WHOLE TRUTH about....ORGANIC #5
WHOLE TRUTH about.....
By Michael Pollen
MY ORGANIC INDUSTRIAL MEAL
My shopping foray to Whole Foods yielded all the ingredients for a comforting winter Sunday night dinner: roast chicken (Rosie) with roasted vegetables (yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash from Cal-Organics), steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad from Earthbound Farm. Dessert would be even simpler: organic ice cream from Stonyfield Farm topped with organic blackberries from Mexico.
On a hunch it probably wasn't quite ready for prime time (or at least for my wife), I served the Cascadian Farm organic TV dinner I'd bought to myself for lunch, right in its microwaveable plastic bowl. Five minutes on high and it was good to go. Peeling back the polyethylene film covering the dish, I felt a little like a flight attendant serving meals, and indeed the entree looked and tasted very much like airline food. The chunks of white meat chicken had been striped nicely with grill marks and impregnated with a salty marinade that gave the meat that slightly abstract chicken taste processed chicken often has, no doubt owing to the "natural chicken flavor" mentioned on the box's list of ingredients. The chicken chunks and allied vegetables (soft carrots, peas, green beans, and corn) were "blanketed in a creamy rosemary dill sauce"—a creaminess that had evidently been achieved synthetically, since no dairy products appeared among the ingredients. I'm betting it's the xanthan gum (or maybe the carrageenan?) that bears responsibility for the sauce's unfortunate viscosity. To be fair, one shouldn't compare an organic TV dinner to real food but to a conventional TV dinner, and by that standard (or at least my recollection of it) Cascadian Farm has nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering that an organic food scientist must work with only a tiny fraction of the synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, and flavor agents available to his colleagues at Swanson or Kraft.
Rosie and her consort of fresh vegetables fared much better at dinner, if I don't mind saying so myself. I roasted the bird in a pan surrounded by the potatoes and chunks of winter squash. After removing the chicken from the oven, I spread the crinkled leaves of kale on a cookie sheet, sprinkled them with olive oil and salt, and slid them into the hot oven to roast. After ten minutes or so, the kale was nicely crisped and the chicken was ready to carve.
All but one of the vegetables I served that night bore the label of Cal-Organic Farms, which, along with Earthbound, dominates the organic produce section in the supermarket. Cal-Organic is a big grower of organic vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley. As part of the consolidation of the organic industry, the company was acquired by Grimmway Farms, which already enjoyed a virtual monopoly in organic carrots. Unlike Earthbound, neither Grimmway nor Cal-Organic has ever been part of the organic movement. Both companies were started by conventional growers looking for a more profitable niche and worried that the state might ban certain key pesticides. "I'm not necessarily a fan of organic," a spokesman for Grimmway recently told an interviewer. "Right now I don't see that conventional farming does harm. Whether we stay with organic for the long haul depends on profitability." Philosophy, in other words, has nothing to do with it.
The combined company now controls seventeen thousand acres across California, enough land that it can, like Earthbound, rotate production up and down the West Coast (and south into Mexico) in order to ensure a twelve-month national supply of fresh organic produce, just as California's conventional growers have done for decades. It wasn't many years ago that organic produce had only a spotty presence in the supermarket, especially during the winter months. Today, thanks in large part to Grimmway and Earthbound, you can find pretty much everything, all year round.
Including asparagus in January, I discovered. This was the one vegetable I prepared that wasn't grown by Cal-Organic or Earthbound; it had been grown in Argentina and imported by a small San Francisco distributor. My plan had been a cozy winter dinner, but I couldn't resist the bundles of fresh asparagus on sale at Whole Foods, even though it set me back six dollars a pound. I had never tasted organic South American asparagus in January, and felt my foray into the organic empire demanded that I do. What better way to test the outer limits of the word "organic" than by dining on a springtime delicacy that had been grown according to organic rules on a farm six thousand miles (and two seasons) away, picked, packed, and chilled on Monday, flown by jet to Los Angeles Tuesday, trucked north to a Whole Foods regional distribution center, then put on sale in Berkeley by Thursday, to be steamed, by me, Sunday night?
The ethical implications of buying such a product are almost too numerous and knotty to sort out:There's the expense, there's the prodigious amounts of energy involved, the defiance of seasonality, and the whole question of whether the best soils in South America should be devoted to growing food for affluent and overfed North Americans. And yet you can also make a good argument that my purchase of organic asparagus from Argentina generates foreign exchange for a country desperately in need of it, and supports a level of care for that country's land—farming without pesticides or chemical fertilizer—it might not otherwise receive. Clearly my bunch of asparagus had delivered me deep into the thicket of trade-offs that a global organic marketplace entails.
