Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Organics?

When I first heard about the recently announced Stanford University study on organic food which stated that organic food was no healthier than conventionally grown food I was duly skeptical. Then I learned from lefty websites that pesticide residues were not included in the term healthier, as if ingesting known carcinogens was no big deal. Next was the revelation that the study was funded by agribusiness and further that a primary researcher listed on Stanford’s website has a long history of being paid by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on tobacco’s dangers; in other words, the study was ultimate bullshit.
Before I learned of the agribusiness connection to the study a friend had posted the Stanford article on Facebook – It was an aha! I told you so posting. When I pointed out the nefarious connections to him he went on railing about how it was science and it didn’t matter who funded it. In the summary put out by the researchers they disingenuously state they received no outside funding for the study, conveniently omitting that the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford which did the study receives millions from Cargill and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has been pushing GM crops very hard.
In this case it was a meta-analysis of about 300 other studies, so if you have an agenda and Cargill is paying your salary, you look for studies that reinforce your objective. So, yes it does matter.
The study concluded that organic was no healthier based solely on nutrition content, largely dismissing the effect of ingesting pesticides, so let’s deal with that first. That fact organic food is no more nutritional is not surprising since you don’t even need soil, organic or otherwise to grow healthy plants. You can, for instance, get just as high off of dope grown hydroponically as in soil. All you need in that case is a neutral medium for the roots to take hold in, artificial light and chemical nutrients.
The same is true of Genetically Engineered foods; that is, there’s no discernable difference in nutrient content between GE and conventional crops, which is probably why the FDA insists that there’s no reason for labeling, let alone concern. Their lack of concern might also stem from the revolving door between the FDA and Monsanto. In the latest affront to health and reason, Obama recently appointed a former Monsanto exec to an important post at FDA. But of course as my friend would argue, it’s all science; that Monsanto flack can be totally trusted to be fair and impartial when regulating the use of Monsanto’s agrichemicals and certification of its GMO crops. Of course.
From the study summary; “ (the researchers) did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.” (my emphasis) and “There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.” So, to recap, no fewer health risks from organics even though they do involve less pesticide exposure, and no long term studies of health risks that might actually shed light on the effects of exposure to same.
And finally, “The review yielded scant evidence that conventional foods posed greater health risks than organic products. While researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides. What’s more, as the researchers noted, the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits. Two studies of children consuming organic and conventional diets did find lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets, though the significance of these findings on child health is unclear. Additionally, organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the clinical significance of this is also unclear.”
So, all the benefits of ingesting fewer toxic pesticides and fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria are unclear, even the fact that children – who are much more sensitive to toxins –
fed organics had less pesticides in their systems didn’t seem important to the researchers because “they all generally fell within allowable limits” (my emphasis). Limits set by who? FDA, staffed by ex-Monsanto execs, of course. They generally fell within allowable limits, but evidently not always. Nonetheless, even though the researchers admit, somewhat grudgingly, that organics contain less of things we know are bad for us, they can still clearly state and publish to the world a study that says organics are no healthier than conventionally grown food.
So now it’s my turn to be clear. There is no totally safe level of pesticide exposure. There is no magic line between safe and unsafe. Ingesting smaller amounts reduces the probability of getting cancer, but the possibility is always there. Let me expand and illustrate from an experience in my past. In the nineties I participated in a citizens advisory committee for Portland’s sewage treatment plant. At one point the handling of hazardous materials came up for discussion. One of the hazardous materials the plant dealt with was chlorine. Sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it. Chlorine is part of the salt we use to flavor our food, we swim in it in public pools, it routinely is used to kill bacteria in our water, but still, when dealing with train car loads of it it’s classified as a hazardous material.
As part of the sewage treatment process, chlorine is added to the effluent to kill bacteria, but then before the cleansed water can be returned to the environment the chlorine has to be removed. So I asked if there was another way to kill bacteria without using chlorine. Yes, responded the plant manager, it can be microwaved, but it costs a lot more… think of the extra burden on the ratepayer, he emphasizes. Then another committee member said, Hey, it carries only a one in a million chance of giving you cancer, what’s the big deal? Only one in a million, I retorted, but then add all the other toxins in our water, in our air and in our food and give cancer a couple of decades to take hold and the easy to scoff at one in a million becomes a frightening one in seven.
At that point some people will respond saying, Well you have die sometime anyway, so again, what’s the big deal? It is a big deal; there’s a world of difference between dying of old age with a few assorted ailments and dying of cancer which comes with an extended period of pain and suffering (not to mention a great expense in America).
The other reason why organics are safer is the absence of GMOs. Every study I’ve heard about showed devastating consequences to animals who were fed them. Almost all of those studies have been suppressed, but one, about 10 years ago, did manage to break through the corporate news blockade. That was the study done on Monarch butterflies. Monarchs eat only milkweed. Researchers dusted milkweed with GM corn pollen. Within a reasonably short time half the butterflies died, while the other half suffered terrible stomach problems. The control group which ate milkweed dusted with conventional corn pollen were unaffected.
