No matter how smart or well-intentioned, a person who asks a stupid question is going to get a stupid answer.
The magazine Nutrition Action, which supports forceful lobbying for consumer rights across North America, is definitely smart and well-intentioned when it comes to fat and salt, and the food corporations and regulations that come with too much of both.
But when it comes to organics, the mag's editors don't know enough to keep quiet. In one of their first features on the subject, the July lead article asks Organic Food: Worth The Price?
The trend to organic may be good for insects, animals, soil, air and water, the magazine concedes. "But is it worth the extra price for consumers?"
It's as good a reminder as we'll ever get that the very term "consumption," which mainly referred to deadly sins and diseases until the consumer economy triumphed during the 1900s, is based on the separation of shopping from ethics, nature and social responsibility.
Stopping global warming may be good for the planet, a well-trained consumer will ask, but what's in it for me?
The article goes on to argue that there's little solid human health evidence to support hopes or fears that organics are healthier for humans.
Well, where do I start? There is no way anyone can answer the stupid question as to whether organic offers financially justifiable superior human health benefits, because organic production methods are only one small set of factors in a whole universe of influences and interactions.
So the best anyone can say is, it depends. Sadly, it depends mostly on food manipulations that remain hidden to eaters (the PC word for consumers), thanks to weak labelling laws that favour non-organic producers and retailers.
One issue to be considered is that no two foods are alike, so the impact of using fossil fuels for fertilizer and toxic sprays for pest control will vary according to the food. The Nutrition Action article, to the publishers' credit, includes the "dirty dozen" list from the U.S. Environmental Working Group, which ranks fruits and veggies according to their pesticide content.
Peaches, for example, are the worst. They take a lot of spraying and have hairy skin that holds onto pesticides long after the pests have gone. They also have soft skin, which means more chemicals penetrate the fruit. Strawberries are in the same league. By contrast, onions get less spray and less residue, as do several grains.
But the piece fails to mention that chemicals aren't all equal, though some will decide that the "-cide" in their name (as in homicide, suicide and genocide) is a tip-off. Herbicides (weed killers) are often less toxic, insecticides are usually deadlier, and fungicides are often deadliest. Not that this information is ever on labels. Governments have decided that pesticides are safe, and that should be good enough for any unthinking consumer.
But organic means more than no pesticides, a fact that Nutrition Action's editors don't address. It bans artificial fertilizers, usually manufactured from fossil fuels, in favour of composts that add life and complex nutrients to the soil.
Organic also forbids genetic engineering, on which the article is silent, as are government rules on what gets labelled.
Organic, however, does not regulate many of the things that affect nutrient levels after the food is grown. Organic produce may or may not be left in the field for a few hours after picking, for example, and may or may not be refrigerated immediately. The food may or may not require a long truck ride during which volatile vitamins are likely to be lost.
When it comes to nutrients, Nutrition Action spoke too soon. The article concludes that there's "no good evidence" that organics are more nutritious. But a study in July's issue of the Journal Of Agriculture And Food Chemistry found that levels of various antioxidants are from 79 to 97 per cent higher in organic tomatoes, probably because of organic fertilizers.
As well, a just-released study from the World Health Organization, billed as the most comprehensive and expert study done yet, says the impact of enviro toxins such as food pesticides depends on the age of the eater: the younger, including fetal stages, the more vulnerable, no matter what the dose. That's worth thinking about for those who think the future - though it has done nothing for us to date - is worth something.
Finally, pesticides may disappear from the plants they were sprayed on, but they don't vanish from this earth or even leave the food system. Many end up in the water supply and account for the fact that wild fish get a dose to pass on to consumers who didn't think organic veggies and grain were worth it.
The July 12 issue of Science reports on 4,000 previously unidentified chemicals likely to bio-accumulate in fish, a phenomenon that requires, the Simon Fraser University authors claim, new levels of government regulations.
And that leads to the question that should have been asked: why do governments support rules that favour non-organic production and retailing, allowing that food to pass itself off as having a lower price that deludes many people into thinking organic is not, as Nutrition Action would say, "worth the price."
Pesticide load on a scale of 1 to 100 (best to worst)
Sweet bell peppers: 86,
Grapes (imported): 68,
Sweet peas, frozen: 11
Source: Environmental Working Group, www.foodnews.org