Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Organic Agriculture in Perspective

Earlier this month a handful of scientists and doctors hailing primarily from Stanford University published an article about the health benefits of organically grown food. What they found was quite controversial: that organically grown foods are not any safer or healthier than conventionally grown foods.

The response to this article has been substantial. Organic interests have quickly replied that the study fails to address many issues that make organic agriculture so necessary and important. Some of these arguments are thoughtful. Others are simply ridiculous – and amusing. All of them that I have read, however, fail to take a broader look at the organic movement and appreciate the reality of the world we currently inhabit.

Take the pesticide issue as a case in point. This is the main issue (of any credibility) that the organic apologists make against the Stanford study. It is argued that conventionally grown crops contain pesticide residues that are not found on organically grown crops. This is true for the most part. But this claim needs to be considered along with the fact that the residues occurring on non-organic produce fall below the danger zone established by EPA and FDA. They have to. It’s the law.

Well yes, argues the organic lobby, but what about the long-term effects of these pesticide residues? Certainly they can’t be healthy.

And the answer to this troubling question is that we don’t know for sure? And this is my point. Arguing about the dangers of miniscule amounts of chemicals on food makes about as much sense as arguing about the quality of the air we breathe. And I don’t mean this as an analogy. The air we breathe is probably just as dangerous to our long-term health as anything on the skin of unwashed apples. It may be more dangerous in some instances.

I don’t mean to poke fun at the organic movement. I would be a hypocrite to do so. But for a long time now, the purveyors of the organic gospel have been pushing an agenda that is quite different from the way their own movement got started. Special interests in recent years have focused on the evils of big business – the big chemical business in particular – whereas originally, the organic movement focused on the health of the soil.  

Sir Albert Howard is generally recognized as the father of organic agriculture. His book, An Agricultural Testament, published in 1943, is a clear statement on the importance of composting to good health. Howard was an agricultural adviser in India during the early part of the 20th Century and faced the challenging problem of low soil fertility in a land that did not use cow manure in agriculture (manure was/is used as a fuel for cooking and heating homes). His solution was to use so-called “green manure” or decomposing plant material to add fertility to impoverished soils.

Howard named his composting method the Indore Process, after the village where he worked. It was a great success and became the basis for many books and articles published by J.I. Rodale (via Rodale Books and the Rodale Press).

Some of this early literature does address the importance of limiting the inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but these issues seem to be mere tangents. The clear message is that healthy soils produce healthy food; which, in turn, produces healthy people.

Then the environmental movement came along. And after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, many things changed within the organic movement. Pesticides became the causa belli. During the decades following the 1960’s many pesticides were banned and the Environmental Protection Agency became a powerful organization deciding what could and could not be used to protect the nation’s food from pests. The widely active biocides and pesticides with long residual activity were the first to be taken off the market. Many others have since followed in their wake.

This has been a positive thing for the most part. Growers are better educated on how to manage pests, and they generally have more products to choose from than they used to. Of course, it’s more expensive now to kill pests and the long-established problems of pesticide resistance continue to plague us. But the future of agriculture is promising – in spite of the many more mouths we have to feed.   

And through all of this the organic movement has felt the need to adapt its message. From healthy soils it now focuses on pesticide-free food. Unfortunately (for them) this will turn out to be a poor course to follow. The credibility of the organic movement (already limited) will become even more limited. Claims to better health and living can hardly be justified anymore.  The Stanford Study is a clear case of this.

But there have been hints of this for some time now. You may have been part of taste tests that used to be popular. Two plates of carrots (or apples, grapes, or other food) would be placed side-by-side. One plate would hold organic carrots, the other would hold conventional carrots. The challenge was to taste a difference between them. If you could taste a difference, then you had to rank them by preference. In the tests I participated in, there were often differences detected, and conventional produce tasted best. You may have experienced the same thing. The reason for this is that food tastes best when it is kept from spoiling. And the truth of the matter is that organically grown foods spoil quicker than conventionally grown food.

Another popular series of studies have looked at the productivity of conventional farming compared to organic farming. In many of these studies, organic farms produced less in acre-by-acre comparisons than conventional farms.

So the question becomes, if conventionally grown food is tastier, is just as healthy, and is less expensive than organically grown food, why should we bother with organic foods at all?

