Posts Tagged ‘shades of gray’

6 Questions to Ask Before Buying Organic

Is organic more eco-friendly? It depends.             Image credit: fruitnet

How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability? If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.

Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in? What am I actually paying for?

While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.

(Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.)

Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?

Pest management strategies?                                        Image credit: kumaravel

1. How does this organic farm manage pests?

Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed — the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)

Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.

What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.

2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?

How eco-friendly is tilling?     Image credit: ryanovineyards

Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.

3. How suitable is the crop for the environment in which it’s being grown?

Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers)  is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend 6 months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.

4.  How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?

Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations, and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13% (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!

5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?

Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. (I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic.) Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.

Got food? Thank a farmworker! Image credit: National Farm Worker Ministry

6. How does this farm treat farmworkers? 

This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.


Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional; the percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really, really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.

Did I flub anything (I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers)? Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?

Would you eat a GMO heirloom tomato?

Brandywine tomatoes are practically the poster child for organic, heirloom produce. Knobbly, warty, and deeply flavored, they’re a far cry from perfectly round red tomatoes. At $3/lb at the farmers’ market, Brandywines are also pretty pricy.

Want to know why you have to pay so much? Brandywines are prone to nematodes, microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes from the roots up. Farmers lose a lot more of their Brandywines to disease than more modern, disease-resistant hybrids. And because they harvest less, more land and water go into producing each pound of these heirloom tomatoes. In using more natural resources than hybrids, these organic, heirloom tomatoes might actually have a larger footprint than their conventional or hybrid counterparts.

Here’s the thing: with our existing technology, we could introduce better disease resistance simply by moving a disease resistant gene from a different type of tomato into the Brandywine, in basically an accelerated version of what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. No interspecies genes, no genes from viruses or bacteria, nothing that we don’t already eat whenever we eat a non-heirloom tomato. A GMO Brandywine could use water and space more effectively and require fewer or no pesticides.

Would you eat this hypothetical GMO heirloom tomato? What if it could be shown to be lower impact than its unmodified cultivar? What if it were clearly labeled?

…and what if you didn’t instinctively flinch at the idea of GMO and everything it stood for?

I’m currently reading Josh Schonwald’s The Taste of Tomorrow, which has a provocative chapter questioning whether the schism between organic and GMO is more ideological than rational. I’m discovering that my problem with GMO is not about the actual science at all: it’s about Monsanto’s business practices, lobbying, and seed patenting. No, I don’t think making farmers dependent on a corporation is a good idea. Yes, I think the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that ruled that genes could be patented was a disaster.

But as far as actual genetic modification goes, I’m neutral. It’s a different, and potentially complementary, approach to solving the same problems organic farmers face: disease prevention, yield, nutrition. I’m intrigued by Vitamin A fortified golden rice that could help prevent blindness in some of the poorest areas on the planet. In China, a form of cotton has been genetically modified to contain bacteria that acts as a natural pesticide. It’s helped to reduce pesticide use by 80%. That’s a lot of pesticides that didn’t go into our ground, air, and water. In Hawaii, after ringspot virus devastated papaya trees, scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed a disease resistant GMO papaya variety, released the seeds to farmers for free, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the livelihoods of many small farmers.

Of course there are concerns with GMOs.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about long term effects on human and planetary health, the development of resistance to GMO, monocropping. Like you, I’m upset about the corporatization of food and Monsanto’s monopolistic policies. Although GMO produce goes through rigorous testing, we don’t always know what to test for, and it’s possible, even likely, that there will be results we could not have predicted. Increased production, for example, often triggers an increase in population/consumption (why hello, industrial animal farming), and we’re still biological creatures, after all. Increasing efficiency while decreasing consumption is the hardest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

But nor is organic always synonymous with sustainability. Organic tomatoes imported from Mexico are sucking local water tables dry. The organic strawberries at the farmers’ market are still spayed with pesticides that are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic counterparts. We usually think of biodegrading as a good process, but some organic pesticides degrade into toxic chemicals. Is a water-hungry, disease-prone organic plant really ‘greener’ than a GMO with higher yields that requires fewer pesticides? I don’t know.

