Previously, we discussed prepared packaged food vs. fresh food. Let us
now follow Mr. Pollan down the organic vs. factor-food path a short way.
Omnivore's Dilemma pg. 176.
"Whether organic is better and worth it are certainly fair,
straightforward questions, but the answers, I've discovered, are
anything but simple.
Better for what? is the all-important corollary to that question. If the
answer is ³taste," then the answer is, as I've suggested, very likely, at
least in the case of produce‹but not necessarily. Freshly picked
conventional produce is bound to taste better than organic produce that's
been riding the interstates in a truck for three days. Meat is a harder
call. Rosie [brandname] was a tasty bird, yet, truth be told, not quite
as tasty as Rocky [brandname], her bigger nonorganic brother. That's
probably because Rocky is an older chicken, and older chickens generally
have more flavor. The fact that the corn and soybeans in Rosie s diet
were grown without chemicals probably doesn't change the taste of her
meat. Though it should be said that Rocky and Rosie both taste more like
chicken than mass-market birds fed on a diet of antibiotics and animal
by-products, which makes for mushier and blander meat. What's in an
animal's feed naturally affects how it will taste, though whether that
feed is organic or not probably makes no difference.
Better for what? If the answer is ³for my health" the answer, again, is
probably‹but not automatically. I happen to believe the organic dinner
I served my family is healthier than a meal of the same foods
conventionally produced, but I'd be hard-pressed to prove it
scientifically. What I could prove, with the help of a mass
spectrometer, is that it contained little or no pesticide residue‹the
traces of the carcinogens, neurotoxins,and endocrine disruptors now
routinely found in conventionalproduce and meat. What I probably can't
prove is that the low levels of these toxins present in these foods will
make us sick‹give us cancer, say, or interfere with my son's
neurological or sexual development. But that does not mean those poisons
are not making us sick: Remarkably little research has been done to
assess the effects of regular exposure to the levels of organophosphate
pesticide or growth hormone that the government deems ³tolerable" in our
foods. (One problem with these official tolerances is that they don't
adequately account for children's exposure to pesticides, which, because
of children's size and eating habits, is much greater than adults'.)
Given what we do know about exposure to endocrine disruptors, the
biological impact of which depends less on dose than timing, minimizing
a child's exposure to these chemicals seems like a prudent idea. I very
much like the fact that the milk in the ice cream I served came from
cows that did not receive injections of growth hormone to boost their
productivity, or that the corn those cows are fed, like the corn that
feeds Rosie, contains no residues of atrazine, the herbicide commonly
sprayed on American ;a3 cornfields. Exposure to vanishingly small
amounts (0.1 part per billion) of this herbicide has been shown to turn
normal male frogs into hermaphrodites. Frogs are not boys, of course. So
I can wait for that science to be done, or for our government to ban
atrazine (as European governments have done), or I can act now on the
presumption that food from which this chemical is absent is better for
my son's health than food that contains it.
Of course, the healthfulness of a food is not simply a question of its
toxicity; we have also to consider its nutritional quality. Is there any
reason to think my Whole Foods meal is any more nutritious than the same
meal prepared with conventionally grown ingredients?
Over the years there have been sporadic efforts to demonstrate the
nutritional superiority of organic produce, but most have foundered on
the difficulty of isolating the great many variables that can affect the
nutritional quality of a carrot or a potato‹climate, soils, geography,
freshness, farming practices, genetics, and so on. Back in the fifties,
when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from
region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the
deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than
carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this
information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably
explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays
U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is
founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though
there's good reason to believe this isn't really true. But in an
agricultural system dedicated to quantity rather than quality, the
fiction that all foods are created equal is essential. This is why, in
inaugurating the federal organic program in 2000, the secretary of
agriculture went out of his way to say that organic food is no better
than conventional food. "The organic label is a marketing tool,"
Secretary Glickman said. "It is not a statement about food safety. Nor
is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality."
Some intriguing recent research suggests otherwise. A study by
University of California-Davis researchers published in the Journal of
Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2003 described an experiment in which
identical varieties of corn, strawberries, and blackberries grown in
neighboring plots using different methods (including organically and
conventionally) were compared for levels of vitamins and polyphenols.
Polyphenols are a group of secondary metabolites manufactured by plants
that we've recently learned play an important role in human health and
nutrition. Many are potent antioxidants; some play a role in preventing
or fighting cancer; others exhibit antimicrobial properties. The Davis
researchers found that organic and otherwise sustainably grown fruits
and vegetables contained significantly higher levels of both ascorbic
acid (vitamin C) and a wide range of polyphenols.
