The Art of Swallowing

The art of eating is one thing. The art of swallowing is quite something else. The first concerns the graces and pleasures of the table. The second is not about gobbling your dinner. It is a reference to credulity, an artless childlike trust—in this instance—in the romance of organic food. As in: “He swallowed the con, hook, line and sinker.” Or: “How can you swallow a fish story like that one?”


Randolph Caldecott, "Frog, Rat & Mouse at Table" (19th C.)


For those of you who do not make it through comment sections, let me share a portion of Organic Food Myths, an article by Brian Dunning at Reader Tim Canny called attention to it in his response to the earlier post Lavabo? The article closes with a useful bibliography that you can look up yourself. Here is the meat of Dunning’s article, which nicely deflates the anti-corporatist ideology that helps float the organic fever:

Make no mistake, organic food is big, big business. The days when the organic produce section of the supermarket represented the product of a small local farmer are long gone. California alone produces over $600 million in organic produce, most of it coming from just five farms, who are also the same producers of most non-organic food in the state. 70 percent of all organic milk is controlled by just one major milk producer.

Five or ten years ago, when the major food producers saw that organic food was coming into vogue, what do you think they did? They smelled higher prices charged for less product, and started producing organic crops. Nearly all organic crops in the United States are either grown, distributed, or sold by exactly the same companies who produce conventional crops. They don’t care which one you buy. You’re not striking a blow at anyone, except at your own pocketbook.

Dunning uses Trader Joe’s, a great favorite with organic foodies, as a case in point:

Trader Joe’s is a supermarket chain specializing in organic, vegetarian, and alternative foods with hundreds of locations throughout the United States, centered in organic-happy Southern California. Shoppers appreciate its image of healthful food in a small-business family atmosphere. Really? In 2005 alone, Trader Joe’s racked up sales estimated at $4.5 billion. The company is owned by a family trust set up by German billionaire Theo Albrecht, ranked the 22nd richest man in the world by Forbes in 2004. He’s the co-founder and CEO of German multi-national ALDI, with global revenue in grocery sales at $37 billion. According to Business Week, the decade of the 1990’s saw Trader Joe’s increase its profits by 1000%. Trader Joe’s also compensates its employees aggressively, with starting salaries for supervisors at $40,000. They hire only non-union workers. Now, to any capitalist or business-minded person, there’s nothing wrong with any of that (unless you’re pro-union or anti-big business). It’s a great company, and very successful. Trader Joe’s customers are willing to pay their premium prices to get that healthful image. But they should not kid themselves that they’re striking a blow at big business and supporting the little guy.

Debunking the notion that organic foods are healthier, more nutritious and better for the environment, Dunning continues:

Some supporters of organic growing claim that the danger of non-organic food lies in the residues of chemical pesticides. This claim is even more ridiculous: Since the organic pesticides and fungicides are less efficient than their modern synthetic counterparts, up to seven times as much of it must be used. Organic pesticides include rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don’t want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not. Supporters of organics claim that the much larger amounts of chemicals they use is OK because those chemicals are all-natural. But just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s safe or healthy — consider the examples of hemlock, mercury, lead, toadstools, box jellyfish neurotoxin, asbestos — not to mention a nearly infinite number of toxic bacteria and viruses (E. coli, salmonella, bubonic plague, smallpox).

Remember the illness and deaths that resulted from fairly recent outbreaks of E.coli? It helps to keep in mind that, according to the Center for Global Food Issues, organic foods comprise only about 1% of foodstuffs marketed in the United States. Nevertheless, they are responsible for 8% of E.coli cases.