Yet the FDA insists there’s no difference between GM corn and conventional. That may be true when thinking only of nutritional value, but clearly there’s something else happening here if GE corn kills butterflies. One important theme in the corporate news articles was that Monarchs don’t eat corn so there was no reason to worry. Monarchs don’t eat corn but people do. GE corn includes genes from Bacillus thuringiensis a natural pesticide and one, in fact, used by organic farmers. One of the comments which my skeptical friend made in defense of pesticides was that they are water based so don’t remain on the crops. Great, but when the toxin is part of the corn there is no escape.
It’s possible that one species can remain unaffected by a certain substance while another is ruined but before a whole nation was experimented on there ought to have been real studies done. There has been a strong spike in asthma, certain cancers and other maladies in the past decade or so that coincides with the introduction of GM foods. And once again, these things may well take 20 to 30 years to show up in most people so the worst is yet to come. One interesting and frightening aspect of GE crops is they seem to have a much stronger will to live and propagate then natural crops. In one experiment on spinach where both GE and conventional were grown in close proximity, 95% of the next generation showed GE traits. In North Dakota which is heavily planted in GE rapeseed, which produces canola oil, the roadsides are lined with wild rapeseed, almost all of which is GE.  
Besides the impact on the individual consumer of conventional industrial agriculture, one must also think of the effect that type of food production has on the people involved in the process as well as the world as a whole. Researchers at Stanford can discount pesticide exposure to you and me but farmworkers suffer disproportionally.
Something like 80% of all antibiotic use in America is in industrial meat factories. Routine use of antibiotics in raising chickens and pigs has led to America’s rivers being contaminated with them. With so much antibiotics in both food and water, untreatable strains of bacteria have developed leaving many people without treatment possibilities. Many Americans drink treated river water, but there is no easy way to remove antibiotics, pesticides or chemical fertilizer runoff from that water.
Typical pig factories produce as much shit as a city of 100,000 people. It is left in large lagoons which smell so bad, it’s difficult for people to live within miles of them. They also sometimes leach into ground water or overflow into rivers. This is another case of industry externalizing costs. Yes, you get cheap ‘nutritious’ meat, but the true costs of that industrial process are born by society at large and by individuals whose bacterial infections, for instance, are no longer treatable with antibiotics. It would work as fertilizer but there’s so much of it in a small area and it’s so expensive to deal with, relative to application of chemical fertilizer, they just leave it to stink up the neighborhood.
Industrial agriculture produces ‘nutritious’ crops but the soil is rendered lifeless in the process. For instance, I’ve become a plant collector here in Cambodia where all those things referred to as house plants in the states grow outdoors here. I have hundreds of plants, most growing in pots. Several times I’ve purchased a plant that looked very good only to have it subsequently refuse to grow or start looking pale and unhappy, at which time I give it extra manure and compost to try to revive it. I grow only organically except for a water based pesticide I use to kill red ants which are an unholy pest, which I haven’t figured out how to get rid of otherwise; I would try a pepper spray if I could find it here. At a certain point I decide I have to repot it to try to give it a better lease on life. What I find is soil that is so thick and muddy the roots couldn’t penetrate. Some plants can grow in that type of soil, most can’t. The chemical fertilizer they applied made them look good in spite of the very poor quality of the soil.
In America some 25 to 30% of greenhouse gases are produced from industrial agriculture, which includes manufacture and application of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, the giant machines used to plow, plant, cultivate and harvest, and the long distance shipping of produce. Once again the true costs are externalized. Cheap food now, a boiling planet later.
Finally, industrial agriculture, being based on fossil fuels, is simply not sustainable. No matter how much oil is found in the Arctic or under 5 miles of water out at sea, it’s a finite resource. We’re past peak oil, which means we’ve already used up half of the total resource. The first half was the easy-to-get-to cheap oil, we’re now beginning the expensive half. Much before we run out, it’ll become devilishly expensive, but the bottom line is it’s a finite resource and we will run out. When that happens, there will be only one alternative, we will revert to farming organically, the way it was done for all the millennia since the beginning of agriculture until the late 1940’s. That being the case, it would behoove us, if we were intelligent enough to understand where the world is going, to switch now. Waiting until the last drop of oil is consumed to change to organic will result in mass hunger since it will take years of applying organics to the soil for it to regain its former natural fertility.
Not only that but to save ourselves we’d need to develop systems for the gathering and processing of every possible bit of vegetable, animal and human waste to add to the soil. That is also something that cannot be done overnight. Today organic farms are just as productive as conventional ones. Organic farmers have access to large amounts of organic material today because that sector is so small compared to the whole picture. When conventional farming is no longer an option there will be a mad rush for organic material to enrich the soil.
