Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Worried Well

Another day, another dishonest article on organic agriculture. Kristen Gerencher starts out with the standard exordium:

A growing number of people are willing to pay a premium for food certified as organic -- produce generally barred from being grown with pesticides, synthetic materials or genetic modification, and livestock raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. But many scientists say it's unlikely organic food gives consumers any extra health benefit....
Gerencher spends the rest of her article questioning the notion that organic foods are healthier for the individual consumer, while completely ignoring the question of whether organic farming is healthier for some segment of society (e.g., agricultural workers), or for society as a whole (e.g., those of us who might be affected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria).

As a simple example of why this is foolish, consider the case of Chile. The U.S. imported roughly $740 million worth of fresh fruit from Chile in 2004. In the same year, Chilean agricultural workers suffered two pesticide-related fatalities and 568 cases of poisoning. And that may be the tip of the iceberg:
The ministry suspects some employers were concealing cases of chemical poisoning prior to the ruling, given the high number of temporary workers, the majority of whom have no employment contract and some of whom may be working illegally.
We have pretty much the same problem in the United States, of course. Cases of poisoning are likely to go unreported because illegal workers are afraid to seek medical treatment, or to file safety complaints. Even so, in 2003 there were over 300 suspected or confirmed agricultural pesticide injuries in California alone.

The recent Ag-Mart scandal is even more troubling, and hints at the cost to taxpayers of pesticide use and misuse. (Also, this was a case in which firms like Wal-Mart pulled a food product from their shelves not because it was dangerous to consumers, but because it was harming the workers who produced it.)

The poisoning of ag workers tends to be portrayed in the media as an aberration. However, a recent study of mortality among pesticide workers found that:
Compared to all other workers, farmers and pesticide applicators were at greater risk of accidental mortality. These pesticide-exposed workers...were at an increased risk of hematopoietic and nervous system cancers.
Studies like these call the moral and financial assumptions of factory farming into question, and provide an excellent reason for consumers to seek alternatives. But Gerencher insists that buying organic foods is an affectation of the "worried well" (whom she describes - interestingly - as "educated"). Apparently, we're supposed to picture a gaggle of drooping neurasthenics out of Edgar Allan Poe or J.K. Huysmans...the sort of effete hysterics who swoon when someone peels an orange in an adjoining room. But is it really likely that the organic boom is driven solely by malingerers with enough disposable income to coddle themselves? Isn't it possible that some organic consumers understand the environmental and human impact of factory farming, and that this - more than narrow self-solicitude - drives their buying decisions?

Gerencher allows one of her expert witnesses to suggest as much, though she doesn't follow up on it:
"Organics started out decades ago as an environmentally sound production system," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "What's emerging lately are scientific studies that show there may be some health benefits to organic products."
Organic farming is indeed a production system, and its costs and benefits should therefore be compared carefully to those of its rivals. While the pesticide residue on a piece of fruit may have no short- or long-term health effects, the same can't necessarily be said for pesticide residues on farm lands. Consumers across the continent are increasingly aware of pesticide runoff and groundwater contamination - fish kills, for instance, are common, well-publicized, and often economically disruptive - and it's reasonable to assume that some consumers look at larger issues like land use and community health when deciding to buy organics.

One can argue that there are no environmental or social benefits to organic farming, or that the benefits aren't worthwhile. But I don't see how one can simply refuse to address the question. Any consideration of the pros and cons of organic farming has to include factors like antibiotic use, which affect all of us. The fact that so many journalists ignore these issues in order to sneer at the alleged hypochondria of organic consumers suggests either a disturbing ignorance, or an even more disturbing agenda.

ADDENDUM: This article by Lisa Stiffler, from the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, is the antithesis of Gerencher's piece. Stiffler raises the same questions Gerencher does, in reference to the same Consumer Reports study, but discusses the issues that Gerencher leaves out, and doesn't descend to classist caricature. It's amazing how informative journalism can be, sometimes.


dan mcenroe said...

worse yet, i think a lot of the consumers of organic foods have internalized the 'effete hysteric' stereotype and therefore remain "closeted" about their organic buying habits.

it's a useful stereotype though. it alienates a large potential market for organic foods - the working class, who might otherwise purchase organic foods out of solidarity with farm workers getting shafted by 'the man.' in fact, the big corporate interests have done a good job painting many of the things that would help workers - such as unions - as indicators of laziness or self-centeredness.

roger said...

so those of us who buy organic are educated. just not as much, i reckon, as ms gerencher.

Phila said...


Good point about solidarity...I hadn't thought of that.