Not from concentrate. That’s what the carton states, making the case for the difference between the two dollar orange juice and the three dollar orange juice. Who but a fool would pay the extra dollar when they are pretty much the same, right? You can find plenty of people who have taste-tested this assertion, and the smart money says that the difference between those two is less than the difference of either from ripe Valencia oranges in-season, fresh-squeezed on the spot.
The term “substantial equivalence” is used among professionals in a number of fields from food to tobacco to medical devices to describe this kind of similarity. Orange juice is only one example; if we look closely at the world around us and the food we eat, we will notice that we are constantly being told that this or that food we are stuffing in our face is substantially equivalent to the one we may remember with relish from our childhood. Yet if we do happen across one of those old-fashioned foods, say a garden ripened heirloom tomato, we suddenly realize how far we have progressed down the slippery slope from food as sacrament to food as simulacra.
The road to this particular hell is paved with food inventions, and there is a complex web – or more a knot – of intertwined grammar and vocabulary that enhances the near-congruence with which the homologue of the supermarket tomato hides the heirloom. A lot of this confusion was created out of the naked self-interest of the food companies, but an easily equal amount has been created by the cultural discourse of highly educated and credentialed people. You cannot pass through the scientific or professional educational system without picking up certain habits of thought and language, and these are based on certain world views that are rarely made explicit. My interest here is to sort out at least a few of these, but first, an anecdote to illustrate.
For a number of years I ran a half acre trial and display vegetable garden in Vermont. This was used to test new (or old) vegetable varieties for possible inclusion in our seed catalog, as well as demonstrate the varieties in the catalog for the 3,000-7,000 customers that might visit over the course of the season.
One summer we had a visit from a highly respected neurosurgeon from Baltimore. He was a very loyal customer, and excited to visit the gardens, but he could not stop himself from saying, “These gardens look great, and I know you are all organic, but I just don’t have time for that; I’m too busy.” I let that go, but he continued. “It’s not like it matters to the plants anyway…nutrients are nutrients.” I let that go then, and will leave it for later now as well. He continued,” And don’t try to tell me that organic plant is more nutritious, or tastes better. It’s all just chemistry.”
His reasoning was approximately thus: using the energy of photosynthesis, the plant draws from a pool of nutrients and moisture in the soil to create tissue and store some of that energy for reproduction (and thus, survival). We eat the results and reap both flavor and nutrition. This whole process can be more or less controlled by humans, all the way up to indoor, artificial light hydroponics, where the system is very simple and very efficient, but its management complex. To the doctor’s way of thinking, as long as we understand its physics and chemistry (and thus the biology), the outputs of any given system will be substantially equivalent.
So, I invited him to lunch.
“You know, that is a really subtle question,” I said, “Why don’t we walk up to the mini-mart for a sandwich. I can grab a bottle of Gallo and we can sit in the Kiwi arbor next to the seed shed and talk it over.”
“Gallo,” he snorted! “I don’t drink that trash; don’t they have any good wine there?”
“What’s the difference,” I asked? “Wine is wine; grapes are grapes, aren’t they?”
“Absolutely not! You have to consider the variety of grape, the vineyard, and its aspect and slope, the quality and condition of the soil; all these things matter; surely you have heard of terroir!”
“So you are telling me it’s not just chemistry when it comes to wine? Why does this matter for grapes but not for other crops, like tomatoes, or melons – or especially carrots or beets, since they mature right in the soil?”
Simply stated, the doctor’s scientific and medical training had subjected his world view to an unconscious split where a given matter of interest would either be the object of art (enology and who knows what else) or science, which (not being art) could be ruthlessly systematized and rationalized (and then, ultimately, industrialized…or, as I might say Gallo-ed).
That done, consciously or not, we then, as a culture, compensate by romanticizing the peasant or country folk who never lost their food-ways. The folks in Florida for example, who grow 10-15 kinds of citrus each with its own flavor and season. The juice of the mall-shopping suburbanite is not, I assert, substantially equivalent to that, regardless of its price. Of course, groups like Slow Food now exist to try and remind us of this rich history, and there are some educated, literate urbanites, like Angelo Pellegrini, who have not lost sight of the art of living…but that is a topic that will have to wait for another time, on another page.
The meeting with the doctor was cordial, but this may have been because of our previous relationship as vendor and customer. Things are less cordial in the world of academe and industry, where the same discordances are front and center, and careers hang in the balance along with the success or failure of entire companies.