Okay, but how did it taste?
My jet-setting Argentine asparagus tasted like damp cardboard. After the first spear or two no one touched it. Perhaps if it had been sweeter and tenderer we would have finished it, but I suspect the fact that asparagus was out of place in a winter supper made it even less appetizing. Asparagus is one of a dwindling number of foods still firmly linked in our minds to the seasonal calendar. All the other vegetables and greens were much tastier—really good, in fact. Whether they would have been quite so sweet and bright after a cross-country truck ride is doubtful, though the Earthbound greens, in their polyethylene bag, stayed crisp right up to the expiration date, a full eighteen days after leaving the field—no small technological feat. The inert gases, scrupulous cold chain and space-age plastic bag (which allows the leaves to respire just enough) account for much of this longevity, but some of it, as the Goodmans had explained to me, owes to the fact that the greens were grown organically. Since they're not pumped up on synthetic nitrogen, the cells of these slower-growing leaves develop thicker walls and take up less water, making them more durable. And, I'm convinced, tastier, too. When I visited Greenways Organic, which grows both conventional and organic tomatoes, I learned that the organic ones consistendy earn higher Brix scores (a measure of sugars) than the same varieties grown conventionally. More sugars means less water and more flavor. It stands to reason the same would hold true for other organic vegetables: slower growth, thicker cell walls, and less water should produce more concentrated flavors. That at least has always been my impression, though in the end freshness probably affects flavor even more than growing method.
To serve such a scrupulously organic meal begs an unavoidable question: Is organic food better? Is it worth the extra cost? My Whole Foods dinner certainly wasn't cheap, considering I made it from scratch: Rosie cost $15 ($2.99 a pound), the vegetables another $12 (thanks to that six-buck bunch of asparagus), and the dessert $7 (including $3 for a six-ounce box of blackberries). Thirty-four dollars to feed a family of three at home. (Though we did make a second meal from the leftovers.) Whether organic is better and worth it are certainly fair, straightforward questions, but the answers, I've discovered, are anything but simple. [remember this was written in 2006 - Keith Hunt].
Better for what? is the all-important corollary to that question. If the answer is "taste," then the answer is, as I've suggested, very likely, at least in the case of produce—but not necessarily. Freshly picked conventional produce is bound to taste better than organic produce that's been riding the interstates in a truck for three days. Meat is a harder call. Rosie was a tasty bird, yet, truth be told, not quite as tasty as Rocky, her bigger nonorganic brother. That's probably because Rocky is an older chicken, and older chickens generally have more flavor. The fact that the corn and soybeans in Rosie's diet were grown without chemicals probably doesn't change the taste of her meat. Though it should be said that Rocky and Rosie both taste more like chicken than mass-market birds fed on a diet of antibiotics and animal by-products, which makes for mushier and blander meat. What's in an animal's feed naturally affects how it will taste, though whether that feed is organic or not probably makes no difference.
Better for what? If the answer is "for my health" the answer, again, is probably—but not automatically. I happen to believe the organic dinner I served my family is healthier than a meal of the same foods conventionally produced, but I'd be hard-pressed to prove it scientifically. What I could prove, with the help of a mass spectrometer, is that it contained little or no pesticide residue—the traces of the carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors now routinely found in conventional produce and meat. What I probably can't prove is that the low levels of these toxins present in these foods will make us sick—give us cancer, say, or interfere with my son's neurological or sexual development. But that does not mean those poisons are not making us sick: Remarkably little research has been done to assess the effects of regular exposure to the levels of organophosphate pesticide or growth hormone that the government deems "tolerable" in our foods. (One problem with these official tolerances is that they don't adequately account for children's exposure to pesticides, which, because of children's size and eating habits, is much greater than adults). Given what we do know about exposure to endocrine disruptors, the biological impact of which depends less on dose than timing, minimizing a child's exposure to these chemicals seems like a prudent idea. I very much like the fact that the milk in the ice cream I served came from cows that did not receive injections of growth hormone to boost their productivity, or that the corn those cows are fed, like the corn that feeds Rosie, contains no residues of atrazine, the herbicide commonly sprayed on American cornfields. Exposure to vanishingly small amounts (0.1 part per billion) of this herbicide has been shown to turn normal male frogs into hermaphrodites. Frogs are not boys, of course. So I can wait for that science to be done, or for our government to ban atrazine (as European governments have done), or I can act now on the presumption that food from which this chemical is absent is better for my son's health than food that contains it.
