Published on July 22, 2007
Like all mothers and housewives, when I go shopping for grocery items at supermarkets, I always want to pick up the freshest and most wholesome food possible for my family - in other words, food that contains as few chemicals, preservatives, additives or pesticides as possible. With the increasing concerns about food safety, I prefer to buy natural: produce that's not irradiated or genetically modified.
When I was in the UK , I noticed that supermarkets there offer an enormous range of organic produce. Some of the organic food items travel from as far as Thailand and Argentina, and the market for them is growing every year. Some of my friends in the UK even tell me that they only eat organic fruits and vegetables these days, and would never think of buying non-organically grown food items.
To qualify as organic, crops must have been grown on land that has been free of chemicals for at least three years. Organic foods are processed and packaged without the use of artificial preservatives, colourings, irradiation or any other additives.
Converts to chemical-free produce are often firm in their belief that, these days, people who don't eat organic are being slowly poisoned by pesticides. Certainly, there's a growing mountain of reports on what really goes into producing our food, and they make scary reading. In the rush to produce more and more to satisfy growing demands, producers have had to resort to using a cocktail of pesticides to control disease and insect infestation. Furthermore, antibiotics and hormones are force-fed to cattle, pigs and poultry at battery farms.
Since the effects of pesticides can only be gauged over the long-term and are tricky to establish at present, it's difficult to know how much of a threat to health they are. But there's also the potential problem of pesticide interaction, and the interaction of the pesticides with other chemicals encountered in the environment. Sometimes it is difficult to judge whether chemicals that are harmful to pests can really be safe for us. According to research, the startling fact is that pesticides in food have been linked to many diseases, including cancer, obesity, Alzheimer's and some birth defects.
This all sounds very worrisome and, even if you do decide to rush into buying only organically grown food, how can you be totally certain that the labelling accurately reflects the method of production where there is no regulatory body to ensure standards are enforced? In Thailand we can buy vegetables labelled as organically grown, but I sometimes wonder how the bagged-up leaves can sit on supermarket shelves for more than two days and still stay perfectly green?!
The reality is that organically produced food is only for the well-off, and that the food industry is driven by profits to promote it in food-abundant wealthy countries. Organic methods of production are massively less productive, and a large proportion of the world's population would starve if they were the only choice.
And consider that the food industry is generally one of the most regulated industries in the world, partly because it is relatively highly protected, and health standards are often used as the mechanism to protect domestic farmers.
When it comes to choosing your food, then, use common sense - locally produced products are always my preferred choice simply because they don't need to travel too far to reach the supermarket shelves. Therefore fewer chemicals are used to keep them staying green longer.
Inever thought I'd enjoy the feeling of mud squeezing up between my toes. I'm a city dweller to the core but, as part of my doctoral fieldwork, I once found myself helping farmers in an organic rice field. It was during the cool season. The paddy was flooded and lush. My companions - referred to rather conspiratorially in anthropology as "informants" - pointed out the little fish swimming around us. Someone cupped his hands together and captured one of them.
Before setting the fish free, he said to me, "Isn't it beautiful? But it will die when the farmer next door sprays his crop."
I looked over at the rice field about 100 metres away and saw a paddy with bright green plants that grew much denser and higher than the ones around me. Suddenly the field I found myself in seemed rather drab.
The benefit of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides was, quite literally, right before my eyes. The detriment would soon come in the death of the little fish swimming around me.
Organic food is now all the rage. Everyone wants it. Not only are we told of its health benefits, we are also told of its superior flavour. I can't really tell whether organic food is any more nutritious. I do know, however, that the organic food I've eaten tastes a lot better.
The vegetables may not be as attractive, considering the occasional bug-eaten leaf. Nor might the free-range chicken be as tender as battery-farmed birds. But such concerns pale in comparison to the health benefits and the positive effects on the environment. Not only that, people don't seem to mind the expense. One of the reasons organic food has become so popular is that people who can afford to enjoy it are willing to pay for it.
But all is not well in the wild or, at least, the free-range. Bird flu has sent me straight back to the supermarket chicken that has never seen the light of day. That may be the only way I know I'll get birds that aren't infected with some dangerous virus. I love my eggs slightly undercooked and prefer home-made mayonnaise. The only way to eat any of that safely nowadays is to use farmed eggs.
Amid the trendiness of organic everything, we forget that inorganic was once considered good. Battery farming and extensive chemical fertilisation came about in order to lessen disease and to increase yields. Growing more food and keeping it fresh longer is one of the greatest revolutions in human history. In the days before intensive chemical production and preservatives, there wasn't enough food and, often, it didn't last long enough to survive transportation.
We have reached a point now where famine, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, does not occur because we haven't enough food. Famine occurs because leaders make political and economic decisions that deny people access to food.
In other words, our methods of food production have become so successful that the primary concern is distributing it to the people who need it.
And what of the people who can get all the food they want and have the economic means to pick and choose? They start to think of more than just satisfying hunger. It is a luxury to be able to make flavour, health and the environment a priority.
Global decisions are made by those who choose with their wallets. If you choose organic vegetables, you might influence farmers to stop using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Not only will you have better food, some little fish might get to live a little longer.