Is organic really better than artificial?

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September 4, 2007

10:35 AM

Living in Geneva this semester has already brought its fair share of excitement, not the least of which has been grocery shopping. On a continent where Monsanto, genetic tinkerer extraordinaire, is about as popular as Stalin, the food selection is, in a word, curious.

p. Take, for example, the yogurt which is born of processed, pasteurized, organic milk, then is bacteria-fortified and vitamin-enriched — yet the biggest question this raises among consumers is whether to buy the mocha flavor or the one with fruit chunks. Then again, the mocha is on sale this week.

p. Back in the States, we, too, have a growing obsession with organic food. The Federal Trade Commission’s controversial decision to hold up organic grocer Whole Food’s takeover of rival Wild Oats shows its concerns about maintaining competition in this burgeoning industry. But like the Swiss yogurt, organic food is awash in irony.

p. Consider that most environmental types exhort us to believe organic foods are somehow better for us because they’re grown “naturally.” Of course, “naturally” is much more a question of degree — at what point did food production cease to be natural? At the dawn of agriculture? With the introduction of fertilizers? Last Tuesday? At any rate, the farm field is a decidedly synthetic environment, and yet that’s where most organic food is being grown. But let’s not be too critical. Maybe being organic just requires a certain level of natural-“ness,” if you will.

p. And indeed it does. Its regulations are all qualified and quantified in a 554-page tome from the United States Department of Agriculture. However, the layman’s consensus on organic products seems to be “if it’s man-made or genetically modified, it’s not gonna fly,” thus implying all agricultural advances until the 1950s weren’t unnatural in the least.

p. Regardless of intention, these restrictions come at a cost to both the consumer and the environment. While regular farmers are utilizing all sorts of fertilizers and pesticides, their organic counterparts are left piling on the manure and hoping there won’t be a plague of locusts anytime soon. The problem, as you might imagine, is that organic techniques aren’t quite as effective, making it so that more farmland is required to grow the same amount of food.

p. There’s no doubt our artificial additives are hurting the environment, but the jury’s out on whether they’re worse than clearing a forest to put in some more organic soybeans. Whatever you’re disposed to think, it might be wise to consider the plight of millions of starving Africans who are cultivating their crops organically, but not by choice. Recent research has suggested fertilizing their continent would end its hunger problems.

p. But organic advocates seem to be banking on the fact that organic food would be better for people if not for the environment, a strange decision given government agencies from around the world (yes, even in France) have failed to find any nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown foods.

p. Still, there’s a contingent with some inchoate fears that trace amounts of pesticides and herbicides are killing our kids on the sly, but it sounds a little too much like the fluoridated water conspiracies for my tastes. And anyway, the air we’re breathing right now should probably have us more worried.

p. If going organic is the best way to raise plants and animals, then why not do the same for people? These days we’re loading ourselves with caffeine, drugs and all manner of medicines. If man-made additives are ruining what we eat, then maybe they’re ruining us, too.

p. Neither heart medicine nor Uncle Ned’s Viagra is very natural, so let’s turn back the clock 10,000 years and dispense with that pharmaceutical bunk. It’s not like anyone really thinks life after the mid-30’s is terribly exciting, right? Now if you’ll excuse me, my shark fin soup’s calling. I hear it’s an aphrodisiac.

p. __Andrew Peters is a junior at the College.__

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