The recent discovery of these secondary metabolites in plants has
brought our understanding of the biological and chemical complexity of
foods to a deeper level of refinement; history suggests we haven't
gotten anywhere near the bottom of this question, either. The first
level was reached early in the nineteenth century with the
identification of the macronutrients‹protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Having isolated these compounds, chemists thought they'd unlocked the
key to human nutrition. Yet some people (such as sailors) living on
diets rich in macronutrients nevertheless got sick. The mystery was
solved when scientists discovered the major vitamins‹a second key to
human nutrition. Now it's the polyphenols in plants that we're learning
play a critical role in keeping us healthy. (And which might explain why
diets heavy in processed food fortified with vitamins still aren't as
nutritious as fresh foods.) You wonder what else is going on in these
plants, what other undiscovered qualities in them we've evolved to
In many ways the mysteries of nutrition at the eating end of the food
chain closely mirror the mysteries of fertility at the growing end:
The two realms are like wildernesses that we keep convincing ourselves
our chemistry has mapped, at least until the next level of complexity
conies into view. Curiously, Justus von Liebig, the nineteenth-century
German chemist with the spectacularly ironic surname, bears
responsibility for science's overly reductive understanding of both ends
of the food chain. It was Liebig, you'll recall, who thought he had
found the chemical key to soil fertility with the discovery of NPK, and
it was the same Liebig who thought he had found the key to human
nutrition when he identified the macronutrients in food. Liebig wasn't
wrong on either count, yet in both instances he made the fatal mistake
of thinking that what we knew about nourishing plants and people was all
we needed to know to keep them healthy. It's a mistake we'll probably
keep repeating until we develop a deeper respect for the complexity of
food and soil and, perhaps, the links between the two.
But back to the polyphenols, which may hint at the nature of that link.
Why in the world should organically grown blackberries or corn contain
significantly more of these compounds? The authors of the Davis study
haven't settled the question, but they offer two suggestive theories.
The reason plants produce these compounds in the first place is to
defend themselves against pests and diseases; the more pressure from
pathogens, the more polyphenols a plant will produce. These compounds,
then, are the products of natural selection and, more specifically, the
coevolutionary relationship between plants and the species that prey on
them. Who would have guessed that humans evolved to profit from a diet
of these plant pesticides? Or that we would invent an agriculture that
then deprived us of them? The Davis authors hypothesize that plants
being defended by man-made pesticides don't need to work as hard to make
their own polyphenol pesticides. Coddled by us and our chemicals, the
plants see no reason to invest their resources in mounting a strong
defense. (Sort of like European nations during the cold war.)
A second explanation (one that subsequent research seems to support) may
be that the radically simplified soils in which chemically fertilized
plants grow don't supply all the raw ingredients needed to synthesize
these compounds, leaving the plants more vulnerable to attack, as we
know conventionally grown plants tend to be. NPK might be sufficient for
plant growth yet still might not give a plant everything it needs to
manufacture ascorbic acid or lycopene or resveratrol in quantity. As it
happens, many of the polyphenols (and especially a subset called the
flavonols) contribute to the characteristic taste of a fruit or
vegetable. Qualities we can't yet identify in soil. may contribute
qualities we've only just begun to identify in our foods and our bodies.
Reading the Davis study I couldn't help thinking about the early
proponents of organic agriculture, people like Sir Albert Howard and J.
I. Rodale, who would have been cheered, if unsurprised, by the findings.
Both men were ridiculed for their unscientific conviction that a
reductive approach to soil fertility‹the NPK mentality‹would diminish
the nutritional quality of the food grown in it and, in turn, the health
of the people who lived on that food. All carrots are not created equal,
they believed; how we grow it, the. soil we grow it in, what we feed
that soil all contribute qualities to a carrot, qualities that may yet
escape the explanatory net of our chemistry. Sooner or later the soil
scientists and nutritionists will catch up to Sir Howard, heed his
admonition thai we begin "treating the whole problem of health in soil,
plant, animal, and man as one great subject."
So it happens that these organic blackberries perched on this mound of
vanilla ice cream, having been grown in a complexly fertile soil and
forced to fight their own fights against pests and disease, are in some
quantifiable way more nutritious than conventional blackberries. This
would probably not come as earthshaking news to Albert Howard or J. I.
Rodale or any number of organic farmers, but at least now it is a claim
for which we can supply a scientific citation: J. Agric. Food. Chem.
vol. 51, no. 5, 2003. (Several other such studies have appeared since;
see the Sources section at the back of this book.)
Obviously there is much more to be learned about the relationship of
soil to plant, animals, and health, and it would be a mistake to lean
too heavily on any one study. It would also be a mistake to assume that
the word "organic" on a label automatically signifies healthfulness,
especially when that label appears on heavily processed and
long-distance foods that have probably had much of their nutritional
value, not to mention flavor, beaten out of them long before they
arrive on our tables."
Michael Pollan then goes on to mention that the "organic revolution"
hasn't appreciably improved the living conditions of farm workers or
livestock. He finishes the chapter by reflecting on the fact that only
one fifth of the energy consumed in food production is consumed on the
farm. The rest is packaging and transportation. So, even with
industrial-organic food, the carbon footprint is far too large.
Bush, Cheney & Pelosi, Behind Bars
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