August 22, 2008
Is Organic Maple Syrup Part of the Big Solution? Letter From America
By Richard Bernstein
It's fresh corn, heirloom tomato and pancake season here on eastern Long Island, where New Yorkers come for their summer vacation, sprinkling local blueberries on the pancakes and saturating the whole breakfast in maple syrup.And in the maple syrup there lies a question of deep ecological and moral import, one that's been on my troubled mind for some time now: Is there really a difference between the maple syrup proudly labeled organic, and costing a good deal more, or is it really the same as the plain old unorganic variety?
The question might seem trivial, and, unless you're a producer of maple syrup, it probably is. And yet it relates to the rapid growth of organic farming, the spread of organic fruit, meats and vegetables from a few health food stores to mainstream supermarkets in the United States, a development that proponents believe will improve the collective health and help to save our afflicted planet.
Certainly if you live in New York, you can't miss the ever intensifying rage for organic food, or the ever more widespread conviction that eating organically is the moral equivalent of environmentalism.
But that "organic" maple syrup sort of sticks in the craw, as it were. After all, maple syrup is springtime sap tapped from maple trees that has been boiled down, so, ambrosial as it is (in fact it's the very taste of North America), how could it not be organic?
Maple syrup aside, I tend toward a certain cautious skepticism about the vogue for the organic, though I also have to admit I've never managed a consistent view on the topic.
On the one hand, it often seems more a matter of yuppie narcissism than a scientifically valid and established proposition - a bit like the now fading conviction that water is healthier, purer and better-tasting if it is poured from a greenish bottle than if it comes from the tap.
And yet, it is difficult to dismiss organic farming as just another modern, pseudoscientific cult, or, at worst, a sort of benign hoax.
After all, even without scientific validation, organic farming does make a certain common sense, based on the notion that a less profligate use of chemical fertilizers, hormones and pesticides is good for the environment, if not provably healthier for the people who eat the food.
And, beyond comestibles, if ladybugs will take care of the aphids on my rose bushes and nematodes will kill off the grubs and Japanese beetle larvae on my lawn (and if I can accept a bit more crabgrass and dandelions on the basis that, unlike the grass itself, they are native species), it does make sense to go organic rather than spray the grass with bug and weed poison.
Still, the large and genuinely important question remains, especially at a time when food prices are increasing, provoking angry protests in poor countries: Does the model increasingly followed in middle-class America - charming outdoor farmers markets in big cities; the sense of moral purity and wholesomeness from eating what are called natural ingredients - make sense as a general model?
Answering that question in the Science section of The New York Times this week, Nina Fedoroff, a science adviser to the secretary of state and an expert on genetic modification, issued a resounding no.
"If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn't support the earth's current population - maybe half," she said, in an interview with Claudia Dreifus.
Why exactly this is the case, Fedoroff didn't have time to say. But other skeptical experts have voiced similar views, arguing that organic farming is less productive than standard, modern scientific agriculture, and more expensive. And to use relatively inefficient ways to meet the needs of a growing global population will not save the planet but wreck it further, because more wilderness and forest land will need to be brought under cultivation.
"The more we can grow on already cultivated land, the better," Fedoroff said.
Moreover, if it turned out that eating organically does not actually bring the health or environmental benefits that are generally claimed for it - and there's no indication that those who shop at Whole Foods, a popular chain selling organic products, are healthier than those who don't - then it would simply be a waste of money.
It would seem in this sense that organic makes sense sometimes but perhaps not as often as its advocates believe. Some studies, including one at Cornell University a couple of years ago, have concluded that for some important crops, like wheat and soybeans, organic farming is over time about as productive as nonorganic farming, though this does not seem to be the case with fruit, vegetables or livestock.
And there is certainly a degree of cultishness to the organic idea, an unfounded sense that to eat organic produce is to be pure while to eat the other stuff is to be corrupted.
That is where the example of maple syrup comes into the picture. Calls to several producers in Vermont, which is not called the maple state for nothing, strengthened the conviction that there is no meaningful difference between the organic and the supposedly nonorganic kinds.
"I guess you could call it a new marketing technique," Fran Sladyk, a forestry consultant at Butternut Mountain Farm, said in a phone conversation, "though it's a little more than that." The main difference is in an additive that is used to prevent the maple sap from foaming as it is being turned into syrup. Instead of a commercial defoamer, about one drop of which was used for every 80 gallons, or 300 liters, or so of sap, drops of organic safflower or canola oil are used instead.
But several producers told me that the main difference between organic and nonorganic maple syrup is that the makers of the former pay for state inspections and licenses, which is one of the reasons organically certified maple syrup is more expensive than the noncertified kind.
A friend of mine, another lover of blueberry pancakes, maintains that the main function of the pancake itself is to soak up the maple syrup that is put on them, and truer words were never spoken. But whether your syrup is "organic" or not doesn't matter a bit.
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Tomorrow: John Burns recalls running the marathon in Beijing in 1973, and reflects on what has changed in China
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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