What strikes me about this debate is that the tone here is as bitterly partisan as anything that's happening in Washington... And I'm curious about why -- we're talking about food.
Did you know that back in the olden days (say Abe Lincoln's time), people considered political speeches and debates entertainment? Families would pack up a picnic and go watch a speech for hours. They loved it - the longer the better. As a kid, I found that amazing- I could hardly imagine anything more tedious. Then my friend Bill sent me some info on an Intelligence Squared debate on organic food. I'd always avoided debates, but I had to check it out. Tickets were $40 - what the heck? Who would pay $$$ for an old-fashioned debate?! Somehow I got in through a press pass (go Mindful Eats!), and you know what? It was awesome - passionate, funny and informative. I'm going to listen to those intelligence2 debates from now on (they're on NPR, Podcasts, pretty much all medium), they totally feed your brain.
The way the debate works is that there's a resolution, and a panel of experts for the resolution and against. The audience votes for, against or neutral at the beginning, then they do it again after the debate. The side that gets the most switchers wins. The resolution of this debate was "Organic food is marketing hype." Naturally, I voted for the organic debaters, but Dear Reader, I voted the opposite side by the end. The debate was entertaining, informative and hateful - each side could not stand the other. Even ABC News Moderator John Donvon said he hadn't moderated such a nasty debate.
I'd always wanted to know what conventional food people argued since it seems obvious that organic is better if you can do it. The panel of experts was fascinating:
For Conventional Farming: Dennis Avery, Director of Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues; Blake Hurst, soybean farmer and writer; John Krebs, former chair of the UK Food Standards Agency (that released the supercontroversial report that organic food is not more nutritious). All these guys were very well spoken, especially Krebs.
For Organic Farming: Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue food writer and Iron Chef judge; Urvashi Rangan, Consumer Reports Director of Technical Policy; Charles Benbrook, Head Scientist of The Organic Center. Rangan and Benbrook were good - Steingarten seemed drunk.
So what are the benefits of conventional food? In general, the conventional panel was more global in their outlook and the organic panel was more local. Here's what the conventional panel said:
- Conventional farming is more environmental. (Shocking!) Conventional farming increases the yield of land, and as the world population increases and grows more affluent, the only way to feed everyone is to increase the amount of food we grow on farmland - otherwise we will have to cut down all the rainforests and parks for farms (and then some).
- Conventional food is just as nutritious and less expensive. There have been no definitive studies that show organic food is more nutritious, so growing it that way is a waste of effort.
- The amount of pesticides and chemicals in conventional food is marginal. If you ate conventional food for a year, you would consume less carcinogens than in a cup of coffee.
And the organic side? Organic production is only 3% of America's food, but it's got a big bark.
- Organic farming is more environmental. It's sustainable - the soil is not being bombed with chemicals and worn out.
- Animals aren't abused and are much healthier. They can perform natural activities (like walking) since they aren't penned with thousands of other animals where they are too smushed to move. They also eat natural foods (no poop or ground up animal parts in feed).
- It's better to eat food without any chemicals, even it it's a tiny amount.
One person asked if an apple could be tested to determine whether or not it was organic.
The answer (from the organic side) was NO. If there isn't any detectible pesticide residue, then you can't tell if food's been grown organically or conventionally. The labels organic and conventional are about production methods, not food. Which is why I switched sides - I'm not convinced that the USFDA is currently able to test and reinforce the organic label. That's why it's best to get to know your local food growers - you can just ask them at the farmer's market.
The conventional side painted organic supporters as elitists that are unconcerned with poverty and feeding the world, and the organic side labeled conventional supporters as big industrial companies that steamroll everything in search of a profit. Moderator Donvon kept mentioning how partisan each side was (and he'd moderated debates on torture and paying for sex). It's pretty clear that we will have both conventional and organic growing methods for as long as you and I are here - why don't they just learn from each other? It's all food, people. Eat it whole (but not too much).
I went to dinner after the debate with a few passionate NY sustainaistas (Frankies 457 - yum). One of them was local farmer Dean Sparks from nymilk, and when I told him about the debate, he nodded wisely at the global issues and said "Look, I can't feed the world. I just want to feed good food to my family and friends and people around me, and help save some farms in upstate." We drank to that.
Bottom Line - my takeaway from the debate was that the healthiest thing to do is eat whole foods. That is the most important thing, and you are doing great for you and your loved ones by doing that. If you can afford to go organic, do so. If not, it doesn't matter.
What to do - Eat Whole Foods
- Buy and prepare unprocessed food, whether it's conventional or organic, frozen or fresh. Unprocessed is best. You are doing awesome things for you and your family with this alone.
- If you can allocate a small amount toward organic food, focus on organic meat and dairy as these have a high concentration of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.
- If your budget allows for more organics and you are concerned about pesticides, focus on purchasing organic versions of the dirty dozen and conventional versions of the clean 15. Organic produce may spoil faster since it isn't pumped full of preservatives so you may want to use it more quickly.
- If you want to limit the environmental impact of your food, you are awesome. Buy organic or local. Organic and local is best, but it's not always possible, so think about the environmental toll of shipping (scale of volume, distance, etc).
- Talk to the growers at your local greenmarket. Just because it's not labeled organic doesn't mean the grower isn't using great farming practices.
- Grow some of your own food. Do a little research and find out what's easy in your area. For example, zucchini and tomatoes are easy in the Northeast. Even the Obamas are planting a garden on the White House Lawn!
For posts on sustainable, organic, local and ethical food, go to Food Renegade.
What I ate: Fage yogurt + ground flax seeds + Sarabeth jam, macadamia nuts, cafe au lait, 5 squares dark chocolate, whole wheat spaghetti + Rao's Siciliana sauce + flax seeds + sauteed swiss chard, 1 apple, 1 avocado, almonds, quinoa, sauteed tofu + shiitake mushrooms + bok choy + yeast , cheddar cheese, hot chocolate, 40 oz. water
Exercise: 75 min yoga + 15 min meditation