About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Many years ago, when I was just out of college and working as a secretary for a group of professors, I read one of their books on policy-making. One lesson from that book stuck with me: for every change made, even if for the best of reasons, there is usually an unintended consequence, often quite negative.

I've been reminded recently of how common such unintended consequences are, and how much havoc they can wreck on our worldviews.

Lately, as most of you know, I've been on a kick/obsession to eat better, exercise more, rid the house of crap (good luck!) and change the attitude (ditto!). This obsession has involved reading stuff I generally don't read, going on websites I hadn't previously heard of, having conversations with people I actually don't know (thank you, internet), and trying new foods. In the midst of it all, I've been surrounded by rhetoric on the importance of organic, locally-grown, pesticide-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, dairy-free, meat-free. And, I've slowly discovered that *some* of these albeit well-intentioned social movements are based on belief more than on fact, or, perhaps even more alarmingly, if taken to their logical conclusions, have some horrible unintended consequences.

Take "organic" for instance. Turns out, it's a bit of a myth. BS as Penn and Teller (and a FB friend of mine) put it. It's a myth for several reasons. One, many, if not most, organic farmers DO use pesticides, just not ones that were discovered to be cancer-causing back in the 1960s. Two, research is divided at best as to whether organic is actually better for you, and some studies conclude that there is no measurable nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods. Three, the oversight system is poor, meaning that people can claim to be farming organically, but, well, maybe they're not. Four, if organic farming were to be used world-wide, there's a possibility that we would not be able to feed all the world's people.

That last point, if true, is no small one: according to a scientist interviewed on a show I watched last night, organic farming could, at most, produce enough food to feed 4 billion people. That's a lot of people. Problem? The world currently has about 7 billion people; which 3 billion, as Penn and Teller put it, do you want to starve to death? To be fair, other sources of info say that organic farming CAN feed everybody, and that the problem is food distribution, not food quantity. I'm inclined to believe the latter argument, though *IF* the former is true, it's certainly sufficient to make me wonder about the ethics of pushing organics on the consumer. It's enough to make one think strongly about the unintended consequences of policies hoping to make all farming organic.

IF the health benefits of organic produce are negligible (this, too, is hotly debated) THEN perhaps the push to buy everything organic is working more to make some people relatively wealthy than it is to make any of us healthier. I'm still doing research on the pros and cons of organic foods -- and certainly still concerned about the degradation of the environment, and better ways to grow and distribute food -- but for now, I'm taking a big chill pill on the idea that I need to preach that everybody buy organic. I might bring down my grocery bill -- that's a consequence I could seriously live with.

How about locally-grown? Now, this argument actually makes some sense to me. Buying products that got to your local store with a minimum of fuel seems to be a good move for the environment. For now, I'll continue to look for locally-grown or locally-produced products, and privilege those over ones that were trucked or flown in from miles away.

Pesticide-free. It sounds so ideal. However, if you're ever had a backyard garden and haven't used any pesticides at all (even beer as snail bait), you will notice that critters will chew on your lettuce, attack your cauliflower, drill holes in your tomatoes, and leave dents in your strawberries. If you still want to eat the food that's left over in your garden, by all means -- do it. I predict you'll either starve or go the grocery store.

I've tried the application of ladybugs and growing companion plants that theoretically attract the "good bugs." In my experience, those approaches have only limited effectiveness. I still end up carefully using some snail bait and hand-picking bugs. In a backyard garden, you CAN use person-intensive methods of critter control, but you can't do that on a big farm.

Controlling critters is part of gardening, people, and if you are trying to make a LIVING by selling food, you have to grow enough of it to make a profit, which means that an organic farmer is not going to be hand-picking the bugs off every head of lettuce. (Most organic foods, by the way, are grown on LARGE, commercial farms, not on small ones.) Virtually ALL commercial farmers use some sort of pesticide because they wouldn't be able to make a living otherwise.

What amuses me is that many pro-organic people assume that all products marked "organic" were never touched by pesticides. Or, that the pesticides used by organic farmers are necessarily safer than those used by traditional farmers. How naive. From what I've recently learned, the pesticides used by traditional farmers have come a long way, baby, from the days of DDT. Ironically, in some cases (certainly not all), the pesticides used on traditional farms may actually be safer than those used on organic farms. Those who assume that anything marked "organic" is, by definition, safer and better are proof that the organic movement knows good marketing.

What about antibiotic-free and hormone-free? Well, I still need to do research here, and for now, I'll say that I'm drinking this kool-aid. This makes sense to me. HOWEVER, if you're going to eat foods that are both antibiotic- and hormone-free, I think that means you're giving up both meat and dairy. And here I start to run into some problems.

I've been trying this, almost 90% of the time, for a few months now. I've never been a big meat eater, so 50% of the task was "easy" for me. I am dying to have some bloodwork done and see if there are any alarming deficiencies or problems. I cannot, in good faith, tell you I feel better. I wish I could say that. I WANT the consequences of my new diet to be more energy, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower weight. However, I have not lost any weight at all, and my most recent blood pressure was low anyway. I have noticed my skin is even better than before -- I attribute that to increasing my intake of fruit and vegetables, and not really at all to my elimination of dairy and the little meat I was consuming.

To be totally honest, I've felt a little weak lately. Perhaps it's NOT due to the diet, but if it is, it's an unintended and negative consequence if there ever was one.

Should I continue drinking the proverbial kool-aid, when it comes to no meat and no dairy? Hmmm...the rhetoric surrounding that move is strong (better for the environment, better for your health, better for animals). I basically believe claims one and three; I'm on the fence about claim two. Were people INTENDED, as the vegans claim, to be vegan? Or, are we built to be omnivores, as others claim? Are all people healthier if they adopt a vegan diet? Or, do some people need *a little* meat and dairy?

I don't know. I do know that unintended consequences are a good place to start to look at our assumptions. As an old black folk saying goes, "It ain't the things you don't know that gets you into trouble; it's the things you know for sure that ain't so."


  1. Elaine,
    A couple things to keep in mind:
    (1) Penn is an entertainer, not a farmer or a scientist; thus, while he may know what he is talking about, he also may not.
    (2) The reason that *federal* rules on organics allow pesticides is that they were written by the Bush administration. Pretty much every organic farm at the Eugene Farmer's Market was appalled at those rules and opposed them. They don't use pesticides; they use natural, non-toxic substances and other techniques to keep their food from being eaten by critters.
    (3) The *studies* cited by Penn and others are funded by agri-business to "prove" that organic farming is inferior to industrial farming. Do you actually trust these guys? Frankly, I'll put Groundworks Organic Farm over the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation any day.

  2. Good points; I didn't mean to come across as one who believes everything from the mouths of Penn and Teller. HOWEVER if SOME of this is true, it's worthy of a big pause. And I didn't know about the Eugene Farmer's Market...haven't been here long enough, I guess.

  3. How do you know that the studies cited by Penn are funded by agribusiness? That's a big claim; where's the evidence? I don't really trust anybody right now; that's one of the points (hopefully) of this essay. Don't believe everything you hear...

  4. Elaine ... I think these are organic:

    Check out the vegan offerings next time you are in Portland!


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