Is There Room at the Table For an Organic Food Eating Skeptic?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 25, 2013 4:55 PM


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Being a city boy (for all my adult life), my exposure to agriculture is woefully limited. I've parachuted onto actual farms in the Midwest during reporting trips for stories and every year around Halloween my wife and I take our kids to a farm in the outskirts to pick pumpkins, get lost in a corn maze and ride on a hay truck. When we trek on occasion to Eastern Long Island (you know, on the way to the Hamptons or Montauk Point), we'll stop off at a roadside farmstand to pick apples or whatever's in season. Oh yeah, and last summer while driving through central California, we stopped off at a pistachio farm. That was cool. So I'm your stereotypically disconnected urban food consumer who nonetheless cares about the environment and how my food is produced. That's why if you opened my refrigerator door, you would see organic milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, salad greens, fruit, vegetables. I'm so brainwashed that I've even taken to buying organic bananas, because they look so fetchingly yellow. To be extra sure that we're not poisoning our kids with pesticide residue, my wife and I use all "all-natural, lemon scented" fruit and vegetable wash to detox our organic grapes and apples. (I know, what happened to good old fashioned tap water?) Even our frozen pizza is organic. (No GMOs, either, the package boasts.) On our bookshelves, you'd spot the works of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who teach us how to lead this virtuous, eco-conscious lifestyle. The only thing keeping me from being totally pathetic is my stubborn refusal to join our local food co-op. A man has his limits: I'm not bagging groceries or stocking shelves during that 2 3/4-hour shift that members are required to work every four weeks. (If I was a reincarnated Phil Ochs, I'd write a song called Love me, I'm a liberal foodie.) Some readers are by now gasping at the hypocrisy of their hippy punching, sacred cow busting blogger, he who lambasts the nature-worhshipping, organic-loving, GMO-fearing denizens of the world.  I got two words for you: Cognitive dissonance. Actually, I'm well aware of the two parallel worlds I live in--the one at home, which is a temple to eco-wholesomeness, and the one in my head (translated to this blog and other places), where I question the assumptions of that other world. Reconciling these two worlds is hard. It's kinda like a devout Catholic becoming an atheist while still identifying, culturally speaking, as a Catholic. How does one go about living a life that promotes earth-friendly organic tenets while in possession of the knowledge that organic farming, as I have learned, is not all it's cut out to be? This is a dilemma I've been pondering of late, prompted in large part by arguments such as this one put forward by agricultural scientist Steve Savage:

Contrary to widespread consumer belief, organic farming is not the best way to farm from an environmental point if view. The guiding principal of organic is to rely exclusively on natural inputs. That was decided early in the 20th century, decades before before the scientific disciplines of toxicology, environmental studies and climate science emerged to inform our understanding of how farming practices impact the environment. As both farming and science have progressed, there are now several cutting edge agricultural practices which are good for the environment, but difficult or impossible for organic farmers to implement within the constraints of their pre-scientific rules.

Savage is no organic basher. He's also a civil, mild-mannered communicator. In an interesting exchange with one of his readers in this other post (on pesticide use and GM crops) at his blog, he writes:

I have great respect for organic farmers because of several that I have known for decades. I actually feel that the organic movement has been hijacked by an unholy alliance of marketers and anti-business activists and that its greatest insight and contribution (understanding the positive need to build soil quality) has been subjugated so that its "brand" is now defined almost entirely by what it is not: synthetics, GMO, irradiation...

This suggests that the organic movement was once a force for good, before ideological and commercial interests took it over. Is that true? More importantly, have the merits of organic farming been overstated? Is it okay to even raise these questions while snacking on my organic carrots?

[The seal of approval from the United States Department of Agriculture's organic program.]

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