Eggs come with terms with “caged” or “barn-raised” to “free-range” or “grain-fed”. Some eggs even come from happy chickens! I mean, are these eggs or aren’t they?
These eggs are whiter than my laundry detergent.
Heck! I’m suspicious every time I look at eggs in North America and they come with perfectly white shells. Something isn’t quite right there. These eggs are whiter than my laundry detergent.
And that’s just eggs!
Fresh produce is even worse. Do I want just the standard thing? What about the organic? Or the GMO-free? What about vegan-friendly or gluten-free or one of the hundred other options?
I’m a man that likes choice. Don’t get me wrong, I love choice in certain parts of my life, but maybe this is too much choice.
I mean, I try to care. I grew up in the country. Loads of my friends had chickens running around the garden. I’m not a monster either, I’d like for all chickens to be happy.
But you know how it is. It’s a Friday night. It’s been a long week. I’m barely functioning as a human anymore. Here I am, stood in a supermarket because I need to eat.
Do I really know what all those different terms mean?
My ability to think, let alone care, is next to non-existent.
I mean it is nice to have a choice, but right now I don’t really care. If I stopped, and really thought about it. I could remember all those PETA images of what cage chickens actually look like. Then I’d probably end up buying the free-range.
But with the fresh produce, even if I stop and think about it, do I really know what all those different terms mean?
Is a “naturally sourced” tomato better than a normal tomato? Don’t all tomatoes come from plants? Isn’t that about as natural as it gets?
The truth is that our understanding of food has been carefully manipulated over the last 5 decades by a food industry, bigger than oil.
Food has been deliberately complicated so you won’t understand it.
Many, many years ago, we had a pretty good set up with plants. They gave us tasty fruit, that wasn’t going to kill us. In exchange, we dispersed their seeds in a nice pile of fertilizer.
That’s a pretty simple deal.
Yet, for some reason, every month we have a new fad diet, with some celebrity endorsement. No one knows if they should be eating carbs or cutting them out. Red meat is good for you, except when it isn’t. You shouldn’t eat fat, unless you’re on the Atkin’s diet.
I mean, what the hell?
Here’s an industry that controls what you put in your body and it’s deliberately misleading you. Yet somehow, they’re the good guys. Meanwhile, oil guys are corporate fat cats rolling around in piles of money?
Anyway, I got distracted.
Organic tomatoes in the supermarket
Let’s take a nice easy example. You go to the supermarket and you want to buy tomatoes. Pretty simple, really. I want nice red ones that fit in the palm of my hand.
Immediately, you’re faced with 2 options.
Every supermarket arranges their store such that most people will come across organic tomatoes first. The reason for this lies in sales. When I’m in my zombie state I’m just going to pick up the first thing I see that vaguely matches what I’m looking for. I’ll then completely ignore all later items, even they’re cheaper because I’ve already got the thing I want.
Assuming that I’m not in a zombie state and that I actually compare the tomatoes, the organic tomatoes are ALWAYS more expensive.
In your mind, a higher price point is instinctively better quality. Research conducted with the same wine in different bottles found that people preferred the wine they thought cost more.
The same trick is used in the supermarket. The organic tomatoes cost a lot more, so they must be much better. Right?
In a supermarket environment, you don’t know if the organic tomatoes are better. You don’t blind taste-test each of them before buying. You don’t have any information about the farming practices involved. You don’t even know the price that the supermarket bought the tomatoes at. Typically organic tomatoes are also sold as “locally grown”. Trade agreements with farmers might make the local tomatoes cheaper for the supermarket than the ones being flown around the world.
All you have is a sticker, stating “Organic” and a big price difference.
So which do you choose?
“Well, I always buy organic…”
Talk to a middle class, yoga-going, young mom and they’ll probably tell you that they like to buy organic. Talk to a student… well, talk to a student and they’re probably not wasting their money on fresh fruit and veg. But, talk to a family on a budget and their top priority is the price point.
Now most of you readers will be following my story along, clearly seeing the divide between people that do and don’t buy organic.
At no point, did you stop and question: What does organic mean?
Take a minute, I’ll wait.
Just think about it.
What does organic, mean?
If you just thought, “Well it means it’s certified”. I pose to you, certified by whom? What does it actually mean to get a certificate?
If you thought, “Well it means they don’t use any chemicals or pesticides on the crops”.
What does organic mean?
In most countries around the world, the term organic and its certification is a self-regulated industry. In places like the EU, Canada, and Japan, there is a governmental influence, but that’s really all it is, an influence.
The government usually just defines the criteria. “To be called organic within this country’s borders you must meet these criteria…”
Actually enforcing those criteria, not so much.
So where’s it come from?
The term organic farming was first coined by Lord Northbourne in 1940, in his book Look to the Land. He thought of a farm to be like a single organism. A farm, therefore, needs a simple, balanced and self-sustaining approach to farming. By contrast, he called chemical farming, “imported fertility” as it was not self-sustainable.
Governmental organic definitions follow on from this original concept. US federal law and official guidance for organic production, states that “methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
Specifically, that means no synthetic fertilizers, no sewage sludge, no irradiation and no genetic engineering.
The interesting loophole, is the use of the word synthetic.
Synthetic Vs. Natural
To normal people, the word synthetic means just about anything that comes out of a lab. For the normal person, non-synthetic fertilizer is something like horse manure, you pick up at the garden center for the roses.
From a legal definition, synthetic has a totally different meaning. Natural products are anything made by a plant, animal or bacteria in nature. Even if you take something normally found in a jellyfish and put it in a bacteria for it to be made for you in a lab – it is still a natural product.
