Monday, June 9, 2008

"Forget organics."

I normally talk about tea, but today I'm going to talk about something that is also very close to my heart--sustainability. Once I've posted a bit more on the Expo, I'll also talk about ways to make your tea more sustainable.

The cover of the 15th anniversary of Wired magazine called for environmentalists to "Forget organics." Inside the cover, it briefly discussed the methane output from organic vs conventional cattle, as well as the yield of beef, using this as a case-and-point argument against organics in general. It mentioned that vegetarian diets have a substantially lower impact on greenhouse gases, and then talks about how big agriculture has taken over much of the organic industry. The conclusion: local and conventional is better than far-away, big ag, and organic.

I agree with each of their individual points. However, find their sensationalist style of journalism to be irresponsible at best. The American public is already confused about how to green their lives. Too busy (or perhaps to lazy or disillusioned) to do much research on their own, the average American either blindly accepts all organics as created equal or is extremely wary of all of them. Those who accept organics often use organic products as an "get out of jail free" card for other offenses, such as buying a new Hummer, having three kids (even one child is unsustainable if raised in the US), or living on a carnivorous diet. Presenting information in this style will only make the problem worse and increase cynicism about the environment's future. "It's screwed already. I can't make a difference."

The fact of the matter is that the issues are not black and white, but they are a lot easier to understand than most people think. Yes, organics are often produced my big ag and, yes, that is bad. However, a little research can often yield local, organic/minimal-treatment farms in your area. CSAs and farmers' markets are becoming increasingly common in response to big ag and to the consumers' demand for local, sustainable, quality products. More and more foodies are made each day. Perhaps they read up on issues of labor force mistreatment, pesticide damage to individual and environmental health, the amount of fuel it takes to bring food to your table, and the amount of political lobbying big ag does in Washington each year... or perhaps they tried their first heirloom tomato and just couldn't go back to the tasteless, uniform GMOs they were used to.

One sentence about local produce at the end of an anti-organic rant does NOT give readers the impression that they have viable options. It is the opposite of empowerment through knowledge--it is the spread of disillusionment through limited information. Likewise, the brief mention of vegetarianism as a more sustainable option is not given anywhere near equal weight to the rant about how bad organic beef is for the environment compared to conventional beef.* Once again, this is not a black and white issue. Raised animals were traditionally used as secondary sources of food (milk, eggs, cheese), as OCCASIONAL primary sources of food (meat), and for regular labor (cattle for carrying or pulling loads, chickens for pest control, etc.). In factory farms, they are used primarily for meat and the reasons are clear in any fast food advertisement. I am a vegetarian not because I think that meat consumption is inherently wrong (sorry, PETA), but because I am trying to do my part offset the absurd levels of meat consumption in America. It is wholly unsustainable for so many people to eat so much meat, but telling people their only option is vegetarianism is just silly. They balk at the idea. Telling them they can drop a few pounds and help the environment if they opt for some sauteed veggies and whole grain bread instead of a massive burger every now and then... that's something the average American can relate to--AND act upon.

Of course, the fact that conventional fruit, grain, legume, and vegetable production is devastating the environment (massive loss of topsoil and available water, monocropping leading to the loss of biodiverity and sustainable ecosystems, increased dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides due to chemical-caused "super-bugs," the use of questionable GMOs, such as one that causes plants to be sterile...), but they don't delve into that. Sigh... I could go on and on about this, but I'll stop ranting now. If you're interested in these issues, I suggest checking out Slow Food and looking up Local Harvest. And, as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

*They do not take into account anything but methane production and beef yield in this comparison, by the way. Environmental damage done by antibiotics, pesticide-laden feed, high-density farming/concentrations of animal waste, etc. are not addressed.


Steph said...

here, here!

Summer said...

You should stop in at the Tailgate Market while you're here in Charlotte. It's Sat 9-1 and Tuesday 4-7 on the corner of Camden and Park Ave.

Everything is local and sustainable. I'm with you on the sustainability over organic, and I'm delighted that we have this venue here in Charlotte.

If you do stop by, say hi! I'll be the tea lady. :_