Organic Food: Safer, Friendlier, Better?

This is the title of Chapter 2 in a great little book we picked up from our local public library called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies. I told myself I was not going to get into politics in my blog, but truth is, I think about politics a lot and am fascinated by power struggles and wild differences of opinion. I also happen to subscribe to the belief that the personal is political, so there you go. After spending a week with my dad recently and wondering every minute how we could have ended up so far apart politically while at the same time holding such basic core values in common (e.g., independence, self-governance, fiscal responsibility, stewardship, and an abiding appreciation for “nature”), I especially appreciate this book for its head-on, scientific, nonpartisan approach to some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

The authors are Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. They do an excellent job presenting the complexities surrounding key environmental issues; each chapter focuses on a single issue—organic food, pesticides, fertilizers, alternative energy, genetic engineering, plant patents, invasive plants, legal and illegal plants, local restrictions, global warming—all issues I am deeply interested in but do not know enough about. Each chapter includes essential scientific information about the issue, relevant governmental policies and policy options, ratings from left-wing and right-wing perspectives, plus the “bottom line.” The introductory sections also provide a clear overview of how science and political science interact, as the authors compare the contradictory roles of various players (politicians, scientists, lobbyists, the public), making it abundantly clear why it is so hard to get at the truth of these issues—not least because “politics is about making value judgments,” while “value judgments are outside the realm of science.” So policymakers are left having to decide what outcomes are desirable and at what cost, without the benefit of “hard science” to guide them, because science, which can be contested or modified with future study, does not offer The Truth, but often raises more questions. Add in the conflicting pressures from the public and the lobbyists, with their often narrowly defined self interests, and it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

As I read the chapter on organic food, I found myself thinking in new ways about where I stand on the continuum between increased government regulations and letting producers do what they need to do to raise crops. Where the environment is concerned, I generally weigh in on the side of increased government regulations for the protection of people and the Earth, while my dad generally weighs in on the side of free market and entrepreneurs.  I generally distrust businesses that have profit as their primary motivation, while dad thinks bureaucrats put too many limits on business owners who need flexibility to respond to the market. We both mistrust large corporations, but I lean toward increased regulation to try to protect consumers, while he recommends lowering their taxes and getting the government off their backs so they could be more competitive in giving consumers what they want.

But I can see how the lines could get blurry. For example, I don’t want the city or the neighborhood association to tell me I can’t grow native perennials or vegetables in my front yard but must have a perfectly manicured and weed free (i.e., chemically treated) lawn, so in that instance I would be anti-regulation, I suppose.  As a gardener who tries to raise plants “as organically as possible” but who sometimes reaches for pesticides or fertilizers to solve particular problems, I can appreciate on a small scale how challenging it is to find a balance between philosophical ideals and practical applications. But I definitely want the label to tell me what is in that bottle of spray so I can make an informed decision before I use it. Even if the ingredients are labelled “natural” or “organic,” I prefer to know about any potential dangers they might pose to honeybees or other beneficial insects before I spray my grape vines. I also know that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to pay a little more for organic and locally produced food, a luxury that many, many people do not have in today’s economy. Given all that, is it right to mandate numerous regulations that increase the overall cost of production and impose undue burdens on small producers, when we have no guarantee that organic methods are superior to conventional methods, or to restrict the ability of large producers to produce foods in the most cost-efficient ways possible?

The authors do a very good job of raising some of the questions that I generally avoid thinking about too deeply. For example, I happen to believe that growing organically is better for our health and better for our planet,  but is it then preferable to buy from a large-scale organic farm, even if they must use nonrenewable fossil fuels to ship their produce to my town, or is it better to buy from a small local farm, even if the farmer occasionally uses pesticides and fertilizers? If a local milk or meat producer avoids the use of hormones, treats her animals humanely, allows them plenty of time outside to graze, and does not put animal waste products or other questionable ingredients in their feed, but does occasionally treat them with antibiotics when they get sick, should the farm lose its credentialing as an organic producer? If a farmer returns from the weekly market with bushels of unsold turnips and lettuce and other produce, should he be allowed to feed it to his pigs at the end of the day, knowing it will go to waste before next Saturday’s market? Or should the state, in an attempt to protect people’s health, be allowed to define the unsold turnips as “garbage” and thus outlaw feeding it to animals that will be sold for meat? These are important but difficult questions that we all weigh in on every time we put food to mouth.

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