I am surprised by the lack of responses to the discussion of organic food on this blog.
I am further surprised by the weakness for the few comments collected. I suspected the case for organicity was weak, I didn’t know it was so weak that practitioners would be afraid to take up the case at all. I began this discussion of organic foods with normal skepticism rather than opposition. I now smell a rat.
In the middle of May, a month of fairly warm temperatures in central California where I live, I went to the farmers’ market for a little while. There are four reasons why I ever frequent the place. The first is that my French side sometimes finds there the rare herbs, such as sorrel, it still misses.
My second reason to go to the farmers’ market is that there is often there a guy on a truck who offers live oysters. At $1.50 a shot these days, they are a luxury but a small luxury. I think they should be $1,50 for a half-dozen, the minimum acceptable. I treat myself once in a while.
The third reason is El Salsichero, a local young guy who is re-inventing the old French art of charcuterie – pork preparations – with a twist of Santa Cruz zaniness. He is my hero: an entrepreneur, starting a new business and a new kind of business out of nowhere in a town where the university is the only remaining industry. (And please, don’t get me started. The left-wing municipality of Santa Cruz is doing its best to mistreat that remaining enterprise into leaving.)
My third reason for spending any time at all at the farmers’ market is hard to explain. It’s a cheap and comfortable way to experience the same kind of frisson that expensive and uncomfortable foreign travel sometimes gives me. There are many foreigners like me among the customers . Yet the most alien part of the crowd is native-born. Its members look quaint. They use English words but I am never sure I understand what they are saying when they talk to each other (same as when I am in London).
It’s comprised of tribal fragments of groups that have espoused strange and distorted beliefs. Many dress correspondingly exotic. The most pleasant are the turbaned white Sikhs, with no real connection to India, I think. Another group includes the children and the grandchildren of my hippie friends from the seventies. It appears they are the only ones in American whose children did not rebel into doing the opposite of what they were taught. Rearing kids on cannabis cookies may have virtues middle-class types like me never even suspected! Anyway, the farmers’ market is a show and, for the price, a good show. My grand-daughter also likes it. She is three.
The last reason is also the least practical. It’s part of my on-going endeavors in pop-sociology. I study the folly of seemingly rational people in its collective manifestations. People who are all-around crazy are not that interesting. Mad individuals are too difficult for me to understand. I don’t have the patience, for one thing. Unreasonableness among the reasonable is my cup of fair trade tea.
At the farmers’ market, I find two partially overlapping groups practicing what I think is folly although members of both are rational in most phases of their lives. The first group is the vegans, the second are the devotees of organic food, the organicists. I don’t spend much time on the vegans because they do have understandable, rational ethical concerns. (I don’t buy veal myself for ethical reasons although I really like that meat.) The organicists interest me a great deal because many go to great length to offer scientific-sounding justifications for their costly vice.
All this to tell you that at the farmers’ market in May I saw organic lettuce, romaine lettuce, for five dollars a pound ($5/lb). I saw that with my own eyes, around two pm when I was wide awake and under the influence of no substance, legal or illegal.
The next day, my wife bought attractive romaine lettuce at Costco for 79 cents a pound. It’s true that you had to buy three at a time. It’s true that such a quantity would be inconvenient for a 90-pound woman living alone. Of course, she could always buy the three, give two to her neighbors and still come out ahead.
Now, on to the defense of their expensive habit organicists always offer. If I had been invited to a comparative tasting of the two kinds of romaine lettuce, it’s possible that I would have found the organic tastier. I don’t know but I have no argument with this. The statement hides a logical confusion that would not be acceptable in any alert child over twelve. The produce in farmers’ markets in general, in the Santa Cruz farmers’ market, in particular tend to be fresher than those at big retailers such as Costco. Often, it’s much fresher. There are small organic growers less than two miles from the local farmers’ market.And here is an absolute rule: With vegetables ( and also mushrooms) fresher is always better. So, organicity is irrelevant.
If you think its’ relevant, you have to show it, controlling for freshness. You would have to set up a blind taste testing of equally fresh organic and non–organic veggies of the same variety. The fact that no organicists seems interested in organizing such a simple test makes me suspicious, of course. It suggests religious belief.
I remain puzzled by the widespread vogue of organic anything. As my story suggests, this is not about paying a small premium to feel good. A large, and it seems, a growing fraction of my contemporaries, many with a fair level of education, spend five times more on basic food than they have to. This, for no intelligible reason,
The organic food cult has managed to reverse a trend of at least two centuries. The trend is that food becomes a little cheaper in real terms every passing year. It’s becoming difficult to locate the non-organic version of fruits and vegetables. As a result, we are all increasingly forced to pay the very huge premium attached to organicity. I see it entirely as a religious tax imposed on me completely against my will by members of a cult I don’t wish to join any more than I want to join any other irrational group.
A couple of weeks ago, a young man I usually respect for his intelligence and for his intellectual honesty set me straight about my cherry trees. Those are trees I planted myself in place of a large semi-tropical tree to which the neighbor objected. There was no lawn there for at least twenty years. I never treated the trees or anything near them with anything except for spraying for aphids with diluted dish soap. One of my two trees gives cherries. My friend advised me with a straight face that the cherries from my tree don’t qualify as organic!
Update 8/30/12 : There are several interesting follow-up to this essay. Look for the word “organic” in titles.