Pieter Aertsen, "Meat Stall," 1551


Dunning has little patience with idealized notions of organic growing methods:

Organic methods require about twice the acreage to produce the same crop, thus directly resulting in the destruction of undeveloped land. During a recent Girl Scout field trip to Tanaka Farms in Irvine, California, one of the owners told us his dirty little secret that contradicts what you’ll find on his web site. Market conditions compelled them to switch to organic a few years ago, and he absolutely hates it. The per-acre yield has been slashed. Organic farming produces less food, and requires more acreage.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Note: And while you are at it, you might want to visit Tim Canny’s blog, Mulberry and Bliss. It is a lively, gracious work-in-progress by a literate writer and ruminator who muses outloud on a range of topics. Quite delightful. Besides, his link is responsible for this post.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey



  1. Ugh. This is too much of a fallacy-generating mess, but a couple items are worth addressing.

    Detective Dunning’s approach to the subject is partial (both senses of the word) and misleading. And his conclusions are just eager premises fast dipped in some see-what-sticks “research.”

    This guy creates the image of a corporate oligarchy on organic food production in California (let’s assume this is true?) and thinks he’s uncovered a contradiction in the philosophy of naturally grown foods rather than a frightening reality that corporations have knocked off so many family farms. Perhaps the author will be a lucky shareholder in the corporation buys California in toto. This is obvious: one can be against corporations despite being forced to buy from them.

    “Shoppers appreciate [Trader Joe’s] image of healthful food in a small-business family atmosphere.” He made that up. No one thinks Trader Joe’s is a small business via branding scams. The company is very open about it’s business model. Hence the radical popularity and business growth. Trader Joe’s is a big business –and don’t skip this– that actively seeks out small-time vendors, often local. (The income of the family that owns Trader Joe’s is a stupid red herring.)

    That is how customers at Trader Joe’s support small business in a practical way.

    One basic problem in his grasp of healthy food production and consumption is he focuses on the plant instead of the whole farming system. People support organic food production methods because they are sustainable, unlike “conventional” methods that deteriorate the soil with toxic pesticides (requiring more aggressive fertilizers ad infinitum). Such farming methods, while offering high yields and fast profits, are nevertheless farmland destroyers. Organic farms rotate their crops and use less aggressive natural pesticides because they maintain the health of the soil, which produces normal yields, but ensures future yields.

    Focusing on the food eating in isolation of the entire methods of production is also how the author pulls off his only victory claim – the fact that organic food consumption is not proven to offer the eater immediate health benefits over “conventional methods.” But the reason for this is the impossibility in forming a reliable study because of the unmanageable variables in making a fair comparison. Much less forming any long-term studies. Despite this problem, the philosophy of organic food and small business is far more expansive than the single plant and eater; it believes in the total production cycle including the health of farmland, livestock and local economies. Corporations, by their profits-at-any-cost constitution, have little interest sustainability (i.e. “see you later when shit hits the fan”). Not so with family farms personally invested in their land.

    As far as the author’s health scare attempts, just do your own research on E.coli (and pesticides) from multiple sources, not a small bio-tech advocacy group like the Center for Global Food Issues. More accurate information on organic food is so ubiquitous –Google is your friend– one must actively dodge it to maintain the cast of mind Dunning holds.

    For starters:

    Earlier I made a pitch for reading Wendell Berry.

    Ms. Mullarkey a priori wrote him off as a mischievous Romantic dealing drugs of popular ideologies. I’d have a go at that if I knew what it meant, but this read is probably good enough:

    He’s actually an experienced farmer and foremost expert on the relationships between agriculture, ecology and local economies. Books abound. Whatever doubts one might have about natural farming, it’s worthwhile to hold them up against some serious reading. Berry or not.

    Why did I write all this? I don’t know. I like the earth and God was clear in commanding us to be its stewards. (I’m also avoiding the real work I have to do in the studio.) Thank you for reading all this if you did and to Mr. Mullarkey for publishing it if she does.

  2. No one “wrote off” Wendell Berry. That’s a crude description of the post. Sam’s overheated respons takes us out of the realm of discussion and into the land of True Belief. Not a reliable place to be.

  3. What a beautiful image of Frog and friends! Now I know why the Caldecott medal deserves its name.

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