Everything’s a compromise. Call me a bad greenie for breaking with the ‘organic = good, GMO = bad’ binary, but here’s what I think: Wrenching humanity off its current course of self-destruction and on to a more sustainable path is a big, messy, complicated problem. And ignoring potential solutions just because we’re ideologically — not rationally — opposed may not be helpful in finding solutions. It’s possible we’ll need GMO technology when the climate starts changing too quickly for our old plants and ways of agriculture. It’s possible GMO and organic could complement each other for more sustainable agriculture and stable food supplies. One thing is clear: we can’t go backwards.

What do you think about GMOs? Would you eat a GMO Brandywine?

Photo by Amanda Quintana-Bowles 

Tiny Houses: 12 questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge

The Towhee, a tiny house on wheels, against a blue sky with clouds.

The Towhee, photo by Bungalow to Go, used with permission

In January, Kevin and I attended the open house of Bungalow To Go‘s tiny house in Bodega Bay, California. At 168 sf, including the loft, the Towhee (based on the Lusby of Tumbleweed Houses) fits on a standard trailer and epitomizes the charm and appeal of tiny homes. It was small, yes, but thoughtfully laid out with clean lines, beautiful materials, and a splendid attention to detail that just doesn’t happen in full-sized houses.

The more I think about it, the more I think Tumbleweed and other tiny house companies sell a lifestyle more than they do actual houses. It’s the promise of a simpler life with less stuff, a smaller footprint on the planet, having to spend less time working to pay a mortgage, and escaping the whole rat race the American dream has become. In love? I am.

But there are tradeoffs, of course. All of my decisions are made in the spirit of compromise; nothing is ever uncomplicatedly good or bad in my world. While this is definitely a problem when I go grocery shopping and can’t decide between the organic spinach in the plastic box or the loose leaf conventional spinach that can go in a reusable bag, I think it’s well worth considering the pros and cons before making the leap to tiny living. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself about when it comes to tiny houses, and just how tiny would be too tiny for my life.

(By the way, Kevin and I had the same reaction after touring the Towhee: it’s beautiful, but we’d be at the other’s throat after a week. And it would be my fault.)

