Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is Organic Food for the "Privileged"?

In the West, eating organic food is often portrayed as a "hipster" diet trend, with people who prefer to avoid harmful chemicals frequently mocked for being presumably wealthy, white and owning a certain variety of bicycle. But is this really true? Is everyone advocating for natural, organic food really a pale, androgynous Mac lover?

It turns out that developing countries, like India, are too developing in ways true to their health and heritage. Recently, social media was all over the news of Sikkim, a small state in the northeast of India, becoming the country's first all-organic state. Over 75,000 hectares of farmland are now free of pesticides and other chemicals, allowing the environment and people to become healthier. Their achievement is a reminder for others in India of the traditional practices and foods that they previously abandoned in favour of a Westernised, corporate idea of "progress", especially as the state managed to reach this goal in less than a decade. However, as Sikkim is a hilly state, chemical agriculture was never as prevalent as in flat states. But it isn't just about abandoning artificial chemicals. Organic farming also features practices like crop rotation, which helps to prevent nutrient depletion and pests from getting comfortable.

Tea garden, Sikkim. Source: Abhijit Kar Gupta
Of course, adoption and re-adoption of organic practices is not limited to Sikkim state. In Assam, another small state of India, a brother and sister have been converting their family tea estate to organic agriculture. While the sister, Avantika, initially ran into opposition when she first suggested they go organic, her detractors now admit that organic tea tastes better. Also unlike many other tea estates, many young men and women (like Simi and Deepa, featured in the article) are employed in management roles, as skill is valued by the siblings more than age or the old patriarchy. And across India, thousands of farmers are taking on traditional farming practices and Indian crop varieties that actually increase yields, with some diversifying their land to the extent that they now grow dozens of varieties of legumes, mangoes etc. alone. Of course, some factors, particularly land rights, are essential for the adoption of traditional, organic agriculture. As people who do not own land can have their assets and livelihoods taken away from them at any time, short-term compromises for long-term benefits are out of the question. Pesticides, chemical fertilisers and monoculture (planting only one crop) maximise yields *right now*, but are not sustainable or healthy over many years. Planting trees to reduce erosion and water loss? Fruit takes years to grow.

So you don't have to be "spoilt" or "white" to prefer organic food, but is it worthwhile? If you want to see a world without cancer, looks like it is. Multiple studies have found that pesticide exposure can increase the risk of childhood leukaemia, sometimes to double or triple the risk without them. This takes into account household or occupational (of the parents) exposure; we are currently all exposed to pesticides to some extent. As for brain cancer, it isn't much better for pesticide users. Children of parents who use or work with pesticides and insecticides have often shown a higher risk of brain cancer, sometimes up to three times greater. A small study on 45 children found a five times greater risk with home use of some insecticides (this was only preliminary research, but still serves as a warning). Regardless of where you come from - your culture, your ethnicity, how wealthy your family was when you were born - all of us deserve better than a world of suffering and death, where modern medicine is relied on to clean up the mess of modern agriculture. Why not prevent the mess in the first place?

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