US Dept of the Interior, US Geological Survey field manual, Chapter 40.

“Higher in the food chain”? You mean, like… people? Huh… interesting. How about this one:

“[The] chlorine-carbon bonds [of organochlorines]…do not break down easily.  They are highly insoluble in water, but are attracted to fats. … Since they resist metabolism and are readily stored in fatty tissue of any animal ingesting them, they accumulate in animals in higher trophic levels.” — US Fish & Wildlife Service manual on environmental contaminants.

Again with the “higher in the food chain” and “accumulation in fat” talk. Let me show you how these paragraphs decipher in my mind:

These synthesized pesticides (i.e. CHC’s and OC’s) are immediately ingested at “safe” levels, meaning they cause no symptoms when ingested in certain quantities, i.e. quantities deemed appropriate by FDA, EPA, etc., for use by farmers. So, ruling? They’re safe for consumption… right?

Wrong.

According to these excerpts derived from U.S. government organizations (not some “flimsy” university’s or private scientists website), these chemicals can (and will) accumulate in your body fat as you continue to ingest them, eventually resulting in toxic illness, the symptoms of which are nerve damage, reproductive harm (e.g. infertility), personality change, memory loss, seizures, rashes, anorexia, gastrointestinal failure and respiratory problems.

So, unless you have 0% body fat, or unless you plan on never, ever metabolizing your stored fat for energy, you’re, as they say, SOL.

Oh, yes, yes… I can hear you now: “Why does it matter? Everything gives us cancer these days!” Perhaps. But is that a good reason to not try to protect yourself or your family from harm? Health concerns about ingesting chemicals relates to the cost value of eating organic, too, one of those “other factors” I mentioned earlier in choosing our next meal. When I told someone last year that I was trying harder to eat organically, I explained it this way: I can pay now for food, or I can pay later in medical costs.

To me, it’s that simple.

#2: Responsible Practices

My two quotes above were derived from sources mainly concerned with wildlife and environmental issues, and that’s one of the concerns on my mind, too, when I make the choice to eat organically. While organic farmers still need to get rid of pests and fungus and weeds like any conventional farmer, they’re more likely to apply sustainable farming practices to their crops. (Don’t confuse sustainable farming practices with Good Agricultural Practice, or GAP, a “standardized test for farmers” created by the government… because we know how well that worked out in our education system… *SMH*.)

green farming

Sustainable farming practices include “green”, healthier-in-the-long-run-for-the-environment practices like:

  • crop rotation & variation
  • use of manure as fertilizer
  • area-appropriate (i.e. “native”) crops
  • erosion prevention practices

There are serious concerns in farming circles, and by this Union of Concerned Scientists, that conventional farming methods are slowly degrading the earth’s ability to produce food. Soil is losing nutritive value that is ineffectively replaced by nitrate-based, synthetic fertilizers. Essential microbes are dying off. Erosion is getting out of hand.

John Biernbaum of the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University states, in his paper Organic Farming Principles and Practices

Most people committed to organic production … expect to be operating within and as part of the ecological system or web of life as opposed to dominating and subjugating the system. There often is an emphasis on using locally available and renewable resources… [with a goal to] keep people and the environment as healthy and happy as possible. Eliminating exposure to poisons intended to kill things is common sense. Recognizing that you can’t kill one part of a tightly coupled cycle and interdependent food chain without causing problems somewhere else in the food chain is common sense. Eating the most nutritious and freshest food is common sense.”

Common sense? Working with Mother Nature’s long-successful and well-thought out system? That’s something I can feel good about supporting.

The Inevitable Gray Area

Very few things in life are cut and dry. Like this article states, “The point … isn’t to vilify organic farming; it’s merely to point out that it’s not as black and white as it looks” (emphasis mine).

And that is the real problem.

Look: I’m all about science. My husband is an engineer, for goodness sake, and my sister is an optometrist! Science has done some magical things for us, like given us contact lenses, penicillin, electricity, airplanes, the Internet. It can’t be denied that BOTH conventional and organic farming practices involve a great deal of scientific practice: the causes and effects of how things work within that field, whether it be breeding livestock or growing produce.

Organic Farming and Conventional Farming are two teams playing the same sport. Namely, agriculture.

The question that remains is one of personal choice. It’s something I believe each of us, as individuals, must answer for ourselves when we think about where we get our food, what food we choose to purchase and consume and, therefore, support. That question is this:

In which agricultural team do you want to invest?

That should be the real thought process behind choosing organic foods. Not taste. Not nutrition. Not even cost.

The Farming Utopia

farmers basketIn the perfect situation, every household would be self-sustaining: we’d all have 1/10th of an acre we could grow all our foodstuffs we needed to live (and more). We’d know exactly what was being grown, exactly what was put on it (i.e. fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides), . And why couldn’t we? The Dervaes family did it — in the middle of Los Angeles, nonetheless! — and with great success.

My long-term goal is to eventually be one of those people. I want a big, lush garden. I want chickens and maybe even invest in larger livestock, like goats or a cow or two. But, until then, I do what I can by purchasing and consuming organic and locally grown foods.

A problem results, however, when authorities get involved and people are criminalized for growing their own food. On their own property. For private consumption.

But that’s a whole other rant…

 

Here’s to living well, being well, and doing well,

-Jessi MOI.


 

*I say “trying my best” because I don’t think it’s possible for any person living normally — that is, with other people, in the world, and not isolated and only eating their home-grown organic foods — to eat purely organic.I go out to restaurants; I frequent Caribou coffeehouses; I indulge in inorganic goodies! C’mon. Let’s get real.

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