Category Archives: organic

Organic Lies About Bt Sweet Corn

Take this simple test to determine whether or not Bt corn is equivalent to a hand grenade for you: Are you a larval-stage European corn borer? No? Well, probably not, then.

A couple of my facebook friends are among the 755 people* who’ve shared this image, originally posted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). It’s part of a broader campaign against Monsanto’s Bt sweet corn that’s starting to heat up because the first commercial crop is poised to debut in supermarket produce bins this summer.

Important disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Monsanto. I think they represent some of the worst tendencies of monopolistic, profit-driven enterprise. They bully farmers to buy their seeds every year and sue the ones who don’t if patented seed gets into their fields anyway, whether or not the farmers wanted it there (see: Food, Inc., The World According to Monsanto, Knight-Ridder/Tribune, Examiner.com). They risk their workers’ health and pollute the environment, often at great public cost (see: Wikipedia, Washington Post, Environmental Working Group). They have fired whistle-blowing scientists willing to talk to journalists about the potential health risks of their products (see: New York Times). Their PR is Orwellian in a way that strikes me as somewhere between darkly hilarious and seriously unnerving (see: their website**). They’d make an outstanding movie villain.***

In fact, Monsanto is so stereotypically evil that I totally understand why people are willing to believe that food grown from their seed is dangerous, that Monsanto could be aware of this but try to sell it to you anyway, and that the regulatory agencies who ought to stop them have probably been effectively bought off.^ However, that’s not what’s happening here. I’m reasonably certain that Bt sweet corn is totally safe for human consumption. If it’s not and Bt is a real threat, then no sweet corn you can buy is safe for human consumption because Bt insecticides have been used by organic farmers for over 50 years.

How Bt Works

What’s wonderful about Bt-toxin is that it’s only toxic to insect larvae. Rather than referring to Bt compounds as “toxins,” it would probably be more accurate to call them proteins.^^ Unless you happen to be a larval-stage weevil or gypsy moth, in which case the description of what happens in the ad is fairly accurate: it binds to your gut, ruptures your intestines and you die.

These larvae-killing proteins occur naturally in the spores of a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. The proteins are activated by the digestive juices of vulnerable caterpillars, and here’s James McWilliams’ account of what happens next: 

Precisely what happens with the Bt-toxin is, in its own way, a masterpiece of natural adaptation. Certain insects that ingest the bacterium cease processing potassium. As a result, they become paralyzed and die as their cells drown in a cascade of water. As so often happens with life down in the dirt, one organism’s demise is another’s meal ticket. Indeed, the besotted gut mucosa of the dead insect becomes a fertile breeding ground for millions of Bt spores, which proceed to grow exponentially, catch a gust of wind, and dust the topsoil with a layer of natural repellent. If anything can be called natural, this would seem to be it. (Just Food p. 87)

Top: unprotected peanut plant ravaged by cornstalk borer larvae; Bottom: Bt peanut plant--the larva has crawled off the plant and died just above the center leaf. Source: wikipedia  Bt insecticides are also highly specific. Each Bt strain is only effective against the larvae of a handful of species. They’re not even effective against the adults of those species, let alone other kinds of insects (including agriculturally-useful ones like bees). So it’s not true that Bt is designed to rupture the stomach of “any insect” that feeds on it. Nor does it matter if it breaks down before it gets to your dinner table, although it probably does because it breaks down pretty easily, especially when exposed to UV light (source: UCSD Aorian Laboratory).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Bt is so safe that the EPA has exempted Bt insecticides from its food residue tolerances, groundwater restrictions, endangered species labeling and special review requirements. Bt has no known effects on fish, birds, or mammals, with one exception: if you apply it directly to rabbits’ eyes, they get irritated. Researchers note that that may be caused by the formulation tested and not the Bt itself (source: UCSD Aorian Laboratory).^^^

So this isn’t some crazy, newfangled technology. We have no idea how old the bacterium is, although it probably evolved along with the larvae it attacks, which may have evolved along with the plants they target. It was first discovered in 1901 by a Japanese biologist. In 1911, it was independently discovered in Germany and identified as the cause of a disease affecting flour moth caterpillars. It’s been used to control insect pests since the 1920s and was first developed for commercial use in 1958. It’s not synthetic, doesn’t accumulate in the soil, and poses no threat to wildlife, water, or human health, so it has always been compatible with the current restrictions on pesticides approved for “organic” farming (sources: Wikipedia and UCSD).

Using GM seed as a delivery mechanism for the protein is newer, although that’s been happening for the better part of two decades with no apparent negative effects. In 1987, the gene that produces the insecticidal protein in the bacterium was successfully transferred to tobacco and cotton. Transgenic Bt food crops including commodity corn and potatoes have been grown in the U.S. since 1996. The only thing that’s new and different about Bt sweet corn is that it’s designed for immediate human consumption rather than cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup. Since there’s no reason to believe that Bt is bad for you, before or after it passes through a cow’s gut or refining plant, there’s no reason to believe that Bt sweet corn is some kind of strange, new, scary thing. Unless you happen to be an organic farmer who grows sweet corn, in which case you may be relying on the far-less-efficient process of applying Bt insecticides externally via spraying, which must be repeated at least half a dozen times throughout the growing season. Then, I imagine you might indeed feel threatened by farmers who can grow plants that produce the very same proteins themselves. 

So What’s With the Rats Whose Organs Failed?

The short answer is there are no such rats.

