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The Anthropology of Food, Part 4

David Wann Posted by David Wann.

David Wann is the author of ten books and a speaker on sustainable lifestyles and designs. He is president of the Sustainable Futures Society and a designer of the cohousing neighborhood he has lived in for seventeen years.

The Anthropology of Food, Part 4

Why Organic Food is Worth the Price

Americans undervalue organic food both on the table and on the farm, for similar reasons. As a culture, we don’t yet recognize the difference in quality between organic and conventional food; between conventional and organic growing. For example, we don’t recognize collectively that it’s more accurate to define the word “organic” by what it is, rather than what it isn’t. True, certified organic means that toxic chemicals and fossil fuel-based fertilizers are not used, but the only way farmers can make that kind of agriculture work is by operating their farms as living systems: building the soil with organic, once-living material – which provides fertility, water retention, disease resistance, and good drainage all at the same time.

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Average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are 25% higher in organic produce.

Rotation of crops prevents disease and maintains fertility; using cover crops like alfalfa pulls free nitrogen right out of the air. Recycling “wastes” like manure, crop residues, and by-products of regional industries, such as coffee roasters or fruit canneries makes full use of existing resources. This information-rich way of farming provides habitat for wildlife (which reciprocate with natural pest control); conserves water and helps preserve family farms in rural and metro-edge communities.

The fact that average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are 25% higher in organic produce translates to greater calmness, endurance, mobility, allergy-resistance, sharper senses, and a better sex life in the daily lives of consumers – a higher quality of life, not just prevention of heart disease or cancer. Those who associate organic food with astrology or hippies may not be aware that the White House chef has routinely served organic food to the Clintons, the Bushes, and now the Obamas. In fact, the world’s finest chefs prefer organic produce because its taste is superior. The use of powdered fertilizers causes crops to take up more water, diluting the taste. In addition, conventional produce has fewer of the enzymes and minerals that enhance flavor.

Since only two percent of the country’s population now lives on a farm, we don’t think of ourselves as having a direct role in farming, yet we each eat an average of a ton of food every year. Farms and ranches still cover more than half our land, and consume three-fourths of our water and 70% percent of our antibiotics. “If you eat, drink, or pay taxes; or care about the economy, the environment, or our global reputation, what happens on farms is a central if unseen part of your life,” says Michael Pollan.  If this so, what kind of farm do you want?

Benefits of Organic Growing and Eating

Protects the health of children. University of Washington researchers analyzed urine samples of 110 preschoolers, only one of whom had no measurable level of pesticides. That one child’s parents ate exclusively organic food and didn’t use pesticides in their home or lawn.  EPA-documented effects in children of exposure to certain pesticides include poorer growth and impact on neurodevelopment.

Conserves energy used on farms. Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, a 22-year farming trial study concludes.

Promotes Biodiversity on and around farms. Organic farming preserves natural habitat in hedgerows, crop diversity, ponds, and forests, while conventional farming typically uses methods (mono-cropping and pesticides) that reduce biodiversity.  Beneficial insects such as bees flourish on organic farms, but often suffer from “colony collapse” on conventional farms.

Supports an Emerging Industry with a smaller Footprint. Organic methods of growing crops generate fewer greenhouse emissions, both because energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides are not used and because organic soil sequesters carbon dioxide.

Better Flavor, More Healthy Nutrients per pound. Many studies give strong evidence that produce grown organically promotes non-aggressive behavior in schools and prisons and increases performance on academic exams – largely because of increased nutrient density.

What if you had a way of prioritizing which organic products to buy? It seems logical to choose organic for the foods you eat the most, as well as for the produce that is sprayed most heavily. Based on extensive analysis of federal pesticide test results, the Environmental Working Group recommends opting for organic with these foods:

Dairy products: Milk, yogurt and cheese are considered healthy bone-strengtheners, especially for children, but the additions of hormones and antibiotics undermine the simple goodness of commercial dairy products.

Meat (including poultry and eggs): Animal products can contain antibiotics, hormones and even heavy metals like arsenic that is used to prompt an animal’s rapid growth.

Ketchup: Even besides the pesticide issue, research has shown organic ketchup has nearly double the good-for-you antioxidants of conventional ketchup.

Coffee: Conventional coffee farming relies heavily on pesticide use and contributes to deforestation around the globe.


  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Grapes, imported
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

  • Bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

Source: Environmental Working Group http://www.ewg.org/node/27777

Why not eat what our bodies are designed to eat? For example, although our ancestors hunted and ate far leaner animals than we do — species closer to modern deer and elk than the typical cow – it’s fashionable these days for meat to be fatty and tender, as if the goal of eating was heart disease.