Adventures in Ethics and Science

Why organic produce?

The latest “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question is:

What’s up with organic foods? What are the main arguments for buying organic? Is it supposed to be better for me, or better for the planet, or what? Are organics, in any sense, worth the higher price?

It’s true that I live in California (in the San Francisco Bay Area, no less), but even if I didn’t, I would still opt for organic produce wherever possible. And, my reasons for this preference have almost nothing to do with the nutritional profile of organically grown foods compared to conventionally grown foods.

For me, the main issues have to do with the inputs (and outputs) in the production of the food, as well as impacts of various sorts on the people growing the food.

Conventionally grown produce uses synthetic fertilizers — which are made from petroleum. We seem to running out of petroleum faster than we’re running out of compostables or animal poop. As well, the runoff from conventional farming — loaded up with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, pollutes the water supply and endangers downstream ecosystems. (Granted, a high enough concentration of cow manure can lead to runoff problems as well — ask the folks in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — but that seems like an argument for fewer cows rather than for the benefits of conventional agriculture.) If pesticides whose consumption is harmful to humans aren’t used to grow your fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry how many parts per million of their residue might be left after you’ve scrubbed your produce (nor how much more of a problem they might be for the little kids you plan to serve them to — little kids not generally being the population used to test the safety of chemicals for human consumption).

Ladybugs, compost, and companion planting seem easier on the earth and its resources than the take-no-prisoners fumigants and the piles of ammonium nitrate. (Also, it’s probably easier to make a bomb out of ammonium nitrate than out of chicken poop.)

There are real live human beings involved in planting and harvesting the crops, and doing the tending in between, and the organic pest control measures seem less likely to impact their health than some of the pesticides in common use in conventional farming. (Read the chapter on the potato in Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Botany of Desire, to get a sense of just how nasty some of these chemicals are. Expensive, too!) I’d rather my desire for stawberries or potatoes not put someone else’s health at serious risk. Indeed, that in itself is worth paying extra to me.

But I’m of the opinion that not all organic produce is equal. Pollan notes in his more recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that organically grown produce that is then shipped over huge distances ends up having a significant impact on the environment (’cause that travel uses up petroleum products). As an added bonus, organic produce that’s been shipped a long distance, and has sat around while all this is happening, probably won’t taste any better than the conventional produce making similar travels. (There’s a nice discussion in this article as well. So, the increase in the amount of organic produce readily available in the supermarkets (including the big box monster whose threshold I will not cross and whose name I will not type here) is not the Earth-healing panacea some might have been hoping for.

So really, to minimize the impact of my eating on scarce resources, the thing I try to do is by locally grown produce whenever possible. Eating out of season racks up transport-related impacts. Eating what is available from nearby means the food doesn’t have to travel far to get to you — and that’s one less expense to be passed on to the consumer. It’s ridiculously easy to get good local produce in my area, but it is possible in many other areas as well. Community Supported Agriculture projects can help families find family farms to deal with directly, and local farmers markets can give consumers access to produce from a variety of area growers. Growing your own, even to a limited extent, is also an option. (When I was an apartment dweller, I managed to grow too many tomatoes, radishes, and chilis in my container garden — even when slugs were making off with a generous share of my produce.)

Saving a little money now and paying for it later — with depleted topsoil, polluted water, and a faster trajectory to Peak Oil — doesn’t make sense to me. I think of my food choices now as an investment plan in my children’s future.

Comments

  1. #1 Lab Lemming
    September 11, 2006

    Back when you had a lab, did you ever test organic vs inorganic, to see what the difference in nasty chemicals actually was? I only ask because this morning I zapped a chip of paint from our house in our laser ablation system, at the behest of my wife (results: Lots of titanium counts. Lead, not so much).

  2. #2 etbnc
    September 11, 2006

    Well said! You’ve highlighted a number of points that are often overlooked in our advertising-and-buying culture.

    Thanks for this.

    -

  3. #3 Frumious B
    September 11, 2006

    And, my reasons for this preference have almost nothing to do with the nutritional profile of organically grown foods compared to conventionally grown foods.

    good thing, since the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables is set by plant genetics, not by the type of fertilizer used.

