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.