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Margaret Wente (Kevin Van Paassen)
Margaret Wente (Kevin Van Paassen)

Margaret Wente

Organic tastes good, but better for us? No Add to ...

Our farmers' market in the country has gone dramatically upscale. It used to be that, if you wanted, say, carrots, you had to settle for orange ones. They were crude, gnarly things that were sometimes as thick as baseball bats. Not any more. Today, you can buy carrots in a wide variety of designer colours. They are slender and delicious, and almost as sweet as sugar. They are 100-per-cent organic, grown without pesticides or fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. They are the most refined and righteous carrots you ever ate. So what if they cost $5 instead of 50 cents? Affluent weekenders line up for them, and if you don't get there early, they'll be gone.

The new-style farmers at the market are nothing like the old-style ones. They are highly educated young people with three or four degrees who've gone back to the land to build a better life for themselves and the planet by growing food the sustainable way. They've all read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which describes the year when she and her family decided to grow their food themselves on their own subsistence farm. It's odd to buy carrots from people who have PhDs, but I salute them. They've made my life better. I know they're not making any money doing this, even if their carrots do cost five bucks a bunch.

Across the street from the farmers' market, there's a new 100 Mile Store. These are sprouting up all over, because people want to eat local (especially this time of year, though not so much in January). Business is booming. The artisanal cheese is fabulous. But people with average incomes (including most of those who live around here full-time) probably won't shop there. Not when cheese costs three times more than the cheese at Valu-Mart.

"It's only natural to want food this good," says Tim Young, who, with his wife, Liz, is the proprietor of Nature's Harmony Farm in Georgia. They were written up in The New York Times. He made a fortune in marketing, but he realized that it didn't help the planet. Now he and Liz raise rare breeds of animals, the natural way, with love and respect. They have Berkshire pigs and heritage Poulet Rouge chickens.

"We see ourselves first and foremost as healers," their website says. "We need to heal the land naturally and allow nature to achieve its delicate balance that so effectively nurtures life." They also want to heal the food system and the community, as well as bring their patrons back in touch with nature. One Poulet Rouge chicken will set you back $17.98, which suggests that, if you want to help heal the land, it helps to be well-heeled.

All this food tastes good. But is it better for you? Or the planet?

I'm sad to tell you it's not. Despite numerous popular alarmists, there is virtually no evidence for the claim that organic food is either safer or more nutritious than the other kind. "No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food," says the Mayo Clinic, which is perhaps the leading cancer centre in the world. "Most experts agree that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk." The American Cancer Society is even more unequivocal. It says there is "no evidence that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer."

The other problem is that organic farming is not very productive. You need a lot more land to produce the same amount of food. What would we rather do - farm four hectares of land "organically" to feed 40 people (and turn millions and millions more over to food production) - or farm one hectare "artificially"?

Organic farming is sustainable so long as not many people have to rely on it. If we did it on a global scale, reckons British scientist John Emsley, two billion people would starve to death. "The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to 'organic' farming," he wrote in the journal Nature.

The reason has to do with one thing: fertilizer. All plants depend on nitrogen. Traditional farming takes nitrogen from the soil, but even the best farming practices can't return nitrogen to the soil very efficiently. The 20th-century discovery of nitrogen fertilizers was one of the most important technological breakthroughs in history. Agrochemical nitrogen has boosted global food productivity so much that it now accounts for meeting about 40 per cent of the world's dietary needs.

It's no surprise that organic, local eating is the biggest food trend of our time. Everyone knows the way we eat is bad for us. Fast food is unhealthy, even evil (to say nothing of low status). Big Agri-Food has a lot to answer for. And besides, "pesticide" sounds awful. Modern living has so disconnected us from our food that some city folks are actually surprised to see real apples growing on real trees.

It's time for us to rethink our food, no doubt about it.

But let's face facts. Artisanal food is too expensive for a lot of folks, including the folks who grow it. (As Barbara Kingsolver proved, the only way to make money on subsistence farming is to write a bestseller about it.) "Sustainable" farming may be fine for sustaining a few rich consumers but not for a hungry planet.

Unfortunately, the organic hype is so great that all the moms I know believe regular food might be poisoning their kids. I have reassuring news for them: The 50-cent carrots are okay, too - even if they come from Valu-Mart.

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