The sunshine is surprisingly generous this morning. I sit on my front doorstep, sipping hot coffee from a chunky mug that I picked up at the Goodwill store, and spoon my breakfast greedily into my mouth.
All the food before me is organic, from the coffee grounds to the oat milk to the sweet granola in my bowl. If you open my kitchen cupboards, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any food that has even come close to a pesticide in any part of the growing cycle.
This feels good and also a little weird.
I spent almost my whole life believing that organic food was for wealthy and paranoid people that had nothing better to do with their money. As an ordinary girl from rural England, I misread the more expensive organic market for bourgeois culture, rather than a solution for chronic disease and degraded landscapes. These misunderstandings do the living Earth a disservice, because the “conventional” food system makes people and the planet sick.
An Apple A Day
When I was six, our teachers gave us each a piece of fruit at recess. But there was a girl in my class whose mother sent her in with an organic apple every day, so she didn’t have to eat “chemical fruit” with the rest of us. The parents at the school gates received this information with a varying degree of tolerance and defensiveness. To them, the mom’s behavior seemed bizarre at best and paranoid and controlling at worst. But undeterred, the mother continued putting an apple in a paper bag every morning and pressing it into her daughter’s hand.
Such frivolity had no place in my household. My parents had lost their jobs in the latest financial recession, so we got by on a shoestring. I remember being happy. I also remember eating an awful lot of supermarket-brand pasta and lentils. And though my parents never told me explicitly that organic food was for morons, I can confidently say that nothing from the organic aisle ever passed into my family home.
In my community, this attitude of distrust was not unusual. Just last month I mentioned to a childhood friend that a new organic supermarket was opening near my home. Her response was: “oh LORD. How pretentious! I can’t stand people that eat organic food.” When I asked her if she could explain a bit more, she stumbled to a halt. “I really don’t know.” She laughed in surprise. “That’s just what you say about organic food, isn’t it?” While I can’t be sure why my culture feels this way about organic farming, I can assure you that the majority of people in my hometown would agree with what my friend had to say.
My parents might not have been clued-in to the benefits of organic farming, but they did teach me to love the earth. My father spent his spare time fly fishing on the gurgling local rivers. As a child, I would tag along with him to be his “fish spotter,” standing proudly on the banks in cherry red gumboots, with my eagle eyes never leaving the water. My mother was far too sensible to spend her Sundays waist deep in the river, but took me to play and forage in the local forest whenever she could.
So my connection to the natural world was inevitable. And as I grew older, my actions became more aligned with that connection. As a young adult, I stopped taking flights and started living zero-waste. I flushed my toilet with water I collected in a bucket when I showered, and I became vegan in a passionate haze of cheap red wine and potato chips after watching Cowspiracy in my dorm room.
But even as I graduated with a BA in International Development, I still thought organic food was irrelevant. I’d taken modules in food security, climate change, and global health. And none of them taught us about how the conventional food system is killing people and the planet.
I don’t use the term ‘killing’ lightly. It’s been common knowledge that pesticides correlate with increased rates of cancer since the early 1990s, and despite claims that the impact of pesticides on our precious pollinators is falling, a study in Science shows that agricultural chemicals are wiping out vital insects more than ever before.
In my classes, we kept being told the classic line that “we need agrochemicals if we want to feed the world.” No one mentioned that more than 70% of the food we eat comes from small family farms, not industrial agriculture. (And, by the way, most of those producers are women!)
It would take a couple of years before I started really asking questions about the food on my table. But with what I know now, I’m not surprised that organic food is often viewed with disdain. Money talks. And the agrochemical industry made more than $250 billion this year. To be fair, the organic food industry has also seen annual growth of double-figure percentages since the 1990s and the markups on those products can be staggering. So it’s not true that the organic industry is innocent of capitalizing on food choices. But the difference is that synthetic pesticides poison soil, water, wildlife, and people. I wish that poison was too strong of a word. But the first modern pesticides were adapted from Zyklon B, a nerve agent designed by Nazi Scientists, who used it to kill people in the gas chambers.
But I’m jumping ahead. I still had a long journey to go on before I started looking for the green organic label on my vegetables. And it all began with a French man’s mother.
COVID, Potato Peels and A New Perspective
I suppose it’s no surprise that I would fall in love with an eco-warrior. When I met him, Florian was hitchhiking around the world and living in a tent. He washed his body and clothes in mountain streams and brushed his teeth with coconut oil and black pepper. Something about that aromatic kiss must have gotten under my skin. After knowing him for a few days, I left my job to live in his tent and married him 18 months later.
But then our world turned upside down.
Traveling the world by the sweat of our brows got rather less romantic when COVID descended on Europe. We were no longer welcomed as interesting characters with a mega love story but watched from behind twitching curtains in small towns that seemed somewhat more ominous once the streets were empty and every public toilet in France was shut.
