Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Case Against Organic

Chemicals are everywhere. Since the dawn of time, we've used salt to preserve our meat, and later, saltpeter. Lye (sodium hydroxide) was once used to make soap--if you read the cautionary warnings, suddenly your average shampoo, laden with "chemicals", doesn't sound so bad. We've been making use of opium for five thousand years, and magic mushrooms ever since someone mistakenly added them to his soup.

So when the Greens declare a war on chemicals, what exactly do they mean? Gram for gram, the most deadly poisons are found in living creatures. Take jellyfish, for instance--we all know they sting, and that their stings hurt. But when they start "blooming", when massive numbers float through the oceans in packs, they can do serious ecological damage, on the scale of industrial disasters. I would be hard-pressed to seriously consider a ban on jellyfish, though.

This is not to say that pesticides and herbicides are, by any means, harmless. Organophosphates are NOT fun things to play with. But let's examine what chemicals have allowed us to achieve, and then ask whether we are willing to do without them, before we decide to ban them altogether (I know there is no serious talk about banning the use of pesticides and herbicides, but the most dedicated Greens probably wouldn't mind).

One of the main areas that Green folk like to stump about is organic farming, which is farming without any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. "It tastes better" and "It's healthier" are the usual claims; I've never been able to discern much of a difference. And maybe that has to do with the fact that I don't live in, say, California, so the spinach that was fresh off the organic farm has been sitting in the back of a semi for three days, so that by the time it reaches the store it tastes the same as the conventional spinach, grown closer to home (and therefore has no need to sit in a semi for three days). But regardless, it's hard to be against organic farming, until you think about what it means for your wallet:

Until the advent of modern farming (my definition of it can be found here), farmers were largely at the mercy of drought, plague, flood, hurricanes, earthquakes--anything that upset the growing process could be considered a natural disaster. The weather, alas, is neither predictable nor controllable, and that's doubly true now that global warming is such an issue. The fact that we have such an abundance of food and that it costs so little to the consumer, is testimony to the power these chemicals have that enable us to grow so much food at such low prices (farm subsidies help, too). Giving up chemicals would require giving up cheap food. And if you thought prices were high now...

Chemistry has played a role in EVERY aspect of human life, from the indium in your LCD screen that lets you read this, to the semiconductor that makes up the processor, to the tanning process that gives you a soft leather jacket, to the wine you drink and the clumping agent in the kitty's cat litter. Unless we're willing to go back to the Stone Age (because bronze involves smelting, and therefore charcoal, and therefore cutting down trees), we had damn well better come up with a much clearer definition of what we mean when we say "let's get the chemicals out of our lives".

And before I get reamed for this: I am not trying to say that organic farming is bad for the planet, or that pesticides and herbicides are good. Even I don't believe that. But when you start looking at the bigger picture, things get complicated--what if food is priced beyond the range of the poor? Maybe that's not a big deal in the US, where the deal is "food or gas", but it can be a big deal in poverty-stricken areas of the world, where there is no question--everything must go towards food. I am trying to point out that without a clearer definition of what we mean by "chemicals", the logic ultimately takes us to an illogical conclusion.

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