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

By Keith Kloor | April 25, 2013 7:55 am

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.]

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I think it’s a nice idea for the env. and a clever social cue: “we’re doing rich, white people stuff so if you don’t do this or can’t afford it then you’re not in our group.”

    But, thinking purely rationally, it’s merely an empty gesture. Especially since a huge number of people who do it have children. They want to save the earth and have healthy kids and not support giant companies but they’ve already done the absolute worst thing they can do to the environment: having kids. Not to mention there’s no evidence organic is actually more healthy for you. And even single people who do organic are making a totally insignificant impact on any goals they might have for helping anything. They aren’t being realistic about the sheer number of people alive – anything they do is a drop in the bucket. Pretty much same goes for recycling.
    Ultimately, it’s about alleviating their tremendous guilt, social cues and a their having a lack of honesty about their behavior. Many people also don’t understand the true impact of their lifestyle. They’ll install water saving devices and yet buy products that take tremendous amounts of water to manufacture or worry about the carbon footprint *of their baby.*

  • Buddy199

    What is the scientific evidence that organic vegetables, fruits, grains or meat for that matter reduce disease or prolong life compared to non-organic? The actual, peer reviewed objective evidence, not advocacy studies.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    It’s certainly up to you. If you think (and can afford) that the increased cost of these products is a better use of your money than your kids’ college funds, that’s fine.

    Personally, I’m too pure of an environmentalist to have children. (Don’t purity trolls suck?)

    But I have other issues with organic production. Some of it is worrisome from a food safety perspective. If you treat your animals with homeopathic “medicines”–I have zero confidence in your grasp of science. If you think vaccines are dangerous, as does the director of the Organic Consumer’s Association, I don’t think you are a good judge of science. These are not folks that I trust with food products.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    “if you opened my refrigerator door, you would see organic milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, salad greens, fruit, vegetables”…

    One question: why? “Cognitive dissonance” is the state you’re in, but doesn’t explain it.

    If you really do believe what you write here, why are you spending so much extra $ for organic everything? Personally I tend to avoid organic labeled products, because I do think it’s mainly become a marketing gimmick, the prices can be 2-3x higher than for regular produce and the quality and taste are lower as often as higher.

    Or is it all your wife’s fault? Every long-married guy knows some things aren’t worth arguing about…

    • Jenna

      I’m totally on board with your price argument. The decision to buy organic or not is most definitely a first-world problem.

      • kdk33

        IOW: Environmentalism is a luxury

        • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

          why would we define ourselves based on poor people’s standards?

          • kdk33

            Why squander wealth that could be used to raise the poor from poverty?

          • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

            Who cares about the poor? Not me!

          • kdk33

            ever was it thus

  • http://geneticmaize.com/ Anastasia

    There is one subject in which I think organic has an advantage – farmers. Organic farmers (assuming they are large enough to be able to meet the certification requirements without breaking the bank) are generally able to command a higher price than conventional farmers. As we’ve discussed recently on the Biofortified blog, economic sustainability is just as important for ag as environmental sustainability. They may be able to negotiate better contracts for their products that have a perceived premium characteristic (unless they’re working with Whole Paycheck, who I’ve heard is ruthless in their dealings with farmers). So, if helping farmers is high on your priority list then you might consider buying organic. However, this is a generality and doesn’t hold true for all cases, of course. If this is really important to you, farmers markets are really the way to go, if you’re careful to buy from farmers who promote their own products – although even in that case sometimes it’s harder for the farmer because they have a lot more work to do with their own hands rather than selling to a middleman or direct to a buyer.

    But when it comes to health, sustainability, etc I don’t see that the science supports buying organic. There’s just too much variability and organic vs conventional doesn’t do enough to capture that. What we really need is a more specific voluntary label as I propose here: http://www.biofortified.org/2010/08/toward-a-better-agriculture/

    • Guest

      One discussion I rarely read about is of organic vs. non-organic soil health. Anastasia,

    • James Smith

      One discussion I rarely read about is of organic vs. non-organic soil health. Anastasia, on the blog post you link to you mention that organic methods can be better for soil health. I have read that pesticides (generic for organic or not) can impact soil health negatively. But what I cannot find is the the impact on soil health for organic vs. conventional production methods and the comparison of organic vs conventional pesticides. Finding this info is almost as frustrating as trying to find info on organic pesticide levels on produce and the potential health effects of those.

