Thursday, July 30, 2009
The Organic Food Debate
A recently published medical study asserts that organic food is no healthier than conventional food. While that is technically true, what the article doesn't address is precisely what is NOT in organic food, focusing very narrowly instead of what is in it. Meant to be a direct shot across the bow of organic food advocates and those willing to pay up to twice as much for the privilege of purchasing it, the article does raise some interesting questions that go beyond the I-told-you-so smugness of the headline.
To qualify my position, I have no personal qualms against organic food. Indeed, there are certain organic products, cheese being one of them, where the difference in quality between organic products and conventional ones, particularly as regards superior taste, justifies the increase in cost. Though the study does take aim at nutritional content, what it does not take into account is the larger impact of sustainable farming, organic food's appeal to people with allergies to environmental toxins, and its attraction to those who hold an understandably noble desire to keep from continuing to pollute the earth with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
What does concern me, however, is a kind of elitism that organic food fosters. While it is nurtured in good intentions and social justice, it often ends up manifesting itself instead in a particularly obnoxious kind of classism. Purchasing organic food requires a supple income, for starters. If it were economically feasible for working class citizens and those at the poverty line to purchase organic food, I know that they would, but as it stands now, only the privileged have the financial means. Organic food is marketed as a cure-all for a variety of societal ills, but apparently only those with substantial means have the ability to be cured.
To provide a personal anecdote, once I supervised a conference comprised primarily of young adults. Many of them had grown up with super crunchy parents and as such had been weaned on and accustomed to a diet of socially conscious, highly exotic food. I don't fault the motives of their parents, who wished to impress upon their children the importance of keeping the earth habitable for future generations and nourishing their bodies without taking in harmful chemicals. Yet, this selfless attitude is not what their children espoused when meal time arrived.
Many made ridiculous demands upon the volunteer kitchen staff, having the gall to claim that they only ate organic wild rice instead of organic white rice. Others demanded that a particular kind of soy milk be served with meals instead of a more readily available, cheaper, but nonetheless equally earth-friendly product. It is this kind of entitled attitude to which I take serious offense. It has no place in the debate and makes everyone who espouses social justice through food consumption look snobbish and hypocritical.
What concerns me more, however, is this.
My fear is that someday soon only the rich will be able to afford actual food and the rest of us will have to feast upon something along the lines of Soylent Green.