The claim that rats fed GM corn showed organ failure is probably a reference to this study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. Discover Magazine already pointed out a number of problems with the paper: 1) The authors got Monsanto to give them some data from studies they ran on three varieties of GM corn, and the authors themselves admit that the data are insufficient to reach any meaningful conclusions about the health effects of GM corn, 2) They found between 20-30 significant effects out of about 500 measurements, which is actually statistically likely when you’re running that many tests looking anything with a 5% chance of occurring randomly because 5% is not 0%, 3) The statistically-significant correlations that they found were not linear; for example, rats fed GM corn as 11 percent of their diet showed a (barely) statistically-significant effect of having large unnucleated cell count, but the rats fed 3x as much GM showed no similar effect, 4) Measurements like that were interpreted as "signs of organ failure,” although no actual organ failure was involved, and 5) The authors offer no possible explanation for any of the correlations, and there’s no corroborating research to suggest that the effects were causal or meaningful.

This doesn’t even rise to the relatively low bar of “suggestive findings that should prompt further research.” It was a bad study that no one would have paid any attention to unless they were actively looking for a way to cast aspersion on GM crops. Also, it doesn’t even involve Bt sweet corn (or in some cases Bt corn, because the data also included Roundup-ready seed). So this is emphatically not a situation where a bunch of rats fed the product coming to market this summer died from liver failure but the research was swept under the rug. Instead, this seems to be a case where a few publication-hungry scientists ran SPSS on a found data set until they got a handful of results with a p value < .05 and slipped it into an obscure and poorly-vetted journal. Is it really any wonder Monsanto is reluctant to release their data for that kind of “independent analysis” more often?

What About the Pregnant Women?

Ignoring for just a moment the fact that literally hundreds of compounds that are actually toxic to humans can probably also be “detected in pregnant women,” that part of the ad is probably a reference to this study from Quebec published in Reproductive Toxicology last year. It was designed to see if there was any correlation between the consumption of genetically modified foods and fetal exposure to herbicides like glyphosate, aka Round-up. In other words, the presence of Bt proteins was being used as a marker of GM consumption. No one has any reason to believe that Bt is harmful to pregnant women, or their fetuses, or anyone else who isn’t a corn-boring caterpillar. Instead, the researchers appear to be concerned about the potential effects of fetal exposure to Roundup, or more accurately, how to safely measure those potential effects. The main conclusion of the study was that the technique they used seems to be a good way to measure pesticide exposure: “This is the first study to reveal the presence of circulating PAGMF in women with and without pregnancy, paving the way for a new field in reproductive toxicology including nutrition and utero-placental toxicities.”

It’s not clear from the ad what its designers thought would be so sinister about the mere presence of Bt proteins in pregnant (or non-pregnant) women. Wouldn’t that just show that Bt proteins are already in our diet, even before a single ear of Bt sweet corn has been consumed? Perhaps it’s included as “evidence” to counter the claim attributed to Monsanto that “the toxin will break down before the corn makes it to your dinner table.” Which, again, it probably will, not that it matters. Aside from the hysteria-inducing reference to pregnant women, I suspect that what they were really trying to do was activate fears related to pesticides like DDT, whose persistence in the ecosystem and presence in human bodies might legitimately be a cause for concern. Never mind that Bt insecticides and transgenic seed are exactly the kinds of agricultural innovations^^^^ that can prevent the use of pesticides like DDT.

If You Want to Be An Informed Consumer, Act Like It

Organic farmers have commercial interests and organizations aimed at protecting those interests, just like conventional agribusiness. If this campaign is any indication, they’re no more trustworthy than Monsanto, just far less powerful.

When not referring to carbon-based compounds, “organic” is a marketing term, not a scientific one. In the U.S., it refers to products grown or made without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or a few other disallowed things including transgenic seed, as certified by one of the roughly 100 USDA-accredited agencies (source: USDA). It doesn’t mean it’s produced without any fertilizers or pesticides, which would make farming all-but-impossible anyhow. Many organic-permissible fertilizers and pesticides are actually worse than conventional ones in terms of how much energy they take to produce, how they affect the environment, how effective they are, and how they affect the health of farmers and people living downstream. Obviously, if you want to buy organic-labeled things anyway, that’s up to you, but I wouldn’t go around feeling smug about it or anything.

What really makes the veins in my temples throb uncomfortably is when people post things like the ad above with a tagline like “This is why it’s so important to know where your food comes from!” I don’t expect people to be experts on Bt, or any other aspects of farming and food production. Most people have more pressing things to do with their time than actually find out whether the organic berries at the store were grown using sodium nitrate mined in South America that leached perchloride into surrounding waterways, which might interfere with the human thyroid gland if it seeps into drinking water. Or if this or that brand of organic wine was protected from fungus with copper sulfate, which is toxic to fish and accumulates in the soil and in the breastmilk of vineyard employees (see: the section of Just Food titled “Chemicals” pp. 62-72).

But if you insist on posturing as an informed consumer, the least you can do is pay attention to the sources of your information and attempt to verify suspicious claims. Especially if someone has a clear profit motive for getting you to believe something or is trying to sell you on an idea by making emotional appeals, like gesturing towards oblique threats to pregnant women, google that shit.

Extraneous Asterisked Babble

*As of 6:43 pm Sunday, May 20.

**From the innocence of their logo, designed to look like the border’s been hand-sketched, to their high-production quality commercials about how they’re working to fight hunger and help farmers around the world, featuring lots of wide-eyed non-white people, including schoolchildren obediently raising their hands in class (well-fed and ready to learn—Thanks, Monsanto!), to the boilerplate that shows up below the website in a google search: “If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers. It is our purpose to help them meet the needs of a growing population,” you would almost think they’re a non-profit anti-hunger organization instead of a company that specializes in the production of herbicides applied by the truckload and growth hormones administered to industrial livestock via syringe and whose gross annual profits last year were US$11.822 Billion. Profitability and noble social causes aren’t inherently incompatible, but Monsanto’s litigation history leaves little doubt about which one of those they prioritize.

