Organic Food Debate Continues: Pleasure Over Sustainability?

Les Chatfield/CC BY 2.0

The quite misinterpreted study published in Annals of Internal Medicine signed by Stanford professionals kept bouncing in my head the past week. Not so much out of annoyance for the simplistic approach some media took when writing it up, but more because, as two thoughtful articles by Consumer Reports and Mat McDermott note, the utilitarian concept of nutrition should not be the (only) point when talking about organics.

A few days later I recalled a funny video which to me explains one definitive truth and my indisputable motivation to buy organic (I use the word organic as a reference, but note I don't mean it in a certified-organic technical way. For more on confusing organic labeling read this post by Christine).

The video is in Spanish, but with a brief explanation and the images it is easy to understand: Two tomatoes who 'met online' are seeing each other face-to-face for the first time. The first impression is terrible: the GMO tomato thinks the organic looks awful, and he's very unimpressed with his simple life in the farm when he has traveled the world, got groomed and educated.

While ordering a drink, GMO is appalled that Organic asks for manure: he orders some chemical compound. In the end, he is sure this is not going to work out and wants to end the date, but Organic proposes they try each other a little bit before leaving.

Organic Tastes Better

In a sudden change of roles, Organic is amazed that GMO tastes like nothing and excuses himself to the bathroom to escape, while GMO cannot believe his tastebuds, is madly in love, and stays in his seat planning their future children's education. It's really worth a look, especially if you get some Spanish:

That ending sums up, to me, the most important and fundamental truth about sustainably grown food: It tastes better, and thus is a joy to eat. The video expresses another truth: we can discuss organic and GMO food all we want, we can cite studies and specialists, but it is not until we actually try an organic tomato or carrot that we understand the difference, and, once we do, we want to marry them forever.

The Question of Pleasure

All of this brings me to the second point of the post, a question: Why aren't we talking more about pleasure in the sustainable world? At first, this approach might seem superficial, naive or simply snobbish. But aren't the enjoyment and pleasure some sustainable choices provide much more compelling selling points than their intangible environmental benefits?

Frankly, my green choices are more related to common sense and pleasure than anything else: I bike because it's a joy, it's fast, it's energizing, it's almost free, and it is sustainable, in that order; I try to avoid disposables because I love design, and because I find drinking from a beautiful glass more enjoyable than sipping from a plastic cup; and I avoid spending money on stuff because I prefer to spend it on things like eating good food and traveling.

Perhaps it sounds snobbish, but note that I'm a writer in a third world country: by no means rich. I also don't do this to impose a superior morality or to impress people (in fact, in my country a car is still a status symbol, and some people look at me with pity when I arrive to a party on my bike). These choices come naturally, mostly because they are more enjoyable, and that is the main reason I stick with them.

Focusing on the nutritional benefits of organics, like talking about a bike's zero emissions or the trash reduction of ditching disposables is a lot less compelling than inviting people to reflect on what is going to give more delight to their lives. And why is the word pleasure usually related luxury items, pampering, or spending money? In my book, real pleasure is having spare time to do whatever I want, and I try to achieve that by living with less and thus having to work less to make a living.

My thoughts are not groundbreaking: TreeHugger's Mat McDermott circulated around this when he called environmentalists to use positivity and people to love nature. Simran Sethi's TEDx talk encouraged environmentalists not to throw facts at people and not to ask them to worry about something new, especially not something that's far away in time or space. Graham Hill's LifeEdited project calls to live with less to create more happiness.

The idea doesn't apply to everything either. I don't imagine finding pleasure in saving energy or in voting for a leader promising to tackle climate change, and those things are probably more important than eating organic or riding a bike. However, it seems puzzling how little the concepts of sustainability and pleasure are paired in the areas in which it makes all the more sense to pair them.

Just like Sethi said, if we are ever going to reach people who are not interested in environmentalism, it will not be by means of throwing facts at them. I don't think the healthy argument is going a long way either: Do we all do everything we know is good for our health? Not. Pleasure, however, is a no brainer. Just look at one of TreeHugger's most popular articles ever: How to green your sex life.

Tags: Dematerialization | Environmental Policy | Living With Less

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