Natural products are anything found in nature, even if you found it in a jellyfish
Insulin-injecting diabetics need insulin to reduce their blood sugar levels after eating. Years ago this insulin had to be isolated from pigs or cows. These animals have a very similar type of insulin to humans, but over time, the body can still build an immune response to it.
In 1955, scientists solved the structure of human insulin. This then allowed the scientists to alter the gene in cows so that it now looked identical to the human form. Today, almost all insulin comes from genetically modified bacteria or yeast producing perfect copies of human insulin. This clearly is not a natural way to produce bulk quantities of human insulin, but the point is, the insulin, is still a natural product.
Why would food be different to medicine?
In this same way, just because you are buying organic food, doesn’t mean that you are buying food that is free from fertilizers or pesticides. Organic foods are often sprayed with more pesticides.
Bt-corn is a breed of genetically modified corn (or maize if you’re American) used on almost every farm in America. It looks, behaves and tastes like normal corn.
The difference is that Bt-corn has a gene from a common, soil-dwelling bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, that makes Bt protein. The Bt protein is a toxin highly effective at killing one family of caterpillars that can destroy corn harvests.
Fortunately, the Bt protein is very selective and does not harm beetles, flies, bees or wasps. This selectivity means that it is considered safe for humans, mammals, fish, and birds. And because the Bt protein exists naturally in bacteria, it is a natural product, meaning Bt-corn does not require FDA approval.
The Bt-corn plant as it grows, it makes a small amount of Bt protein. Just enough to kill any hungry caterpillars, but a tiny amount not to do anything else.
By contrast, an organic farm will spray their corn with the same Bt protein. The Bt protein is a naturally occurring insecticide. And because it is a natural product, it is organic friendly. The difference is, when you spray an insecticide, you have to use a lot more.
This is actually pretty common.
Often organic foods are sprayed with exactly the same kinds of pesticides used in genetically modified organisms.
Organic, good! GM, bad!
So why is it that organic is good, but genetically modified is bad?
The answer lies somewhere in the confusion and misinformation of science to the public.
As humans, we like to see patterns. News stories particularly like to take us down a path with a strong narrative and leave us to make our own assumptions. Correlation does not equate to causality.
Is most processed food made with corn syrup? Yes. Is processed food strongly implicated in obesity? Yes. Is most corn genetically modified? Yes. Does genetic modification cause obesity? Hell no.
But that’s the catch, most news articles will leave that last question open ended. They let you draw your own conclusions, even if they are false.
The problem here is not the corn. The problem is that corn syrup is added to everything.
Who do we trust?
Another major problem is that increasingly, especially in the developed world, we don’t trust the food standards agencies anyway. Horse meat being sold as beef across Europe? Mad cow disease across Europe and North America? Just to name a few.
If the food regulators can’t manage to tell the difference between a cow and a horse, do we trust them with manipulating DNA? Or as the more extreme types like to shout “PLAYING GOD!”
Well, yes we should.
The problem we have here is that an organization doing its job well will never make the news. Just like the best spy and anti-terrorism agencies look like they don’t do anything.
The best food agencies are proactive, not reactive. No one hears of the millions of people who didn’t die because of salmonella. No one cares about the restaurant that didn’t poison them.
The only time headlines are made is when something has gone wrong.
Trust is a personal thing
The truth is that people care about their food. People care so passionately because food is one of the few things that affects us all.
Food is very personal to both individuals and communities. Everybody feels like they have a personal stake and a personal interest. The emotion that food evokes is an easy target for stoking concerns and fears.
Can you think of an issue that has such widespread influence and possible concerns for health, safety, the environment, big business and governmental politics?
With such huge potential impact, it is no wonder that people are risk adverse.
After decades of marketing, we believe that natural is better.
Soaps and shampoos made from crude oil and animal fat are sold to us as having “natural extracts”. We’ve been carefully manipulated to care about a few parts per million amount of aloe vera while ignoring the rest.
Margarine is sold as 70% less fat than butter, whilst carefully ignoring that it is still 43% fat.
A century of modern medicine has turned home remedies like chewing willow bark into actual medicine like aspirin. But, the US is spending over $34 billion a year on homeopathic treatments.
But is organic, natural?
A big argument for organic farming is that it is natural. It comes from the field, not the lab. But we forget, that we, as a species, have been directing evolution for millennia. We select the best seeds, with the characteristics we like, to be planted the next year.
We’ve been doing this for so long, that every plant we consume is a genetic freak.
To go back to corn (/maize), 9,000 years ago corn was a wild grass growing exclusively in what is now Mexico. In 9,000 years of domestication, the corn yield has become a 1000x larger, 3.5x sweeter and each easier to peel. Shown in this excellent infographic by James Kennedy Monash.
Let’s not also forget that farming has changed so much with technology. Barely 100 years the size of a field was determined by how much one man with two oxen could plow in a day. In 1790, 90% of the US population was working in agriculture.
Mechanical farming with tractors and combine-harvesters, artificial irrigation systems, pesticides, fertilizers. There have been thousands of innovations in farming in the last 100 years that would make it unrecognizable for a farmer from that period.
In 1991, after 2 years of trying, the US’s Food and Drug Administration gave up trying to determine what “natural food” meant “because a great many foods in the grocery store have usually been processed or altered in some way and so it’s difficult to draw a clear line”.
The food industry is estimated to be worth $4.8 trillion globally by the World Bank. The biggest regulator in the world has given up trying to work out what “natural” means. “Organic” is a loosely defined, poorly enforced term, that probably means you’re eating more pesticides.
So next time you’re stood in front of some tomatoes, questioning whether you can ethically justify the price difference. Remember, it probably doesn’t matter.