***I’d be surprised if they weren’t the inspiration for U-North, the corporation in Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007). On the other hand, I’m sure many of the people who run and work for Monsanto are decent people who genuinely believe they’re doing more good than harm, and depending on how you quantify “good,” maybe that’s even true. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, in 2001 the most common biotech cultivars being planted—corn, cotton, soybeans, and virus-resistant papaya and squash—were solely responsible for a national pesticide reduction of 46 million pounds. GMO Bt corn alone reduces annual pesticide use to battle the corn borer by about 2.6 million pounds (source: Tomorrow’s Table p. 72).

The possibility of reducing pesticide dependence is especially promising for poor farmers around the world who still rely on chemical cocktails including DDT applied from leaky backpack sprayers. Not that Monsanto is actually concerned about those farmers, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect corporations to pursue social good over profits. If we want Monsanto, or any other corporations, to behave more ethically, we need to pass legislation and arm regulatory bodies with the power to enforce it. And I know that’s hard, especially when the corporations have so much more money (see below), but as far as I can tell, concerned rich people shopping at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods instead of Wal-mart is not a particularly effective alternative strategy.

^Annual lobbying expenditures vary by year. Monsanto spent $US 8.83 Million on lobbying in 2008 and $US 6.37 Million last year (source: Open Secrets). They also wield their influence in other ways—the current head of the FDA is Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist.

^^Unfortunately, the bacterium used in GM seed is actually called “Bt-toxin,” because the person who named it probably wasn’t in advertising.

^^^I wonder if this disclaimer actually means anything more sophisticated than: “We can’t really tell, but we think maybe rabbits just don’t like getting stuff in their eyes.”

^^^^If you’re against the very idea of “agricultural innovation” and think we should only allow people to farm the way they did 100 years ago, but you’re reading the internet… I give up.

Good Egg Update: Someone’s Keeping Score

I'm curious what the standards for county fair chicken judging are, but that sounds like a recipe for serious wikihole disaster From flickr user BrotherM

The Organic Egg Scorecard

At the beginning of the summer, I wrote about discovering that all my assumptions about “free range” eggs were wrong. I thought they were probably more environmentally-friendly than conventional eggs, but it turns out, they generally have a greater environmental impact, largely because it takes more feed and water to produce the same amount of eggs. I thought they were supposed to be more nutritious than conventional eggs, but it turns out that comparisons of key nutrients are totally inconsistent. I thought they were better-tasting, but it turns out that in blind taste tests, no one can tell the difference in how they taste. Furthermore, eggs sold with “cage free” and “organic” labels are almost all laid by chickens with no access to pasture and sunlight and who use their greater freedom primarily to attack and cannibalize each other (probably because of the stress induced by their crowded quarters), which doesn’t seem like a very meaningful improvement in chicken welfare.

Pastured eggs are a whole different story—they may still be less efficient than battery-cage eggs (although the more the chickens rely on grubs, seeds, and fresh forage instead of grain, the better they should be on that measure) and they’re still indistinguishable in blind taste tests, but they are reliably more nutritious according to multiple measures and they come from chickens with meaningful access to sunlight and room to move around and forage and scratch. Pastured chickens tend to live almost three times as long as factory chickens and they suffer far fewer injuries from fellow chickens, which is good for both efficiency and animal welfare.

So if you want optimally nutritious and humanely-produced eggs, and you have access to pastured eggs, and you can afford them, that’s the way to go. Unfortunately, aside from buying eggs from a farmer’s market, a neighbor, or setting up your own coop, it was virtually impossible to know whether the specialty eggs you were buying came from pastured hens. Until recently: a couple of weeks ago, the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy think tank based in Wisconsin, published a massive report on Organic-certified egg farms which includes a scorecard. All the producers rated three stars “eggs” or higher provide “meaningful outdoor space” (well, it’s “under construction” at some of the three-egg places but already exists at four and five “egg” producers). Five-egg producers “raise their hens in mobile housing on well-managed and ample pasture or in fixed housing with intensively managed rotated pasture.”

And the Eggcademy Awards go to....(click for full scorecard) The top 5 egg producers in America, according to the Cornucopia Institute

Voter Information for Citizen-Shoppers

As the “5-egg” rating description also notes, most of these producers sell their eggs through farmer’s markets, co-ops, and independent natural foods stores, but eggs from one of the five-egg producers—Vital Farms from Austin, Texas—may be available at Whole Foods Markets nationwide and many of the three-egg producers distribute across large regions. One, Organic Valley, is also available nationwide.

I’m a little disappointed that the Cornucopia Institute included producers who refused to participate in the study in their official rankings. It seems like it would have been more honest to create a separate “N/A” category and let people draw their own conclusions. The only private-label (or store brand) producer they have a rating for is Whole Foods’ 365 Organic, which got the lowest numerical and egg-rating available for being, “produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access.” I agree with the institute that it’s probably safe to assume the same is true of Trader Joe’s store brand, Meijer Organics, Costco’s Kirkland Signature, Safeway’s O Organic, and etc. but I still prefer it when people make the limits of their actual research clear.

Nonetheless, the scorecard is a good way to figure out whether there are any pastured eggs available where you live and shop. For people who already make a habit of buying “free range” or “organic” eggs, now you can find out whether those brands really follow the kinds of egg production practices you want to support. Unfortunately, if you’ve been buying Eggland’s Best, Full Circle, or store-brand “cage free” or “organic” eggs, chances are you’re just paying a premium for eggs that are no healthier or tastier (no matter how much darker the yolks are) and come from less-efficient and more-likely-to-cannibalize-each-other chickens.

"cage free" hens from Maine, "organic" if their feed isPhoto by John Patriquin, Portland Press Herald via USATODAY.com

In fact, the report’s major finding is that most eggs bearing the USDA Organic logo don’t meet the minimum standards for “Organic” egg production or most consumer’s expectations.“Organic” eggs are supposed to come from chickens who have access to the outdoors, but the vast majority of them (80% or more) come from huge producers who just build a tiny porch adjacent to their massive chicken warehouses, often measuring just 3 to 5 percent of the square footage of the main building. A couple of those producers are quoted in the Cornucopia Institute press release about the report:

“We are strongly opposed to any requirement for hens to have access to the soil,” said Kurt Kreher of Kreher’s Sunrise Farms in Clarence, N.Y. And Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance at Eggland’s Best, a marketer of both conventional and organic eggs based in Jeffersonville, Pa., noted that, “The push for continually expanding outdoor access … needs to stop.”

