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Faith-Based Zucchini

There's no compelling evidence to support the idea that organic food is less harmful or more nutritious than everything else in the supermarket. So why spend the extra money?
Zucchini flower. (PHOTO: NET_EFEKT/FLICKR)

Zucchini flower. (PHOTO: NET_EFEKT/FLICKR)

I can’t help it: I love science. It’s how I make sense of the universe, how I make decisions when there is so much emotion, so much confusion that surround basic things. Does dairy cause asthma? No, no chance, according to a study by Australia’s Monash Medical School. Does juice contribute to obesity in children? Probably not, according to a study by the University of California-San Francisco. So I let my two small kids have cheese, even when they’re wheezy. And I let them drink juice (but not soda—a study out of Children’s Hospital in Boston (PDF) says that does contribute to obesity). In a world where I’m overloaded with information and questions that my mother never had to consider, I look to the scientific method as my true north. So if you’ve got a claim about breast milk or wild salmon or kale, feel free to tell me about it—but only if it’s been tested and proven in a lab. A randomized study creates order for me. Make it double-blind, and I can see all the more clearly.

At least, that’s how I like to think that I think. So why am I standing here at Trader Joe’s, hand hovering over the organic zucchini, rather than the plain-old pesticided zucchini? Why would I pay the extra dollar a package—which adds up to thousands of dollars a year in organic carrots, milk, eggs, and whatever else—when I know science and I know statistics and I know that there is no compelling evidence to support the idea that organic food is more nutritious and less harmful than food that has pesticides and genetically-modified ingredients?

I know there’s no harm in buying organics, except for the extra cost. Spending that extra dollar protects me from the threat that I’ll later regret it.

It seems obvious that genetically-engineered, chemically-abetted food would be somehow corrupt: less natural, perhaps even dangerous. How could pesticides not cause cancer, right? That’s what my gut tells me. The problem is, that isn’t what the data tells me. A recent meta-study from Stanford University, for instance, examined 240 studies on the subject and concluded ... that they are inconclusive. The only thing that anyone knows for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure. We don’t know what causes cancer. We don’t know if there is any long-term impact to monkeying with our food. Not yet, at least.

And yet, here I am, overpriced organic zucchini in hand.

Maybe, strangely, the reasons I yield to science are the same reasons why I yield to the organic produce and grass-fed meat: Reassurance. Science is fallible. I know that. Researchers get things wrong all the time. I want science to reassure me with its cold, white-coated efficacy, but it’s not enough for me. In fact, nothing is enough for me. It’s a scary world. The fate that befalls most of us is more often than not random. Our cancer is random, our car accidents are random. There’s no way to hedge all your bets, to guarantee safety and good health. Ultimately, some things are just out of our control. God either lets us live or He doesn’t.

I guess that’s where the biggest contradiction in my thinking is. Science has never been able to prove that God exists, yet I believe He does. Which only complicates things further. Given my faith, I should believe that there’s no amount of anything I can feed my children that will save them from God’s judgment. If God wants your child out of the picture, God will take her out. “But I fed her organic zucchini!” won’t help. Read the Old Testament.

I know there’s no harm in buying organics, except for the extra cost. Spending that extra dollar protects me from the threat that I’ll later regret it, from the fear that the scientists will turn out to be as wrong about organics as they were about thalidomide.

So maybe, when I buy organic, what I’m really saying is: God, please don’t take my children from me. It’s another form of prayer that I will never know the kind of misery that potentially awaits. And yes, it is me hedging again, because what if God doesn’t exist? What if this was all in my hands the entire time?