      • http://geneticmaize.wordpress.com/ Anastasia

        The problem is that neither organic nor conventional are monolithic. There’s so much variability in sustainability and soil health, it’s more like two parabola that overlap a lot than two distinct parabola. I think that’s why there’s not a lot of research on it. What methods exactly do you use when you have an “organic” treatment and a “conventional” treatment? And if you try to go out to fields and sample, there’s so much variability due to soil type, crops grown, etc that it might be impossibly to pin down any differences and say they are due to organic vs conventional practices.

    • Joshua Turcotte

      Okay, but what happens to economic sustainability when you have no environment left? Becomes rather moot according to any sensible math.

  • http://geneticmaize.com/ Anastasia

    Also, my goodness, Mister Cognitive Dissonance! I have to say I am a bit surprised, although it’s good that you to admit to your failings ;)

    I wrote a post about how I make food choices last night: http://www.biofortified.org/2013/04/choosy-moms/

  • Tom Scharf

    The running theme that “commercial interests” are to blame for X, Y, and Z is common on the left, and specifically the anti-Monsanto crowd.

    My advice is go run a company for a while, or get to know people who do. Commercial interests invariably reflect the interests of the people who buy their products. That is how the market works.

    If enough customers desire organic products, it will need to be done on an industrial scale. And you can bet the difference between the “evil commercial farms” and the “good organic farms” on industrial scales will be subtle at best.

    Feeding millions of people in NYC all year round takes a lot of food. A. lot. It’s not coming from little gardens that can feed a family for a day. My relatives run industrial scale chicken and pig farms, and believe me it isn’t pretty to see, and definitely not pretty to smell. But I acknowledge it’s required, and accept it.

    Everyone should see this and understand it. Then decide what you want for yourselves. The producers of food will then reflect what we consumers demand.

  • Howard Whitney

    All bannana’s are organic. They just slap the “O” label on the ones with the blackl spots.

  • Howard Whitney

    If you can afford it and want to get the benefits of organic and slow food in general, focus on organic grass fed milk, butter cheese, eggs, yogurt and meat. Higher on the food chain (bioaccumulation) and higher Omega 3. For taste, the heirloom tomatoes cannot be beat.

  • Buddy199

    Wouldn’t living and breathing in a large city completely overwhelm any beneficial effects of eating organic food?

  • Joshua Turcotte

    I’m not necessarily against ‘in’organic food… what I’m against is the terrifying back practices behind monoculture, factory farming, hormone injections, pesticide-encased seeds that terminate after one generation, chemically forced ripening, reduced-fiber genetic modifications, etc, etc, etc… the for-profit motive has been intensely deleterious here and though that is not a thoroughly inclusive description of ‘in’organic food production, its largely dominant within it.

    • Tom Scharf

      Then don’t buy and consume those evil immoral foods. The rest of us (who are a bit skeptical of these alleged atrocities) can decide for ourselves, right?

  • jh

    So many thoughts…

    First, I get a kick out of the people complaining about “hippie punching”. It’s kind of funny that so many people well-healed people affect the identity of hippies. If they had any idea what real hippies were like back in the day, they might be less inclined to the affectation.

    Second, I have nothing against organic per say. I’m pleased that people are willing to pay top dollar for organic and natural foods. I own stocks in a few O/N food companies, and they’re padding my retirement nicely. So please do buy. Personally, though, I don’t touch the stuff.

    Last but not least, there’s nothing wrong with “cognitive dissonance”. The idea that one can or should live a life that is entirely rationally consistent in every detail is hilarious.