  1. How much time do you spend at home? And how do you see home? If home is just your crash pad between work and life, you may not need a lot of space. If home is where you spend most of your time and do most of your living, you’ll probably need more. Left to my own devices, I’m a total shut-in. I need light, silence, and space in about that order.
  2. How well do you share space? If you’re single, do you anticipate living with a partner? I know from instinct and a totally disastrous dorm experience that I don’t want to share 150 sf with another human — even my favorite human.  I’m as territorial as your average cat, and need a room of my own with a door to close behind me.
  3. Are you prepared to spend more of your life outside? (And what’s the weather like where you intend to live?) One of the things about tiny homes is that more living takes place outside the house. My friend Emily dreams of an outdoor bathtub where she can relax and stare up at the stars on a regular basis. I know I don’t love being outdoors the way she does. I like it, but some days the great outdoors and Suburbanite Girl me just don’t get along well. Gusting winds, meet contact lenses. Living more of my life outdoors would be a big change for me.
  4. What are your hobbies? Some hobbies take up more space than others, and in a tiny house, that might be space you don’t have. How important is your hobby to your enjoyment of life? My two main hobbies are pottery and cooking. Cooking wouldn’t be much of a problem in a well-designed tiny house, but pottery would. I work outside at a studio right now, and am OK with that. But I wonder which dream I want more: my own little home studio, or a small house with no mortgage.
  5. What is your attitude about stuff? I’m an unapologetic sensory junkie, and as a potter, I make stuff that I hope can be both beautiful and useful. I don’t feel the need to possess everything I find beautiful, but I want texture, aesthetics, and sensory appeal to be a part of my life. I want to have room for at least a few items that are lovely without requiring them to also be truly useful: a turned burl bowl with a waving natural edge, a handful of whimsical cat figurines from my travels. I doubt I will ever be a minimalist.
  6. Is there anything you collect? Between the two of us, Kevin and I have thousands of books. The number has stabilized over the years and may even be diminishing slightly, but we know that more aggressive culling will be inevitable if we want to live in a smaller house.
  7. How long do you want to live in your tiny house? Tiny houses seem to be mostly for people who are fairly young, fairly agile, and fairly thin. Doors and entryways are narrow, lofts are accessible by ladders, bathrooms are tiny. It’s part of maximizing available space, but it makes it harder to think about retiring in one.
  8. What do you think your family will look like in the next five years? Again, many tiny house designs are not very child friendly and won’t accommodate extra family members. I’m not having kids, so it’s a moot point for me, but I realize that I’m probably a minority in this.
  9. Do you have pets? Do you plan to? I think my cat could be OK in a tiny house, if she managed not to be constantly underfoot. She doesn’t make much use of our current 1100sf space. Her daily routine is often limited to litter box, couch, and kitchen, which are all within maybe 20 feet of each other. But she’s a blind adult cat; an active kitten or dog could be harder to coexist with in a very small space.
  10. Have you lived in small spaces before (dorm room, studio apartment)?  What did you not like about it? I’ve lived in quite a few different small dorm rooms, and the one that made me most miserable was dark and shared with someone I hated. My favorite room was maybe 15′ by 10′ with huge sunny windows, a sink, and no roommate. I realized that what made me happy wasn’t more space so much as sunlight and privacy. And a cat, if possible.
  11. How often do you entertain or have guests? Can I be totally unsociable and say that I don’t mind the idea of not being able to have houseguests? Although there are a few people I would be genuinely happy to have over, for everyone else, it’s a matter of gritting my teeth and trying to play good hostess. I enjoy cooking for other people, but I almost never have more than four people over total. Nothing a tiny house couldn’t handle. One of the suggestions in the Tumbleweed book is that the money saved on a conventional house can go towards renting a venue for big occasions.
  12. What in your life would feel like a sacrifice to give up? This is really the crux of it, isn’t it? I’ve come to the conclusion that my life as it is right now — with a spouse, a cat, and a hobby that keeps getting bigger — is a little too big for a 150sf house.  It would be too much of a compromise, and too little has as many drawbacks as too big. But that’s not to say that a small house is out of the question. Kevin and I are currently in love with the Tumbleweed Whidbey, which at about 500sf, seems neither too small nor too big, but rather just right.

Would you make the tiny house leap? What holds you back?

9 Assumptions We Make About Chemicals

File:Biohazard symbol.svgAll things considered, I’m not a particularly paranoid person. Not all of my food is organic, there’s fluoride in my toothpaste, I breathe in way too much clay dust, support vaccination, and at a time when everyone is shunning the evils of gluten, I’ve taken up baking bread. (Chewy, crusty bread that crackles when taken out of the oven…) However, given inevitable gaps in scientific knowledge and human fallibility, I and many other environmentally concerned people support the precautionary principle.

But given how many headlines from my Twitter feed scream about carcinogens, infertility, asthma, and other diseases, I have to wonder: are we being rational in how we look at chemicals and evaluate our risk from them? Or is this some kind of knee-jerk reaction?

I recently read (and reviewed) an eye-opening book on toxicology called The Dose Makes the Poison by Patricia Frank and M. Alice Ottoboni. It’s no page turner, but it offers a perspective on toxins that squarely contradicts the more usual alarmist headlines that show up in my environmental Twitter feed. Its conclusion: public perception of chemicals and risk have very little correlation with what the scientific data show. Although I do feel like the book downplays potential risk, especially from combined chemical exposure, it also exposes the press and public’s tendency to consider chemicals in a black/white dichotomy.

I felt very defensive while reading this book, but after that first reaction, have come to recognize that it made valid points and shook up some assumptions I didn’t even know I was making. Are you looking for some food for thought? Here are some of the myths the book takes pains to point out and disprove.