Of course, the healthfulness of a food is not simply a question of its toxicity; we have also to consider its nutritional quality. Is there any reason to think my Whole Foods meal is any more nutritious than the same meal prepared with conventionally grown ingredients?
Over the years there have been sporadic efforts to demonstrate the nutritional superiority of organic produce, but most have foundered on the difficulty of isolating the great many variables that can affect the nutritional quality of a carrot or a potato—climate, soils, geography, freshness, farming practices, genetics, and so on. Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there's good reason to believe this isn't really true. But in an agricultural system dedicated to quantity rather than quality, the fiction that all foods are created equal is essential. This is why, in inaugurating the federal organic program in 2000, the secretary of agriculture went out of his way to say that organic food is no better than conventional food.
"The organic label is a marketing tool," Secretary Glickman said. "It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality."
Some intriguing recent research suggests otherwise. A study by University of California—Davis researchers published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2003 described an experiment in which identical varieties of corn, strawberries, and blackberries grown in neighboring plots using different methods (including organically and conventionally) were compared for levels of vitamins and polyphenols. Polyphenols are a group of secondary metabolites manufactured by plants that we've recently learned play an important role in human health and nutrition. Many are potent antioxidants; some play a role in preventing or fighting cancer; others exhibit antimicrobial properties. The Davis researchers found that organic and otherwise sustainably grown fruits and vegetables contained significandy higher levels of both ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and a wide range of polyphenols.
The recent discovery of these secondary metabolites in plants has brought our understanding of the biological and chemical complexity of foods to a deeper level of refinement; history suggests we haven't gotten anywhere near the bottom of this question, either. The first level was reached early in the nineteenth century with the identification of the macronutrients—protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Having isolated these compounds, chemists thought they'd unlocked the key to human nutrition. Yet some people (such as sailors) living on diets rich in macronutrients nevertheless got sick. The mystery was solved when scientists discovered the major vitamins—a second key to human nutrition. Now it's the polyphenols in plants that we're learning play a critical role in keeping us healthy. (And which might explain why diets heavy in processed food fortified with vitamins still aren't as nutritious as fresh foods.) You wonder what else is going on in these plants, what other undiscovered qualities in them we've evolved to depend on.
In many ways the mysteries of nutrition at the eating end of the food chain closely mirror the mysteries of fertility at the growing end: The two realms are like wildernesses that we keep convincing ourselves our chemistry has mapped, at least until the next level of complexity comes into view. Curiously, Justus von Liebig, the nineteenth-century German chemist with the spectacularly ironic surname, bears responsibility for science's overly reductive understanding of both ends of the food chain. It was Liebig, you'll recall, who thought he had found the chemical key to soil fertility with the discovery of NPK, and it was the same Liebig who thought he had found the key to human nutrition when he identified the macronutrients in food. Liebig wasn't wrong on either count, yet in both instances he made the fatal mistake of thinking that what we knew about nourishing plants and people was all we needed to know to keep them healthy. It's a mistake we'll probably keep repeating until we develop a deeper respect for the complexity of food and soil and, perhaps, the links between the two.
But back to the polyphenols, which may hint at the nature of that link. Why in the world should organically grown blackberries or corn contain significantly more of these compounds? The authors of the Davis study haven't settled the question, but they offer two suggestive theories. The reason plants produce these compounds in the first place is to defend themselves against pests and diseases; the more pressure from pathogens, the more polyphenols a plant will produce. These compounds, then, are the products of natural selection and, more specifically, the coevolutionary relationship between plants and the species that prey on them. Who would have guessed that humans evolved to profit from a diet of these plant pesticides? Or that we would invent an agriculture that then deprived us of them? The Davis authors hypothesize that plants being defended by man-made pesticides don't need to work as hard to make their own polyphenol pesticides. Coddled by us and our chemicals, the plants see no reason to invest their resources in mounting a strong defense. (Sort of like European nations during the cold war.)
A second explanation (one that subsequent research seems to support) may be that the radically simplified soils in which chemically fertilized plants grow don't supply all the raw ingredients needed to synthesize these compounds, leaving the plants more vulnerable to attack, as we know conventionally grown plants tend to be. NPK might be sufficient for plant growth yet still might not give a plant everything it needs to manufacture ascorbic acid or lycopene or resveratrol in quantity. As it happens, many of the polyphenols (and especially a subset called the flavonols) contribute to the characteristic taste of a fruit or vegetable. Qualities we can't yet identify in soil may contribute qualities we've only just begun to identify in our foods and our bodies.
