Are chemicals ever acceptable? Does 'natural' mean 'safe'? Is it even possible to feed the whole world sustainably?
Digress with me a moment to draw a comparison. I teach basic land navigation -- use of a map and compass -- to junior high school kids. There is so much I want to show them, from shortcuts for accurately plotting latitude and longitude, to how to navigate past obstacles like swamps and giant rocks. But increasingly, I find myself coming back to the basics. Many of these kids start out learning, for the first time, that the arrow on a compass points north. That fact is so basic, I sometimes forget to even cover it. But soon, I find myself backtracking -- starting at the beginning. Without comprehension of the most basic concepts, the finer points are mere hubris. Lately, I find myself doing the same thing when it comes to political and ethical arguments for organic farming. I'm defending even basic choices my family makes, like taking the time and effort to sort out the recyclables from the compost.
Here's a basic question:
What is organic?
I'd like to hear your answers, but I'll start with my own. The first thing that comes into my mind when I say "organic" is the absence of chemicals. But that requires us to define chemical. I remember a high school teacher who maintained that every single substance ever known to man should be considered a chemical, to be precise, whether it was synthesized in a laboratory or naturally occurred growing out of the ground. I disagreed with this assertion in 10th grade, and I still do. A chemical, to me, is something that is deliberately synthesized by humans, and doesn't occur naturally. Natural systems have trouble breaking it down, because it's new and bacteria don't recognize it. And because it's new, its long-term effects on human health and the environment really can't possibly be known for many generations, no matter how many studies we conduct or what interest groups fund them.
In my house, we do nearly all of our cleaning with vinegar. We don't have oven cleaner, countertop cleaner, bathroom scum cleaner, or even bleach. We do this for money-saving reasons: From personal experience, the vinegar is just as effective for cleaning up all the things I used to use those other products for, and does it for less than a tenth of the price. We do this for space-saving reasons: I keep a 5-gallon jug, and a small refillable spray bottle, of vinegar in my cupboard and don't need to make space for thirty other types of cleaners. We do this for environmental reasons: vinegar is a naturally occurring substance, made from the fermentation of apples or other fruits. If I spill it outside or flush it down my drain, tiny creatures in my ecosystem know what it is and know how to break it down and recycle it. I'm concerned about the saponification of our watersheds and streams, and so I choose to use fewer chemical soap products. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we do this to protect our family's health.
Have you ever noticed that household products that we deem safe to use on a daily basis suddenly become off-limits once you are pregnant? Pregnant women are supposed to avoid everything from tuna fish (mercury) to oven cleaner (toxic fumes) to conventionally grown apples (pesticides.) Were I to suggest these substances were inherently dangerous, many people would scoff -- my great-grandmother used those products, and nothing ever happened to her! (You know, except that breast cancer she almost died from.) But tell the same people that they ought to feel comfortable using them while pregnant, and they pause. Hey, maybe a lady carrying a tiny being inside ought to avoid regular apples. You know, just in case. Tiny beings can only handle a tiny concentration of pesticides, and several studies have shown that the human tissue containing the highest concentration of pesticides is breastmilk.
I'm sure there's some debate as to what concentrations of various pesticides, herbicides, and poisons is considered safe. But my conclusion is, if I know it's deadly in any reasonable concentration, why would I voluntarily introduce it into my home? Doesn't my family already face enough stress that is completely outside of my control? Reducing the number of poisons we ingest is one thing that is completely within my control.
Look for a part II of this discussion coming soon. I welcome your comments.