    If pesticides whose consumption is harmful to humans aren’t used to grow your fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry how many parts per million of their residue might be left after you’ve scrubbed your produce

    who said organic pesticides aren’t harmful to humans? natural != safe. further, residue on organic vs conventionally grown produce is very similar, with organic having slightly more e. coli. wash those greens well!

    Conventionally grown produce uses synthetic fertilizers — which are made from petroleum.

    buying organic is not going to stave off peak oil. compared to the use of petroleum in transportation (including transportation of food!), use of petroleum for fertilizer is negligible.

    organically grown vegetables have been shown to have lower yeilds, meaning more land, water, pesticides, herbicides, and labor needed for crop growth. further, the plant-based pesticides and herbicides used in organic farming need land and water to grow those plants. maybe we can recycle some of the water freed up from the production of petroleum based fertilizers, but I challenge you to find a new source of land. pesticides and herbicides, organic tho’ they may be, will still run off into aquifers.

    getting back to those yields, they are not high enough to continue to produce the amount of food the world is used to. world population has grown by a few billion since the Green Revolution, and there is no way Mexico, India, and the other countries which have benefited from scientific agriculture could feed their people with organic growing methods. some of those countries are barely feeding their people even with scientific agriculture.

  4. #4 Lab Lemming
    September 11, 2006

    I reckon Dr. Freeride and Frumious need to put their chromatographs where their mouths are and actually measure vitamins, chemical residues, etc. on a variety of organic and commercial vegetables.

  5. #5 Vitis
    September 11, 2006

    The bandersnatch has a point. I believe, as a grape farmer, that some of our organic choices are actually worse than the non-organic. Sulfur dust is stinky and painful to the user to apply. It also has to be applied at the pounds per acre level at 5-10 day intervals. The man made DMI inhibitors and strobulins are applied at the ounces per acre level, can have 21 day intervals and have little or no persistence in the soil. Sulfur hangs around in the soil until it finds an oxidizer and then it can become sulfuric acid.

    UC Davis has a great program called integrated pest management or IPM and from it the Central Coast Vineyard Team is developing a quantifiable system to be applied to the term Sustainable Agriculture. It evaluates a chemicals impact not just based on it’s classification as organic or inorganic and gives it a number. The number takes into account impact on the environment as well as impact on the human. Things like organophosphates are at the top of the list with big bad numbers. Sulfur is near the bottom of the list but Strobulins and DMI inhibitors rate lower because not only do you use so much less but you have to run a tractor through the fields one half to one third as often. These are all fungicides and just one aspect of the system of which insecticides would be another as well as herbicides.

    I still think Organic is better than standard as long as you consider the transport cost but Sustainable is the best yet so if you see it, support it.

  6. #6 Calli Arcale
    September 14, 2006

    Ladybugs are not my favorite choice of a “benign” pest control solution. The introduction of Asiatic ladybugs for pest control has had a deleterious effect, in my opinion. The damn things are everywhere now. I worry a lot when somebody expresses the notion that introducing new animals to an ecosystem is a harmless method of pest control. The fact is, it’s virtually impossible to predict the effects of this form of pest control, but there are enough horror stories to argue for some serious caution before resorting to such a method. Consider the cane toad, introduced precisely for the purpose of chemical-free pest control. It’s been a complete disaster.

  7. #7 per
    September 15, 2006

    If pesticides whose consumption is harmful to humans aren’t used to grow your fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry how many parts per million of their residue might be left after you’ve scrubbed your produce…

    99.99% of all carcinogenic chemicals in fruit and veg come from the plants themselves (PNAS 1990; 87: 7777-7781). It is good to know that the 0.01% makes a difference to your worrying :-)
    cheers
    per

  8. #8 Kenny Easwaran
    September 22, 2006

    The concern about land area devoted to agriculture is one reason why I’m not convinced about organics – although I’d really need to see the figures on yield and the like. Same with concerns about GMOs – there’s costs and benefits for the environment both ways (assuming they’re done relatively responsibly). As for local produce in California, I think that’s good for a lot of things – but I just can’t imagine supporting the idea of locally grown rice in CA. The billboards along the 5 talking about “farm water feeds the country” really bother me, because California and the entire west is progressing quickly towards water crisis, and it just seems much more sustainable to import rice from South Carolina or Asia (I don’t know which direction has less environmental impact) than to heavily irrigate what is basically a desert.

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