The answer may not be what you expect. We need organically produced food because it is old fashioned. Or rather, the answer lies with old fashioned organic agriculture. It lies with the soil. Organic farms that fail to compare favorably with conventional farms do so because they are trying to copy conventional markets. A dedicated organic grower that focuses on Albert Howard’s organic method of composting can out-compete conventional growers in both the quantity and quality of food produced. But this almost always happens on a small scale.

The farm that focuses on organic soil fertility can harvest fresh produce over a long growing season. If this is supplemented with modern pesticides (if they are needed) a farm will out-compete conventional growers.

You may say that this does not count as “organic” and you would be right. The rules of the organic movement (having started in California) are now official nationally (and are expanding globally). Using un-certified pesticides disqualifies a product as “organic”.

My response to all of this may seem harsh: Who Cares? If “organic” produce is not healthier, is less tasty, and costs more than my grocery store produce, I’m not going to buy the organic food. It doesn’t bother me to wash my vegetables.

But there is still a big need to improve the soil. And I still keep my own vegetable garden (and compost pile) because I much prefer the taste of fresh garden produce. I promise you that my fresh garden salad tastes better than conventionally grown salads (which taste better than flagging organic salads).

This is because I use tastier varieties (that aren’t “tough” enough for shipping) that come straight from plants that have been fed from rich compost. We may have a lot of sandy soil here in Fresno but my garden is full of organic matter and my plants love it. And they taste really good.

I think it’s time to give Sir Albert Howard a closer look. We’ve learned our lesson from Silent Spring. It’s time to move on. If we’re really serious about our health, let’s go outside and start a real organic garden. Let’s build up our soils.


The Stanford Study: Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (vol. 157(5)) in September of this year (2012). My copy of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament is a reprint published by Oxford City Press in 2010.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review of The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield

A month ago, while browsing through the shelves of our local Barnes & Noble (here in Fresno), I came across Stephen Mansfield’s The Mormonizing of America. There was a large pile of the books on the floor ready to be shelved - which made me look a little closer. Mormon books do not, in general, get inventoried in pile-sized quantities by major book dealers outside of Utah.

Glancing through the opening pages, I read how much the author enjoyed his visit to Brigham Young University, how much he benefited from discussions with Mormon scholars, and how nice the candy is at the BYU Bookstore. And to be fair, he also expressed gratitude to thinkers more critical of Latter-day Saints (or Mormons).

“This may be a fair book,” I said to myself as I proceeded to the checkout counter. At the very least it ought to be worth reading a Mormon book that Barnes & Noble has obviously tagged as a text that will sell.

And so began a very disappointing read. I do admit that Mansfield has something interesting to say when he tells of his travels among Mormons. And at various points throughout the book he shares snippets of how typical Americans encounter the Mormon reality in today’s world.

For example, we read of the friendship of a Catholic priest and a Mormon Stake President who play racquetball together. They enjoy kidding each other over individual matters of faith but, at one point in their relationship, came to a falling out. The priest finds out that Mormon ceremonies were at one time critical of Catholic priests and the Stake President is annoyed that many Catholics view Mormonism as a cult. The two eventually reconcile their differences.

Or there is the story about Hugh Riddick who teaches his grandson about the priesthood in a touching narrative where we learn of the death of Hugh’s son in battle. His boy had hoped to ordain his own son (Hugh’s grandson) to the priesthood when he returned from the war.

These are valuable additions to the ongoing dialogue between Mormons and non-Mormons in America. If Mansfield had continued along these lines, he would have written a useful book. It is his foray into Mormon beliefs and Mormon history that make his book so obviously tendentious and, ultimately, so forgettable.

I don’t mean to be spiteful. I offer my judgment as an observer of such Mormon ephemera through several decades. Mansfield says nothing that Mormon detractors haven’t said many times before. Sadly, he makes no attempt to meet Latter-day Saint thinkers on questions he decides to critique. His habit is to remind us of anti-Mormon positions without trying to understand what thoughtful Mormons actually think about such topics themselves. My experience is that such head-nodding narratives seldom endure.

Mansfield’s point is that Mormons are “better than their leaders and better than the doctrines their leaders have given them”. This sounds trendy. But Neal A. Maxwell’s point that “One will not find a perfect people with mediocre doctrines” is more substantial. And Jesus’ timeless teaching that “by their fruits ye shall know them” stands as a direct challenge to Mansfield’s thesis.

