Saturday, August 8, 2009

Go on, eat organic food if you like, spend more than you would on ordinary food and dream that it somehow makes you healthier than you would be and the world more ecologically sound, but find time to pray that not too many others emulate you.

It would be an incredible catastrophe if everyone went organic.

Yes, I know, that’s heresy, a slap in the face of everyday, common wisdom promulgated by the anti-globalism, industrial-hating, technology-fearing crowd eager to grasp at any straw that promises a return to good old ways that close examination shows were not good at all. I can only say that conventional understandings must eventually face facts and that they keep coming.

Most recently, we got such facts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which carried out a survey commissioned by Britain’s Food Standards Agency and found that studies over the past 50 years disclose no health benefits from eating organic foods. It’s not the first survey to say as much. A food journal in 2006 examined some 400 scholarly papers and concluded the same thing.

But don’t the pesticides used on ordinary foods wreak havoc with human bodies? Not as far as science can tell us. Says Reason magazine’s online site, another study taking no less than 13 years and looking at no fewer than 90,000 farmers and their families — people who were practically snuggling with pesticides — came up with nothing scary. The cancer rates, it’s noted, were lower than in the population at large.

Still more facts come our way from journalists reporting on the sentimentalist thesis that organic farming is localized and the work of families, not of big, make-you-shudder corporations. Not so. In part because of rising demand, organic foods are shipped to your locality from all over the world, and while a number of family farms produce organic foods, most are produced by relatively few major agribusinesses.

The gain from organic farming is some energy savings and little else. Some of the organic farms are even using the big cattle feedlots found so objectionable by organic advocates, says a BusinessWeek article.

That same article reminds us that the gains with pesticides and fertilizers since World War II have been substantial — for instance, the cultivation of twice as much wheat per acre, raising chickens a quarter bigger than they used to be, getting 60 percent more milk from cows and spending something like half as much in disposable income for food as people did in the early part of the previous century.

Growing organic food is supposedly kinder to land than growing food by ordinary means, but it consumes enormously more land per unit produced. One reported estimate is that no forests would be left if you tried to supply total human food needs this way, and that, even then, many would starve.

One of Reason magazine’s online pieces quotes a Cambridge chemist named John Emsley as saying, “The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming, but a global conversion to organic farming — an estimated 2 billion people would perish.”

None of which means I oppose people spending their hard-earned money on organic foods because, if nothing else, they thereby help to support a $14 billion industry. I myself am not against big corporations. I think they are good for America.

What does burn me are exhortations that the rest of humanity observe such otherwise meaningless rituals as some sort of salvation from a modern age seen as mostly evil even when it has offered so many blessings to humankind and when poverty and misery would almost certainly accompany a non-fertilizer, non-pesticide, non-biotech agricultural system if it were the only show in town.

Jay Ambrose is former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.

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