The Stanford study pointed out that 30% of conventional produce tested contained pesticide residues and even 7% of organic did also. The later is a testament to the pervasiveness of pesticides in the environment, since a farm cannot be certified organic until three years after the last chemicals were applied.
Personally I’d love to be able to eat strictly organically, but it’s very difficult in this world to be fanatic about it. If I were living in America with the income some of my friends enjoy, I’d eat about 80% to 90% organic. Achieving 100% would practically preclude eating out, since organic restaurants are extremely rare and very expensive. When visiting the states in the past – I haven’t lived there in 11 years – I’d be on a limited income so I’d buy organic occasionally whenever the price seemed reasonable; maybe making up 10% to 20% of my purchases. Every little bit helps; every time you choose organics, you’re improving you’re chances for a long and healthy life.
Here in Cambodia it’s sometimes easier to eat clean, sometimes harder. Many Cambodian farmers use pesticides but have no idea what the proper dose is because all the labels are in foreign languages. On the other hand, last time I went to the public market to buy veggies I spied a worm on a green vegetable I was looking to buy. The woman who owns the market stall was taken aback… eeew… when I showed it to her but I was happy to see it and purposely bought that stalk… evidently no pesticides on that one. Cambo cows eat grass, real cow food, not GM corn. There are no pig or chicken factories here where living conditions for the animals is so bad they have to be fed massive doses of antibiotics just to keep them alive.
Packaged food in Cambo comes from all over the world. At various times I’ve seen breakfast cereal from France, Germany, New Zealand, Argentina and Egypt as well as the US. Occasionally, there’ll be organic cereal from Germany or France at a reasonable price. The Egyptian brand says GMO free, so I buy that. Needless to say, I almost never buy packaged food from the US, since anything produced there that contains corn, soy or canola also contains GMOs; though I can’t resist an American candy bar on a rare occasion. Once in a while other organic foods will appear; if I’ve got the money in my pocket, I’ll take it. There are no specialty food shops in my small town. There are some in the capital but they are few and far between and have very limited offerings.
They are beginning to learn about organics here and many farmers are being taught the necessary skills, so I expect it will be easier to eat organic in the future. Meanwhile, I think it’s worse to be fanatic than eat what’s available, as long as you remain conscious of what you’re doing. Without any recourse to science, my feeling is if you try to eat healthy – lots of fruit and veggies – and choose organic whenever you can, get proper exercise to stay fit, avoid pharmaceuticals whenever possible and use recreational drugs and alcohol in moderation to counter life’s stresses, then you’ve got reasonable chance of beating the odds. After all, some people smoke tobacco all their lives and don’t get cancer.
That won’t work for everybody. Some are doomed no matter what they do: they’re predisposed in their genes or at a young age carcinogens were introduced into their bodies and had taken hold. Still, living right will make the challenges they face easier to handle. Some years ago I visited a friend in his mid-sixties who had recently had a mild heart attack. He had made a serious adjustment in his eating habits. When cooking chicken for dinner, he removed the skin and explained how he absolutely minimized animal fats in his diet. I asked him what his previous cholesterol level was, he said 340 which is almost twice safe levels. With his changed diet, he had another good ten years.
If, alternatively, you are stubborn and have to have your bacon and eggs for breakfast every day in spite of being a old coot and knowing (or being in denial) that you are eating a cholesterol bomb which might eventually have dire consequences, and at the same time you reject the lettuce on your plate thinking it’s only there for decoration, not for actually eating, then you are testing the gods and you might well fail the test. If you think life is not worth living without your daily triple-cheese-bacon-burger or the equivalent, then stop and think what life would be like confined to a wheelchair because one side of your body has been paralyzed from a stroke or heart attack.
Maybe some of you are familiar with Ram Dass. Previously, as Richard Alpert, he was one of the original Harvard acid heads. After blowing his mind, he discovered Hinduism, found a guru and not long later became a guru himself. He wrote a book back in the sixties called Be Here Now which had a profound effect on my life. Be here now, be where you’re at, whatever you’re doing, do it right. In the early 2000s I saw him speak not long after he had had a stroke which paralyzed half his body and confined him to a wheelchair. Though he was a brilliant speaker, it was difficult listening to him because it sometimes took him a long time to formulate and voice the ideas in his head. He spoke of how being a respected guru and spiritual teacher he thought he was above mundane concerns over diet and lifestyle. He learned the hard way that nobody is. You don’t have to be fanatic or absolutist about what you eat, but you are wise to be smart.
Ponder spending the last ten or twenty years of your life in a debilitated, dependent state stuck in a wheelchair or dying a horrible death from cancer and hopefully that’ll inspire you to buy organic whenever you can afford it and eat your damn veggies!