Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Organic" Food--Are You "Myth-taken?"

Being trained as an organic chemist I suppose is the reason that I am offended by the term "organic" food because, of course, all food is organic. Nonetheless, over the years the term in the dictionary has come to mean, in addition to its original meaning, "of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides."
Purportedly, the individual responsible for the term "organic food" was Jerome Rodale who started the myth that "organically" raised food was the key to health rather than that raised using other means. Even though Rodale had no scientific training (originally he was a federal tax auditor and then co-owner of an electrical equipment business), he was very successful in perpetuating his ideas and was the founder of Rodale Press and Prevention magazine. Consider some of the other beliefs of Rodale as documented by Dr. Edward H. Rynearson's article in the July 1974 edition of Nutrition Reviews in an article entitled, "Americans Love Hogwash":
  • He believed that people do not get enough electricity from the atmosphere, owing to the presence of steel girders, and he would sit for 10-20 minutes a day under a machine that gave off short wave radio waves, which he believed beneficially boosted his body's supply of electricity.
  • He took 70 food-supplement tablets a day as "extra protection" against pollution and to "restore nutrients lost in the kitchen processing of food."
  • He believed that the cure for prostatic disease was to eat pumpkin seeds and stated that if he were to get prostate cancer he would have chiropractic adjustments.
  • Reportedly he believed that "wheat is terrible for people, can make them overly aggressive or daffy, and that sugar is worse," and that he would live to 100 "unless I'm run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." (Actually at age 72, while taping a talk show with Dick Cavett he died suddenly--of natural causes, no doubt!).
  • He believed that milk was bad for people, except for babies and he denounced vegetarianism because he believed that "people need the zest of a good piece of meat."
  • When asked why "organic" fertilizer was preferable to "chemical" fertilizer he responded, "We feel that in organically grown food you have things you don't even know exist."
Indeed, that idea that "organic" food has some mystical powers and that it is preferable nutritionally to conventionally grown food is commonly believed. However, studies have shown that there is little evidence to support this assertion. Not only is it doubtful that organically grown food is significantly superior, importantly, is the use of so-called "organic" farming economically practical and sustainable particularly in feeding a burgeoning world population?

Consider for a moment the contributions to agriculture of the late Dr. Norman Borlaug  and his view of the organic food movement. Borlaug is one of only five people in history (and the only scientist) to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The others were Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel.

It has been estimated that Borlaug's contribution to agriculture though gene manipulation (a no-no to the high priests of organic agriculture) and use of inorganic fertilizer have improved crop yields, resulting in saving the lives of one billion human beings. Consider the following from Jonathan Alter's column in the 7/30/07 issue of Newsweek:

"Borlaug scoffs at the mania for organic food, which he proves with calm logic is unsuited to fight global hunger. (Dung, for instance, is an inefficient source of nitrogen.) And while he encourages energy-conscious people to 'use all the organic you can, especially on high-end crops like vegetables,' he's convinced that paying more for organic is 'a lot of nonsense.' There's 'no evidence the food is any different than that produced by chemical fertilizer.'"

When it comes down to whether or not consumers wish to pay more for organic food, ultimately they should consider whom do they wish to believe, Jerome Rodale or Norman Borlaug.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Last Lecture

