Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Organic Debate

I just read this article in The Independent regarding organic food. It is a measured response by Peter Melchett of the Soil Association to a previous article written by Rob Johnston. 

I have had good experiences with organic food - specifically organic yogurt, which I find tastes better than non-organic yogurt. I feed my daughter as much organic food as possible, given our budgetary constraints (because, yes, Organic food is still a bit of an elitist product). 

Both Melchett and Johnston used statistics and studies to their advantage. There does not seem to be a hard and fast reality here that the average consumer can take hold of. 

Here is one choice bit from Melchett's pro-organic article:

"Published research shows that, on average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants...
Ten per cent of children in the EU now suffer from eczema. Following research in Sweden, a Dutch government-funded study published last November showed a 36 per cent lower incidence of eczema in children fed on organic dairy products compared with children consuming non-organic dairy products."

What parent or guardian wouldn't read that and think twice about non-organic products. The other key statistic regards the pesticides found in children's urine, which disappear if they are fed on organic products. That's all well and good - but if the pesticides are being pissed out then they're not staying in the body, are they? The truth is, besides vague proclamations about an increased cancer rate (an apocryphal story, says Johnston) there are no clear links between the pesticides that are now allowed and illness. 

What's interesting is that, despite Johnston's claim that GHG emissions are higher in organic farming, there does appear to be a clear difference in benefit to the environment and the animals and plants within it. Those farms that dedicate themselves to organic farming and wildlife cultivation, as well as good treatment of their animals, are certainly doing the environment a favor. 

Why isn't that enough?

Many of us who buy organic food, whether regularly or (like me) sporadically, are attracted to the idea that we are buying a product from people who are at least pausing to think about the effect their farming techniques will have on us and on the environment. That's not to say there isn't a lot of bandwagon-jumping and some organic farming that leaves much to be desired.

All in all, however, organic farming and the larger movement that supports it are part of a trend towards more conscientious living. Many that support organic farming are not just concerned with their own local markets, but want to see sustainable solutions for the rest of the world as well. 

It's not just a matter of focusing on one issue or another - such things are rapidly embraced and then forgotten - it is a matter of changing our lifestyles.