8.21.2015

So, like, only carbon-based compounds then?
Food Issues Book Club - The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 14

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 14: Going Organic

Dearest Peter and Jim,

Hello old friends!  I want to talk to you today about one of those buzzwords in food that we just can't seem to get enough of: ORGANIC.  Hey, look, it's not my fault.  Y'all started it, in the fourteenth chapter of The Ethics of What We Eat, which is aptly named Going Organic.

I recently wrote on an essay by Wendell Berry discussing the roots of the "organic movement."  According to him, a rather idealistic version of farming has been quite simplified from its original intentions.  Your chapter touches on why.  As you discuss, The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements has defined "organic" as follows:
Organic agriculture is an agricultural system that promotes environmentally, socially, and economically sound production of food, fiber, timber, etc.  In this system, soil fertility is seen as the key to successful production.  Working with the natural properties of plants, animals, and the landscape, organic farmers aim to optimize quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment.
What a beautiful dream!   As you quickly note, though, such a system does not "lend itself to being reduced to a label that can be put on products to show they were produced organically."  Nor does it allow for a list of boxes to check off to meet a government standard.  How would a USDA agent quantify the optimization of quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment during a site visit?

The drive for a unified standard is, then, what ultimately brought us where we are today: "organic" means little more than crops grown without the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals, and that livestock were given organic feed and not treated with antibiotics or hormones.  Importantly, there are few parameters associated with the conditions in which organically produced animals live.

Organic also of course means that there can be no genetically modified organisms involved.  You speak extensively of this topic, but I said all I can bear to say on the subject of GMOs a while back.  For real, I just can't even.  We seem to see fairly eye to eye on the subject, at least.

From Chipotle.com.  Neat right?

For a span of several-to-many pages, you discuss possible motivations for eating organic.  The first one you list is, of course, health.  Though there is some evidence that there are lower levels of pesticides in organic foods, I don't personally find this a compelling reason to spend the extra money on organics.  Many people do, though, and I'm glad for it.  It makes sense - people are fundamentally selfish creatures.  Appealing to the personal impacts of an issue is often the best way to get the masses on board.

Next you discuss the environment, and this topic even gets several sub-headings.  I agree with every point you make: soil quality, biodiversity, synthetic chemical run-off, energy use, and carbon footprint are all improved in organic agriculture when compared to "conventional" (industrial) practices, even if organic agriculture is still far from perfect.

I am quite surprised, though, that you barely touch on the number one reason that I purchase organic food: the workers.  While the other conditions in which agricultural workers toil to plant and harvest the crops that I eat may be horrendous, by buying organic at least I know that they are not being exposed to toxic synthetic agricultural chemicals to put food on my table.  Given that I can afford to eat primarily organic food, buying organic is the very least I can do.  The positive effects on health and environment are also, of course, bonuses.

I love that you mention Julie Guthman, a person whose thoughts and writing positively blew my mind in April.  She discusses organics in her book Weighing In by noting their connection with healthism and, particularly, with the desire to be thin.

On a final note, you mention that farmers dedicated to organic production fear that "corporations will steadily undermine the true philosophy of the movement in order to increase the profitability of organic food."  Well friends, this summer Costco was set to surpass Whole Foods in organic food sales - and Walmart is a major player.  Are you scared yet?

hearts,
mb


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