Given that it has both Pollan and Bittman in its stable of writers, it surprises me how the New York Times insists on printing aggravatingly lopsided articles about organic food. In a one-two follow up to the “exposé” of July 7th–of the big-business aspect of organic agriculture–today we saw a report on a recent Stanford study under the misleading headline: “Study Questions Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” That, of course, depends on your definition of “advantage.” Not surprisingly, to me anyway, organic produce and meats had no greater nutritional value than conventionally grown food–and just as much bacteria. Thus, the writer declares, no health advantage.
Except, of course, “[o]rganic produce, as expected, was much less likely to retain traces of pesticides.” Oh, and “[o]rganic chicken and pork were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” But other than that, NO advantages. So, the implication goes, you organic crunchy types are being ripped off! I mean, unless you consider the absence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and measurable pesticides in your food supply an “advantage.”
But what goes completely unmentioned here, and what galls me in its consistent absence from such coverage, is right there in the photo illustrating the article: the field workers who suffer unconscionably from exposure to some of the most toxic chemicals on earth. (Read Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland if you want a sense of the horrific human toll of pesticides on farmworkers.) While it may be my choice to pay more in order to avoid consuming these chemicals, these workers aren’t afforded that luxury. Does that not count as an “advantage”? Is that not a real, human health impact? Or does only the health of the consumer matter in this absurd equation?
In response to last week’s New York Times article exposing organic agriculture for the big business that it is, Grist’s food editor (and, presumably, fellow hippy kid) Twilight Greenaway wrote a spot-on argument for why she will continue to buy organic, and why the organics business is a bit more than “pure fantasy.” It’s certainly worth a read before you toss the organic baby carrots out with the…oof, I can’t even finish that one.
Greenaway buries the lead a little here though: Because it’s the biggest and most profitable part of the business, much of the labeling controversy surrounds packaged foods. Those are overpriced and rarely all that nutritious in the first place. Another important point is down there in the comments section of Greenaway’s post: Many small farmers can’t afford the USDA Organics label at all, but may be growing healthier produce and livestock. Shop at farmers markets, and then you can actually just ask how your food was grown.
I knew something was up earlier today, when I walked past Mélisse (the haute cuisine temple whose chef raids my yard for edible weeds), and passed a small knot of tatted up, grim looking hipsters having some sort of pow-wow outside the restaurant. (Though I often exclaim like a grandmother at the parade of sloppy clothes on diners heading in for a multi-hundred dollar feast at Mélisse, the hand-knitted shawl and ripped Ts were a shade too funky, even by L.A. standards.) They hastily folded up what looked like a banner (which was, in fact, a banner) and rushed off, giving me conspiratorial glances. Next thing I know, the street is full of cop cars and TV news vans, and a full-fledged protest is going on outside. Turns out, tonight’s the night that big-shot chefs in Northern and Southern California got together to protest the upcoming statewide ban on foie gras by preparing six-course menus featuring the fatty delicacy in every course. July 1 is it for foie fanatics (though you can be sure there will be a lively trade in smuggled paté).
…But would you rather they contain carcinogenic coal tar? A vegan barista discovered that the new formula for Starbucks Strawberry Frappucinos contains cochineal beetle shells; ground up and highly refined, they are called carmine and can be found in everything from Pop Tarts to paint. Starbucks was trying to do the “green” thing and get away from the highly toxic red food dyes that have already been banned in several European countries–only to piss off the vegans. But…aren’t Frappucinos creamy? It appears that vegans would rather eat weird, artificial milk-like substances than a chemical extracted from an element derived from a bug’s exoskeleton. One vegetarian activist suggested using beets or “purple sweet potatoes” (would that even work?), but I think Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is on to something: “Strawberry Frappucinos should be colored with strawberries.”