Is Organic Food Worth the Price?
By Gene Franks
Americans are among the most starved people on this planet. In spite of all the chemical supplements and new foods, we are living on a diet that is deficient in the essential factors of life. We have an epidemic of extreme malnutrition and a nation where over 65% of the American people are chronically ill. Our diet lacks the vital force of the more primitive basic foods.--Viktokras Kulvinskas.
The Gazette challenges readers to learn more about food. Survival in our age of high-tech misinformation requires, in fact, that we become passionate amateurs in the art of feeding ourselves. Allowing food industry professionals to make food choices for us is not only unwise and unhealthy--it is positively boring. Nourishing our bodies is one of life's basic pleasures. Procuring and preparing food should occupy a larger share of our time and get a larger share of our resources. Eating well is fun, and we should indulge ourselves in excellent foods.
The degree to which we can indulge ourselves in food, of course, depends upon our individual resources. I confess that this article will not solve the problems of the very poor, who are required by necessity to settle for the less expensive foods, just as they settle for less in other areas of life. I know no cure for this. But everyone, even those who cannot buy organically grown produce, can eat as well as their resources allow. Potatoes cost less than potato chips; yams cost less than Snickers bars; excellently filtered water costs far less than sodas.
A big part of the American food myth is that food should be cheap. It should not. Food should, in fact, get top billing on our list of spending priorities. To buy cheap food in order to afford an expensive lawnmower demonstrates a perverted value system.
Organically grown foods are among the items many view as unaffordable. This is the narrow view of the issue, based only on the purchase price. John Ruskin, an English thinker and artist so famous they named a cigar after him, pointed out that when an item purchased for what seems a low price fails to fulfill the need it was intended for, the purchaser has not saved money but has in fact wasted the full purchase price. Because of our food-should-be-cheap conditioning, an organically grown tomato may seem expensive; but a delicious, locally grown, fresh-from-the-garden, chemical-free tomato is a great bargain when compared with the tasteless, ether-reddened blob of mush offered at half the price by the Killer Tomato industry.
The reasons for buying organic food are many. Some that are often mentioned (this listing is indebted to the Spring 1992 issue of Organic Times) are the protection of children (they are more vulnerable than adults to pesticide poisoning); prevention of soil erosion (perhaps our most severe problem in the long run); the protection of water quality (pesticides, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers are formidable water contaminants); energy savings (organic farming is essentially labor intensive, while conventional farming is one of our major energy wasters); prevention of chemical poisoning of farm workers (remember Cesar Chavez); helping small farmers (organic farming favors the small producer, while conventional farming is designed to eliminate family farms and put all land in the hands of large corporate "farmers"); support of a true economy (although organic foods might appear more expensive, we, as taxpayers, pay dearly for the pollution cleanup, pesticide testing, irrigation projects, soil depletion, hazardous waste disposal, farm subsidies, etc. resulting from conventional agriculture); promotion of biodiversity (the disastrous practice of monocropping is the hallmark of meat-based conventional agriculture); and, certainly not least important, the provision of more nutritious, better-tasting food.
Although organically grown produce has shown itself repeatedly to be superior to conventionally grown food in "food chart" nutrients, there are certainly intangible nutritional benefits not yet recognized or measurable. Nutrition is a science in its infancy. In spite of the know-it-all posture assumed by many nutrition professionals, most university "nutrition science" is more theory than fact. As a single example, consider the broad disagreement among experts on the very basic question of whether or not the body assimilates inorganic minerals from water.
One of the intangible "ingredients" that makes organic food much superior to conventional is what some writers have called "information." Homeopathy should have taught us by now that there are unseen, intangible essences at work in nature that defy explanation by orthodox material science. Although no one has explained it, information, the wisdom of the soil, the wisdom of billions of years of experience, takes on physical substance in food grown under natural conditions. It is like spirit becoming flesh.
According to nutrition writer John David Mann, ancient foods like naturally grown microalgae are rich in information. "A food that goes back over four billion years," he writes, "clearly has a rich store of valuable genetic information." Other writers have speculated on how this ancient information is passed to food consumers. Orthodox Science, our nation's leading religion, scoffs because it cannot explain the mechanism, just as it initially scoffed at belief in roundness of the planet and the circulation of blood.
Mann says that organically grown foods are information rich: "Beyond their mere avoidance of chemicals, they contain the value of the skill and craftsmanship of their production; the care taken to preserve the soil on which they're grown; the traditional methods they embody; the preservation of genetic diversity; and even the social value of the small-scale, family-farm economy that underpins their production."
The importance of eating food that has been grown in real soil, or in pure, natural water in the case of algae, rather than the chemically created artificial growing surface of conventional farming is that soil imparts its information to the plant. Genuine organic soil is not only rich in trace elements not available to commercially grown plants, but also in micro-organisms which, the old Roman poet Lucretius reminded us, "hand on the torch of life, like runners in a race," passing on from generation to generation the wisdom of the soil and the experience of the ages. It is through the living soil and through the ancient plants that grow in it that we are rooted to the earth. "The statement that the earth is our mother," writes Nobel laureate Rene Dubos, "is more than a sentimental platitude, since . . . we are shaped by the earth. The characteristics of the environment in which we develop condition our biological and mental being and the quality of our life. Were it only for selfish reasons, therefore, we must maintain variety and harmony in nature."
No mater how much USDA would deny it, a tomato grown from an heirloom seed in rich, chemical-free soil, nourished by natural light, clean water, and a full complement of micro-organisms and trace minerals, has valuable information and other intangible benefits that can never be listed in Handbook 8. That its monetary cost should be greater makes sense.
Editor: This article appeared initially in Gazette #45. The main article of the issue, "My Secret Life as a Farmer," is recommended.