A particularly egregious example is his treatment of the Book of Mormon. As one expects, he includes the over-used witticisms of Mark Twain and gives offensive dialogue about the recent Mormon farce on Broadway. But he says nothing of the rich doctrines found in the text (a subject that we would expect from a thesis that rests on a doctrinal position). Nor does he mention the numerous external evidences of the Book of Mormon from the Old World, of the book’s many Hebraisms, or of its literary significance. What we do get is a very misguided account the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon that completely ignores Richard Anderson’s important research on this critical issue.

In one particularly misinformed paragraph Mansfield manages to claim: that there is very little evidence for the book’s claims (ignoring hundreds of serious studies), that there is no evidence for “Reformed Egyptian” (completely unaware of written Algonquin texts),  that the geography of the book is “entirely unconfirmed” (ignoring Warren and Michaela’s Aston’s remarkable findings in the Arabian Peninsula), and that there is no evidence that Native American DNA is remotely related to Semitic peoples (ignoring dozens of important observations made recently by serious Mormon scientists). Mansfield may have made a few visits and phone calls to come up with evidence for his cultural arguments. But he has certainly not visited a library with serious Mormon literature. It is obvious to me why he had to choose a small Christian company to print his book. No serious publisher would let him get away with such things.

Mansfield’s treatment of Mormon polygamy is hardly any better. He assumes that such a doctrine automatically dismisses Joseph Smith as a credible religious voice. We all know that the history of Mormon polygamy contains any kind of story one wishes to find. But as a weapon against Joseph, it hardly signifies what Mansfield wants it to.

Joseph’s delay in implementing the principle, his concern for elderly and abandoned women, the love that his wives had for him and his loving relationship with Emma are never mentioned. I doubt that Mansfield has intentionally withheld this information. He just hasn’t done his homework. He assumes that Joseph was a sinful man that will ultimately prove to be a great embarrassment to Mormons. All this to prove his point that Mormons are nice people but their history is awful.

But Joseph proves just the opposite – at least he does to millions of people (many of whom are better informed than Mansfield). We revere him and we are moved by his history. I can’t read about his own resignation to a mob that would ultimately kill him without sensing his love for Emma. She wanted him to come back from hiding and he did – knowing he would die. And the histories of thousands of other people, that knew Joseph and followed him in spite of his pecuniary weaknesses, stand as testimony against Mansfield. Joseph’s detractors have occasionally been jealous contemporaries, more often people who never knew him, almost never the thousands that knew him personally – even intimately. Mansfield’s claim that Mormonism has a history that will prove its undoing is quite frankly ridiculous, coming as it does from someone that hasn’t read the history himself. 

Mansfield’s forgettable book reminds me of Mary McCarthy’s fascinating essay written several decades ago about prejudice. She recounts a conversation she had with a Colonel in the American military while on a train ride. The man insisted that most Communists were Jews. The discussion went on for quite a while until he learned that his companion was a writer. He then became embarrassed and tried to back out of his prejudiced opinions – emphasizing that Hitler was clearly misguided. The essay is both funny and sad. Funny because the author is a good writer, and sad because it reveals how prejudiced many of us are on subjects we hardly know anything about.

So it is with Mansfield who admits that Mormons are good citizens. And I’ll admit that this is refreshing because for decades we were accused of being quite the opposite. But the truth is that such a conclusion is almost required now that most Americans have friends or acquaintances that are Mormons - and it becomes obvious that we tend to be good citizens that care about family, community and faith. To argue differently is hardly credible anymore.

Unfortunately the same is not true about unbiased Mormon history and doctrine. They are not commonly known to non-Mormon Americans. Because of this, Mansfield tries to get away with single sentence dismissals on subjects that we have deeply thought about (and written seriously about) for decades.

This may be the new trend among prejudiced non-Mormons now that we are so increasingly in the public eye. Maybe it’s an easy position to assume. But it certainly isn’t accurate. For those of you who care about our remarkable history and profound doctrines, I suggest that you talk to an informed Mormon and get a more balanced view. Reading Mansfield’s book won’t help.


The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield was published this year by Worthy Publishing. Neal A. Maxwell’s quote comes from Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward (end of Chapter One). Mary McCarthy’s essay, Artists in Uniform, is reprinted in The Best American Essays of the Century.  For the Aston discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula see Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994). A good place to start on American Indian DNA and the Book of Mormon is Michael Whiting’s DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective, reprinted in The Book of Mormon and DNA Research. Daniel C. Peterson Ed., The Neal A. Maxwell Institute 2008.