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Hi, I'm Malcolm Woods

I’m the New Media Editor at Outpost, though I’m the old media editor, as well. In both capacities, I read, hear, photograph and write about food. I also eat food pretty regularly, all of which means I spend a lot of time thinking about food in...
Malcolm Woods

Pass the Patchouli: I'm Going to the Garden with the Hippies

Food, Love and Policy By Malcolm Woods on September 10, 2012


The president of the Wisconsin Technology Council felt a need to weigh in on the issue of organic foods in Sunday’s Journal Sentinel, taking a shot at hippie gardeners and even your local co-op at the same time.


Tom Still was responding to the news last week of a study by researchers out of Stanford University on the nutritional benefits of organic foods. The study, a meta-analysis of several hundred previous studies, concluded that, as of now, there was little evidence that organic foods differed from conventional foods nutritionally.


Still wrote: “Judging from the reaction from the organic foodies coast-to-coast, you might think the Stanford researchers just shot their hippie gardener.”


First, ouch, maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I find myself unable to see much humor in jokes about shootings these days  – or in belittling the organic food industry, a $60+ billion global industry in 2010, as the domain of hippie gardeners.  


And, while I’m not sure myself just what an “organic foodie” is, I admit I was one of the people responding to the news of the study. The blog I wrote last week, entitled “Plenty of Reasons to Stick with Organic,” outlined my response to the study. In short, I think there are a number of valid concerns – about the environment, about pesticide residue, about farmworker health and more – to keep organic food on the table.


Still’s column is mostly one long defense of the food technology industry, not surprising given his job. I’m not sure if he felt that the discussion over this study threatened food technology or if he just found this a good hook to get in some publicity, but I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t acknowledge the very important benefits food technology has provided. We have the technology to keep our food supply far safer than ever.  We have developed farming strategies that aid yields and even increase the nutritional profile of certain foods we grow and/or raise. Golden rice, for example, is a strain of rice genetically engineered to contain beta carotene, making it potentially a valuable resource in fighting vitamin A deficiency around the world.


That’s great. All for it. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t value local and organic foods. Here’s one reason which has nothing to do with food safety: some food technologies, such as genetically engineered foods, have a high price tag, both economically and culturally. Considerable research goes into the development of GMO crops, and the companies creating them seek to capitalize on them, often by implementing strict patent controls and prohibiting traditional practices such as seed saving. The establishment of vast stretches of monocrops also leads indirectly to a loss of biodiversity, which unintentionally leaves our food supply less secure and vulnerable to pests and climate events. And consumers in poll after poll express wariness about GMO foods. As the Stanford study noted, we lack adequate long-term studies to address those concerns.


Beyond that, I’m left wondering why Still felt the need to add that “there’s no guarantee that ‘local’ or ‘organic’ is 100% safe.”


No, there isn’t. But if we’re talking food safety, the repercussions of a bad batch of locally grown spinach is probably going to be much smaller, public healthwise and financially, than a batch of bad spinach coming out of a large food processing operation.


I’d rather expand the notion of food safety to address food security, which I think is best served by establishing a rich, diverse and interconnected food network, locally and globally.  Food technology can certainly play a hugely important role there, in helping peoples across the globe develop solid and deep infrastructures to grow, harvest and enjoy healthy foods wherever they live.


If the reaction to the Stanford study taught us any one thing, it is that people purchase organic foods for numerous reasons. Those reasons may be related to beliefs in the health benefits of the foods, or about environmental concerns, or about concerns about local and global economies. Heck, there may even be a few hippie gardeners pushing shovels into the soil with their Birkenstocks.


But $60 billion says there’s more to it than that.




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