2008-05-30

Perspective

I know this isn't news to anyone, but how we experience life is largely dependent on the angle from which we approach it. What interests me more, however, is my recent realization that the global experience is also subject to the same laws of perspective that apply to the individual. That is to say, given time, distance, or point of view, the accepted reality of any society, culture, or nation may in fact be invalid from an alternate, and usually larger, perspective.

We know this to be true, because some perspectives are flawed from virtually every exterior angle, like cultures that oppress women or participate in genocide. But even a democracy like the US, in spite of our potent ideals and position in the world, is not exempt from these problems, and I think our perspectives can be flawed in much more subtle ways.

There's a high ironic example, I think, in the rapid growth in our consumption of organic foods. The perspective causing this trend, I assume, is the belief that foods grown without chemicals are more healthy for us than those foods grown using pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. On it's face, this seems like a sound viewpoint -- natural is healthy, right? The interesting point to me, however, is that while organic foods may be healthier for those that consume them, they may actually be less healthy from a global perspective.

I realize this probably doesn't make any sense, so let me explain. Consider, for example, that organically grown foods typically have 50% lower yields than traditional crops. In other words, if you have two equal sized fields, the organic one will produce half as much crop as the traditional method. This shouldn't be a surprise, since this is the whole reason that pesticides were developed in the first place. This also explains why organic foods typically cost twice as much or more. This isn't a big deal in a wealthy nation like the United States, where people typically spend less than 10% of their income on food, but what effect might it have on world food prices if even a modest number of farmers produced half as much crop as before? And what's the subsequent effect on people who spend nearly all their income on food?

In general, I wonder if organic foods are grown successfully because the general crop population is rendered disease free through treatment -- much like a child in the US who skips a vaccine, but never catches the disease because 99% of the other children did get the vaccine. Such a child would almost certainly catch the disease if the general populace weren't vaccinated. I have to wonder if the same principle applies to organic crops? Are they at higher risk for wholesale failures, like the potato famine?

Am I saying that organic foods are bad? No. Certainly the resurgence of organic food can teach us that perhaps we are too dependent on fertilizers and pesticides, and there is probably a good middle ground and certain crops that can be grow very well organically. But a global perspective should make us think twice about launching headlong into the organification of everything we eat. After all, the vast majority of the world population is much more worried about having enough to eat than the particulars of how it was grown.

In the end, it's all a matter of perspective. What are the hidden costs of ours?

...to be continued...