Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of articles and blog posts questioning whether organic food is really worth the generally higher cost of the products to the consumer, i.e. whether organic food offers significant health benefits for the person eating it that justify spending more.
The question itself represents part of what I consider our limited perspective when it comes to food production.
Farmers market in France – a single table with 15 tomato varieties (plus a couple of eggplant varieties) from a single organic farmer.
All photos: PKR
Food production in all its forms is one of humanity’s key points of influence on our environment. Everything about food production, from land and water use, to the plants and animals we domesticate and cultivate, to the plants, animals and insects we suppress as pests, has a major impact on our surroundings.
We discovered planned agriculture around 10000 years ago, and we’ve been using pesticides in one form or another for over 4500 years. Early pesticides came in the form of using smoke to try and drive away insects, blight and mildew, or sea water to kill weeds.
Mercury, arsenic and lead were introduced in the 15th century, while the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium have been used in powdered form for two millennia.
But pesticide use as we understand it today – the industrial-scale production and use of synthetic pesticides – is really a product of the post-1940s era when DDT and a host of other chemical compounds were developed and manufactured on a large scale.
Yields rose, prices went down, and the new pesticides seemed safer for humans than older ones like arsenic.
Until it turned out that some of the new products had a number of wide-ranging and unanticipated effects on the environment and wildlife. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused attention on this.
In response to increased evidence of the impact of these products on wildlife and humans, more refined pesticides were developed, as well as plants which are genetically modified to resist pests.
Most of these newer products are currently considered safe for human consumption and for the environment – but then, so was DDT back in the 1940s and 1950s.
Some pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are suspected of negatively impacting important pollinators around the world, foremost among them honey bees.
And then there’s the issue of pesticides being combined, or misused, with as yet unknown effects.
Broadly speaking, the focus of industrial farming is to produce more food from any given amount of land. Pesticide use, monocrop farming and less produce diversity, GMO development – all target increased agricultural yields, as well as profitability for the companies selling these products.
Broadly speaking, the idea behind organic food production is to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity while avoiding all use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and to do so in a manner that is sustainable and perhaps profitable.
The focus is on the impact of human food production on the surrounding environment, and on reducing any negative impact of synthetic or harmful products on land, plants and animal life – including humans.
Buying organic isn’t simply a choice between healthy and unhealthy produce for human consumption.
Plenty of conventionally grown foods are perfectly healthy to humans.
Some have almost no pesticide residue. Some – at least in the United States – have residue from up to 29 different pesticides.
Those pesticides, sprayed or added to wherever the produce was grown, eventually end up in the water systems, soil, or on the wind and carried to other plants and animals.
I have no problem with buying conventionally-grown produce, and I have no issue with buying organic.
Where I take issue is when the choice is portrayed purely in terms of cost-effectiveness and health benefits for the consumer.
We have so many choices available these days, and the choices we make matter.