Reading the Davis study I couldn't help thinking about the early proponents of organic agriculture, people like Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale, who would have been cheered, if unsurprised, by the findings. Both men were ridiculed for their unscientific conviction that a reductive approach to soil fertility—the NPK mentality—would diminish the nutritional quality of the food grown in it and, in turn, the health of the people who lived on that food.
All carrots are not created equal, they believed; how we grow it, the soil we grow it in, what we feed that soil all contribute qualities to a carrot, qualities that may yet escape the explanatory net of our chemistry. Sooner or later the soil scientists and nutritionists will catch up to Sir Howard, heed his admonition that we begin "treating the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject."
So it happens that these organic blackberries perched on this mound of vanilla ice cream, having been grown in a complexly fertile soil and forced to fight their own fights against pests and disease, are in some quantifiable way more nutritious than conventional blackberries. This would probably not come as earthshaking news to Albert Howard or J. I. Rodale or any number of organic farmers, but at least now it is a claim for which we can supply a scientific citation: J. Agric. Food. Chan. vol. 51, no. 5, 2003. (Several other such studies have appeared since; see the Sources section at the back of this book.)
Obviously there is much more to be learned about the relationship of soil to plants, animals, and health, and it would be a mistake to lean too heavily on any one study. It would also be a mistake to assume that the word "organic" on a label automatically signifies healthfulness, especially when that label appears on heavily processed and long-distance foods that have probably had much of their nutritional value, not to mention flavor, beaten out of them long before they arrive on our tables.
The better for what? Question about my organic meal can of course be answered in a much less selfish way: Is it better for the environment? Better for the farmers who grew it? Better for the public health? For the taxpayer? The answer to all three questions is an (almost) unqualified yes. To grow the plants and animals that made up my meal, no pesticides found their way into any farmworker's bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written. If the high price of my all-organic meal is weighed against the comparatively low price it exacted from the larger world, as it should be, it begins to look, at least in karmic terms, like a real bargain.
And yet, and yet... an industrial organic meal such as mine does leave deep footprints on our world. The lot of the workers who harvested the vegetables and gathered up Rosie for slaughter is not appreciably different from that of those on nonorganic factory farms. The chickens lived only marginally better lives than their conventional counterparts; in the end a CAFO is a CAFO, whether the food served in it is organic or not. As for the cows that produced the milk in our ice cream, they may well have spent time outdoors in an actual pasture (Stonyfield Farm buys most—though not all—of its milk from small dairy farmers), but the organic label guarantees no such thing. And while the organic farms I visited don't receive direct government payments, they do receive other subsidies from taxpayers, notably subsidized water and electricity in California. The two-hundred-thousand-square-foot refrigerated processing plant where my salad was washed pays half as much for its electricity as it would were Sarthbound not classified as a "farm enterprise."
But perhaps most discouraging of all, my industrial organic meal is nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as its conventional counterpart. Asparagus traveling in a 747 from Argentina; blackberries trucked up from Mexico; a salad chilled to thirty-six degrees from the moment it was picked in Arizona (where Earthbound moves its entire operation every winter) to the moment I walk it out the doors of my Whole Foods. The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate. And while it is true that organic farmers don't spread fertilizers made from natural gas or spray pesticides made from petroleum, industrial organic farmers often wind up burning more diesel fuel than their conventional counterparts: in trucking bulky loads of compost across the countryside and weeding their fields, a particularly energy-intensive process involving extra irrigation (to germinate the weeds before planting) and extra cultivation. All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally, according to David Pimentel, though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site or nearby.
Yet growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there's little reason to think my Casca-dian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.
Well, at least we didn't eat it in the car.
So is an industrial organic food chain finally a contradiction in terms? It's hard to escape the conclusion that it is. Of course it is possible to live with contradictions, at least for a time, and sometimes it is necessary or worthwhile. But we ought at least face up to the cost of our compromises.
The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an ecosystem that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun. To feed ourselves otherwise was "unsustainable," a word that's been so abused we're apt to forget what it very specifically means: Sooner or later it must collapse. To a remarkable extent, farmers succeeded in creating the new food chain on their farms; the trouble began when they encountered the expectations of the supermarket. As in so many other realms, nature's logic has proven no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given. And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable, and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.