    But it has been a very successful marketing ploy for a few lefty movements – particularly climate change. Americans and other Westerners, bloated with cash, free time, and a guilty conscious for having it so good, have turned out to be ideal suckers for it.

  • dogctor

    Hi Keith.

    I don’t view this post as cognitive dissonance as much as a struggle between analytical and intuitive decision making. The older I get, the more I work to trust my “gut feeling”s- in this case, that organic food really is better for heath, animal welfare, community, ecology, etc. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EjpOSZKruw

  • http://twitter.com/jackvsworld Jack

    You can’t spend 2 hours and 45 once a *month* for your neighbors and your community? Shame on you

  • eetom

    I heard that some very conscientious and health-conscious people smoke only organic cigarette.

  • AdamMerberg

    I’ve also dealt with quite a bit of cognitive dissonance on this subject. You think joining a food co-op is “pathetic”? I co-founded a food co-op, and I served on its board of directors for three years. It’s not that I didn’t believe in science, but that I’d trusted certain sources of information that perhaps I shouldn’t have. Over the years, I found myself increasingly questioning organics, first as I noticed that organic advocates frequently pushed ideas that were incompatible with science that was well understood (I recently wrote about that here) and later as I watched the Proposition 37 campaign here in California.

    Though I’m not a director at the co-op anymore, I’m still a member (at least for a bit longer), I still shop there now and then, and I still provide free technical help now and then. (There are certain organic brands which I refuse to buy because they propogate bad science, though.)

    For me, the key to managing all of this cognitive dissonance is de-coupling the political solutions from my personal buying choices. I would love to see a movement toward an evidence-based sustainable agriculture, and if I had the option to support that when buying food, I’d do that. I do buy organic often, but I do so without any delusions that I’m saving the world. I have no problem with organic being a choice that people can buy or even the idea that has some good ideas. What I have a problem with is the idea that organic is the way forward. I’m not thrilled about buying organic, but so long as I’m not swallowing the ideology, I don’t see any hypocrisy in this.

    I think it’s also important to keep in mind that the “conscientious consumers” are a relatively small segment of the population. There are problems with agriculture, but it would be pure folly to expect them to be solved by everyone reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and deciding to spend more money on food (even if that were right). These issues will require political changes.

    One thing organic does give consumers is something to feel good about. Sometimes it seems to me that this motivates people to promote and defend the organic movement. So there’s this unfortunate tendency for political “solutions” to flow from individual buying choices. However, I don’t see any big problem with buying organic so long as I avoid that trap.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      I was recently surprised by this survey (you can get the PDF over at the post): Duh: Consumers finally figure out organic is an excuse to charge more.

      There’s more than just that question–it unwrapped some other “green” ideas as well. Even I was stunned at the low numbers. They are incredibly noisy for that small a segment.

  • carolannie

    I think this discussion of chemophobia fits in with the general tenor or scientists mocking non-scientists over their ignorance of the “facts” blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/2013/04/26/when-chemophobia-isnt-irrational-listening-to-the-publics-real-worries/
    I really think that mocking people who are concerned and afraid only makes them more adamant. Poining out that ONE study is bad isn’t enough, you have to show that other studies (not funded by big companies like Monsanto) show the facts to be other than the fearful ones believe. The big issue is that there really is a lot of dishonesty on both sides of the aisle. It makes me nervous.

  • scientist

    This post describes my situation pretty well. Most of my friends believe what in my mind amounts to propaganda about organic/local foods/non-GMOs being better for the environment. My thinking has completely diverged from theirs on all of these issues. I’m trying to find ways to engage them while maintaining credibility in their eyes. I’m thinking of going vegan to accomplish that. Veganism is the one absolutely unassailable personal food choice that benefits the environment. I’m hoping it will communicate my logic better than arguments ever could (basically, reducing land use should be the most important priority).

  • karun9488

    Your blog has always attracted me and this particular post left me speechless. It is one of the best pieces of writing I have seen. Good job.

    Thanks

    Organic input for agriculture

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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