So we took refuge in my mother-in-law’s sprawling farmhouse in the Charente. The summer was so hot that our feet blistered on the stone slabs around the house, and we spent the day time shuttered in the dark, panting like dogs on the creaky bed. Late one night, when the temperature had become bearable, I padded downstairs to make dinner. Bee insisted I peel the potatoes because the empty supermarket shelves meant she couldn’t get organic produce that week.
“Peel the skins?” I asked in horror. “But that’s where all the nutrients are.”
“C’est vrai.” She replied thoughtfully. “But it’s also where all the pesticides are concentrated, and I’d like for you and Florian to live as long as possible.”
I was taken aback by her answer. Sure, I had an inkling that pesticides and cancer rates shared a bit too much of the press. And then there was something about roundup and birth defects that I might have read on the news. But I was genuinely floored by the fact that someone so down to earth could be suggesting these chemicals were actually dangerous.
That conversation planted a seed in my consciousness. It would be watered by many more people and circumstances over the coming months. But I still remember that moment as a turning point in the way I felt about food.
After all, Bee had never been wealthy, and absolutely nothing about the woman could be described as silly. She comes from a poor farming family, and the woman is the dictionary definition of practical. At 18, she had to take over the family farm and raise her three young siblings. If they ran out of food and the hunger got too bad, she would go outside and wring a chicken’s neck so they had something to eat.
Reconnecting With Earth
In late Spring of 2021, my husband and I finally moved into a home of our own. By day, I planted my experimental garden in the rich Normandy earth. I’d come in when the sun went down to tear through organic gardening channels on Youtube. During that long confinement, the slugs and the worms were my only company. So I was determined to take good care of them. (Spoiler alert, that meant not spraying them with nerve agents.)
So, I guess it’s fair to say that my transition to an organic diet was more about a love of slugs than genuine self-care. But whatever the motivation, change was unfurling.
We couldn’t afford to buy organic food at the time, but my desire to make room for wildlife in my garden meant that all the food we grew was organic anyway. It was also totally local and zero waste. So all of a sudden, organic food wasn’t for the rich people driving shiny 4x4s that never leave the Parisian tarmac, but a way for us to reconnect with the earth and save a lot of money in the process.
Becoming An Advocate
As one YouTube video led to another, I became fascinated with the conventional food system that sprays 2 million tonnes of chemicals designed to kill things on the earth every year. Learning about it gave me hope for the planet for the first time in my life. Not because it was looking very bright at the moment, but because I realized changing the way we eat is one of the most powerful ways to create positive change in the world.
I discovered how Regenerative Agriculture, which reduces pesticides and tilling, offers a viable solution to nearly all the challenges humanity faces. This new food movement is sweeping through the earth at an incredible speed, protecting water systems, sequestering carbon, preventing wildfires, reducing flooding, and still producing an abundance of healthy food. And yes, organic food tends to be more expensive, but that’s largely because of distorted government policies that reward farmers for producing quantity over quality. (And considering we produce enough food to feed the world 1.5 times over, quantity isn’t the primary issue we should be worried about.)
Our obsession with quantity means that farmers who destroy their soil get subsidies, and those who protect it for the future do not. All the while, more than half of farmers are losing money every year, and in the USA farmers are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population. (Similar trends are taking place across the globe).
That was it for me.
This lifelong believer that organic food is for middle-class weirdos laid down her prejudgements and took up the organic carrot. I would no longer buy plastic-wrapped vegetables from the “conventional” aisle that had been shipped from far flung corners of the world. From now on, I would eat as much responsible food as possible. I would grow whatever I could, and what I couldn’t produce would be organic and locally sourced. If money got tight, I would miss out on a night drinking beer with my friends, not turn my back on decent food standards. And you’ll be forgiven for thinking that sounds privileged. But for what it’s worth, my husband and I lived below the poverty line at the start of this journey, and we always found a way to make it work.
It may be true that buying 100% organic food is only affordable for the privileged few. But it’s also true that poor and Black communities are disproportionately affected by social and environmental injustice in the food industry. So even if food and class are intimately linked, that doesn’t mean that organic food is just a caprice of the wealthy.
A Vital Step Toward a Larger Goal
Now, let’s be honest. It would be wrong to say that organic food is a guaranteed marker of environmental and social justice. Some organic farms still degrade their soil at an alarming rate with overgrazing, tilling, and monocultures. Social issues like indentured labor are also present in the organic system, so it should be considered a minimum requirement rather than the holy grail of food standards. But organic food is a vital step towards soil regeneration and better health. And it shouldn’t cost more to make the kinder choice for our body and the earth. Policies are primarily to blame for this cost difference, and they need to be reassessed.
If you’d shown me this article a few years ago, I would have stopped reading as soon as the word ‘organic’ appeared in the title. But after 25 years of rolling my eyes at organic food, I now see it as a human right and an environmental necessity, just like safe water and clean air should be.Become a Patron!
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