The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange

Prelim note: What follows is a part of an ongoing discussion with Ryan MH bout the desirability of various extraordinarily high  food expenditures. Ryan is your typical Santa Cruz Neo-New Ager believer in health fairy tales. Unlike most of his tribe however, he has some understanding of the scientific method and he is eager to perceive his beliefs as compatible with it. The second reason I take the time to argue with Ryan MH is that last year, he ran across this country from West to East. (No, not “walk” but ran.) That gives him a lot of credibility in my eyes. Would I make this up? 

The present discussion between Ryan MH  and me began when I tasted some bread he had made in his bread machine. I told him I thought it was very good. Ryan then announced that each loaf cost 4 dollars ! He seemed to mean raw materials alone. Now, I had a glancing familiarity with bakery costs a long time ago from which I got the idea that forty cents would have been too high, much too high, in fact. I think four cents would be the right order of magnitude.

So, I expressed wonder. Ryan MH then announced that he was using only organic stuff. Now, that’s  X 100 a reasonable cost, more or less, for “organicness.” We are far, we are way out of the area of the pleasant  10% surcharge for the psychic satisfaction of knowing that you are saving Mother Nature (that mean old bitch!) Two weeks before, in the spring, when food prices go down, I had spotted the $5 a pound organic lettuce at the farmers’ market. So, I was primed.

I seized the opportunity, I am surrounded by people who pay high to huge premiums for “organic” food but who can’t say why or even what it is, or who make completely fanciful ungrounded assumptions about the practice. I have known Ryan MH for a long time so I knew that he was rational and intellectually honest. Accordingly, I asked him why one would bother. What’s below is his second attempt to answer. The first attempt was  all over the place as happens, for example, when you allow J’s Witnesses to talk to you on the porch and you challenge them.

So, Dr. J and myself have a discussion going about organic foods and conventional foods, so far based only on an email correspondence that I refer to throughout this piece.  He accused me of doing more than my fair share of crying, and hence, dirtying my shirt past the threshhold where it requires a changing…This time I am prepared, sitting here before my laptop with a new (brand new!) box of tissues and microfiber, moisture wicking tee.

Is there any evidence to suggest organic is worth the cost and GMO’s are harmful?  Not as much as I had hoped, but still there is evidence. at least for organic foods being worth it.  Dr. J pointed out in my email to him that I did not include a definition of organic, so here it is: “Foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.”  I’d like to invite anyone out there to join in the discussion, as this is a great way (as Dr. J knows) to do less of the reading myself!

I began my email to Dr. J by saying the scientific debate on whether or not conventional foods (GMO) pose risks to our health seems to still be, well, a debate.  Dr. J did not think this situation to be open or debatable, and brought up the point that “there is no debate if there is no evidence on one side.” However, in this case, there IS evidence for BOTH sides.  There are studies showing physiological differences in organic foods and animals fed them versus conventional foods and studies showing that this is not the case.  Both sides have reproduced these results in multiple studies.  So, I stand by my original statement to Dr. J, that the debate is open, but I would be curious to hear what he proposes is correct in cases such as this, when research supports both sides.

On a similar note, Dr. J had this to say “There is no debate between flat-earthers and sphere-earthers because no ship ever fell off the edge of the world.”  I agree here, but while ships sail confidently round the world, for us not composed of cellulose we see that diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are all on the rise in recent history, the same recent history that includes tinkering with our food sources in a lab based way….lets say 1880 onward.  So it seems to me that altered foods (as in GMO’s and pesticides) and their effects on health deserve careful study.

In support of this, I offered to Dr. J the example of our vast knowledge of a common fruit, the banana.  We as a species are yet to fully comprehend the chemical nature of the fruit.  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22650010)  This is a food that in my life has been in just about every home I have ever entered.  It is common.  And yet, we cannot fully describe what is in it chemically, or how it interacts with our bodies.  But, we alter its genes anyway.  I’m not saying this is bad, but it is certainly not fully understood, and for that, I am cautious to trust.  Especially given our track record with food science:  botched baby formulas, the trans fat, and the USDA food guide pyramid.

Dr. J also makes a point to address the issue of taste of organics vs conventional plants.  He feels that fresh foods, organic or not, will always taste better, so this point is moot.  Well, I am sorry Dr. J, but at no point in our discussion did I mention taste as a reason for my preferences.  What I did highlight was a study done on strawberries in which organic strawberries were found to have a statistically significant higher percentage of phytochemicals and antioxidants than their conventional form.  The organic form also had a lower water/weight ratio (perhaps this is why some people make the very subjective observation that they taste better), a LONGER shelf life (due to less water in the fruit to lose), and left behind soil on the farms in better shape than the conventional methods.  I got the keyboard all wet with my tears when we last talked, so I know Dr. J never opened the link, so here it is again, for anyone interested: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012346  (to be fair, Dr. J did not open the link because he is busy and I did not do a good enough job of having him read what I actually wrote instead of what he assumed I was writing.)

I also want to address the content of my first correspondence with Dr. J on this issue as I saw it versus how he saw it, as this difference is something routine in our discussions, and I would bet, on this blog as well.  Dr. J says “your email is redolent of religiousness(“I still think that….”.) and I suspect (suspect) that your logic isn’t one, that it’s also a typical assertion of religious belief.”  Yes, we talked about this being a religious type of issue probably 1.5 hours before I sent over my email.  I agreed!  It was not an “an invitation to invite [you] to join [my]church”!  I presented 4 studies and summarized them, then gave my personal thoughts about them in relation to the topic.  You wouldn’t like my church anyway, we put honey in our wheat bread.

From what I have been able to turn up in published studies:  1.) No evidence that GMO foods are harmful, however, there is evidence that they cause organisms to develop differently.  This may or may not be good, if anything at all.  2.)  Organic foods contain higher nutrient levels.  3.) Organic foods have few if any pesticide residues.

I’m going to end it there, in the hopes that someone else will feel inclined to join in.  Also, my vision is beginning to blur from wetness.

About jacquesdelacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Cultural Studies, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange

  1. Terry Amburgey says:

    If Jacques had a better grasp of economics he’d be more careful about making inter-personal comparisons of utility. You don’t need to defend spending too much money on organic food & drink. A 10% surcharge for psychic satisfaction is nothing more than an arbitrary hurdle. Conspicuous consumption is it’s own reward.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Dear Professor Amb: I don’t know what I did to deserve this D-. I agree that conspicuous consumption is its own reward. (look at my wife!) I object when it masquerades as something else with pseudo-scientific justifications. My heart breaks a little every time I see a poor student who lives with a slum spened $3 for a half pound of organic kale because she believes it’s a superior and necessary health expenditure.

      • Terry Amburgey says:

        I empathize with your broken heart; I have the same reaction to people paying $5 for a $1 cup of coffee in a Starbucks. If Ryan MH finds organic consumption comforting so be it. Now if Ryan wants to impose his tastes on other people that’s a different situation…

  2. Pingback: Organic Food and Red Herrings « Notes On Liberty

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