Sunday, June 16, 2013

Agricultural Schizophrenia

The Wall Street Journal today features a public tête-à-tête between an advocate and opponent of organic food production: Would Americans Be Better Off Eating a Mostly Organic Diet? 

The answer, I believe, is yes---though it's not unqualified. "Organic," to me, has become mostly a labeling scheme; it probably means better food, though it also probably means an organic monoculture halfway across the country or across the world. So it may be better, but it's not the best, and maybe not even that great. Call me crazy.

In any case, I don't feel the need to cite the pro side of the organic argument featured in the Journal's pages, because I'm more or less sympathetic to it. The real head-scratchers come from the con:

As for pesticide exposure, the U.S. in 1996 established maximum permissible levels for pesticide residues in food to ensure food safety. Many studies have shown that pesticides levels in conventional produce fall well below those guidelines.

Great. So nearly twenty years ago the United States government established a ceiling for toxic substances in our food, and that's the yardstick by which they measure harmful agricultural practices today, two decades later. Sleep well.


While it's true that organic fruits and vegetables in general contain fewer traces of these chemicals, we can't draw conclusions about what that means for health as there haven't been any long-term studies comparing the relationship between exposure to pesticides from organic versus nonorganic foods and adverse health outcomes. It may seem like "common sense" to reduce exposure to these chemicals, but there are currently no good evidence-based studies to answer the question.

Now the argument gets really interesting. First we're told the government established "maximum permissible levels" for potential carcinogens in our food supply, and that was supposed to make us feel better. Then we're told that there's really no evidence one way or the other to make a clear and informed decision---but you should eat the pesticides, because they cost less than the organics. That's very comforting.

Here's my favorite part:

It is difficult to compare the nutritional value of organic versus conventional food because the soil, climate, timing of harvest, and storage conditions all affect the composition of produce.

I couldn't have written it better myself. Buy local! For the love of God, buy local!

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