A Natural Obsession

Comment / by Maywa Montenegro /

Organic foods are exploding in popularity. But fears of biotechnology—and a widespread mistrust of science—won’t help efforts to create a truly sustainable agriculture.

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When delegates from 192 nations arrive in Copenhagen in December for the UN COP15 summit, they will confront a 181-page draft negotiation text, 2,000 bracketed passages still in dispute, and just 11 days in which to come to some sort of consensus. To power them through these discussions, Denmark has promised a smorgasbord of ecologically minded fare: All water will be tap (not bottled), tea and coffee will be fair trade, and the food menu will be no less than 65 percent organic.

Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, this last provision is troubling, but not because anyone really cares about the provenance of Ban Ki-Moon’s turnip greens. Rather, it suggests a willful and dangerous ignorance about the tenuous state of global agriculture, and the prospects for feeding 9 billion people while also addressing biodiversity loss, water shortage, and, yes, climate change. Organic foods are enjoying skyrocketing popularity in the US and Europe, as are their ill-defined sidekicks, “natural,” “whole,” and “real” foods. Yet popular notions that these foods—and the agriculture that begets them—are at once better for people and for the planet turn out to be largely devoid of experimental support. Worse still, “organophilia” tends to go hand-in-hand with technophobic skepticism towards the very sorts of scientific approaches most likely to supercharge an ailing food system while leaving our planet intact.

No one can argue with the merits of paying more heed to where our suppers come from. At its best, the organic movement is about reacquainting ourselves with the origins of food—appreciating that chicken is an animal and not just a shrink-wrapped package in the refrigerator case. It’s also a reaction to an industry that has, under the banner of “food science,” swung in a silly direction: Note the rise of squeezable tubes of Go-Gurt; granola bars souped up with soy protein, omega-3’s, vitamin D, and zinc; and perhaps most oddly, Splenda’s new fiber-infused incarnation. At the prices these products command, it’s perhaps not surprising that companies would be so eager to concoct them.

But do we really need to get our roughage in our coffee or all four food groups plus a multivitamin in a snack ostensibly made of honey and oats? Michael Pollan’s response, elaborated in his 2008 book, In Defense of Food, is a resounding “no.” “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” he offers instead—a simple mantra that simultaneously disqualifies products like Splenda with fiber and obviates the need for them in the first place. 

Farm Fresh Fetish

Unfortunately, what may have begun as a revolt against fake food or, for many, the horrors of concentrated animal feed lots, has given way to a culture that increasingly fetishizes organic, natural, and whole foods with little agreement on what such terms even mean, outside of an emphatic devotion to what they are not: They aren’t in any way related to industrial-scale farms or big-box grocery chains; chemical herbicides or pesticides; biotechnology or its subgenre, genetic engineering. And by those criteria, they are deemed to be safer, more nutritious, and less damaging to the environment.

Closer scrutiny of these assumptions, however, reveals little to back them up. As Michael Specter points out in his forthcoming book, Denialism, mercury, lead, and asbestos are “natural” too, as are E. coli and salmonella. In 2009, a salmonella outbreak killed nine people, sickened hundreds, and triggered the largest food recall in US history. Meanwhile, genetically engineered products, despite having been on the market for more than 13 years, haven’t sickened anyone, Specter says.

Nutritionally, there is no clear evidence that organic foods trump conventional ones. In one recent study, researchers funded by Denmark’s International Center for Research in Organic Food Systems compared kale, peas, potatoes, and apples grown organically with those grown according to conventional guidelines. They also fed both organic and conventional produce to rats for two years. “Overall, there was no evident trend towards differences in element content of foodstuffs or diets due to the use of different cultivation systems,” they concluded in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. Neither the veggies, nor the rats nourished on them, turned out to be anything other than ordinary.

As for sizing up ecological footprints, the number of conflicting studies is dizzying, but organic farming tends to earn a slight edge over chemical-intensive conventional practices, primarily because it uses fewer pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers. Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel, for example, has shown that crops of organically grown soybeans and corn produced the same yield but used 30 percent less energy than their conventionally grown counterparts. Scientists in Switzerland have found that cumulative energy inputs to organic farming are about half those of conventional farming and use 97 percent fewer pesticides—though yields are also dramatically lower.

Take into account the transit costs of food—“food miles”—however, and those eco-margins quickly evaporate. In 2005, researchers in the UK estimated the “environmental savings” of sourcing foods locally exceeded those of all-organic farming by roughly 2:1. That is, an organic Washington State apple trucked cross-country to a farmer’s market almost assuredly pumps more carbon into the atmosphere than a locally, conventionally grown Fuji purchased at a big-box grocery store.

Organic sources are often conflated with local ones, and with bucolic visions of small-scale farms and startup green businesses. Yet with the demand for natural foods soaring, Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Safeway, Stop & Shop, Kroger, and Publix are now leading the market with their own discount organic food lines. And giant food conglomerates like Kraft, Tyson, Pepsi, and Heinz have eagerly swallowed smaller organic ventures.

Disturbingly, the booming popularity of organics is coming precisely at a time when science must be leveraged to confront the truly Herculean task ahead: By 2050, the world’s population could swell to 9.1 billion from the current 6.8 billion. As incomes rise across parts of the developing world, people are consuming more grain-intensive meat; as a result, food demand is actually outpacing population growth: Experts anticipate that in the next two decades, global food production will need to rise by roughly 50 percent. Meanwhile, shrinking amounts of arable land and extreme weather associated with climate change are poised to make agricultural yields plummet: Multiple studies suggest yields for various staple crops could plunge by 20 to 30 percent by mid-century.

In short, from an ever-smaller parcel of land, amidst hotter and drier conditions, we must somehow eke out nearly twice as much food as today.

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