A paper published last year by a group of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine purported to look at the same kinds of questions from the output point of view, that is, whether or not organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods (the flavor argument is harder to document, though its basis is essentially identical). Their conclusion, variously stated in different media, and with different spins, was “no.” A maelstrom of controversy arose from this fact-asteroid slammed into the ocean of consumer belief about organic foods.
Two elements are important to understanding the critiques, pro and con, of this study: the methodology and the interpretation. This should come as no surprise to the sophisticated reader who follows these issues, but the overlap of the two in this case is just as illustrative as the appearance of either / each study. There were also questions about funding and support, but I am not going to speak to the economic underpinnings of scientific research here
The methodological questions arise from the fact that this study was a meta-analysis. That is to say, it involved no new empirical research, but rather was an analysis of studies previously done, aimed to find trend patterns within the data produced by those studies. The problem with meta-analyses (I worked while an undergraduate doing preliminary literature review for a PhD candidate) is in the choice of studies that make it to the final analysis, and the correlative strength of the data within those studies. This is much more difficult in studies that require analysis of agricultural products grown under widely variant conditions than it is in epidemiological studies of the type that the Stanford team was more familiar with, where, for instance, you look at the eating habits of 4,000 nurses over ten years. The greater the range of the variables in the studies, the harder it is to draw statistically valid conclusions from them.
Another meta-analysis, done by a British team, using very much the same corpus of studies (they are drawing from the same peer-reviewed, published papers after all) came to a very different conclusion. They found that the organic crops under study were indeed nutritionally superior to conventionally grown crops.
This is not the place to go into details, but this group had a more solid grounding in agriculture and food issues than the Stanford group, and made different choices both about which studies should be included in the meta-analysis, and how the variation in data should be dealt with. They also made a different determination about which plant tissue components (i.e., chemical and structural) were the best indicators of a long-term health-beneficial effect of the two production methods.
Another, earlier study (Benbrook, et. al. 2008) found much the same thing, though it phrased its findings in a slightly different way. Its findings were in agreement with the British study about the levels of various nutrients and anti-oxidants, but it also introduced the term “nutrient density,” which changes the vocabulary of the discussion. This study focused on the nutrient level of commodity grain crops, most of which are used as “feedstocks” to other parts of the food chain, either as animal feed, or as raw material inputs to food manufacturing. In both cases the nutrient “density” of the crops is of critical economic importance, not just a matter of consumer preference, because “feed conversion” is critical to profitability in the livestock sector.
In addition, on page 11 of the Benbrook report we read about substantive differences in nutrient availability at the plant root-soil juncture which indicate that despite what my doctor visitor said, there is not only a qualitative, but also a quantitative difference between organic and conventional systems. This is not the place to talk about how organic, nutrient embedded soils release what plants need for balanced growth in way, and at a rate, that is both appropriate for plant growth and regulated by external growing conditions such as sunlight, temperature and available moisture. Suffice it to say that what the Benbrook study – more than either the UK or the Stanford studies – recognizes is the integral nature of eco-agrological systems and how this requires special attention to their unique feedback loops.
The astute reader may have noticed that while I was critical of abstraction and reductionism in the first part of this post, I did leave some caveats to hide behind. I did that because I really do believe in their power as tools to “solve for pattern” as Wendell Berry would put it. Problems arise when, through hubris, naiveté or pure greed and venality we apply those tools as a sledge hammer rather than as a scalpel, just to choose a trite metaphor.
Our good doctor’s concern about his grapes versus my tomatoes hides, within its implicate order, many of the key elements we need to get beyond equivocation, in labeling (at the surface), but also in basic perception (to which labeling, as a form of marketing, speaks).
His “final vocabulary,” to use the Rortian term, inherited from his education and professional life, hides a self-fooling sleight-of-hand often called reification, and in economic terms also known as commodification. But for many of us -- especially the busiest among us, like my doctor-customer, and many suburban mothers pushing a cart through the supermarket -- participation in the mutual delusion of label-as-reality is an effective form of coping.
Thus, labels can be seen as both God and the Devil depending on whether you are buyer or seller. When we apply them we act as both: we act as the seven-day sorter of man and beast (and plant and stone) and we act also as the great impeder; we classify someone or something as either worthy of (our) special attention or beneath our notice.
But when we go about our daily, acquisitive lives, buying those things we think we need, labels (like any other form of advertising) become language and coin, keys to both our range of knowledge and our power as consumers. This may be the one moment when we need not to participate but to consume; we need to take in what is being presented to us, not be taken in by it. We need to keep in mind that the message about the product is not substantially equivalent to the product itself.
(Note: the illustration to the left shows what appears to be a head of broccoli as the example of a GMO food, but there is no GMO broccoli on the market...)