Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Buy Slow, Not Organic!

One of the arguments pushed by organics people is that organic foods taste better. This is false and it neatly demonstrates their magical thinking. There are actually several important dimensions to food:
  1. whole foods rather than processed foods
  2. varied vs bland breeds
  3. local vs mass agriculture
  4. organic vs chemical agriculture
  5. PETA vs torture meat

Now, in case you didn't know, torture meat tastes better and PETA kills animals. So that's one argument against treating animals "humanely".

The other thing is that 'varied + local food' is called Slow Food. It's the biggest food movement there is, possibly bigger than organic. And unlike organic, it actually makes a taste difference. And the reason is very simple. If you buy locally then the fruits and vegetables are picked when they are riper. That makes them taste better.

Now, it happens that organic farms tend to be small. So if you buy organic food then you're very likely to get slow food. And that will make a taste difference. The important point is that this is a historical accident which is being reversed as giant mega-corporations buy into the organic label. So no, organic foods do not taste better. If you buy organic from a giant mega-corporation, and there are a few around now, the taste difference should go away.

Another example is organic milk which may have a longer expiration date because it is filtered to higher standards. Again, just an accident that has nothing to do with its being organic.

Being unable to make important abstract distinctions (eg, local vs organic) is a hallmark of the magical thinker.


sptrashcan said...

Three quibbles (so enumerated to obtain the magical benefits of the number 3. :P)

First, you have skipped a relatively important qualifier: buy slow, not organic, for better taste. That is, if better taste is what drives your food purchasing decision, then the most important dimensions to consider are 'local' and 'varied'. As you yourself pointed out previously, there are good reasons to prefer organic foods that do not have to do with taste. A varied, local, chemical farm offers the taste benefits of slow food but not the benefits of organic farming.

Second, I would expect numerous small local farms to be less efficient than a few large mechanized farms situated in regions of optimal fertility. Also, small farms do not benefit as much from mechanization and thus are likely to employ more human labor, which leads to more humans living in rural areas, which is a bad thing for efficiency. For foods where the flavor win is huge (fruits and vegetables eaten raw or unprocessed) this might be worthwhile. For foods where the flavor win would be less (corn, wheat, beans, rice, etc.) mechanized centralized production is probably just fine.

Third, your assertion that torture meat tastes better could really use some expanding on. What do you mean by 'torture meat'? What does it taste better than, and how do we know? Certainly my anecdotal experience does not seem to support this conclusion, as a chicken I knew to have lived a relatively pleasant life (for a chicken) tasted no worse than a factory-farmed bird. Of course there are many confounding factors here besides the happiness of the chicken, but torturing the supermarket chicken did not seem to produce an overwhelming advantage in flavor.

Richard Kulisz said...

Since the great selling point of organic for most people seems to be taste, my assumption was safe.

You should also note that orchards and vegetable farms aren't so heavily mechanized as grains production. So they have less of a hit to take in the first place. And that small farms take less of a hit in human labour than do organic farms. Conjoined planting in particular is not mechanizable.

Furthermore, agriculture should be largely left up to the third world where people are already living in rural areas, there is a surplus of labour available, and you can increase yields by conjoined planting. It would be a clear win for the third world.

By torture I mean torture. Medieval people had a hundred different ways to torture animals so as to get the best possible meat out of them. Consider penning calves in order to keep them unexercised.

sptrashcan said...

> agriculture should be largely left up to the third world

I cannot agree more. First world agricultural protectionism is indefensible, and this is one area where Europe is not doing much better than the US (to my knowledge).

> torture animals so as to get the best possible meat out of them

Oh! So you weren't asserting that merely being cruel to animals makes them automatically more flavorful, but that there exist methods to make animals tastier which are also cruel to the animals: veal, pate de foie gras, and so on. That makes more sense.

Tasty as torture meat may be, though, it does reduce my overall enjoyment of the food to know that an animal lived in pain to produce it. I do place the needs of humans above those of animals. However, flavor exists to provide me with pleasure, and when that pleasure is more than offset by my discomfort at the means used to produce it, there's not much point. Happiness isn't rational.

Richard Kulisz said...

True. By the way, foie gras is one of those things that doesn't require pain. It's actually quite normal for ducks to gorge themselves in nature.

Derek said...

It's worth pointing out that Organic milk's longer expiration date in the US is due primarily to the enhanced pasteurization it's put through. Non-organic milk is generally pasteurized to increased shelf-life, to increase safety, and to remain legal (due to the illegality of "raw" milk in most states). This gives a shelf-life of a two or three weeks. Organic milk, on the other hand, is generally ultra-pasteurized, yielding a shelf-life around 4 times as long as pasteurized milk.

I assume that ultra-pasteurization is chosen for organic milk primarily to account for lower demand, which presumably results in lower product turnover.