Change the Dialogue to Food Safety, not Organic

by Anaïs Dodson, Food Policy Research Intern

Anaïs photo

On July 17, 2013 tragic news from India made headlines in the New York Times reporting that at least 23 children died from poisoned school lunches. As an anthropology student interested in food justice, the story revealed to me a paradigm that cannot go unnoticed. The same poisoning that happened in India is rampant elsewhere albeit insidiously. Americans must know that the substance that killed the children in India, monocrotophos which is related to organophosphates, is an insecticide widely used in the US as well 1. It was not until 2005 that this poison was phased out for residential use in this country, but its use, and others like it continue to be applied in American agriculture.

Food Safety is Organic

With that said, let’s consider how this country understands the terms ‘organic’ and ‘food safety’. Why is it that media coverage of food safety, limits itself to biological contaminations rather than addressing chemical toxins? Even the federal website brushes it off citing “Most food poisoning is caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites rather than toxic substances in the food. But, some cases of food poisoning can be linked to […] chemical toxins (such as pesticides or melamine).”2 Disappointingly, the site does not mention any of such pesticides. In the US, the nerve agent Chlorpyrifos a chemical related to the fatal insecticide found in India, was detected in 93% of Americans who were tested between 1999 and 2000 by the Center for Disease Control. Alarmingly, children in the study tested almost twice as high as adults since pound for pound they consume more than adults.3 This means that we are slowly and continuously exposing our most vulnerable population to a known toxin.4 Itseems that through language we have formulated our thinking into categorizing organic and food safety separately. Since the two terms are understood as mutually exclusive from each other, society has successfully formulated organic foods as a commodity and not a necessity. It is interesting to ask how contaminated foods with poisonous toxins cannot be considered a hazard to pubic health by government officials or the general public.

Organic Is A Necessity

Thankfully the organic movement is creeping in on agriculture’s dependency on toxic chemicals, but not for what it really is. The belief and value system around organic remains skewed, couched on the idea that it is healthier than the alternative and yet the bounds of thinkable thought remain there, in the realm of health and nutrition separate from food safety and public wellbeing. It is unjust for organic foods to stand as a divided class reserved for only those who have access to it and who can afford it. Organic is not an ideology and should not be a lifestyle choice. As it stands, organic choices are unobtainable for some, and because of its convoluted imagery, organic foods are sometimes dismissed entirely. Something is to be said about a belief system that makes it acceptable for some foods to be tainted and not others. Eating organically should be about eating safe foods free of insecticides, herbicides and any other synthetic chemicals. If the dialogue around organic food shifts to food safety, more pressure can build on agriculturalist, chemical companies and government to provide safer alternatives. It’s time to change the conversation about organic foods from eating “healthy” to eating safely.


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