(Comments made at last college graduation which coincided with my retirement.) As I reminisce about my 34 years at the College, I would be lying if I said that it was all fun--I believe it is the first sign of senility to say things like, "I've enjoyed every minute of it." Besides, it is difficult to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything. But all in all it has been a good run. As I tell my colleagues, the work was all indoors and required no heavy lifting. But just as it is a truism that all good things must come to an end, so is it true that all pretty good things likewise must end. Now it is time to move on--to be repotted if you will. There were several clues that told me that it was time to do so. In fact, I have compiled the top 10 reasons that signify when it is time to retire from academia. 1. When the University will pay you to do. 2. When you spend more time reading the newspaper obituaries than the editorials. 3. When you start spelling your e-mail address as drool rather than droll. 4. When colleagues tell you it won't be the same around here without you, which is a code for saying that it won't be the same, but that doesn't mean it won't be better. 5. When you find out that the student who referred to you as a "model" teacher really meant that she considered you to be a "miniature of the real thing." 6. When it finally comes to you after 34 years that a substantial number of students will never understand acid-base theory or the Henderson-Hasselbach equation. 7. When the University initiates a seemingly unending string of mandated, feel-good initiatives that engender monumental expectations, while at the same time providing no allocation of resources to achieve the goals of the initiatives. 8.When you have recurring nightmares that manage to weave in aspects of all of the following: People Soft, mission-based management, sensitivity training, affirmative action and strategic planning, the latter complete with Mission, Vision and Values statements. 9.When daily activities have become more reminiscent of herding cats than of productive work. Another way of saying this is that, when you start to attribute to malice that which can just as easily be explained by incompetence, it is time to fold your tent. 10. And finally, when the thought of doing one more accreditation self-study evokes a physiologic response not unlike that achieved by breathing deeply while downwind of an incinerator accident at Dugway Proving Ground. I cannot end without expressing my appreciation to all those who are responsible for my award as Professor Emeritus. When I first learned that I would receive it, I threw myself into the task of preparing what I thought were appropriate remarks with great enthusiasm. Perhaps I did so with too much self-congratulatory zeal, for when I showed them to one of the more irreverent members of our faculty he suggested that my ego was showing and that I should instead open with the following: "I can clearly recall awaking to the sound of crunching straw and looking up from my cradle to see three magnificently attired gentlemen. They informed my mother that the star they had been following had settled over our stable." Another of my colleagues who was clearly envious suggested that awards are like the curl in a pig's tail--nice to look at, but they add nothing to the weight of the hog! Seriously, I feel not unlike the turtle who went to sleep and awoke to find himself atop a six foot fence post. He didn't know how he got there, but he knew he had a lot of help. I am not at all sure that I have accomplished anything particularly remarkable in my tenure here other than to display tenacity. I believe it was Woody Allen who said it best when he noted that, "80% of success is just showing up." On this graduation day, our primary focus should be on the graduates, their sacrifices and hard work and the sacrifices and hard work of their loved ones. The graduates and I share a common bond in that we are all moving on to other endeavors, where we will be repotted into a different milieu. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, I am struck more by the similarities of our mutual departures than I am by the differences. Given there is an obvious difference in our ages. Nonetheless, we all face an unknown future with both trepidation and anticipation. I am not particularly looking forward to the transition to the less halcyon days of the so-called golden years. However, I know that for all of us for every door that closes, another opens--given the new door may be a little narrower and we might need to go through it sideways, or it may be a little shorter requiring that we duck as we pass. Whatever opportunities and responsibilities do await our graduates, they will most certainly be accompanied with challenges. In meeting these challenges my gratuitous advice to them is to strive to maintain a modest ego, a healthy sense of perspective and a powerful sense of humor. I have already commented upon the dangers of an overactive ego. In regard to keeping a sense of perspective, you all have the opportunity to leave, as Longfellow said, "footprints in the sands of time." But time is limited and time is a thief, for though it it a great teacher it unfortunately kills all its pupils. It is a great leveler that favors no one--I take some comfort in the fact that not only does time heal all wounds, it ultimately also wounds all heels. As for humor, I always turn to Dave Berry who pointed out in his book Dave Berry Turns 50, "You should not confuse your career with your life." In closing, I am reminded of the short poem with which Aaron Lemonick, who served for 13 years as Princeton's Dean of Faculty, concluded his retirement swan song. It goes like this: "The tusks that clashed in might brawls Of mastodons, are billiard balls. The sword of Charlemagne the Just Is ferric oxide, know as rust. The grizzly bear whose potent hug Was feared by all, is now a rug Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf, And I don't feel so well myself!" Thank you for your attention.