Defusing the War of Words Over Organic Food
Has anyone noticed that the war of words over organic food has become nearly as ritualized as a high-school debate-team practice session?
First, there will be a provocation. For example, a few weeks ago scientists at Stanford University published a meta-analysis of food-policy research that concluded that organic foods have no more nutritional value than nonorganic food, if slightly less pesticide residue. Next, organic food advocates will rise to make what forensics professors call the appeal to nature, arguing that nutrition is not the point; the point is to protect plants and animals, including ourselves, from factory farming and toxic chemicals. Then the opposing side (professional contrarians, developmental economists) will stand up. Their counterarguments may be ad hominem, as when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen called the organic food movement “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype,” but are usually ad misericordium, that is, based on compassion: Organic farming takes place on too small a scale and won’t solve world hunger any time soon. Resolved: we can save the planet or feed its people.
Is there a less polarized way to think about the future of farming? Jesse H. Ausubel, an environmental scientist who directs the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, thinks he’s found one. You might say he argues from nature as well as compassion. His claim is that high-yield farming, that is, high-tech, non-organic agricultural practices that produce more crops per square foot, is actually kinder to the environment than lower-tech, organic farming. Ausubel insists that his politics are green, but he’s “habitat-oriented,” he told me. “What I’m concerned about is releasing more land from agriculture and letting it revert to nature.”