The all natural, all organic, totally healthy blog post

Monday, 29 March 2010 01:04 by The Lunatic

I consider my family to be a fairly “healthy” eaters.  We consume a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and eat very little fast food (only a few times a year). My kids are never allowed to drink soda, except when they are at a party or some function where there are no alternatives.  We eat a lot of fish and pasta.  And although I love beef, lamb, pork, and chicken, we limit our portion sizes and try to stick to lower fat recipes.

However, I have mixed opinions about the “organic” food movement. I admit it’s important to openly discuss better/safer/healthier/environmentally friendly ways of feeding our growing population, and there are many organic products and processes I agree with wholeheartedly – but many of the organic guidelines are based on emotion rather than facts and real data.

The use of synthetic fertilizers, for example, is one of the hottest topics. I liken the use of fertilizers to indoor plumbing. In the 1800’s, many people thought that the idea of defecating inside your own home was disgusting and unsanitary. Early toilets and sinks routinely backed up and would make a big mess.  And most importantly, the pipes were initially made of lead – which leached into the water supply. But eventually, these problems were worked out, and no one in the world can deny the benefits of indoor plumbing today.

Instead of halting the use of synthetic fertilizers, as the organic community proposes, I think we need to admit that they have benefits – but continue to improve them and fix the problems.  In reality, “organic” farming methods are not always healthiest or the most environmentally friendly.  More water is required for organic farming, which means more runoff – and the runoff created from cow manure is just as harmful to lakes and streams as synthetic fertilizers. Since you can not grow nearly as many crops per acre of land using organic methods, you need more land – which means that more “natural” land and forests need to be destroyed to be used as farmland.

Admittedly, there are some lingering questions about the safety of fertilizer and pesticide residue in and on food. But every new generation of fertilizer is better than the last – the early products developed in the 1940’s were truly abysmal and highly poisonous, equivalent to using lead pipes for plumbing, but there have been continual improvements since then – especially over the last 15 years. New testing and detection techniques have been developed to measure residue. And because of this, we are gathering more reliable and realistic data. Not only does this help determine the current safety profile, it helps drive the development cycle to make the next generation of products safer, more effective, and more environmentally friendly. 

Similarly, pesticides have also gotten better as well, but the improvements haven’t been nearly as dramatic. Interestingly, pesticide usage has actually increased on organically grown crops over the past five to ten years (yes, organic farming does allow limited use of pesticides) and decreased slightly on conventional crops – partially due to the use of hybrid and GMO seeds which are more pest resistant.

I have mixed feelings about the use of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops as well.  Humanity has been “modifying” crops ever since someone discovered that you can take a branch of one type of apple tree and graft it onto the trunk of another type of apple tree, and get a hybrid apple that is better than either of the original varieties. Over hundreds of years, we’ve been able to breed sweeter, tastier, more colorful, more pest resistant plants of all types, which have longer growing seasons and which can grow in more regions of the world. Making these changes genetically just speeds the process up a little bit. Again, I agree that we need to be cautious about potential health and environmental aspects of such modifications, but no one can deny the benefits (higher yields, better flavor, less fertilizer and pesticides required, etc).  We really don’t have sufficient data to definitively state that GMO crops are less healthy than organic crops – but many people are against them because they are “unnatural”. As with synthetic fertilizer use, we should not ban GMO crops solely on this emotional response – a more prudent course of action would be to limit usage as we gather more long term data to find out if there really are health concerns, encourage research, and continually make improvements.

Other “organic” issues are more straightforward. The rampant use of hormones and antibiotics in chickens and livestock, for example, is abhorrent.  All the data we have says that this is a really BAD policy, for many reasons, yet we continue to allow producers to do this to our food supply.  I am far more concerned about hormones and antibiotics in my meat, milk, and poultry than I am about fertilizer residue on my vegetables.

Also, the way the large corporate producers treat animals is inhumane. To me, this is a huge issue. I recommend that everyone watch Food, Inc. – a very well done exposé  on corporate food production. It’s shocking, disgusting, and unfortunately all too true. I lived in Ecuador for two years, and I would say that the sanitary conditions at the local Ecuadorian butcher shops (which are quite the sensory experience) are probably better than the meat processing factories in the US. And since they are usually only butchering one cow at a time in Ecuador, there is limited effect if they do have a bacterial contamination. As pointed out in Food, Inc., when you buy a pound of ground beef in a US supermarket, you will likely have a mixture of meat from up to 3,000 cows! So when there is a contamination issue, it is usually fifty to a hundred TONS of beef that is affected and recalled.  Such a waste.

The movie also goes into quite a bit of detail on our social dependence on corn based products (high fructose corn syrup, etc) – which is well presented and very educational.  It’s unfathomable to me that we still have crop subsidies at all, but the fact that we are using such a huge amount of public funding to produce something that is arguably one of the least healthy ingredients in our modern diet is just plain bad public policy. Our government should be ashamed.

(Food, Inc. also provides a fascinating look at the draconian strategies that Monsanto Corporation uses to protect the patents on their GMO seeds, which is also highly educational)

Another facet of the organic philosophy that I agree with is to buy local.  Although our food transportation infrastructure is amazingly efficient, it just doesn’t make any sense to buy something that’s grown on the opposite side of the country if there is a local option available.   

Let’s face it – food is relatively cheap.  As a percentage of the average wage, food has never been as affordable anytime in human history.  Unfortunately, the least expensive foods today tend to be the least healthy as well.  Is it worth paying a premium for healthier food?  Absolutely. But we would all be healthier if we just ate more fresh fruits and vegetables – even if they aren’t organic – instead of the typical American diet consisting of Big Macs, fries, and soda.

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Comments (1) -

April 3. 2010 17:59

Monsanto isn't draconian, they are criminal and I agree that every American needs to watch Food, Inc. It is also criminal what the FDA has done to our health.
We now buy only grass-fed beef and non-GMO meats.

We also buy local as much as we can.


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