So if outdoor access for chickens is important to you and you’re a believer in “voting with your fork,” this scorecard is like your egg election-day cheat sheet.

P.S. The Cornucopia Institute has also published reports on organic dairy and organic soy.

This Is What Food Reform Looks Like

However, the Cornucopia Institute isn’t mounting a big publicity campaign to get consumers to go out and shop differently, probably because even if they could convince everyone to seek out pastured eggs, they’d run into a big problem immediately: there just aren’t enough pastured eggs to go around. Furthermore, trying to reform the food system by reforming consumer demand is an expensive, slow, and uncertain process. How many people have to stop buying the bad “Organic certified” eggs before producers become willing to invest in the USDA-organicinfrastructure required to give chickens meaningful outdoor access? In the meantime, if there aren’t enough pastured eggs to go around, should people just stop eating eggs entirely or default to conventional eggs? What kind of price premium are people really willing to pay for pastured eggs? How many consumers will just say “screw it, I’ll just take the cheap, efficient eggs” which are still totally delicious and, if not optimally healthy, still probably not going to kill them? The relationship between consumer demand and supply is not as simple as “build it and they will come.”

What the Cornucopia Institute is actually doing instead sounds like a much better plan: they’ve filed legal complaints against producers that offer chickens no access to the outdoors or only have very small enclosed porches but still sell their eggs under the UDSA Organic label. They used the same strategy to persuade the USDA to to create better standards for Organic-certified dairy, which are being phased in gradually through June 2011 (and basically require ruminants like cows, sheep and goats to obtain a significant amount of their feed intake from grazing on pasture). In other words, they’re asking the USDA to make the “Organic” label mean what consumers think it means, and what the USDA’s own language makes it sound like it means. They’re trying to make the USDA hold egg producers to a higher standard.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the vast majority of the eggs produced, sold, and consumed in the U.S., which don’t bear any kind of specialty label. Also, even if the Cornucopia Institute and allied groups actually succeed in getting the USDA to beef up and enforce their standards for “organic” eggs, the immediate effect will probably be a reduction in the amount of “organic” eggs available and an increase in the price of eggs that retain the “organic” label. More people will probably be priced out of the specialty egg market. But it might actually have a small but meaningful effect on the quality of specialty eggs and the welfare of a small minority of egg-laying hens. And it would give wealthier consumers a more meaningful choice at the supermarket. Um, yay?

Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem

I'm not elitist, I just think you should reconsider whether your cell phones or Nike shoes or whatever it is you fat fucks spend your money on is really more important than eating heirloom beets. I just want you to make what I believe would be the more satisfying choice for you. Because I am the authority on what you find satisfying.

Urging others to eat better (and thus more expensive) food is not
elitist,
[Alice Waters] said. It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity
and encouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. “Make a sacrifice
on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,”
she said.

The Price Paradox

One of the most frequent critiques of what has been called the “food revolution” and especially its de facto spokespeople, Alice Waters & Michael Pollan, is that the kind of food they want people to eat—fresh, organic, free-range, grass-fed, local, slow, “healthy” etc.—is generally more expensive than the alternatives: processed, conventional, caged, corn-fed, industrially-farmed, fast, “junk” food. For example, in an interview with DCist to promote his newest book, Anthony Bourdain said:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. (interview with the DCIst)

Pollan and Waters have responded to this critique numerous times, and their standard defense goes something like this:

Pollan, nomming something virtuous, I'd wagerWell, $4 for a single peach or $8 for a dozen eggs isn’t really that expensive. The real problem is that government  subsidies have made junk food artificially cheap and confused us about the real price of food. Many people have discretionary income that should be spent on more expensive food that’s better for their health, the environment, animal welfare, etc. If consumers demand it, producers will find a way to provide it.

Michael Pollan, demonstrating his undeniable talent for reducing complicated issues to pithy sayings, has summarized this in his rule: “Pay more, eat less.” In essence, they suggest that good food should cost more. But then, on the other hand, they argue:

Local, organic, [yadda yadda] food is so self-evidently superior that the primary reason most people continue to choose crappy, industrially-produced fast food that destroys their health and the environment is because it’s just so much cheaper. Many people don’t have discretionary income, and therefore something needs to be done on a structural level—possibly an entire overhaul of the agricultural subsidy system—to make “real” food affordable enough for everyone. In other words, good food should cost less.

These aren’t wholly incompatible, and indeed, I suspect that many proponents of the “food revolution” support both: people who can should be willing to pay more for fresh, local, organic food now. At the same time, we should collectively pursue policies that make that kind of food cheaper until everyone can buy it.

But what if the problem isn’t cost?

As James Williams points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Should We Really Pay $4 for a Peach?”, what he calls “healthy food” like apples, dry beans, carrots, and celery have declined in price right along with cookies, ice cream, and potato chips over the last two and half decades. According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, from 1980 to 2006—precisely the period when many people claim that fast food overtook our national diet and made us into the fattest people on the planet—food declined in price across the board, and crucially, “the price of a healthy diet has not changed relative to an unhealthy diet.” As Williams says:

Evidently, consumers have chosen to take advantage of the declining prices for the cookies rather than the apples, thereby undermining the claim that we choose cheap unhealthy food because it’s cheap. As it turns out, we also choose it because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.

I take issue with the rhetorical move of collapsing American consumers—a diverse lot—into a single “we,” but even if what he says isn’t true for everyone, it must be true for a lot of people. I suspect that many proponents of food reform don’t want to believe that’s really the reason people continue eating “bad” industrially-processed junk because they have the special conviction of born-again religious zealots. Being converts themselves, many of them believe that all the unconverted masses need is to be enlightened the same way they were. They assume that once other people are “educated” about how superior organic, local, yadda yadda food is, they too will see the light.

But what if that’s not true? What if most people will remain skeptical about the supposed superiority of natural, organic, local, etc. food (often with good reason) or, more often, be simply indifferent to claims about its superiority, no matter how cheap and accessible it is? What if buying organic food really won’t be more satisfying to many people than a third pair of Nikes? (And could Waters have chosen a more racist or classist example of conspicuous consumption? Seriously, why not a flat-screen television or granite countertops?)

When Price IS King

from Sociological Images, click for link There’s an important caveat about the price issue that Williams left out: calorie for calorie, soda, candy, chips, and fast foods made with cheap meat, soybean oil, and white flour are significantly cheaper than apples and dried beans. For the roughly one in five Americans who lacked the money to buy the food they needed at some point in the last year, or the more than 49 million Americans categorized as “food insecure,” price may still be the dominant factor guiding their food choices.

I don’t think most food insecure people necessarily stand around in grocery store aisles looking at nutritional labels and crunching the numbers to figure out what will give them the highest caloric bang for their buck, the way Adam Drewnowski did. However, many of them probably stick to cheap, processed combinations of corn, wheat, and soy because they know they can afford enough of that to get by on, and because it tastes good to them.

In the somewhat-dated account of urban poverty There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz describes the monthly shopping ritual of a single mother on food stamps. She goes to the office where she gets her food stamps, and then goes directly to the store where she buys the same array of canned, boxed, bagged, and frozen foods every month. She has it down to a science. She knows exactly how many loaves of white bread, boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup, pounds of ground beef and bologna, and bricks of generic American cheese it takes to to feed her family for a month on her government-allotted budget.

However, as those damned hipsters on food stamps have demonstrated, even people of limited means can produce the kinds of meals Alice Waters might smile upon. So why don’t they?

The Elision of Virtue and Sacrifice

As much as its proponents like to portray eating local, organic, yadda yadda food as a purely joyful and delicious celebration, there’s basically no getting around the fact that it takes a lot more work to turn fresh produce into a meal than it does to go through a drive-thru or microwave something frozen. I suspect that even most of the “food revolution” faithful rely on prepared foods and cheap take-out now and then, even if it’s more likely to be from Trader Joe’s or a local organic pizzeria instead of Walmart or Little Caesar’s. The problem is not that the ingredients of a home-cooked meal, like $1.29/lb broccoli, are so much more expensive than dollar menu meals at McDonald’s, which is what Food, Inc. implies. The problem is that broccoli isn’t a ready-made meal.

My friend Patti made a similar point on her blog recently, noting that the recent initiatives to get fresh food into Detroit smack of race/class privilege. As a friend of hers said:

If he has $3 left til payday and payday is two days away, he’s going to the Golden Arches.  There’s no denying that you can get a meal for $3 versus some tomatoes and a banana.

Eating “right” according to the the (shifting and frequently conflicted) priorities of the “food revolution” requires effort and sacrifice—perhaps not a sacrifice of objective deliciousness for people who’d rather have a bowl of homemade chili than a burger any day of the week, but a sacrifice of familiar tastes and habits and the instant gratifications of foods composed primarily of sugar, starch, fat, and salt.

For the food revolution faithful, that sense of sacrifice isn’t a deterrent, but actually seems to be central to their perception that eating local, organic, etc. food is morally superior. I first started thinking about this at a roundtable on “Food Politics, Sustainability and Citizenship” at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association. The panelists acknowledged that local, organic, and/or “natural” foods were not always objectively superior in the ways people want to think they are—they often require more energy to produce and transport even if they have a much shorter distance to travel, there’s no consensus on whether or not they’re healthier than the conventional, processed alternatives, and they are often labor-intensive and rely on child labor, unpaid interns, and the willingness of farmers to self-exploit. In short, they admitted that “bad” industrial food is often more sustainable, just as healthy, and possibly sometimes more ethical. But they all insisted that regardless of its real impact, what was more important was that consumers of local and organic foods were “trying.” And they all emphasized the importance of narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do, which is one realm where “natural,” local, etc. food has the indisputable upper hand. Their recommendation for the “food revolution” was to focus on fostering those narratives and encouraging people to keep trying, as if the intentions and the effort involved in eating “better”—futile or not—were more important than the actual carbon footprint or nutritional ramifications of the behavior.

And that seems to me like a serious confusion of intention and effect. If the ideal that you’re pursuing is sustainability—a slippery term to be sure, but for the moment, let’s just say it means a practice that could be continued indefinitely without making the environment inhospitable for human life—and you’re advocating a new practice in service of that goal, but it turns out to be worse for the environment than your previous course of action, I don’t think you should just shrug and say, “well, at least our hearts are in the right place” and continue with the new, worse practice. However, that’s exactly what the food revolution faithful do all the time. No matter how many studies show that food miles are far less important than efficiencies of scale and growing things in optimal climates, or that organic food is no healthier than conventional, or that people can’t tell the difference in blind taste tests, they’ll either say “that’s not the point” or insist that you must be wrong. The practice precedes the evidence, but they seize on any evidence that justifies it after already deciding on the course of action and systematically ignore any evidence to the contrary.

All of which suggests that eating “better” isn’t driven by evidence-based beliefs about what’s really healthier, more sustainable, more humane, or even better-tasting—which are often conflicting ideals anyhow. The main appeal of natural, organic, local, yadda yadda food is a deep, often inchoate, feeling that it’s superior, which precedes and trumps reason or any objective weighing of the evidence. I think what reinforces that feeling of superiority most is the experience of sacrifice, which channels good old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic values like the satisfactions of hard work and delaying immediate gratification. The relationship between virtue and self-sacrifice actually long predates Protestantism—in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that people achieve eudemonia, which essentially means “self-actualization” or a virtuous happiness, through hard work and mastering their bodily desires (usually by denying them). The underlying belief seems almost instinctual—it is good to work hard and resist immediate pleasures. And we might like to think that what makes the hard work and sacrifice good is some long-term goal or “greater good” they’re done in service of, but that’s not necessary to produce the sensation of virtue.

Ergo, making a special trip to the farmer’s market during the few hours per week it’s open must be a good thing to do simply because it’s so much less convenient than shopping at a grocery store that’s open all the time. And turning a box of locally-grown produce you might be totally unfamiliar with into edible foods and acceptable meals must be better—morally, if not nutritionally—than microwaving a Lean Cuisine. And spending more money on something labeled “natural” or “environmentally friendly” must be better. People don’t even need to know what for to reap the psychic rewards. Things that are difficult, inconvenient, or require sacrifices just feel virtuous.

"If you care, buy our environment-friendly disposable baking cups. Buy those other disposable baking cups if you're some asshole who doesn't give a shit." From www.passiveagressivenotes.com

The Limits to the Virtuous Appeal

The problem for the “food revolution” is that the virtuous effort and sacrifice in service of questionable returns doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some people feel like they do enough hard work and make enough sacrifices in other areas of their life that they don’t need the extra moral boost of buying morally-superior food. And I suspect it’s no coincidence that the people who are most likely to make buying “superior” food a priority and get satisfaction from that are people who identify as “middle class” and often express a lot of guilt about how much they (and “their society”) consume in general—i.e. the politically left-leaning, (sub)urban elite. (The politically right-leaning elite might consume just as much or more, they just don’t feel as guilty about it.)

Many working-class people might technically have the time and money to eat the kind of food Alice Waters and Michael Pollan prescribe, but they don’t want to. They’re not looking to put a lot of effort into and make a lot of sacrifices for their diet. There’s no incentive.

It reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s epiphany about smoking in Nickel & Dimed:

Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know how the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so enduring to its victims.

As she discovers, the real reason so many working class people smoke isn’t because of some rational calculation—like the fact that they might not get as many breaks if they don’t—just like the real reason more people don’t buy “healthy” food isn’t (mostly) because of the price. Smoking and familiar, convenient, “junk” foods appeal to working-class people for exactly the same reason they don’t appeal to the left-leaning, progressive, urban and suburban middle-class. They like them because they’re “bad,” because they’re self-indulgent, because they don’t do anything for anyone else—not the environment, not the animals, not third-world coffee-growers, not even their own health. For a lot of people, the narrative of virtuous effort and self-sacrifice isn’t just irrelevant, it’s an active deterrent.

Change I Can Believe In 

I see nothing elitist about campaigning for greater availability of fresh, local food in low-income neighborhoods, public schools, and prisons. But when you start telling people what you think they ought to be willing to give up in order to make what you’ve decided will be “more satisfying choices” for them, I think you’ve gone too far. I really like—but don’t totally believe—the concession Michael Pollan made in the WSJ interview:

To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money. But so does reading well; so does watching television well. Doing anything with attention to quality takes effort. It’s either rewarding to you or it’s not. It happens to be very rewarding to me. But I understand people who can’t be bothered, and they’re going to eat with less care.

He claims to understand why some people can’t be bothered, and even equates it with hobbies like reading and watching television—but his entire oeuvre is devoted to to making the opposite claim. For example, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he says:

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. (p. 11)

That doesn’t sound like the opinion of someone who thinks choosing junk food over fresh, local, organic food is an innocent predilection, like preferring trashy pulp fiction to James Joyce or watching reality television instead of Mad Men. The moral stakes in our steaks—a pun I’m stealing from Warren Belasco—are higher.

Even if the stakes of our food choices are higher (which is debatable), that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for food revolutionaries to try to push their priorities on anyone else, least of all the working class or disproportionately black urban poor. If they really want more people to make the choice to eat what they think is “better” food (and I think that should be based on evidence about the actual impact and not just intentions), they’re going to have to work on making healthy, sustainable, humane, etc. foods answer the masses’ needs and desires. They’re not going to get anywhere by declaring the masses ignorant for wanting cheap, convenient, reliable, good-tasting food or trying to convince them that what they should want is expensive, inconvenient, unfamiliar, less immediately palate-pleasing food.

I’m not actually sure it’s possible to create a food system that would satisfy both the desires of the “food revolution” and the needs of the working class, but if it is, it will require letting go of the narratives about sacrifice and virtue. As long as eating “better” is constructed as dependent on hard work and self-sacrifice, the “food revolution” is going to continue to appeal primarily to the left-leaning elite and efforts to get other people to join them will be—rightly—portrayed as “elitist.” And until that changes, natural, local, sustainable foods will continue to serve primarily as markers of belonging to the progressive, urban, coastal elite rather than the seeds of any real “revolution.”

You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious

Next year, I will decorate Easter eggs and they will have faces. See 39 other pictures of egg face dioramas at The Design Inspiration by clicking on image

Two articles about eggs published last week have rocked my commitment to paying the specialty egg surcharge. I’m still tentatively on the organic, cage-free, local egg bandwagon for animal welfare and health concerns, but I have to admit that even those reasons may be a little flimsy. The four main reasons given for the superiority of specialty eggs are:

1. They’re better for the environment
2. They taste better
3. They’re produced in a more humane way
4. They’re healthier

There may also be an argument for supporting local producers who might employ less exploitative or abusive labor practices, although that’s not guaranteed. In order to help offset the increased labor requirements of non-conventional practices, small and local farms often rely on unpaid interns and family members, including children. Not that I think it’s a major ethical abuse to have your kids gather eggs, but I often feel at least a little pang of sympathy for the kids—often Amish, sometimes very young-looking—manning farmer’s market booths alone. So I’m deliberately tabling the labor issue because 1) I suspect that the issue of labor conditions at small, local farms vs. big, industrial ones is, like so many things related to the food industry, complicated and 2) it’s nowhere near the top of the list of most consumers’ concerns about eggs.

1. Green Eggs vs. Ham

On June 1, Slate’s Green Lantern reported that specialty eggs (cage-free, free range, and organic) have a greater environmental impact than conventional based on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and feed efficiency (measured by kg eggs laid/kg feed). The article also noted that according to life-cycle analysis, a recent review article by two Dutch researchers found no consistent or conclusive difference between the environmental impact of pork, chicken, milk, and eggs. Beef requires more land, water, and feed, but pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram—most life-cycle analyses are European), the review, “did not show consistent differences in environmental impact per kg protein in milk, pork, chicken and eggs.”

The Lantern didn’t evaluate the transportation costs “since the majority of the impacts associated with chicken-rearing comes from producing their feed.” For local eggs, the reduced transportation costs might help balance out the increased feed requirement, but that’s just speculation. For cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian eggs, transportation costs probably further increase the relative impact because not only do they travel just as far or farther than conventional eggs to get to the market, there are probably costs associated with transporting the additional feed they require.

I don't remember where I first heard the story about the egg yolk-inspired label, but it's documented in multiple places, including Red, White, and Drunk All Over and the biography of The Widow Cliquot by Tilar MazzeoMy initial response was basically:

Well, that’s too bad, but efficiency be damned, if it takes more feed and produces higher ammonia emissions to treat chickens humanely and produce healthy eggs with yolks the vibrant orange-yellow of a Veuve Cliquot label, so be it. I know specialty eggs are better, I can see and taste the difference.

2. Golden Eggs

Not so much, apparently. The very next day, The Washington Post published the results of a blind taste test of “ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and [eggs from the author’s own backyard chickens].” Blindfolded and spoon-fed, the tasters—two food professionals and six “avocationally culinary” folks with “highly critical palates”—struggled to find differences between the eggs, which were soft cooked to ensure firm whites and runny yolks.

And apparently, this isn’t a new finding. It replicates the results of years of research by food scientists:

Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised. "People’s perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they’ll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there’s not enough difference to tell."

The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don’t use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don’t."

Freshness can affect the moisture content, and thus the performance of eggs for some applications, especially recipes that rely heavily on beaten egg whites like meringues or angel food cake. But probably not enough for most people to notice. The author also tested a simple spice cake with super-fresh eggs from her backyard versus regular supermarket eggs. The batters looked different, but once the cakes were baked and cooled, they were indistinguishable.

3. Do They Suffer?

Given how self-evidently cruel battery cage poultry production seems, I’m not entirely sure that “free-range” is as meaningless as people like Jonathan Safran Foer have argued. Sure, “cage free” chickens might never see daylight, and the range available to “free range” chickens might be a dubious privilege at best—a crowded concrete lot exposed to some minimal sunlight would fulfill the USDA requirements. But I don’t think it’s entirely marketing gimmickry, either. For one thing, if there were really no difference, the specialty eggs wouldn’t have a larger carbon footprint.

The animal welfare argument relies on the assumption that either chickens have a right not to experience pain or discomfort or that humans have a moral obligation not to cause them pain, or at least wanton, unnecessary or excessive pain. The debate about animal rights/humans’ moral obligations to animals is too big and complicated for me to cover in any real depth here, but I tend to believe that we ought to try to minimize the pain and discomfort of anything that seems capable of suffering. I used to draw the line at the limbic system—i.e. fish and invertebrates might respond to pain but don’t process it in a way that rises to the level of suffering, whereas birds and mammals can suffer and it’s often pretty apparent when they do. However, as it turns out, the boundaries of the limbic system are “grounded more in tradition than in facts,” and there are unsettled questions in my mind about what constitutes suffering and how to evaluate it. 

Even renowned animal rights theorist Peter Singer has gone back and forth about oysters over the years. I suspect that David Foster Wallace was right when he concluded that what guides our behavior in these matters has more to do with historically and culturally-variable forms of moral intuition than any objective criterion for “suffering”:

The scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut” ("Consider the Lobster” footnote 19).

I hate relying on “I know it when I see it” standards, because I suspect we’re all inclined to see what we want to, but I don’t have a better answer. My gut says that chickens can suffer and that being able to flap around a concrete lot is better than never getting to move at all. However, my gut also says that chickens are pretty stupid creatures, and it might be an entirely reasonable thing to care more about the environmental impact of egg production than the happiness and well-being of the chickens.

4. Eggs Good For You This Week

Health is the issue that matters most to most consumers (see: The Jungle), and unfortunately, the available research on conventional vs. specialty eggs is frustratingly inconclusive. The most common assertion re: the health of specialty eggs concerns omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve mentioned this in passing and will try to devote some more time to it soon, but for now, I’m tentatively convinced that omega-3s are healthful and low ratios of omega-6:omega-3 are optimal.

Some studies have suggested that chickens raised on pasture—i.e. who get at least some of their nutrients from plants, especially clover or alfalfa—produce eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (and less cholesterol and saturated fat, not that that probably matters). However, specialty labels like “cage free,” “free range,” and “organic” don’t mean pastured and the results of the nutritional analysis of eggs bearing those labels don’t provide very clear guidelines about what to purchase.

A 2002 comparison between five different kinds of specialty eggs and conventional eggs found differences between them, but none that lead to a simple characterization of specialty eggs as healthier:

From Cherian et al in Poultry Science 81: 30-33 (2002)

The "animal fat free and high in omega-3” eggs (SP1) had the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and lowest ratio of omega 6: omega 3, and the cage-free, unmedicated brown eggs were also significantly better by that measure. However, the Organic-certified free-range (SP2) and cage-free all-vegetarian-feed eggs (SP4) had similar omega-3 content to the regular eggs. While some of the differences might be due to the feed, the authors note that the age, size, and breed of the hen can also affect the composition of fats and nutrients.

The study also showed that the shells of some of the specialty eggs were weaker, which supports other research showing more breakage and leaking in specialty eggs than conventional and my anecdotal experience of typically having to set aside the first few cartons I pick up because they contain cracked eggs.

Additionally, a 2010 USDA survey of traditional, cage-free, free-range, pasteurized, nutritionally enhanced (omega-3), and fertile eggs also concluded that:

Although significant differences were found between white and brown shell eggs and production methods, average values for quality attributes varied without one egg type consistently maintaining the highest or lowest values. (Abstract here, no free full text available)

In sum, if you can get pastured eggs (either from your own backyard or a farmer whose practices you can interrogate or even observe), they might be a little better for you than conventional. But after reading all this, I still found myself thinking: But what about the color difference? Doesn’t a darker yellow yolk mean the egg itself is healthier? Apparently not:

Yolk colour varies. It is almost completely dependent upon the feed the hen eats. Birds that have access to green plants or have yellow corn or alfalfa in their feed tend to produce dark yolks, due to the higher concentration of yellow pigments (mainly carotenoids) in their diet. Since commercial laying hens are confined, lighter and more uniformly coloured yolks are being produced. Yolk colour does not affect nutritive value or cooking characteristics. Egg yolks are a rich source of vitamin A regardless of colour. (from Wageningen University)

The record on other health concerns like salmonella and dioxin and PCB content is mixed:

4A: Can you eat raw cookie dough if it’s organic?

The salmonella thing is reminiscent of the e coli in grass-fed beef thing: some people actually claim organic chickens have no risk of salmonella. One UK study allegedly found salmonella levels over five times higher in conventional caged hens than in birds raised according to Soil Association organic standards (which are comparable to USDA Organic certification). 23.4% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4% of farms with organic flocks and 6.5% with free-range flocks. The explanation proffered is that the spread of the disease is inversely related to flock size and density. No link or citation for the study itself.

A 2007 UK study that tested 74 flocks (59 caged and 15 free range) from 8 farms, all of which had been vaccinated against salmonella, found a smaller but still significant difference: 19.4% of cage chicken house samples and 10.2% of free-range chicken house samples taken over a 12-month period tested positive for salmonella. However, they also noted a high degree of variation between flocks, and that the longest continuously-occupied houses were typically the most heavily contaminated. It’s possible that some of the results of other studies can be attributed to the fact that free-range or organic hen operations are likely to be newer and differences between them and conventional may diminish as time goes on.

On this side of the Atlantic, the results seem to show the opposite. A 2005 USDA study that tested free-range, all-natural antibiotic-free, and organic chicken meat (and contamination in chickens themselves has been linked to salmonella in eggs) found salmonella in all three groups at higher rates than in past years’ surveys of commercial chicken meat:

A total of 135 processed free-range chickens from four different commercial free-range chicken producers were sampled in 14 different lots for the presence of Salmonella. Overall, 9 (64%) of 14 lots and 42 (31%) of 135 of the carcasses were positive for Salmonella. No Salmonella were detected in 5 of the 14 lots, and in one lot 100% of the chickens were positive for Salmonella. An additional 53 all-natural (no meat or poultry meal or antibiotics in the feed) processed chickens from eight lots were tested; 25% of the individual chickens from 37% of these lots tested positive for Salmonella. Three lots of chickens from a single organic free-range producer were tested, and all three of the lots and 60% of the individual chickens were positive for Salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a Salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8%. Consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.

Additionally, a 2007 analysis of fresh, whole broiler chickens by Consumer Reports found that 83% tested positive for campylobacter or salmonella, and that chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-produced broilers:

We tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and ­natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re­duce contamination. Among our findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.

Ultimately, salmonella is a always a risk when dealing with chicken or eggs and it’s not clear that specialty eggs are any better than conventional. If you’re concerned about salmonella, cook your food to 165F or stick to vegan options. You know, like peanut butter.

4B: What’s in the grass?

One final concern: a 2006 Dutch study found that free-range eggs in Europe have increased levels of dioxins and PCBs (which fall under the category of dioxin-like compounds), apparently because they are present in the soil in both residential and agricultural areas. “Dioxins” refer to a wide variety of compounds and they vary in toxicity; the term is basically just shorthand for environmental pollutants. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and we probably can’t avoid them so who cares? On the other, many are fat soluble so eggs are of greater concern than, say, apples.

There’s not really enough research on this to draw any conclusions. Which just pains me to type for what feels like the umpteenth time, because, seriously, is there ever conclusive research? Can we ever really know anything about anything? I like to think we can, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like every time I try to find more information about any kind of nutritional claim, the answer turns out to be “well, that’s complicated” or “well, the research on that isn’t conclusive.” Sometimes I really just want to see a chart that says YES! THIS IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! IT IS RELIABLE AND ACCURATE AND CONTROLLED FOR ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES.

So just in case you might be wondering if I’m trying to be deliberately indecisive or vague in service of whatever ideological position that would even promote: I’m not. When I find conclusive results, I will share them with you in very excited caps lock. 

So Here’s The Deal

If you care more about climate change and efficient resource allocation than chicken welfare, buy conventional eggs; if you care more about chicken welfare, buy cage-free, free-range, Organic, or perhaps ideally, local. Taste and health-wise, there’s no clear difference, although I know that won’t prevent some of you from believing there is (remember the chocolate yogurt with “good strawberry flavor”?) Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, once again, the foods some people think are objectively superior for all kinds of reasons  may not be, and attempting to eat “better” is way more complicated than simply choosing the “green” alternative.