  1. Natural = safe. In fact, many of the most toxic substances on this planet are entirely natural. From death cap mushrooms and oleanders to hemlock, arsenic to radon, nature’s pharmacy is much, much bigger than man’s. And frequently bad for us. Humans have been poisoning themselves (accidentally) and others (not accidentally) for our entire history as a species, long before we were able to create synthetics.
  2. Chemicals are bad. Even if you’re only talking about synthetic chemicals, this is a pretty broad generalization. Manmade chemicals include pesticides, poisons, and life-saving medicines.
  3. Substances are inherently safe or unsafe. You can die from drinking too much water, eating too much spinach, drinking too much coffee, or taking too much Tylenol. Hell, the chemical acrylamide, produced by frying, baking, or roasting starches, is carcinogenic. Granted, you’d have to drink or eat a lot of these substances, but the point is: there’s a threshold after which they stop being harmless or therapeutic and become dangerous. With relatively few exceptions, chemicals have measurable thresholds. It’s the dose that makes the poison. 
  4. Correlation equals causation. In one case study, a new hospital was experiencing a spike in the rate of newborn jaundice. Everyone suspected the culprit was pesticides sprayed on the farms outside. However, nearby hospitals exposed to similar levels of the same pesticides didn’t have increased jaundice cases. Eventually, they figured out that babies at the new hospital, which had fewer windows, were less exposed to light. Phototherapy is now effectively used to treat jaundice.  It’s both easy and tempting to jump to conclusions, but correlation does not always equal causation, certainly not to the extent the press makes it seem. The next time you read an article about how x substance causes x disease, it might be worth considering whether the article is really about a correlation, not a proven cause.
  5. Banning a chemical is the safest way to go. Well…sometimes. And then sometimes it just makes manufacturers switch to a less well tested substitute, and we’re faced with choosing between the known risk (e.g. BPA) and the unknown one that we have much less information on (BPS). Joy.
  6. Anyone who doesn’t condemn synthetic chemicals is an industry apologist. Dismissing anyone who disagrees with your beliefs as incompetent or corrupt is a devastatingly effective way to stop making rational evaluations. There are certainly industry apologists. However, there are also studies — lots of them — that simply don’t yield conclusive results, show that a chemical used at its recommended level is safe, or that its benefits outweigh its risks (as with many medicines).
  7. Studies can give us definite yes or no answers about how safe chemicals are. Sometimes, but not very often.  Toxicological testing often requires so much time and resources  in order to draw statistically valid conclusions that the amount of funding provided just isn’t enough. So we end up with plenty of studies that suggest possible conclusions without being statistically valid, yet are interpreted by the press to be a definite conclusion.
  8. Looking at one source can give us definitive answers about how much risk we face. It’s hard to get a balanced perspective by looking at just one website or one study, even if you haven’t leaped to any of the above conclusions. Did you know that 79% of the Society of Toxicologists surveyed consider the EWG (home of the Skin Deep database) to overstate the health risks of chemicals? I didn’t either. But knowing that will help me evaluate how much risk I think my shampoo is putting me in. I recommend also checking out Personal Care Truth for another perspective on cosmetics safety.
  9. Organic farming does not involve pesticides. Some small farms do use crop rotation and other pesticide-free ways to manage pests, but most larger scale organic farms use pesticides. The main difference is that they are required to use organic pesticides rather than synthetic ones. (Mostly.) However, there’s some evidence to suggest that organic pesticides are not necessarily safer for humans or ecosystems than their conventional counterparts, and some biodegrade into other chemicals that are harmful. Dammit, why can’t things be straightforward for once?

I’ve read that the human bias is to believe that we are in peril, which back in the good old days was less likely to get us killed than dismissing a potential threat. I also think we have a lot more information at our disposal now and should use it to make rational, well-considered judgments instead of just reacting. Life would be so much simpler if buying organic was always better for the planet, or if all synthetic chemicals were dangerous. Instead, it’s about a whole bunch of case-by-case decisions, like having to judge people as individuals instead of lumping them into stereotypes. No one said it was going to be easy.

What’s your attitude towards chemicals? Have you found yourself falling into any of these assumptions?

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