Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Case for National Organic Conversion

This week, the organic movement got some much-deserved media attention, primarily due to two bits of news: lettuce has been recalled due to contamination with e. coli, and the President's Cancer Panel issued a report advising the government to steer Americans away from chemical use. The latter news bite was discussed in a thoughtful op-ed piece by organic/sustainability/health advocate, Nicholas Kristof, of the NY Times. Will we now have the collective chutzpah to do something about the state of our food system in this country? And do we, in fact, know what to do?

Certainly, this is not the first time that nasty bacteria, like e. coli, has found its way into our food supply. These incidents are increasing in frequency and happening several times a year now. What follows after such an episode is that people hoot and holler about how screwed up food regulation is in this country, they avoid the latest infected product, they rely even more heavily on processed foods, and then they forget it ever happened. At the rate we're going, in a decade or two there will be nothing fresh left to eat and we'll all be reduced to consuming chemical compounds so far removed from the earth and the sun as to be completely unrecognizable as food. Some might say we're there already (think Twinkie!).

This is also not the first time that it has been brought to light that chemicals are not good for us. After all, such forward-thinking countries as Canada, Denmark and Belgium banned BPA (Bisphenol A) from baby bottles two years ago. There are numerous products on the market that boast that they contain no BPA, phthalates, or parabens, all endocrine disruptors, all having the potential to cause cancer, abnormal reproductive development or function, among other health concerns. Chlorine, one of the most widely used chemicals, is also one of the most volatile and dangerous to our environment, most notably our water supply, and this has been known for decades! The petrochemicals and nitrates contained in synthetic fertilizers, as well as the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to grow conventional produce all absorb into our food, drain into our drinking water, and deplete the soil of nutrients so that every successive harvest affords fewer and fewer nutrients to consumers. That chemicals are now being recognized as cancer-causing is no shocking headline. So, why are we still using these things?

Although a small portion of the population has come to recognize that the food Americans eat is killing them, an even smaller group of people has decided to do something about it. Our complacency has got to stop! If the government recommended to the American public that they eat organic foods, as is suggested by the Cancer Panel, that would be a step in the right direction ... maybe. Here are my concerns:

- Suggesting to the American public that they steer clear of conventional foods will cause serious problems with the food system. There are far too few organic farms to support mass conversion to organic, and it takes three years for a conventional farm to transition to organic. Conventional farmers also don't know anything about organic farming, and educating all of them is a serious undertaking! Perhaps the way to go is through legislation. Just as the government created the mess we're in by subsidizing corn and soy, they can get us out of it by stopping those subsidies and incentivizing farmers to grow organic, polycultural crops and livestock. They can offer free education and support to them. When there is more organic food available, the cost will drop and it will become affordable to many more people.

- There are substances that are deemed illegal in this country (some that are far less dangerous than the chemicals that we consume daily). Why not simply make the chemicals that conventional farmers use illegal? Why allow the uneducated and the poor to kill themselves, while saving the wealthy and educated, who can afford organic food?

- Eating organic foods certainly helps with regard to getting the chemicals out of our environment and our bodies, but it's actually not at all helpful in reducing the risk of widespread bacterial contamination. Organic foods are just as susceptible to contamination as conventional foods. To reduce the risk of contamination, we need to do exactly the opposite of what the government is considering - we need to DE-centralize our food system. Although centralization is what makes food easier to monitor, it is also what causes the spread of disease. If food was processed in small facilities and in small batches all around the country, contamination would be limited to local, regional supplies, and not to multiple states. For the same reason, livestock should not be slaughtered and processed in large, centralized facilities. One sick cow could contaminate every McDonalds in the country!

- While the government is telling people what to eat, they ought to also encourage people to eat local. This is not just a matter of community support and loving thy neighbor. Eating local significantly reduces the likelihood of consuming bacteria-contaminated foods, as long as they are locally processed (or unprocessed), as well. It also increasing the nutrient content of food, because the food is fewer days away from harvest. Eating local also increases the likelihood of eating fresh, unprocessed foods, and skipping the junk which is making us so fat in this country. These are the benefits to individual health. There are also numerous environmental, financial, and even social benefits to eating locally. The government can do more than suggest that consumers buy local foods; they can harness the creative marketing energies of supermarket chains by incentivizing grocery stores to carry local goods (say, if you show that 30% of your products (or more) are sourced within a 100 mile radius, you get a tax break).

I think it's great that organic food is getting more and more attention these days. I only hope that the organic movement doesn't become diluted by the sheer numbers of joiners, and I hope that we lead this wave (rather than follow it) with purpose and care.

No comments: