Scientifically sound? Maybe. But wise?

“Let’s start the new year on scientifically sound footing,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times (“What You Think You Know (but Don’t) About Wise Eating,” December 31), and quotes “one of Canada’s brightest scientific minds” to the effect that “chemical” shouldn’t be a dirty word, because all food is made of chemicals and there’s chemistry going on everywhere. True enough. Sadly but predictably, she (and, one has to presume, Joe Schwarcz, the scientist she cites) jumps straight to the conclusion that food is nothing more than a bunch of chemicals, and uses it as an excuse to justify industrial food and fling barbs at the alternatives.

I’ll gladly concede that foodies, health fanatics, and environmental activists often have a poor grasp of the science they think they’re citing. Brody punctures one bit of nonsense that’s irritated me for years, the alleged health superiority of “naturally cured” meats. In fact, “uncured” bacon, ham, and salami generally contain as much nitrite as the traditionally cured stuff. (I recall that a study commissioned by Cook’s Illustrated several years ago found that meat cured with celery juice contained more nitrites than the traditional stuff, but I can’t find the citation at the moment.) But the rest is less impressive. For instance, her/his defense of “meat glue”:

Meat glue Never heard of it? You may have eaten it, especially if you dine out often. At WD-50 in New York, the chef, Wylie Dufresne, makes his famous shrimp noodles with the enzyme transglutaminase, a k a meat glue. It binds protein molecules, gluing together small pieces of fish, meat or poultry…. Sound frightening? It shouldn’t.

Frightening? No. Just, you know… not actually food. Apparently meat glue can turn pollock into imitation crab meat and hold sausage together without a casing. Wonders never cease, but why can’t we just accept crab as the occasional luxury it is and appreciate it all the more for it? And have we really become so narcissistic and self-indulgent that the inconvenience of biting through sausage casing gives us the vapors?

Speaking of luxuries: We shouldn’t worry about farmed salmon, either. Why not?

Most of the salmon consumed nowadays is farmed. Even if we all could afford the wild variety, there’s simply not enough of it to satisfy the current demand for this heart-healthy fish.

There’s not enough diamonds in the world to satisfy current demand, either, and yet strangely people don’t get all gooey about cubic zirconium. Brody admits that “there may be legitimate concerns” about salmon farming’s threats to human health and the environment, but even if there weren’t, it simply isn’t a valid argument that because a thing is expensive, we ought to quit worrying and accept a cheap substitute. We could simply eat less of the real thing. Or eat something else entirely.

Organic farming, in particular, seems to make Schwarcz nervous, because “Might manure used today on organic farms contain disease-causing micro-organisms?” Manure is fairly obviously dirty; it’s also fairly obvious to anyone who has worked with it that it needs to be handled with care and fully broken down long before anything is harvested. There are safe, long-tested practices for this sort of thing, but Schwarcz doesn’t seem to be aware of them. He doesn’t seem to understand organic agriculture at all, actually:

Until the 20th century, Dr. Schwarcz wrote, all farming was “organic,” with manure and compost used as fertilizer and “natural” compounds of arsenic, mercury and lead used as pesticides.

Excuse me, but: Horseshit. Until the 20th century, most farming in the United States was too often metaphorically horseshit and too rarely fortified with the real thing. Until we ran out of land to take from the Indians, white farmers just used up the land they had and moved west. Manuring fields was considered by most a waste of time, possibly counterproductive, and reformers struggled to get farmers to change their ways. Gourmands even wrote that manured land produced tasteless produce. And by 1900 we were already reaping the questionable benefits of Justus Liebig’s discovery that nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium were the three chemicals key to plant life — which was quickly simplified into the notion that only those three chemicals were needed in agriculture. By 1920, the explosives industry that had boomed (sorry) in World War I was converting to produce chemical fertilizer.

Organic farming is a deliberate and scientific product of the twentieth century meant to replace that reductionist model of agiculture with a holistic, cyclical one. It wasn’t originally about simply not using artificial pesticides; it was a studied rejection of artificial fertilizers. Sir Albert Howard, the English scientist who developed the first theory of organic agriculture in the 1930s, argued that human health was founded on the health of the soil: healthy soil feeds plants as well as microorganisms that attack plant roots and are in turn absorbed by them; plants feed livestock and humans; rotting plant and animal “waste” feeds the soil. Interestingly, Howard also believed that agricultural research should be performed on working farms and not merely at research stations, and I don’t believe he’d be surprised that the massive organic operations that have grown up since the USDA established its national organic standards have mostly trashed all the holistic stuff and focused on producing as much as possible this season for a niche market.

There are plenty of criticisms that can legitimately be leveled at organic agriculture, at the USDA standards, at massive-scale organic-certified producers and the way organic food is marketed. But “organic” has never meant just eschewing modern methods, and in fact the biggest problem with organic agriculture as it exists today is that it too often misses the original, fundamental, holistic point of organic agriculture. If people are going to criticize organic farming, I do wish they’d take the trouble to understand it first. Particularly if they’re setting out to be “scientifically sound” and correct “falsehoods.”

Chemistry is a tremendously useful means of understanding the world. But it isn’t the only or the most useful one. Nor does it — per the headline — offer any wisdom. Wisdom is what shows you what to do with scientific knowledge, and truly bright scientific minds understand that we have to go looking for that elsewhere. Maybe in addition to being scientifically sound, we could all start the new year by recognizing that our food — and ourselves — are more than just collections of chemicals.