Book of the Month/December 2012

Organic Food
The Truth About Organic Foods was a tasty, soul-satisfying book — sweet and savory both. The author, Alex Avery, does not attack organic food as such, but what he does critique, devastatingly, is the pretension that wafts over the whole organic movement. If you like how organic tastes — as Avery himself sometimes does — then knock yourself out. It is great to live in a free country.

The pretension can be seen, for example, in claims made about “taste,” but when those claims are tested in blind taste tests, the results are all over the road. Just as it is very hard to really taste when you have lost your sense of smell, so also it is sometimes hard to taste when you have lost your right to peek at the answer key.

But commitment to organic is frequently located in our religion genes, which means that the response to criticism is much more visceral than it might be to ordinary, runaday criticism. If you go to lunch with a friend, and he mentions that he thinks you might be happier with the grilled cheese in this joint than with their burger, the conversation will not likely escalate out of control. It is just a sandwich or a burger. But the claims that swirl around the ingestion of organic foods range from our obligation to save the planet to the future survival and health of all the children. It would be hard to ramp up many of the claims made any higher. Not surprisingly, evangelistic zeal consequently runs high, and there is often a corresponding resentment among those who would rather not be evangelized right now.

This book covers the waterfront — from organic’s odd historical origins to its dubious health claims to a discussion of pesticide residues, and then from there to crop yields, from crop yields to GMOs (frankenfoods!), and from GMOs to taste and freshness issues.

The book is just jammed with facts, and is heavily footnoted. Now someone mentioned to me (when I said that I was going to be reviewing this book) that I really ought to go look at some critical reviews of the book so that I might anticipate some of the objections that might be raised. So I did, and what I found indicated that the objection I really needed most to answer was “Nuh UH! Truth about organic food? That’s not truth! Corporations must have paid him big time!” I confess myself unable to answer this line of argument, so we will just move on.

You can probably guess what Avery’s conclusions might be. Organic food doesn’t do anything special for your health, pesticide residues are nothing to worry about, crop yields in organic farming are significantly lower, and so on. But it is not really a question of whether someone likes these conclusions — the basic question is whether the conclusions are justified. In other words, I would argue that if someone really wants to promote organic eating as a superior way to go, the arguments in this book really need to be dealt with. And by dealt with, I mean answered. Given the claims that are made for organic food, there really needs to be an honest debate over it.

If I were to summarize my takeaway point from this book, it would be this — and it is an ironic takeaway indeed. The organic movement is not sustainable. If you look at the yields coming from organic farms, and then factor in the range land that is necessary to produce the requisite organic fertilizer, and couple this with organic farming’s refusal to use herbicides and the resultant wind and water erosion that occurs because the weeds have to be tilled up, what you have is a genuinely  unsustainable scenario. Organic farming is sustainable only so long as it is dedicated to growing niche designer crops for rich people. As soon as you put pen to paper to calculate whether or not we could feed the world this way, you discover that it is an impossibility.

Now the eco-diehards in the organic movement actually grant this, but they are the ones who think that people are the problem. They acknowledge that we therefore need to get rid of a bunch of people in order to get down to what they think the “sustainable levels” ought to be. But these are secularists of various stripes — Christians who prefer organic generally know that people aren’t the problem. But if people aren’t the problem, then organic farming cannot feed us all — as Avery repeatedly shows, in various interesting ways.

This relates to another point that needs to be made, one that doesn’t have anything to do with organic issues directly. This is a question about economics. Since markets ought to be free, and farmers (both conventional and organic) ought to be free to grow and sell whatever they want without being hassled (or subsidized) by bureaucrats, none of what I am about to say involves approval of coercion of any farmers of whatever kind. This doesn’t mean anything goes, because farmers ought to be liable in civil court if they give anybody salmonella and this is proven in open court. But that is all the protection we need. Don’t give any farmers money (so this is not a defense of our current agricultral subsidies), and don’t give any farmers grief, and may the best methods gain whatever market share they earned for themselves in open and honest competition.

One of the reasons why the organic mentality appeals to many Christians (the kind of Christians who are susceptible to Wendell-Berry-like appeals) is that Christians find hubris off-putting, and we like the idea of accepting our “limits.” I share this instinct, and, like Chesterton in Orthodoxy, I celebrate the poetry of limits. Whenever scientists don the white lab coat to ascend to the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north, the palms of my hands get clammy. When those in the organic movement want to point to such hubris, examples are not hard to come by. But we need to remember that hubris can grow in a truck patch as easily as in 6,000 acres that have been thoroughly Monsantoed. The central characteristic of hubris is that it will not accept correction from the facts. Avery’s book gives us a great opportunity to test ourselves. The judgment you use will be the judgment you receive (Matt. 7:1-2).

So we should fully accept the idea of fixed limits — we are creatures, not gods. But where those limits ought to be set is quite a different question than whether we ought to have limits at all. If a wife were to mention to her unemployed husband of three years (and counting) that perhaps a day filled with sweet video games was not the way forward, and if he were to respond that her problem was that she did not want to accept our creaturely limitations, I would suggest to her that she could reply that she loves the idea of creaturely limitations. She just thinks they are somewhere out beyond the boundaries of the couch.

Every form of collectivism and socialism is a loutish form of government that won’t get off the couch. And it has to be said that the organic movement, considered as a whole, is an adjunct wing of the Left — it is the Left’s cafeteria. I know and appreciate the fact that there are a number of conservative Christians (crunchy cons) who want to participate in it, but I also suspect that many more of them are being recruited by the Left than they realize. In many ways, they have already been coopted, in ways they do not realize.

This is a great book. I commend it highly. 

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Eric B.

Wilson unintentionally gives a much better and truer answer to the question of whether pesticide residues are anything to worry about (as well as other similar questions that might be asked) in another context: “And, most importantly, why do you not have immediate access to the answers to these questions? I will tell you why — it is because the industry that promotes better living through chemistry is a politically protected class”