SO AFTER READING ALL 5 SECTIONS TO THE WHOLE TRUTH ABOUT "ORGANIC" WHAT ARE WE TO DO?
FEW OF US ARE IN THE POSITION OF TRULY BEING FULLY ORGANIC - LAND ENOUGH TO HAVE YOUR OWN VEGIE GARDEN, YOUR OWN MILKING COW, YOUR OWN BEEF AND/OR SHEEP ANIMALS TO EAT, YOUR OWN TRULY FREE-RANGE CHICKENS TO LAY EGGS AND TO EVENTUALLY EAT SOME OF THEM. YOUR OWN TURKEYS TO EAT, AND BE ALSO IN AN EREA WHERE YOU CAN HAVE YOUR OWN FRUIT TREES.
SO WHAT DO WE DO? WHAT HAVE I DONE IN MY 71 YEARS OF LIFE? WELL TRUTH IS I'VE BEEN PERHAPS 50 PERCENT ORGANIC EATING. A FEW TIMES BECAUSE OF WHERE I WAS LIVING WITH ORGANIC FARMERS AND SMALL RANCHERS [WITH MILKING COWS AND COWS, SHEEP, TURKEYS, CHICKENS (LAYING EGGS) TO EAT, AND ORGANIC ORCHARDS, AROUND ME, I WAS WAY MORE THAN 50 PERCENT ORGANIC.
IF WE HAVE SUCH ORGANIC FARMERS, RANCHERS, ORCHARDS, AROUND US, THEN YES, IF WE CAN BUY FROM THEM.
THERE ARE THE VERY GROWING IN POPULARITY, THE LOCAL "FARMER'S MARKETS." WE CAN FIND OUT WHO AMONG THEM IS ORGANIC, AND BUY FROM THEM.
IF WE HAVE A BACK YARD, WE CAN GROW OUR OWN VEGIES. I WELL REMEMBER AS A 3, 4, AND 5 YEAR OLD LIVING WITH MY MOM AT HER MOTHER'S HOUSE DURING WW2, AND GOING INTO HER GARDEN TO EAT PEAS RIGHT OFF THE VINE, AND DIGGING UP A CARROT.....THE TASTE WAS DIVINE.
WE CAN IF IN THE URBAN ENVIRONMENT, BECOME AN "URBAN GARDENER" - SEE THE RECENT POST ON THAT SUBJECT FROM DR. MERCOLA.
SO WE CAN DO CERTAIN THINGS IN OUR SITUATIONS OF LIFE AND LIVING. BUT AS I'VE SAID, IN THE OVERALL OF MY LIFE I'VE PROBABLY BEEN ONLY A 50 PERCENT ORGANIC EATER. IN MY YOUNGER DAYS [FROM TEENAGE TO ABOUT 40] I DID TAKE "BEE POLLEN" ON A REGULAR BASIS [ONE OF THE MOST COMPLETE FOODS ON EARTH]. AFTER AGE 40 [WHEN MY METABOLISM CHANGED] AND I COULD NOT EAT ANYWHERE LIKE BEFORE TO KEEP MY WEIGHT UNDER CONTROL, I'VE TAKEN AND DO TAKE MANY VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS.
HEALTH IS MORE THAN JUST "EATING" FOODS - THERE ARE MANY HEALTH LAWS YOU MUST FOLLOW TO BE HEALTHY AND STRONG, AND YOUTHFUL EVEN IN YOUR OLD AGE.
I'VE BROUGHT YOU THOSE OTHER HEALTH RULES IN OTHER POSTS ON THIS BLOG AND ON MY WEBSITE UNDER "HEALTH AND DIET."
YOU CAN GO ON MY FACE-BOOK AND SEE ME AT AGE 71. PEOPLE THINK BY THE WAY I LOOK AND ACT [THE WAY I RIDE MY HORSE] THAT I'M 20 YEARS YOUNGER THAN WHAT MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE SAYS.
YES, THERE ARE MANY THINGS INVOLVED IN BEING STRONG AND HEALTHY ALL YOUR LIFE OTHER THAN "ORGANIC."
BEING FULLY ORGANIC EVEN ON YOUR OWN LAND, BUT BREAKING THE OTHER LAWS OF HEALTH, WILL NOT MAKE YOU STRONG AND HEALTHY AT ANY AGE OF YOUR LIFE, AND ESPECIALLY AS YOU AGE AND PASS THE 60 YEAR MARK.
A WORD TO THE WISE, FROM SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN THERE AND IS THERE.