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I have been an environmental scientist for about 20 years and found Stephanie Mencimer’s “You Aren’t What You Eat” (1/21) an interesting read. I am sure that you will receive many letters denouncing her as a tool of various corporate cabals, and I certainly can’t prove she isn’t. But, to judge from my experience, her assessment of the essentially negligible risks posed by consumption of so-called conventional foods is accurate. Her observation that it would be nearly impossible to feed everyone on the planet with organic foods is also right on the money, but the real problem there is humans breeding like rabbits, not something inherently unreasonable about organic farming. Note that, no matter how many politically correct causes Fresh Fields contributes to, it will also remain nearly impossible for everyone in the world to have a car, a Web-capable PC, cable, and a cappuccino machine.
There’s a Fresh Fields in my neighborhood, and I shop there regularly. From my point of view (i.e., Bethesda, MD 20816), I would have preferred a Sutton Place Gourmet. After all, SPG has everything Fresh Fields has, plus unparalleled meat counters. But the River Road Fresh Fields has the best bakery of any supermarket in Montgomery County, and it’s competitive with any upscale bread boutique in the area. The seafood counter is uniformly excellent, the cheese selection is awesome, and, let’s face it, the produce section rules outright, hands down, word to your mother. There’s no shriveled, wormy, or undersized organic produce there—it’s all plump, large, gorgeous, and way expensive. The effect of the Fresh Fields on the local Giant, where I also shop, has been profound. Its bakery and produce sections are the best ones I’ve ever seen in a Giant, and I’ve shopped at quite a few of them in the last 30-odd years. Its seafood counter recently got a makeover, and the quality has improved greatly. And you know Giant—there’s no way any of that would have happened without the competitive pressure from Fresh Fields.
The people who work for chemical and agribusiness companies are not Girl Scouts and choirboys. I’ve done enough pesticide and Superfund work to know that, and there are plenty of valid things to be concerned about—including, for example, exposure of farm workers to pesticides and other toxicants. But the pesticide residues on our fruits and vegetables just aren’t a significant health threat. So what’s behind the obsession with organic produce? My neighbors here in Bethesda are certainly a stunning variety of snobs, all quite obsessed with displaying the most fashionable postmodern status symbols, and Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption rings true for them, as far as it goes. But my neighbors are also, by and large, innumerate, scientifically ignorant twits with Little Bo Peep diplomas from Ivy League schools. Such people simply do not have the equipment to make a rational assessment of relative risks. They consume organic food and drive around in huge SUVs in order to be “safe.” Then they go to Vail and slide down a mountain at 60 miles per hour with a couple of Fiberglas slats on their feet. If they read the backs of their lift tickets half as carefully as they read the labels at Fresh Fields, even people as pathetic as they are might get a glimmering notion that the risk of death taken in one alpine ski run is several orders of magnitude greater than the risk of death from eating “conventional” produce for the rest of their miserable lives.
Were this basic problem restricted to overprivileged, upscale bozos, we might simply shrug and say that it serves them right. But innumeracy and scientific ignorance are widespread in our society. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, for example, and the poor express their inability to comprehend probability by standing in line for lottery tickets instead of paying outrageous prices for organic apples. Eventually, the present bull market in dot-coms with astronomical P/E ratios shall inevitably exhaust the supply of fools. This will relieve many of the disposable income necessary to shop at Fresh Fields, but our society will still be largely populated by those afflicted with the inability to understand mathematics and uninterested in the actual facts of the natural world. Now there’s something worth a rational person’s concern.